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"Come Alive"
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Spotlights [Issue # 13 ]
Savina Yannatou: Channeling Spirits

By Ken Micallef

An amazing singer with an extremely emotional and physical range who seems to draw in the sun, moon, and stars when she performs, Savina Yannatou’s latest album is Sumiglia, the story of lives lost and peoples past.

“The title means similarities,” Savina explains from a hotel room in Oslo, Norway, “but to me some of the songs are like earth songs somehow. It’s about people who want to live in the country or have dreams about the country or those people who go away but don’t want to go away. And there are love songs and family songs, but I feel that all these things are connected to a place.”

Sumiglia is a rich, almost transporting experience as Savina’s expressive voice infuses the songs she has collected from around the Mediterranean. A native of Greece, Savina and her wonderful band inject new life into the old folk songs of “Spain, Greece, Corsica, Hungarian songs from Moldavia, Greek songs from Italy, Macedonian songs, Albanian songs.”

Accompanied by accordion, qanun, kalimba, upright bass, violin, ney, and percussion, Savina seems to channel otherworldly spirits, but the songs retain a sense of peace and calm, unlike her ECM debut recording, Terra Nostra, which was recorded live.

“In the studio I want to feel each song, to feel the lyrics and it’s also about what we wanted to give to each song. Each song is from a different part of the world and we make somehow a story about it. Even if this story is wrong we have an idea about how these people were feeling or what they were thinking. Many of these songs are very, very old. So you create a world in pictures for each song.”

Where Terra Nostra was wild, even hostile sounding, Sumiglia has at its center a wide berth of tranquility and assurance.

“I have four records with this group,” Savina says, “and this time we needed to have a look inside to focus more on the moment. It is very much inward looking. And it is more focused on melodies and harmonies and to be more free, but not in a wild way. There are songs where we kept just the melody and changed everything else. We improvise a lot and this makes it more dark sometimes.”

Savina and her band often rearrange folk songs beyond their original constraints. “We don’t change all the songs,” she says, “only when we feel that it needs something or if there is space to do this. It is not objective. It is how we feel the songs.

“Usually the audience knows that we change these songs so usually they like it very much,” Savina continues. “If we do it too much sometimes they don’t like it. It depends on how much we interfere with the songs and the audience. If they don’t like it, I can feel it. You can feel what they feel.”

Ask Savina about her favorite popular singers and she replies as if she doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Hers is a world of beauties past, of glories found that she resurrects anew. Savina is very fond of one singer though.

“Something in Billie Holiday’s voice,” Savina muses. “She sings like speaking and that is important, to speak the song. Billie Holiday has something so unique and of her, very recognizable. Our songs have melody and lyrics so it is important not to lose everything. It is important to sing the melody but also to sing the lyrics or to speak them only, to use both, language and music. When I can do that I am happy.”


Channeling Spirits Savina Yannatou Sumiglia

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