Q&A with Greek band of Omonoia Circus; hand-made real music, psychedelic, jazz, and progressive rock

"Poetry can have the same subversive power as music. Although it is much more solitary both in creation and appreciation, it can open minds, unite them. Poetry is a door. It can open galaxies of space. It is infinite. In fact it is not much different that music and where music and poetry join, magic can result."

Omonoia Circus: Sappho's Little Boat

Omonoia Circus is a band, created at Omonoia Square Greece, inside the Bangeion Building, during the covid 19 era. Hand-made, real music, psychedelic, and progressive rock. Omonoia Circus are: Maria Aristopoulou, vocals; Anna Maria Mitsakou, vocals; Masa Josilo, keyboards; Othon Logaras, drums; Philip Dragoumis, quitar; Lefteris Mavroskotis, saxophone; Dimitris Androulakis, bass guitar (replaced Spyros Petrounakos since June 2022). In January 2023, Omonoia Circus released a seven tracks album titled “Sappho's Little Boat”, all lyrics are based on poems by George Wallace.                                         (Photo: Omonoia Circus, Athens Greece)

“Omonoia Circus, as the name implies, is a circle of music influences and different personalities. From 60', 70', 90' rock, Jazz, blues, Soul, latin, oriental, psychedelia, and progressive to classical music nothing is excluded.” Philip Dragoumis says: “An important part of our original creative drive was around George Wallace's poems which apart from their musicality offered an inspiring imagery of trees, rivers, fish, birds, bizarre soldiers and a surreal mythology to boost our imagination. George had read some of his poems in this same building.” 


Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Philip Dragoumis & George Wallace

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

Philip: The Taliban in Afghanistan have banned all kinds of music. In ancient China any musical scale except the pentatonic was considered socially dangerous and was prohibited. In western music the tritone was considered the “devil's interval”. Goes without saying you should not use it, it could be a sin. Music can be dangerous for social order, so you have to control it.

Later, the Blues, a music of Africans imported as slaves into the Americas, brought the blue note to out ears. This was a liberating revolution both for human freedom and human rights. There would be no modern Jazz/ Rock counterculture without the blue note. If the blue note was heard in some Kings 's court few centuries ago, it probably would create a huge scandal or be considered music of animals. Same way they put Africans in cages at the zoo.

I will always remember the day, when as a kid, early seventies, I was trying to play the guitar, a hippie guy a few years older than me, showed me what the blue note is: a minor scale over a major chord with the minor third slightly bent as if it is trying to become a major third but does not get quite there. Trying, but not getting quite there, but you must not stop trying, you may never stop. If you stop trying to be free, you move back to square one, without noticing. During the years I saw many people who stopped trying.  A new kind of conservatism appeared. A counter revolution. A neo-puritanism that killed the sexual liberation of the late sixties/seventies. A new hate for people of other cultures. We stopped being open. Thinking back, 50 years later, 2022, I wrote some lyrics for a blues song:              

I was going round in circles

There was nowere I could go


Well I was going round in circles

There was nowere I could go


Baby well I tried to escape

Could not sail beyond the cape


Well baby keep on trying

Too many knots they have been tying


Oh well baby keep on trying

Too many knots they have been tying


to untie before you die

To be free you need to try

I think this is all I have to say: “they” have tied so many knots you can never stop trying-- if you want to be free before you die.

But who is the they? Well, unfortunately it is us-- corrupt politicians for example are former “us” who became “they”. Anybody who stops trying to untie the knots around him, can become a “they”.

The problem it that the contemporary neoconservative/ neopuritan “they” may disguise their non-philosophy with the same notes. These days they may even use the blue note (!). But you have to be able to tell the difference.

Spyros: Exposure to music from early on can influence anyone’s life journey, as it did mine, because regardless of genre, music draws you in and inevitably makes you want to be part of it. It’s almost impossible to listen to something that captivates you without wanting to be part of it in a way that changes your life. Once you catch yourself listening to a track over and over again, trying to figure it out, to transcribe or learn from it, doing that sort of thing has already become a part of who you are, it’s seldom one-off. This sort of obsession inevitably puts you in touch with like-minded people, itself a sort of counterculture in a world mostly obsessed with other things. The other part of the answer is that listening to music, or reading literature or poetry, that belongs to what we would call counterculture is liberating not only as an eye-opener, as a form of enlightenment, but also in that it gives one courage to pursue personal callings, even if one lacks the means (or sometimes the courage) to go all the way.

