Q&A with Greek-American musician Nana Simopoulos - one of the foremost composers of world fusion music

"I fear that messaging, texting and people glued to their devices is creating a landscape of individuals who are no longer able to connect to one another outside of cyber space."

Nana Simopoulos: Inside The Sound

Nana Simopoulos was born in Baltimore, MD and studied her Greek ancestry from the root in that country, as well jazz at Duke University, the Naropa Institute, and the Guitar Institute of L.A. and considered one of the foremost composers of world fusion music. She artfully blends sounds and textures from around the world. The late Indian sarangi master Ustad Sultan Khan accompanied her on her last two releases. In 1984, Nana’s first album Pandora’s Blues featuring Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, won critic’s choice from DOWNBEAT Magazine. She later recorded two critically acclaimed releases on Enja Records; Wings and Air in 1987 featuring Charlie Haden, Don Cherry and Jim Pepper, Still Waters in 1989 with Chip Jackson. In 1992 B&W Music released the beautiful Gaia’s Dream. She has also performed widely with her ensemble in venues such as the Montreux Festival and appears on their compilation CD Live at the B&W Montreux Music Festival, Vol. II. Her ensemble, World Music of Nana, performed at the Rubin Museum with Brazilian percussionist Café Da Silva and Merkin Hall with the late Ustad Sultan Khan on sarangi and David Liebman. In September she conducted 40 musicians from Tibet, India, Turkey, Africa, Israel and Greece in a 9/11 Memorial Service at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City in an original composition called I Will Remember You.

In 2011 she composed and conducted music for LiquidBody Dance’s performance of Resonant Streams: An Ancient Call as part of the six-month art series on The Value of Water at thre Cathedral of St John the Divine. She has written numerous commissions for dance companies such as Dance Theatre of Harlem with former Pilobolus choreographer Peter Pucci, the Joffrey Ballet, The American Dance Festival, Ballet Hispanico, North Carolina Dance Theater and choreographer Caryn Heilman, alumnus of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. Nana has also written scores for films such as the Domain of the Senses; Touch as well as scores for the theatrical productions of Antigone Through Time, presented at the New York City Fringe Festival and Conversations With the Goddesses, produced by Soho Repertory Theatre. She has written scores for two musicals, An Absolute Mystery, and Matrix Maison, presented at Dixon place, NY. She also wrote the music for the off Broadway show Studs Turkel’s American Dreams, Lost and Found, which toured the U.S. and opened at the Lucielle Lortel Theater in New York. During this time the Acting Company received a TONY award for excellence in theater. She is currently performing with her world jazz ensemble. Nana's new upcoming album "Skins" will be released soon.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz & Ethnic music and continue to world poetry and culture?

What I learn about myself with these musical styles is that I am a person who seeks to move across dividers and time as if these did not exist. I learn every day that music is not something we hear in our heads or ears alone, but in our stomachs, our guts, our backs, arms, legs, face, eyes. All over our bodies. Music is sound and sound is spirit riding on the waves of vibration. It does not matter if it is jazz or ethnic or world. These are just various colors on a canvas. When I read the poetry of the Sufi’s I discover a playfulness inside like a child, when I hear the spirit song of the Shamans I see myself on that mountain with the dawn below me. It is all in me. But enough about me. What about you? What happens to you when you hear music. That is what I am most interested in.

What were the reasons that you started the spiritual and cultural researches and experiments?

I don’t know why. It is like gravity, a pull in a direction, towards the meaningful in life. A curiosity, a questioning, a why and a why not? As a child I always was aware of my surroundings and was afraid when I grew up I would stop being aware, like many of the adults I noticed.  This kept me on my toes my entire adult life. It made me gravitate toward the sitar and the resonant didgeridoo and gave me an appreciation for the effect sound has on the body and the spirit. These are sacred and as far as I can tell, would best not to be abused with repetition and locked down rhythms and empty, non-melodic structures.

"Music is meant to make people move freely through space and not like a spastic. It is the most boring thing musically. I would add another beat and make it a 5/4 and slow it down." (PHOTO: Nana Simopoulos, by  © Spiros Katopodis/View Photo Agency, Athens Greece)

How do you describe Nana Simopoulos sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

From my first compositions and recordings I have always enjoyed bringing musical aspects together that are typically not heard with one another. My songs all carry elements from different places and have a timeless quality so that they do not have an expiration date or an identifiable time period. With the exception of a piece of mine called “Solid Seven” which had a classic 1980s thumbing bass sound, all of the rest of the music includes the past, present and future. They are meant to live on and on. 

Also important to me is the sound inside the sound. I use a lot of harmonics and overtones and therefore have to stay away from certain instruments and feature others such as the voice, cello, sarangi, sitar and didgeridoo. I appreciate organic sounds and live instruments more than synthesizers. The piano in general does not resonate well with the instruments I play. Some of my best friends are pianists and I have nothing against them. Synthesizers can be useful and have their place in my music at times as well.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

The most important meetings I have are with audience members. I enjoy meeting people before a concert, I often will go up to people and introduce myself before a performance, speak to them again during the intermission and after the show. I usually ignore my friends and band members knowing that I will see them later on, in favor of that unique moment when I can connect with a stranger in the audience.  On stage I often invite audience members to participate in improvised moments. I like to create experiential performances. I have never been disappointed by an exchange with the audience. The best advice anyone has given me is that people are like mirrors. They reflect back to you your own emotions, so I best be clear about what I am feeling.

