Archive | November, 2010

Manhattan Vibes

17 Nov

An interview with jazz vibraphonist Christos Rafalides. By Aktina.

It is early June. Leisurely enjoying the sun in my back yard in Monemvasia, in Southern Greece, I skim through Athens Voice– one of the Greek free-press equivalents to [as the name suggests] Village Voice. I read somewhat indifferently, until I run into a one-page profile of Christos Rafalides- the Greek vibraphonist from the Northern city of Kozani, who has established himself in the highly demanding NYC jazz scene, individually and with his group Manhattan Vibes. I instantly think that I should contact him- the idea of a Mediterranean festival had already started taking shape in my head and he seemed to embody the type of artist I was looking for: a young diasporic artist, with a world sensibility, rooted equally in his home and and the NYC cultures. I decide to send him an email as soon as I return to NYC and I am thrilled when he responds right away. Several weeks later, in late September, we meet in mid-town Manhattan and engage in a lively, fun discussion-conducted in English, with few words and exclamations in Greek here and there.

Tell me a bit about your background and how your journey with music started.

I started as a kid, we had musicians in the family. My brother is a musician and my father used to sing in the church. So music was always very welcome in my house. What happened is as soon as I showed some interest in music my parents supported me so from then on I’ve been studying all my life- up to a certain point. I was born in Kozani, then I went to Thessaloniki to study classical percussion and classical harmony. I finished my classical studies and then I got a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was in Berklee that I started jazz, I started from scratch, I was new to it. I used to play classical music and I got all the discipline that a classical musician needs. I had really loved the spirit of freedom and improvisation that I was getting from jazz but I couldn’t translate it to my music, to my instrument, as a classical musician, I needed the knowledge. So I go to Berklee, my major is ‘jazz vibraphone performance’, an instrument that belongs to the classical percussion family. As a kid I used to play drums and piano so the vibraphone was a perfect combination of both those instruments and when I discovered it I thought “man, that’s it, I just found my voice, I found my instrument!”. At Berklee I did my Bachelor’s in jazz vibraphone performance and then I came to Manhattan School of Music in NYC. That’s where I met my mentor, one of the greatest jazz musicians, Mr. Joe Locke. I did my Master’s with him and after I graduated I started working professionally in NYC. That was 11 years ago…Time flies!

How hard was it to break into the NYC jazz scene?

It’s not an easy path. But it’s a path that’s worth taking a ride. You meet a lot of interesting people, a lot of soulful people, a lot of intellect. In the music industry, I met some really interesting human beings from completely different cultures than mine.
And what makes it really interesting is always when you see the soul and the tradition of this music getting mixed with the intellect of today. And that’s in every art form, that’s what you’re looking for-a combination of the intellect and the soul so that you don’t go only for the ears, you go for the heart.

Where there moments when you doubted yourself, you wondered, what am I doing here?

Oh of course, that happens all the time! I still do it, and now it’s even worse because you’ve now spent half of your life doing this and then you wonder, “hmm am I doing the right thing?” But this comes with creativity, you can’t separate it from creativity. There’s hopefully a healthy ego somewhere that helps you maintain yourself in that field of creation. But insecurity is what makes it so beautiful. Because if you were so secure about your work what would be the point doing it? You always need somebody’s feedback. And that’s the beauty of it. But yeah, I am always doubting myself. All the time. I mean people would come to me after a concert and say oh you sounded great, and I’ll be “yeah right, whatever…” [laughs]. That happens to every performing arts field.

How has your cultural background, your classical training and your musical influences having grown up in Greece influenced your music?

My family comes from Asia Minor so I grew up with that Middle Eastern kind of sound in the house. So when I heard western music and western harmony coming from jazz in particular I thought that this was the most interesting thing. I think that if it was the other way around, if I had grown up with western music and suddenly came across Middle Eastern sounds I’d be like, man what is this, who came up with this! So I think what made me follow that path was that in my house it was completely new. Imagine, I was growing up in the eighties and at that time when I was growing up and was getting all the information and finding out what’s going on, there wasn’t any jazz in Greece, there was nothing like that. But the Middle Eastern influence of course was there because of the proximity. So it was such a discovery. I remember the first cord I played, my brother showed me a C7 cord on the piano and it freaked me out! You know these moments- I remember the first time I saw a vibraphone in front of me and I remember thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life…Everyone has these moments you know….

So does all this affect how you make your own music, how you play it, how you hear it?

