Greek Blues Scene: Q&A with Aces and the Dame (George Stefanakis & Evina Biniari) - Let the Good Times Roll

"Even since the beatniks’ era (or earlier?) music plays a very significant role in youth culture. Most young people’s sub-cultures are characterized by their preference to one or the other music genre. And very much of the music that’s been popular since the mid-war owes a lot to the blues, directly or not."

Aces & The Dame: Good Times Roll
Aces and the Dame is a blues combo from Athens, Greece, formed in late 2016 by four quite seasoned musicians brought together by their will to play the blues. Their live set is made up of a few original songs, some blues standards, as well as hand-picked lesser known blues that audiences are unlikely to hear from most bands of the genre. They present a live set made up of an eclectic repertoire of a few original songs, some blues standards, as well as lesser known blues not usually covered by the average band. Evina Biniari handles the vocals - a promising singer with considerable experience in a few local blues bands and a great love for the blues. Marios Skoufos and Chris Kallimoukos, on bass guitar and drums respectively, are long-time session musicians, feeling equally at home playing such diverse genres as blues, rock or traditional greek music.

Guitarist George "Whiskey" Stefanakis first got to know the blues in the early '80s. In 1987 he formed his first band called Lazy, a rock band he didn't manage to incorporate his blues influences in. It was 1992 when his first blues combo was formed. It was called White Boots, after a Vaughan Brothers song. They played both originals and covers, received good reviews and were quite active throughout the '90s. From then on, he played with a series of bands, always searchind for the right company to play the blues he loves.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and people? What does the blues mean to you?

George: The blues is simple, down to earth music. It speaks about everyday life, its difficulties and pleasures. It helped me to understand that simple things can be important and that I’d rather cope with difficulties with pride and determination, instead of lamenting. You see, the blues isn’t a lament, as some people wrongly believe. It’s a statement. Even the saddest blues is bittersweet, finally tells us to go through any difficulty with our heads high. Musically, I’ve had a lot to learn from people involved – one thing is the ability to perform while on the edge, for example during jam sessions where everything is done on the spot. And there’s more, hard to articulate.

I listen to a lot of music, from Greek rebetiko to Irish folk and from Dixieland jazz to NWOBHM. But nothing in the world touches me like the blues; nothing compares to the thrill I get while listening to the blues, no matter if it’s Big Bill Broonzy, Louis Jordan or Ronnie Earl. No other music urges me to play the guitar the way the blues does. If you put a guitar in my hand, you may be 100% sure that I’ll instantly play a blues lick; it comes automatically. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe the blues as a way of life for me, since I have a day job, instead of living the life of a full-time musician. But, after all, the blues is exactly the musical language to speak about the troubles of ordinary life, isn’t it?

Evina: I’ve learned to express myself in a freeway. The blues is a pulse. It signifies that we are able to feel, think, dream. The more I learn about the blues, the more I feel alive.

How do you describe Aces and the Dame sound and songbook? What characterizes the band’s philosophy? What is the story behind band’s name?

George: The sound is quite simple: a guitar-bass-drums trio, plus vocals. And, believe me, it’s a challenging format - each musician is far more exposed. But I it works fine. Of course, there's always a possibility that we add another instrument (I’d love, say, a Hammond organ or a baritone sax; a trombone is more difficult to fit in the band) – but we'll talk about it in the future. A number of practical factors also have to be taken into account. I’d describe the songbook as eclectic. We do play our own songs, though I’m not a very prolific songwriter. We cover a wide variety of blues, from T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson to contemporary tunes. We learn from the masters while, at the same time, we keep our eyes open to what’s happening now. The band’s philosophy is simple, too: play the blues we love, play good-time music, make our audience happy. A pleased audience is our biggest reward. At the same time, we want to pay homage to the blues masters who created and defined this extraordinary music genre.

Evina: Aces and the Dame love to play the blues and share through it emotions with people all around. We play a few, at the moment, original songs and we mainly dive into the past, approaching less known tunes, along with all-time classics, while furthermore we keep contact with contemporary sounds. As for the band’s name we used card symbols that represent metaphorically the members and that all make together a good combination in a game. The bet is on playing the blues well!