Masa: Every day for me is a journey around music. From a young age, my life has been surrounded by music. My education was based on classical music. I was growing as a pianist on these foundations but I always wanted to explore something different and new.

At some point, I decided that I should change as a musician even more, listen and play some other tunes. I made a new beginning with Blues and Jazz. Musicians who had an impact on me, as a pianist, were Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Ray Manzarek from The Doors, and many others.

Annamaria: I wouldn’t actually say that they have influenced my views on the world... I think a better way to put it is that they have helped to express my views of the world. And they have been a sort of companion on the journeys that I have taken.

(Omonoia Circus / Photo by Eveline Konstantinidis-Ziegler)

What were the reasons that started the band of OMONOIA CIRCUS? What is the story behind Band's name?

Philip: I am not sure if there needs to be a reason behind the formation of a band. You follow yourself, you do things as your internal voice says and you get to have people around you and play. This band was the continuation a previous band which fell apart. The reasons were complicated, but after only three members of the previous band remained (three had left) the name had to change. The shift happened mostly during the difficult period of the lock down, 2020/21. A very strange period of time. There were moments you felt like you were the only survivors on earth, roaming the empty streets. We needed a room large enough to rehearse so than band members could feel safe. At the point we had the opportunity to use a large room of the Bageion building, with had become devoid of cultural events because of the lock down. This huge but empty building became our home, in the center of Athens, the real center of Greece. Omonoia. We still live there. Our only neighbor was Alexander Georgiou, a painter who was also stranded in the building as he needed a place to work. He is probably also a band member but in a different way. The poetry of George Wallace gave us the initial fire and inspiration to light up our sound. His imagery became something as a band mythology: Sappho, Trees, Clouds, Birds, Rivers, Fish, Crabs...   

How do you describe Omonoia Circus sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does band's creative drive come from?

Philip: Omonoia Circus, as the name implies, is a circle of music influences and different personalities. From 60', 70' 90' rock, Jazz, blues, Soul, latin, oriental, psychedelia, and progressive to classical music nothing is excluded. The band was “assembled” and worked a lot during the lock down era, in the old building, former hotel Bageion, right at the center of Athens, Omonoia Square, which was devoid of other human activities and events during the pandemic. Masha's characteristic classical piano playing that mutated into jazz and my love for interesting chords that would stimulate her creativeness could be said to be at the core of our sound. Lefteris, a former sailor in retirement joined in a bit later with his melodic sax style. An important part of our original creative drive was around George Wallace's poems which apart from their musicality offered an inspiring imagery of trees, rivers, fish, birds, bizarre soldiers and a surreal mythology to boost our imagination. George had read some of his poems in this same building. He left but it seems that his poems remained. They became the glue, along with the friendship between the band members, that kept us coherent. Omonoia is circular, a Circus with all it's double meaning. It is the “square” where the heart of Greece beats. Here, people from all over the world meet: tourists, refugees, artists, immigrants, homeless people, others just going to work, demonstrators, thieves and pick pockets, addicts.-- it is what is real about society a crossroad of cultures and a meeting place. In Omonoia you can meet just about anybody and everything. You can buy anything and the empty hotel is full of ghosts.       (Philip Dragoumis & Masa Josilo / Photo by Eveline Konstantinidis-Ziegler)

What's the balance in music between technique and soul/emotions? What touched you from George Wallace's poetry?

Philip: Technique can not be the goal. It is only a means to express emotion, to paint musical pictures and landscapes. However, you can't do with out it and the more you know about music theory and your instrument, the better you can paint your ideas and feelings. Technique in a band is also a collective affair – members have to learn to listen to each other and become a whole, one sound, one voice, one groove with many faces. Positive feelings within band members reflect in the music.   

