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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!


“songs and dances for life non-stop”

1 Oct

An interview with Greg Squared of Ansambl Mastika. By Aktina

I first came across Ansambl Mastika sometime last winter in Barbès– one of my favourite venues for live music in the city where the group plays regularly original Eastern European music with influences ranging from the Balkans, to Turkey and the Middle East. So when the whole idea of a Mediterranean performing arts festival took shape, Ansambl Mastika was one of the very first groups of artists that I wanted to engage. I contacted the band’s leader Greg Squared (aka Greg Schneiderman) and we arranged to meet in Juliette in Brooklyn for an interview. After the initial introductions, we engaged in a rich and thought provoking discussion that often veered away from music into issues of politics and cultural identities in the Balkans- an area that Greg is very familiar with.

Me: Greg, after you graduated from UCSD you took a trip to Spain and that was your first encounter with Mediterranean, and later Balkan, musical traditions. Tell me a bit more about this encounter, what do you think drew you to the music, the culture, the people?

Greg: My trip to Spain was very eye-opening. In America we have a very limited view of what the world is . When I was in UCSD I was studying jazz and jazz improvisation. In jazz there is a strong tradition of being very dedicated to the music and I didn’t feel it was my music to be dedicated to. When I went to Spain I found out about all these other kinds of music, I found out about flamenco, which originally was the music of the Spanish gypsies but now it is Spain’s national music in the same way that jazz is our national music. It was very interesting to make that connection as I was traveling- that flamenco could only happen in Spain much like jazz could only happen in America. And seeing the people that make this music there are a lot of parallels, with regards to the social status of the Roma in Europe which is actually worse than the social status of African Americans in America, it is far worse.

While in Spain I also became interested in Sephardic music where you see a lot of influences from flamenco, from North African music and a lot of Turkish influences as well. And one day while in Spain, a friend of mine played the soundtrack of Kusturica’s Underground and it blew me away! Around that time I traveled to Southern France for a music festival and heard Romanian gypsy music and it also blew me away- I said, I have to play this music! So after 8 months in Spain I returned to NYC and I found about Balkan Camp. I started to explore the Balkan music because that was the place where a saw a strong tradition of woodwind playing as opposed to say Spanish music tradition. I had been digging into Klezmer, Middle Eastern music trying to find out about out them and so I said ok this is where I need to focus. After Balkan Camp I started playing the clarinet and then I visited the Balkans- Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Croatia, Greece (He asks me if I consider Greece as part of the Balkans cause he’s been impressed by how many different interpretations of the “Balkans” he’s encountered based on who he talks to. I nod yes, very much so!)

Me: So what attracted you so strongly to that music?

Greg: In the beginning there was a certain degree of exoticism, it was very different than anything I’d known so I was really drawn into that. Musically speaking it sounds different, it is a challenge to play. I’ve been doing it for nine-ten years now and it is still a challenge to play. You always learn. In some ways it also felt like a more comfortable framework to work with. I am the kind of person that needs to have a framework. I studied free improvisation and what free improv does is it tries to brake down all frameworks, focus on what happens in the moment, pushing you to be free of style. I think however that most human beings crave some kind of a framework, a bit of structure in their lives. Not too much maybe, but some kind of foundation. So I was looking for a framework and Balkan music fit the bill, it was intriguing, it resonated with my own ethnic history because I am of eastern European descent. And it gave me a structure that was every bit if interesting as the structure that I’d find in jazz but somewhat more mine, something I could stake a claim in.
Part of it is also that there’s not a lot of people in this country that are doing it. And I am looking for those opportunities where I can stand out from the musicians and there are not so many saxophone and clarinetists that play Balkan music. There’s some that do it and do it better than I do but that’s fine, I can learn from them and I can still stand out and make my own expression and be myself. Also, I am not a person who likes to do something half-half. I think it would be doing the music a disservice if I didn’t go there and meet the culture and find out what the music is all about and where it comes from. And I think I do that now, I know it and I’ve internalized it to a large degree.

Me: You said that before that trip to Spain you did not know much about the culture of the region. So I wonder if you went there with any preconceptions, ideas about the place and if these were changed along the way.

Greg: I first visited the Balkans in 2003 and I think my travel in Spain had prepared me for this- especially because I had lived in Andalucia and village life was very similar –although the economy in Spain was much better than say in Albania and Romania. When I went the economy there had just collapsed and aside from Morocco these are the poorest places I’ve ever been to. Preconceived ideas…I thought it would be that really polarized society, I thought I would see many differences between Serbs and Croats or Bosnians or Albanians but in fact I was struck how close and similar all the people there were. And at the same time I was mystified by all the conflict there was between the populations.

Me: So do you want to tell me how Ansambl Mastika was formed? Do you play original compositions or arrangements of traditional music?

Greg: First I started working with Balkan music in the Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar. There is where I started seriously playing Balkan music. We would take arrangements from existing tunes or traditional tunes arranged by artists and we would play those arrangements. As part of my learning process I started writing music- I was exploring during my practice routine with my instrument, I would come up with an idea and write it down. But I didn’t think that the Zagnut Cirkus was a good forum for my writing because it wasn’t my group and I had a lot more material that I wanted to explore and I wanted more support. In 2005 I had about an album’s worth of material so I asked some of the musicians from the band if they wanted to rehearse these songs and then record them- it was all orginal songs. And they were like yeah lets do it! and that’s how Ansambl Mastika was created. I picked up that name when I was in Macedonia. I was sitting in a bar one night with this guy and we were drinking mastika. I have that little notebook where I write things down and I wrote Ansambl Mastika in Macedonian- not only in Macedonian but in Cyrillic. It was the first sentence I ever made in that language so I said when I go back to America I will have a group that will be called Ansambl Mastika.