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

George: You hit a point here. I first got to know the blues through rock – so it’s mainly the 60’s counterculture that has influenced me in that aspect. Mind you, the blues more often speaks about hoboing or going to jail or riding a freight train, rather than make direct social and political statements (J.B. Lenoir was the only bluesman to be in Senator McCarthy’s list). On the other hand, in the early days of rock, such statements were far more openly made. And the lifestyle, too, was a bit challenging for the average reputable citizen. The way I think, from an early age, owes a lot to movements more or less connected with the 60’s counterculture (free speech, new left, anti-war, feminism, environmentalism and so on). Now, when it comes to lifestyle, things become much more complicated.

Evina: Blues as much as rock counterculture, as opposed to social and political conventions, open horizons that are common to all the people in the world. Through rhythm, lyrics, melody you make a journey without destination, without boundaries. You feel free to try out new things, to discover new values, to explore new ideas. You feel connected to everybody. It’s all about love, peace and unity. After all it’s all about music…

"From Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith to Bonnie Raitt and Beth Hart, in the world of the blues. To every human being in this planet that deserves to be treated equally to anyone else."

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

George: There are some people from the local blues scene who have been very important to me. I‘d like to refrain from mentioning names, in case I forget someone. But I’ve had a lot to learn from people I got acquainted with, at different stages of my own musical journey. Were they musicians who passed their experience on to me, my jazz guitar teacher, band mates or school mates who showed me my first chords and riffs.

Advice? I just got tips here and there, I’m afraid I can’t remember anything particular. Hmm... apart from a piece of advice 2-3 different folks gave me, to be humble. Anyway, the best general advice is to listen carefully to the blues masters – and you can’t lose.

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

George: In 1993-94, we opened several times for Blues Cargo, at An Club. By then, Cargo had already established their status as the best Athens blues band, so it was quite an experience. We learned a lot and we were very happy to receive positive comments, both by the audience and Cargo. As for jam sessions, I remember a really tedious one – literally tens of musicians walked into the club, guitars in their hands. It seemed they would play to the end of time. Even when the club owner cut off the electricity onstage, there was this drunken bloke who continued to play and sing unplugged, to a crowd of three equally drunken blokes who cheered ecstatically. Once, in the mid 90’s, we played to a punk/hardcore audience, after 2-3 garage punk bands. We were sure they would kick us off stage. We decided to play our set from the end to the beginning and crank up the amps. It worked. Instead of kicking us off stage, the punks started to dance wildly and throw full beer cans at each other. One or two cans hit our bassist; he survived.

And a bad memory: once I got totally pissed while gigging at an Athens club. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) the gig was recorded. The next day I heard what I’d played on a tape. I almost quit the guitar. George “Whiskey” Stefanakis strongly recommends drinking water on stage. Only water.

Evina: Whenever I sing the blues I get a brand new experience that makes me feel completed. One special memory though that I recall is that of a night, after a live performance of the band, when a kind man spoke to me, explained to me that he was an elementary school teacher and asked me if he could use band’s name in order to talk about the blues to his students, urging them to get involved with. That was one of the most flattering things that someone could say to you.

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

George: I’m not particularly nostalgic; I think of the blues as something contemporary, not as a thing of the past. Of course, the masters are long gone and there’s no significant blues boom since the demise of SRV; but the genre is alive. Now, what I miss most is possibly the raw, in your face sound of the early recordings (pre-war acoustic and urban blues, 50’s Chess sound etc.). Should I also tell you what I miss locally? Well, it seems there’s no longer any agency to book artists from abroad. In the past, we’d seen B.B. five times, Duke Robillard twice, Magic Slim 2-3 times, Luther Allison twice etc., not to mention a lot of second-tier bluesmen. There were even two or three-day events. But not any longer. And I don’t know if it’s due only to the economic crisis plaguing our country. As for hopes and fears, I’m tempted to avoid answering. I mean, in the 70’s every serious person involved in the music business would declare the blues dead. But it revived. So why fear? What will be, will be. On the other hand, the biggest hope is that there are always people willing to keep the blues alive.

Evina: What I miss most from the blues of the past is its astounding bareness. For the future, I am quite optimistic that blues musicians will avoid mannerism, exaggeration or being subject to commercialization. I do hope that blues music will maintain its spontaneity, echoing the past without imitating it.

"The blues is simple, down to earth music. It speaks about everyday life, its difficulties and pleasures. It helped me to understand that simple things can be important and that I’d rather cope with difficulties with pride and determination, instead of lamenting."

Make an account of the case of the blues in Greece. Which is the most interesting period in local blues scene?