Now, as far as George's poetry – as I have been an avid reader of Walt Whitman and Beat Generation poets and writers and also Surrealists-- George's poetry came as a revelation: “Oh! This kind of poetry still exists, it can still be written and it can be new”. The fluidity of magical images that “do not exist” fascinated me. Verses like “I am not here tonight folding white pillowcases” create a double (multiple?) image, just like Magritte's “ceci n' est pas une pipe” painting. They are surrounded by questions-- “if he is not here, well, where is he? Why does he assert that he is here and becomes more present than if he was really here by negation? You realize how weak the logical structure of a phrase is and how strong is the image created in your mind. Same theme can be found in several poems, such as the “Tree that has never existed”. Also, George's poetry brings forth a vivid mythology and bestiary of crabs, fishes, birds and semi-mythical figures like Sappho. As I was reading the poems he left behind, after his passage through Athens I felt they also had a Jazzy/Funky/Rock musicality I just had to extract. George, very open mindedly gave me the permission to omit words, change phrases, turn things around in order to create lyrics. He set me free among his words and this was extremely liberating. Not only these seven songs resulted but after this experience I suddenly could write my own lyrics, something I had not dared to do for decades. George taught me, he plunged me into the waters of poetry while he was not there. I am thankful. 

Spyros: The technique v emotion is always a very interesting debate. But it is also a tricky one, because the two are not antagonistic: one without the other is meaningless. I think the emotion part of the equation tends to get more attention because no one is going to say that emotion is not important, especially in expressive art forms. Also because of the idea that art must be subversive, technique is seen as representing the rules you have to break. But you have to learn something in order to break it. And not everything that breaks the rules is art. But most of all if you don’t have the technique, you don’t really have the full range of expressive possibilities or abilities to work with other musicians. On the other hand, the explosion of online music has brought with it a new generation of amazing musicians that are sometimes too focused on technique.

Overall perhaps bebop is a good example, among many others, of how superlative technique and emotional expression combine perfectly. I think even in cases where the technique seems relatively simple, there is a lot that has gone into it to be able to express what it does, for example in musicians such as Peg Leg Sam. As a bass player I generally try to find whatever path I can between technique and emotion by keeping things to a minimum so to lock with drums or percussion. The emotional/soul element for me translates in all the little almost unnoticeable things I need to do justice to the piece and bring out what others are playing.  

I found out about George Wallace’s poetry through Philip, who brought us together as a band and created the project. This is an incredibly interesting challenge and my personal interest in it was the strength of the imagery and the unexpected turn in many of Wallace’s poems. I think the main challenge is how to do justice to these features musically, not only compositionally but also each instrument separately, by letting the music become an extension of the poem. Since the poems are already complete as they are, the challenge was to find ways to make the music become an organic part of the poetry, as opposed to being a mere addition. For the bass, whose role is often foundational as opposed to straightforwardly expressive, this makes things even more interesting because you are not really saying things but suggesting them.

Masa: Everybody listens plays or composes music in a different way. Some are focused on melody and lyrics, some on harmonies, and some on rhythm. Following emotions, ideas, and motives through interpretation come technique. Practice is a magic word.

George Wallace’s poetry is very inspiring. I could say that it brings a rainbow over gray the blindness we spread everywhere. Every poem has a message on how to respond to today's world, helping us through things we dislike but live repeatedly every day.

Annamaria: For me, emotion is the most important element but in order to express your emotions the way you want, you need to have a good technique. Otherwise your. Once may have an expiration date…          (Omonoia Circus / Photo by Eveline Konstantinidis-Ziegler)

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

Philip: Contrary to what most people would say there is great music today. Young people, new bands are doing great things, and expressing themselves musically in many styles, but what I miss from the past is the revolutionary side-- the music of the late sixties and early seventies which united people and represented a different and liberated way of life, against the norms. Today there is a lot of frustration which is reflected in music, expression is personal not collective. It is not part of a wide movement.  Societies have become more conservative and freedom has become just a thing to show. We have a war and no real movement for peace. This is my worst fear. I am not only talking about the Russia/Ukraine, but also of the terrible way the west is treating refugees. People are dying every day and there is no music to unite younger generations and build a movement of love and friendship.  We are becoming racists again. To be honest I don't have much hope for the immediate future. I hope that in the long run my kids will see a better world, but I feel I belong to a different age and wish to continue as I am. This is my personal revolt. 