So that’s how Ansambl Mastika was formed, as a vehicle for my original tunes. Then a bit later, around 2008-9 I began branching out into original arrangements of traditional tunes. I also started being more interested in traditional songs to engage audiences a bit more (Greg has learned some Macedonian and he wants to also learn Turkish in order to be able to understand more of the songs he works from). So that’s when it all started coming together, we do more or less original arrangements and I try to put a stamp on anything.

Me: And you have a CD out and another one coming up…

Greg: Yes, our first CD is Gde Si Bre?. It is a Serbian expression, it means hey you were are you, you hear it everywhere in the streets, it’s like hey dude whats up (I teach him the Greek equivalent “Pou’sai re?”) . I felt that the name gave kind of… (Greg hesitates a bit, wants to use the right words struggling with the notion of “authenticity”)… an authentic touch, linked the album more solidly to the culture. I thought I wanted to anchor it, conceptually. The music is a mishmash of different things, from things I was practicing and ideas I had as I was working- I would think to myself while practicing, oh this sounds like a gypsy song or this sounds more like an ipirotiko song. There’s 12 songs and they are from all over- Turkish influences, Greek influences. Same with the new album. I want to name it in Macedonian but I think it will be tough to understand- I wanna name it (he says the title first in Macedonian) “songs and dances for life non stop”. Because at this point I feel that my personality comes through more in the music especially because I am also singing some of the tracks. So again it will be a mishmash of Greek, Albanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Turkish. I hope to have it ready in October and have a CD release party in December.

Me: How is the NYC scene for Balkan music? Do you find the NYC scene for your style of music? Do you find there are enough opportunities and venues to support your kind of music? Is it easy to attract new audiences?

Greg: The scene in NY that I am most familiar with is the Balkan folk dance scene which grew out of the 60s and 70s. There’s a lot of older people in the scene, and Zlatne Uste, who founded Golden Festival are the nucleus of that scene, they are very much an institution. They play mostly Serbian and Macedonian music and they reach out to the immigrant communities. They’ve also worked in creating Balkan Café in the Hungarian house with performances by many musicians from all parts of the Balkans. The economics though were always difficult and as rent went higher it became really hard for them to keep on doing it. They are cultural ambassadors for this music, the way they work is they will visit the Balkans and work for several months and work with local musicians and learn from them their arrangements of traditional songs which they will then bring here.

Me: This sort of leads me to my next question: what is the approach of musicians from the Balkans to this music in comparison with musicians here? Have you seen a lot of experimentation with tradition?

Greg: Here I have found it always difficult to access musicians from that part of the world. I think maybe because so many of them are traditional musicians and maybe they don’t have that kind of drive to make original music or original arrangements. Of course it has to do with my own conditions, which have become pretty much set, I do not have a lot of time to search for new collaborations although there are many musicians I’d like to play with. And also, especially for young players born here, for them its their parents’ music, they don’t want to deal with it, they want to play rock, funk, jazz. In the Balkans it is different, they’re coming at it from the other side, this is their tradition so they’re asking what can we do with this, what can we do to it to make it new, fresh? There are musicians over there of course, especially in Macedonia that I am more familiar with, that are more attached to the folk music. Maybe they bring their something new to it but they stick to it. And of course there is some crossover between the two. So I guess it’ s the same with every culture, there’s a push and pull between a traditional attitude and a more artistic attitude of how can I make my mark on it.

Me: In your music you do play with tradition, fusing it with other instruments or sounds, but I would say that you stay pretty close to the traditional feel and sound. Can you speak a bit about this process of reworking or reinventing a tradition? And maybe speak to this in the context of the more widespread trend of ethnic music or world music- how do you see that whole movement?

Greg: Ok let’s talk about world music first. I think it’s a good think as a trend. Because it shows the world that there is more than western music. It is a pretty broad category it can include many things. And I think there is a lot of world music that can be very watered down and I feel that’s very much a popularization process- there’s the same with jazz too. That too is a very big umbrella, it depends on who you’re talking to but in my view it is a very big umbrella. So with world music too, it depends on what you do with it. My music, it has to fit under this umbrella cause it doesn’t fit under any other umbrella, so for lack of a better term it is world music. Is my music folk music? I don’t know…. (he struggles with his own thoughts about world and folk music so I offer to help with my perspective as audience:)

Me: I am not sure if I would say your music is folk music, I find it to be (I struggle too….) more sophisticated maybe…

Greg: Hmmm… that’s interesting… Cause I don’t think any of the compositional ideas you will find in our music are things that people in that part of the world aren’t doing…. For example, musicians there who do new arrangements on traditional songs, is this folk? Or is it new music? It’s a fine line…
As far as the music that I write, I don’t see it as folk music although I would be very flattered if it became a part of the folk canon- although I don’t think that’d ever happen. I am kind of writing music as if creating a new folk canon, or the folk canon of this place with these musicians. And I like it when people like it, and I like it when people want to play that music.

Me (still struggling with all the ideas about world and folk music): I guess maybe that’s what it’s all about, a tune that you play in a Macedonian wedding, then you play it in Barbès and it becomes something else, something new.

Greg: Yeah this is the framework that I choose to work from, this is what I do. I’ve wanted to do music since I was 5, maybe even before that but I didn’t know it. But I chose to work in a different framework than most musicians do. But this is what I do.

Listen to Selcukdan Roman Havasi by Ansambl Mastika

For more music by Ansambl Mastika visit the group’s myspace page