George: I’m personally involved in the local blues scene since the early 90’s, though I never reached local star status, for a number of reasons. All these years I’ve seen ups and downs but, generally, I’m happy to see that there are always people dedicated to the blues and doing their best to make their own statement. I believe the most interesting period in the local blues scene was the time when Blues Wire and Blues Cargo were at their heyday. Both bands are still active and a reference point to every local blues musician; but back in the 90’s there was much more fuss about Greek blues – and we owe this fuss mainly to these bands. The rest of us were motivated by their musical skill and their ability to stir up an audience.

I’d like to point out the difficulties we face, though. It isn’t self-pitying, it’s matter of fact. First, local audience is rather small – too small for a city of five million; this makes it difficult for one to become a full-time blues musician. It discourages competent musicians from getting involved and live stages from accommodating mainly blues events. It’s far more difficult to create a fan base if we play in clubs which host a blues event one night, an indie rock band the next, then a Greek singer-songwriter and so on. Besides, the press, promoters etc. seem to be unaware of the Greek blues scene – you’re one of the few exceptions, Mike. Of course, these difficulties by no means justify an amateurish approach on the part of the artist. Amateurism disappoints and drives away potential fans; it discredits the scene. As soon as you walk up on stage to play for 1.000 or 20 people who pay to see you, you are expected to act like a pro; period.

Evina: The blues has evolved in Greece especially during the last four decades; I consider them to be the most interesting period for the genre. I believe that the blues in Greece is a living cell that is constantly being generated. More and less experienced musicians are truly devoted to that kind of music, full of passion and energy, giving their souls unconditionally. This is very important for the Greek audience so as to know the blues in a more authentic way. However there is a serious need for cultural sources, music stages, record labels and the mass media to make the blues louder.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the local music circuits?

George: Laugh out of pleasure, you mean? Well, I was very much pleased to take part to two recent events, an open–air one titled “Guitar Workbench plays the Blues’’ in September 2016 and a tribute to the Greek blues scene, at LEFKA Club in March. Both events were a kind of meeting of musicians involved in the blues. We each played a short set and, apart from the music itself that was cool, it was a great pleasure to see people I hadn’t met for a long time and play with people I respect.

Evina: Every time I get together with my band fellows, George ‘Whiskey’ Stefanakis, Marios Skoufos, Chris Kallimoukos, three beautiful people and great musicians, I laugh a lot and let really good times roll! One thing that moves me and motivates me is to see people smile, dance, even sing to our music. That gives me the thrill!

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Evina: R.e.s.p.e.c.t., as Aretha would reply in her own soulful way: To every woman that made art against prejudice, gender discrimination, sexism. To every lady that expressed her talent with pride and dignity toward social stereotypes. From Ma Rainey and Mamie Smith to Bonnie Raitt and Beth Hart, in the world of the blues. To every human being in this planet that deserves to be treated equally to anyone else.

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

George: Hmm, bigger than we could possibly estimate. We should take into account not only the impact of the blues itself but, also, the impact of its offspring, rock and jazz and soul. Even since the beatniks’ era (or earlier?) music plays a very significant role in youth culture. Most young people’s sub-cultures are characterized by their preference to one or the other music genre. And very much of the music that’s been popular since the mid-war owes a lot to the blues, directly or not.

Originally a black folks’ genre, the blues also helps us eliminate race barriers. Remember that, in the 50’s, reputable Americans felt a little uncomfortable with the idea that white youths danced to “race” music. Nowadays, a black fellow isn’t just an Uncle Tom caricature or the stereotype of the poor devil who does underpaid labour and lives in ghettos; he might as well be a respected and admired musician.

Evina: In the first decades of the 20th century, the blues captured the injustice, poverty and colour segregation that the African American community had suffered from. I believe that even the moans and groans or the guitar and harp sounds didn’t just describe feelings and ordinary events, but also carried strong messages, that deeply influenced social and political structures, while at the same time the blues as a music genre was leaving an indelible imprint on culture and art. The blues is so personal that finally become public.

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

George: A time machine or a jet plane? I’d really like to fly to some US city, go up on some stage and play together with Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl and Anson Funderburgh. At the same time; a 3+1 guitar session. Play with them till dawn, accompanied by an organ-bass-drums combo. If a time machine is my only choice, ok then, let it be the Monterey Pop Festival.

Evina: I would go back to the early 50’s and have a conversation with Mr. Willie Dixon all day long! That would me give me inspiration for a lifetime!

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