Spyros: I think each period has the music it needs to have that reflects the time, or tries to push things forward. So it is difficult to say that there was a halcyon-days past. And anyway the past is always present in some form or another, as is the case with jazz in hip hop, or old-school funk in many contemporary dance tracks, among many other examples. Personally, I tend to listen more to straight-ahead jazz, also from the 50s and 60s, mostly trumpet players, as well as Motown artists, so I guess that reflects a preference for something past. There is a certain rhythmical intensity in those genres which I look for in recent music as well. I think through the internet music has become much more of a foreground phenomenon over the past decades, inspiring many young people to become musicians and others to make music part of their daily lives. I also think that the possibility of working remotely with other musicians or the availability online music lessons are a good thing. It allowed many musicians to survive musically and earn an income during the pandemic months. On the down side and as far as the years ahead are concerned, I think making music available online needs to translate into a fair business plan for musicians themselves. I guess that, along with a shrinking of the attention span you need for music, are two of my major concerns about the future. 

Masa: When I think about the music of the past I feel respect and strong emotions. I feel I am in a continuous learning perspective and whenever I feel lost I can put myself again in order.

Today's music, with electronic and so much digital technology and effects, is losing the magic that used to come from interpretation and expression. We should not forget what it means to play an instrument, to create music and sounds in simple ways, and discover new worlds.

Annamaria: In general I miss the music of the past because I feel that anything that comes out today is just another version of what’s already been done… if you are asking what my musical fears are of the future, I fear that there will no longer be good music. In general I think that the music industry is lacking imagination. But I hope that I’m wrong.                        (Philip Dragumis / Photo by Eveline Konstantinidis-Ziegler)

What is the impact of music and poetry on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Philip: I somehow touched the subject through the previous question. Music has the power to unite people. Make them forget their differences. Some years ago, I found myself around a table with people from Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. When we found out that we could sing the same songs and dance to the same rhythms something changed. We felt free to link together and communicate spontaneously, forget about all the things separating us. Music had made them disappear. But somehow there is a negative force to castrate the unifying power of music. Musical contests like “Eurovision” have such an effect. And on the other hand, we have extremely angry and aggressive musical phenomena like Trap which is justified by the reality many young people have to live in, but is a dead end, it leads to nowhere.      

Poetry can have the same subversive power as music. Although it is much more solitary both in creation and appreciation, it can open minds, unite them. Poetry is a door. It can open galaxies of space. It is infinite. In fact it is not much different that music and where music and poetry join, magic can result. 

Spyros: I think there is a certain range of reality that can only be captured through music and poetry, or more generally art. Whether one thinks of this range as an additional dimension, or sees it in almost religious terms or not, is another matter. But I think you don’t have to. You can see art as what draws attention to what is already there, or as something that articulates something important that would otherwise fall by the wayside. I think this is why it has the potential to give a sense of serenity (the sort you might have when you find the right words for something important and elusive) but also to rouse mind and soul. There are countless examples here, but there is also always the danger of treating music and poetry as an escape, a holiday from reality. Though the intentions behind this might be good, it is also the perfect way to deny art is vital role and turn it into a mere commodity.

Masa: Any kind of art comes from the world outside and everyday life. If people recognize themselves in it they can see that we all take part in the creation and this discovery might change the world. So if we wake up some feelings and remind all of us that we can be kind, honest, and happy people … it’s magic.

Annamaria: I don’t really think that music and poetry have an effect in the sense that, the arts, from the beginning of time, are a way to express the issues of the times. The arts are not to create an impact. The arts are to express the feelings and emotions and frustrations of the people….

I hope that music will continue to be the voice of the people…

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

Masa: Women were always very much present and active in the world of music. We remember Alice Coltraine, Marian McPartland, Nina Simone and so many others. Today we have strong women musicians such as Carla Bley, Patricia Barber and Norah Jones.

Personally, I think that we are all equal in front of music, no matter if we are male or female, young or old. We are different personalities, and characters and we all bring different ideas and expressions into the world of music. That’s what makes music sometimes complex and other times simple. Either way is beautiful and interesting.

Annamaria: The status of women in music I think has a lot to do with the genre. Women have always been present in the music world. Amazing jazz voices such as Billie holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to the amazing women in rock like Janis Joplin and Ann Wilson to name a few. Sure, there are more male artists but in general I feel that female artists have made their mark and are very much appreciated and respected in the music industry.                                        (Photo: Annamaria Mitsakou & Masa Josilo)

John Coltrane said "My music is the spiritual expression of what I am...". How do you understand the spirit, music, and the meaning of life?

