Greece, nazi massacre and jazz music

This video from Greece says about itself:

Kyriacos Charitou singing Andonis Vardis song “To tsigaro to Kommeno“.

By Chris Searle in Britain:

Gunter Baby Sommer, Savina Yannatou, Floros Floridis, Spilios Kastanis and Evgenios Voulgaris

Songs for Kommeno (Intakt CD190)

Tuesday 18 December 2012

“We shall make Kommeno a village of music, a grove of peace and culture.”

So declared Christos Kosmas, the mayor of Kommeno – the Greek village where in August 1943 soldiers of the occupying German Wehrmacht massacred 317 villagers including 97 children and 13 babies-in-arms.

The album Songs for Kommeno emerged from a project led by the German free jazz drummer Gunter Baby Sommer, born in Dresden also in 1943, whose long experience began as a pioneer improviser in the days of the German Democratic Republic and who has subsequently played with some of the great free jazz giants like Cecil Taylor and Wadada Leo Smith from the US and fellow Europeans such as Irene Schweizer, Evan Parker and Peter Brotzmann.

He affirms: “What I can give is music. This is why I decided to develop a music project which puts the focus on the name of the village Kommeno and the memory of the suffering of the victims.

“What I have taken in from my ties with jazz since its beginnings is that we have to position ourselves in regards to the events taking place in our world.”

In the album Sommer joins with four Greek musicians to create a brilliant and moving sequence of evocations of the 1943 events. Savina Yannatou is an Athens-born singer of theatre and dance who has sung with free improvisers like bassists Peter Kowald and Barry Guy for two decades. The oud virtuoso is Evgenios Voulgaris from Patras and the soprano saxophone and clarinet master is Floros Floridis from Thessaloniki. Spilios Kastanis, who plays in a trio with Sommer and Floridis, is the bassist from a village in Arcadia near Patras.

In 2008 Sommer played a concert in Kommeno, beginning with a piece struck entirely on tubular bells “without realising what kind of associations this would trigger … people rose from their seats, some of them started to cry, some of them clasped their necklaces with the cross. That moment was the starting point of a close relationship between the people of the village and me.

“I postponed my departure for a few days and I was asked to go to visit them in their houses. They talked about their experiences, spoke about the massacre, of their families, fathers, grandmothers. They gave me food and drink and I didn’t leave a single house without receiving a small gift.”

All this gave birth to Songs for Kommeno and the opening track, Tears, where the Greek strings of Kastanis and Voulgaris make sounds close to the blues which their German confrere said “describes the love and suffering in life … the resignation, and awakening grief and joy.” It is all there certainly and stroked with beauty and memory with Sommer’s rustling percussion.

As Floridis’s clarinet enters over Kastinis’s pulsating bowed bass these sonic tears could be shed in Louisiana, Cape Town, Gaza or Dhaka, so cosmic is their resonance.

Of the track called Andartes Sommer writes: “The Greek partisans called themselves Andartes. The introductory drum solo could stand for the situation of the hard-pressed Greek people.” Then and now, perhaps, as Sommer booms, crackles and crashes and Yannatou’s wordless voice wails over the strings.

The 18 minutes of Mirias Miroloi includes the voice of Maria Labri, one of the survivors of the massacre, and is begun by Kastanis’s howling bowed bass and Floridis’s mournful clarinet.

Sommer’s drumming is astonishing. He resorts to gong chimes as Maria’s chanting begins, along with Tibetan cymbals, metal sheets and bass drum until the free improvisation explodes from all musicians and Maria tells the story of the brave priest who was cut down by nazi guns as he tried to prevent the slaughter.

Arachthos has Sommer striking what sounds like a steel pan, and suddenly the sound of Trinidad travels to Greece, while Lullaby has Yannatou’s voice like that of a child falling towards sleep. It prefaces Children Song, where Yannatou and Floridis’s clarinet find a floating amalgam of sound over Kastanis’s plucked infant heartbeats.

The final track is Kommeno Today where the past is a springboard to now-times youth, dancing, grooving, setting their village beyond the horror of history.

“Jazz is also liberation from everything which unnaturally restricts and limits us” is Sommer’s dictum and it applies here in earfuls as it does all through this extraordinary album.

Full of the past and full of the future. And how many more people will remember Kommeno and its people?

6 thoughts on “Greece, nazi massacre and jazz music

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