Q&A with Greek guitarist Tolis Zavaliaris - based in U.K. developed a unique style incorporating jazz, rock, ethnic and orchestral elements

"For me music doesn’t have styles, borders, rules, race or religion. If you go to space and look down the earth, you don’t see borders, countries, etc. You see the earth as a whole. The music industry is responsible for all these labels and unfortunately, if you want to be a musician, you have to belong in one of these markets."

Tolis Zavaliaris: East, West, North & South

Tolis Zavaliaris is a guitarist, composer and tutor living in London U.K. Born in Orestiada a small town in Northern Greece he started playing guitar at the age of 14 and by the age of 16 was performing in Greek clubs with many bands and famous artists. Tolis relocated from Greece to London in 2001 where he studied a 3-year degree course at the world-famous Guitar Institute. After his graduation he was invited to join the Institute as a guitar teacher and tutor. Since then Tolis has coloborated, performed and toured with many artists such as Vanessa Mae, Livan, Anna Savege, The Duvets, The Locals, Me’sha Bryan, Killiopi and many more. He has also worked with producers Peter Greenwell (Flop-Star), Benny D (Depeche Mode), John Robertson (Morcheeba), David Crefield (Kaiser Chiefs). Tolis has developed a unique music style incorporating jazz, rock, ethnic and orchestral elements in his compositions, in conjunction with sounds and rhythms borrowed from East European countries and Greek traditional music. This unique composition approach offers the listener the pleasure of a magical musical journey in the tradition and culture of jazz through Eastern European countries.

Tolis has recorded two CDs as a leader “Sounds from the Past” (2007) and his new release “II” (2009) which features Pete Lockett (Steve Smith) on tabla, Laurence Cottle (Eric Clapton) on bass, Neil Angilley (Shirley Bassey) on piano, Fergus Gerrand (Madonna) on percussion Beruz Game (XFactor) on vocals, Mark Bobb on violin, Babis Margaritidis on percussion, Hugh Richardson on bass and Daffys on Greek traditional clarinet. Tolis is an official regular contributor of the world famous “Guitar Techniques Magazine” and “All Out Guitar” Online Magazine. He also teaches at the IGF summer camps. In May 2004 Tolis won the prestigious “London Guitar Hero” competition, which took place at the Wembley Conference Centre. He endorses Musicman guitars and Line 6 products and also holds regular clinics in the U.K. and Greece.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Jazz, Rock and Blues influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken? 

Influences are the key factors for the musical development of every musician. Personally, I like all kinds of music and I have been influenced from many musical styles, as well as instrumentalists, artists in general and composers. I like to experiment with styles and sounds, trying to achieve the desirable sound I hear in my head.

For me music doesn’t have styles, borders, rules, race or religion. If you go to space and look down the earth, you don’t see borders, countries, etc. You see the earth as a whole. The music industry is responsible for all these labels and unfortunately, if you want to be a musician, you have to belong in one of these markets. 

What were the reasons that you started the music researches? How do you describe your songbook and sound?

My goal since the beginning was always to have my own voice in music, to discover basically my own sound. I admire and I love many artists, instrumentalists, songwriters, bands, but I believe as an artist, the only way to become successful is by having your own voice.

Greece is the navel of the earth. It connects the East with the West, the North with the South. Having the privilege to be born in Greece, especially in Thrace, from a very young age a was engaging with our traditional music, rhythms and sounds, fact that taught me a lot of skill in music, specifically playing odd meters and non-traditional Western Harmonies and Scales. Therefore, my music is a fusion of all these elements, sounds and rhythms.

I have developed a unique music style incorporating jazz, rock, ethnic and orchestral elements in my compositions, in conjunction with sounds and rhythms borrowed from East European countries and Greek traditional music. This unique composition approach, offers the listener the pleasure of a magical musical journey, in the tradition and culture of jazz through Eastern European countries.

"Greece is the navel of the earth. It connects the East with the West, the North with the South. Having the privilege to be born in Greece, especially in Thrace, from a very young age a was engaging with our traditional music, rhythms and sounds, fact that taught me a lot of skill in music, specifically playing odd meters and non-traditional Western Harmonies and Scales. Therefore, my music is a fusion of all these elements, sounds and rhythms." (Photo: Tolis Zavaliaris with his custom Olympus guitar)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you? 

Everything is possible! You just have to set the goal, put your mind and soul to it and it will happen. But, be prepared to work hard and to sacrifice many things. Success doesn’t come served on a plate I am afraid.

As far as acquaintances, I have to say every single person that I have worked with has taught me something, or helped me with my music and knowledge. This will include also my teachers, students, band members and colleagues.  

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Man, I have been a professional musician since 1995, so you can imagine how many stories and memories I have, but I can recall a couple, which were very important in my career. First, when I won the Guitar Hero Competition back in 2004, as the best guitarist of the year in the UK and second, when I got to tour with world famous violinist Vanessa Mae as her side guitarist in her band. Both unforgettable experiences.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I’ve missed the way that a single record (Vinyl LP) was produced. The creativity and the involvement in a studio. Bands and musicians will spend a year, sometimes even two years in the studio, pushing themselves to come up with the best song writing and performing ideas and sounds that they could. Every record was a statement in their career and the music industry. Artists and bands had more time to develop their craft and find their own voice, working together with an accomplished producer, having their label supporting their creative journey. Fans would wait for the new release patiently, to listen to the new ideas and sounds from their beloved band or singer. The old Vinyl was also not all about the music. The art covers, the photos, the clothes, the haircuts. It was a celebration of Art.  

I hope music will restore its artistic glory, as it seems nowadays, the money making machine is mostly interested producing fast food music.

"I don’t think it makes any difference if you are Greek or not in the music industry. Everybody has the same opportunities. You just have to find where you want to fit in that business, find your market and work really hard for it. I believe everybody gets his opportunity in the music industry, especially now with the internet and social media. Time will tell, if your music was strong enough to appeal to the listeners and make a career out of it." (Photo: Tolis Zavaliaris & Johnny Prapas of Olympus guitars)

What touched (emotionally) you from the custom guitar "Olympus"? What are the secrets of?
I liked the raw organic feel and the handmade approach towards making the guitar. Also, the fact that the woods come from mountain Olympus was very appealing to me. There is so much history and energy around that area, so that was enough to excite me to have such an instrument in my guitar collection.

What is the impact of music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?  

I personally don’t like to mix music with any of the above. As a musician, I am a free spirit and I like to stay like that. Historically though, music is linked to tradition and us Greeks have a very strong connection with it, since pretty much every part of Greece has each own musical traditions, dances and cultural ethics. I guess also, same goes for all the countries around the world. Music is something that was always there and it will continue be, as it is a way to bring people together and connect, inspire, elevate and stimulate the senses, the mind and soul.

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

I would have liked to go back in the early 80s and spend a whole day in the studio with Toto, watching them recording their album Toto IV.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from the music industry as a Greek musician?

I don’t think it makes any difference if you are Greek or not in the music industry. Everybody has the same opportunities. You just have to find where you want to fit in that business, find your market and work really hard for it. I believe everybody gets his opportunity in the music industry, especially now with the internet and social media. Time will tell, if your music was strong enough to appeal to the listeners and make a career out of it.

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