It’s jazz, the beauty with it is that you can apply your cultural background to it and still you cant hurt it, you just create something new. That’s why they say that classical music and jazz music are the two kinds that do not have a passport cause everybody wants to play them all over the world. Everything else is local and ethnic for example, rembetika- nobody wants to do it only Greeks, or flamenco in Spain. But jazz and classical are the two kinds that everyone wants to play. [here I can’t help but compare with Greg Squared’s interview and his perspective on the topic].

You have collaborated with many musicians, for instance, Jovanotti, Plessas, the Manhattan Vibes musicians, and of course your mentor, Joe Locke. Is there a conscious attempt in these collaborations to fuse different musical styles?

It is not conscious. Unless it is a specific project. For instance we have Jazz Mediterraneo and the concept is based on taking tunes from the Mediterranean and arrange them a bit different using elements of jazz. We did some Greek tunes, tunes by Hatzidakis, Theodorakis, Lucio Dalla. It is something we’re still working on, it will come out one day. But with Manhattan Vibes the concept is creating a style of music that is very contemporary with influences from all over the world blended together while never loosing the element of dance and groove. We have a record coming up, it is called Blue November.

Can you tell me a bit more on how Jazz Mediterraneo started and the work you do?

It started with Petros Klambanis on bass, Fabio Monrgera on trumpet, Benny Koonyevsky on drums and myself on vibes. I took some Greek classic songs and I arranged them, then Fabio brought a couple of Italian songs, then we did a couple of Jewish songs…But the project is still evolving. We’ve performed twice at Kellari Parea at the Cava Room downstairs, it was fun! We have material for a concert. But it takes more than the musicians playing the music right, you know. You need a venue to present it and an audience to listen and based on their feedback you develop the band’s concept.

You often go back to Greece for work and you have collaborated with many jazz musicians in Greece. What’s your perspective on the status of jazz music in Greece?

There is definitely talented musicians in Greece who try to play jazz and creative music in general. They got the Mediterranean temperament, tones of history, intellect and they are right in the middle of east and west. What makes it hard for them is the environment that doesn’t help jazz to flourish. The commercial music most of the times is terrible and it’s everywhere, from radios to television and it doesn’t leave any space for anything else to evolve. But I admire their effort to maintain a scene that produces some world class musicians.

How much exposure do you think Greek music has to the international scene?

Very little. It is only a handful of jazz guys that go abroad and perform. On the International classical music scene we contribute a lot more and we’ve been contributing for years. In jazz it’s only recent that a couple of musicians started making it outside the country. I’m really optimistic though because in our days everybody is taking advantage of technology which allows you to have access to the international arts scene. People can see and hear who was playing at the ‘Village Vanguard’ last night, you know, and that helps tremendously.

You are planning to organize a jazz festival in your native Kozani. Tell me a bit more about this.

Yes, we’re trying to bring NYC-based jazz musicians to play in a four day festival in Kozani. I have a really good feeling about it. There is a whole team of people in Athens and Kozani working on it. I figured that since all these amazing musicians here in NY are part of my musical family, I’m gonna try to initiate a Jazz Festival in my home town where these artists can go and perform once a year.
We’d like to do it in May of 2011. The vision for it is to become like one of these festivals that always happen outside of big cities, in villages. There’s nothing similar happening in the area [Kozani is in Northern Greece] and people there are hungry for culture so I am sure it will attract a big audience.

And besides the festival, what are your other plans for the future?

Jazz Mediterraneo is one….I am also writing music for a series on PBS called Cooking Odyssey and it’s about the Greek cuisine, they show how to cook Greek recipes. I am looking forward to see how that will evolve. I’ve been also playing with Jovanotti, he’s based in Italy but we plan to play again when he comes back. The main thing that occupies my time as we speak is the new Manhattan Vibes album, Blue November. It’s a lot of work. I think it will come out by the end of December and we have to start promoting it.

So New York is your home?

Yes! I’ve been here for 16 years now… I could live somewhere else- I love San Fransisco, San Diego… I don’t really care. But… it’s New York, you know… You have access to everything- either you go out with friends to hear a good orchestra or a jazz band [he tells me that one of his favourite hangs is at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola]. Going out in NYC can become an art …. especially if you are financially independent. But while at home I like to practice my vibes and write music. I love spending time with quality people with humor. Love good food and a glass of red wine!

Christos and Manhattan Vibes play frequently around the city. Check out their calendar on where to catch them soon!