Philip: I have never lived without music so I don't really know what life would be without it. My father, a music teacher and musicologist taught me music. He showed me how to listen to music and let my imagination go wild while listening to Berlioz, Moussorgsky or Debussy. He was also a researcher of traditional music and used to go around the country recording old people in lost villages who remembered songs. A disappearing world where in spite of having no recorded music to listen to, music was a part of everyday life-- there is a song for everything.

But then, when I was a kid were living in England where, in 1963 or 4, I saw the Beatles perform on a black and white TV.  I was 5 or 6 years old. I was so deeply impressed I probably never recovered. A bit later I bought my first record-- it was blue and had The Who on one side and Jimmy Hendrix on the other. At the age of 13 we formed our first band while in school.  

Today I cannot imagine a house with no musical instruments. My youngest son, 14 years old is already an accomplished classical pianist. I used to play the piano for him to hear before he was born. I think that made him who he is just like listening to my father's music made me who I am. I am thankful to him, he showed me that music has no limits. That is why today I cannot limit myself to only one genre of music.  But music for me is always the oneness you feel with others …

Spyros: John Coltrane was one of the geniuses to walk the earth and I am not sure I can address this question from the depths of where his statement came from. Also, the forces against which he had to struggle to legitimize his music, identity and calling were tremendous. I can perhaps answer it only negatively by saying that without music I would be half the person I am. I also think the spiritual is not always a metaphysical or mystical experience. It can also be the profound joy from playing with other people, or being able to play something that sounds good and can make a difference, even momentary, to others. So, I guess part of the meaning of life is to be able to make a difference to others because that then comes back to you, giving you purpose. I think music reminds you that finding meaning is not a solitary process and always passes through others.

Masa: We all play differently. That’s natural. The point is whether the people listen and enjoy our music or are just being polite. It’s not about individuals it’s about sharing. Personally, my life went through so many changes in parallel with my interpretation.

Definitely, you can recognize every musician's personality and character just from his way of interpretation.

Annamaria: Through music, the spirit and soul finds a voice. The meaning of life... that’s a whole different topic which can’t be covered with one answer.

(Philip Dragumis, Anna Maria Mitsakou & Lefteris Mavroskotis/ Photo by Eveline Konstantinidis-Ziegler)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Philip: One of the most important lessons I have learned is how to work with others. How to collaborate. Of course music is something you can also make alone but, the real value comes with a team. When several people can join and become one, a whole. You get to understand how the brains and feelings of other people function, and this is really difficult. The more the band members are complimentary, the more positive the energy and understanding, the better the music. Many things can go wrong. But you have to find the people that fit in together. Your fellow musicians become your closest friends. You live together.  Splitting is like divorce, there can be a lot of pain. You also need an audience-- you need to communicate, give them a meaning, talk to them, open up, let them see you, hear you, feel you. And then they offer a meaning to you. The sum of music, as with all arts, is more than just it's parts. It is connected to every aspect of life. We should ask the birds, They know better. There in no aspect of human life that is not connected to music, a language that can use words  but can alsogo without them. Try watching a movie without  the  music. Will it be the same?

Spyros: This is also a very good question. It is difficult to choose among the many possible answers. I think one of the most important lessons is learning from other musicians, either directly or by playing with them, for example with the other members of Omonoia Circus. Many of the tracks came to life completely collaboratively, by each one of us bringing in musical ideas in response to an initial idea by Philip. This was a highly constructive and intriguing process because we come from different musical influences and backgrounds. It also gave us the flexibility to experiment with different genres within each piece and to play with other guest musicians. How each musician approaches a musical challenge to find the best version of what would work in a piece is itself a lesson in persistence and imagination. The other part of my personal musical path is being taught by musicians whom I’ve had as teachers. I am more or less self-taught on the bass, but over the past few years I have also been taking trumpet lessons. When you are self-taught you pick up whatever you can from your musical heroes, hoping to tap into some level of their musicianship and ethos. But when you are directly taught by a supremely accomplished musician, you are constantly reminded of how focused and committed you need to be, even when you play something seemingly simple. I think there is a direct application of this beyond music, to life itself. 

Annamaria: I think the most important thing that I’ve learned in general and about myself is that I need to be true to myself. I try to sing songs and choose songs that express me are and extension of who I am. When I’m singing on stage I feel that the audience understands when you’re faking it and when you’re being real. So the biggest lesson I have learned is to always be true to myself…

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(Photo: Omonoia Circus)

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