Are there any memories from Charlie Haden, Ustad Sultan Khan and Don Cherry which you’d like to share with us?

I met Charlie Haden at Naropa Institute, he was my teacher and became my friend.  Once we went to see a play together in Los Angeles and it was a very dark, disturbing piece of theater. Afterwards he said that he prefers to see art that “…expresses the magnificence of life.” That stayed with me.

I went to a concert in Pennsylvania with Zakir Houssain and Ustad Sultan Khan was a guest is his ensemble.  At the end of the concert I went up to Zakir Houssain (who I didn’t know me) and I asked him if he would introduce me to Ustad Sultan Khan.  We instantly bonded even though he spoke very little English. He was a hysterically funny man and also a very wise spirit. His favorite phrase in the little English he knew was: “Don’t touch my body!” which had everyone rolling on the floor laughing. When he was recording the composition “Midnight” he pointed to me, to his chest and to the sky. I imagined that he was connecting me with heart and heaven. It was a profound moment for me that I will carry with me always.

Don Cherry was a free spirit. It was interesting playing with him and I learned a great deal about letting go of what is planned and to expect the unexpected. When we were on stage we never knew what was going to happen next, we were always surprised and he taught us to follow the muse wherever she was taking us. 

"As a child I always was aware of my surroundings and was afraid when I grew up I would stop being aware, like many of the adults I noticed.  This kept me on my toes my entire adult life."

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

I miss the blues of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. I wish I could have heard any one of them sing live. I miss the passion and the musicality of these great women of the blues.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

I fear that messaging, texting and people glued to their devices is creating a landscape of individuals who are no longer able to connect to one another outside of cyber space. I fear that people are losing the ability to be compassionate because they view life on a small screen all day, everyday and cannot be without it. We are escaping into a virtual reality, which is virtually everything in life except life itself.  My hope is that this is just a passing fad and that eventually everyone will get tired of their individual devices or that something else comes to take their place which is more organic and gets people back to being intimate with each other in reality and not through a computer. I use computers to connect with people but I do not believe it should be a replacement for a real in person exchange with another.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The repetitive beat in 4/4 and 120 bpm. This is like a sedative and turns people into robots. Just go to a club and watch people dance to 120 bpm for hours on end with the beat staying the same all the time. If you imagine the music is not there people look ridiculous. Music is meant to make people move freely through space and not like a spastic. It is the most boring thing musically. I would add another beat and make it a 5/4 and slow it down.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz, World and Avant-garde music with the poetry and literature?

I personally use a variety of rhythms and instruments and melodic structures to connect these elements together. Sometimes a composition will have Greek Zembekiko rhythm but the chords will be jazz, the instruments will have saxophone, bass, drums and guitar but inside the music is a Byzantine drone. Another tune may use a Greek dancing rhythm in 7/8 called Kalamatiano but instead of bouzouki or clarinet, I may use the sitar. The didgeridoo and tanpura work well together to form a pad which acts like a blanket of sound over which the instruments can play. 

Using the poetry of mystics is a new thing for me. I just started discovering that many of my melodies both old and new work well with the phrases inside these poems.  They are not able to fit exactly word for word and I take liberties with the words themselves without losing the essence of the poem, which remains inside the lyrics. 

"Music is sound and sound is spirit riding on the waves of vibration. It does not matter if it is jazz or ethnic or world. These are just various colors on a canvas. When I read the poetry of the Sufi’s I discover a playfulness inside like a child, when I hear the spirit song of the Shamans I see myself on that mountain with the dawn below me. It is all in me. "

What touched (emotionally) you from 9/11 Memorial Service at the Cathedral of St John?

The cathedral asked me to do what they termed “A Call To Prayer” for the 9/11 memorial. They wanted various countries represented.  Being in New York City I was able to find Indians, Tibetans, Africans, Greeks, a Jewish Cantor and a sufi singer. Each group sang devotional music from their country. At the end of the hour long performance, I prepared a piece called “I will Remember You” and I invited all of the groups on stage, 40 musicians, to all sing together my piece in Greek the words  Tha Se Thimitho. I used an ancient Greek scale. It was extraordinarily beautiful to hear people from such different backgrounds singing together on that day. The attack on the World Trade Center was motivated by the desire from certain individuals to pull people apart. What ended up happening was the opposite. People who never would have come together in the past united for the first time. It was very moving to witness this on that memorial day. Music is the purest way of creating this type of unity among people.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Unfortunately I am usually spending much of my time in the past and in the future already. Where I really would like to be is in the here and now. The present moment. I am working on it every time I can remember. 

Nana Simopoulos - Official website

 

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