Interview: Michalis Kouloumis Trio @ Bloomsbury Festival (London, 24th October 2015)

The Michalis Kouloumis Trio is led by the inspirational Cypriot violinist alongside brothers Nikos and Thodoris Ziarkas from the island of Rhodes.

After only few years in the UK the band is already making its mark here with instrumental music inspired by their rich cultural heritage.

With the impressive Senate House building as a backdrop they presented an entrancing performance with some beautiful melodic material, superbly arranged by Michalis and the group. Each instrumentalist played his part in bringing the atmospheric sounds of the Aegean Islands, Cyprus, Greece & Turkey to an enthralled audience as part of this year’s Bloomsbury Festival.

We caught up with the trio in their dressing room after the show, eager to share stories of their early musical lives, their influences and how it feels to play their Eastern Mediterranean music in Britain.

We began by asking how they first met and about the instrumentation. Michalis told us:

We actually met in London at a music event, and the band has been working professionally since last December [2014]. We wanted to keep the number of instruments to as little as possible to give each one the chance to improvise and create a different context in this music, and also in the new compositions as well. I could use more instruments if I wanted to because Nikos also plays guitar, and he uses electronics as well. Thodoris plays Karpathian lyra as well, but for me it was better to use a minimum amount of instruments, which is violin, Cretan lute and double bass in order to have our own sound in this music.

The group’s show included original compositions, traditional material and pieces by various composers including one of Michalis’s teachers, Kudsi Ergoner. We asked him to tell us more about this influential figure.

Kudsi Ergoner has lived in Paris for many years now, but he’s originally Turkish, and a prominent musician there. He plays the ney – the reed flute. I had him as a teacher in Codarts University in Rotterdam and he influenced me a lot, so I’m giving something back to him by playing his compositions, which I love.

Another piece was by Irish musician Ross Daly, who has had a huge impact on Cretan musicians.

Yes that’s true, Ross Daly lives in Crete. Actually in this piece by him – ‘Earpigon’ – we can distinguish elements of Cretan music like Syrtor [a dance form], and other elements from different parts of Greece. Ross Daly was one of our teachers as well, so we pay tribute to him.

Nikos reinforces this sentiment.

I know him from listening to his music for years since I was a child, and then there is this music village in Crete called Houdetsi where they have kind of a school. It’s called ‘Labyrinth’, and loads of great musicians go there and give master-classes. I met Ross there and we actually played in a concert as well – an amazing experience! He’s a great musician.

And Thodoris adds:

I’ve also been to the master-classes there. I haven’t much interaction with Ross Daly, but just knowing his music and the way he speaks about things even in an informal gathering proves he can be influential.

As well as performing the music of figures such as these, the group also plays their own compositions. Michalis described the process:

These are my compositions, but I have to say that – especially the second piece – we built it together in rehearsals. And this is how compositions should be written in my understanding – apart from classical music. So it’s a collective composition.

As Michalis had mentioned classical music we wondered if he had trained classically.

In Cyprus I was taught western classical music for six years – the hard way; the Russian school. My teacher had studied in Moscow University at the conservatoire. He was very disciplined and he passed that on to me as well. He was very influential and that’s why I’m very disciplined in my work, practicing and rehearsing.

Michalis has a unique sound to his violin playing. His tone is mellow and elaborate ornamentation gracefully colours his music. He also uses interesting techniques from Turkey, for example, so we wondered how much his style is influenced by folk traditions.

It’s a complex thing because my father was my first teacher. He’s still a professional musician – self-taught – in traditional music, especially from Cyprus and the Greek islands. This is his musical focus. He was very strict, but with parental guidance. He knew I would become a musician as well so he started from the very beginning saying “OK, no – you should do it like this, not like this! Listen to all these people, but listen also to how each of them interprets the music.” So if you have such a teacher in your home then it’s a great thing to start with.

The two Ziarkas brothers had a different kind of training. Nicos explained:

I have some classical training, mostly to do with theory – harmony and so on, and also studied jazz. But of course I wasn’t classically taught on Cretan lute, which I have played since I was eight years old. That was the first instrument I learned. Our parents are not musicians, but we do have a musical brother as well, so the siblings are musical. But where we come from on the island of Rhodes and Karpathos, which is my mother’s place, they play loads of music. You go to the village, maybe outside to a café, and musicians will be playing there, so that has a lot to do with why we started playing.

Thodoris adds:

They just gather. They’re definitely professional musicians, but the balance is completely different in a village because the musicians do something else as well as play music, like run a coffee shop, or they’re a butcher. They just learn to play in the gatherings, as in every other kind of folk music.

This immersion from an early age in folk music traditions is a common thread amongst the group. However, Michalis’s family has some distinguished musicians amongst its members.

My father plays many instruments, all self taught. He didn’t go to any teacher so he imitated the rest of the musicians – as any musician from the old school did. He sings the traditional music from Cyprus and the Aegean Sea islands very authentically. He plays lute, but mainland lute, not Cretan. This lute is slightly smaller in the body, and the tuning and repertoire are different. It’s more for accompanying, whereas Nikos does soloing as well.

Anyway, my father also plays lute, accordion, piano, a bit of violin. So his own father – my grandfather – and my grandmother were amazing talents – from different families of course! My grandfather was a cantor and a singer as well, and though my grandmother wasn’t a professional musician at all, her brother was one of the biggest names in violin in Cyprus on that side of the family – I could say he was my grandfather as well. He was called Pieris Pierettis. He also served in the British army in the 2nd world war. A great figure!

We asked if Pieris had made any recordings in his lifetime.

Yes, yes! You can find them on YouTube nowadays. Great violin! On track 6 of my solo album [‘Soil’] I also included some of his [Pieris’] playing. The intro of it starts with a track played by him that was recorded many years ago. So that was Pieris! My brother is an amazing singer and lute player. My aunt (my father’s sister) is a very nice singer as well. The talent was definitely there. At fests and family gatherings everyone was singing in perfect pitch! So I grew up with classical and folk music at the same time.

We wondered what kinds of social settings the music we heard being performed today would be played at. Thodoris responded:

It’s hard to generalise. Local traditions in Cyprus and Greece are so different. You go two miles down the road and you hear different language and different playing styles. You find a lot of songs where people have a certain kind of gathering, and they call it ‘for the table’. Everyone is singing and improvising lyrics, and being round the table is an important part of the celebration. Also it is very important that you sing for those who are no longer with us and include them in the festivities. And after that, obviously, the dance will get going. So I think the music really goes way back to people’s roots, and it has some mystery in it. People will take the music to the church – not so much in a religious way – but it’s an important part of the process.

The band has been together for nearly a year, so we wondered if they have plans to make an album. Nikos answered:

Yes! We haven’t recorded an album yet but we have two clips that we just released in September. We played at Jamboree [in London’s Cable Street] and that show was recorded and filmed live. We’ve also recorded three studio tracks, so we definitely have plans for an album.

Thodoris jumped in to tell us about their plans for live shows.

We have a monthly residency at Jamboree and we are playing at the Green Note. We have some things planned for the summer in Europe, Cyprus and Greece. We’ll see!

We were interested to hear how their music is received in Cyprus & Greece, and whether there is a noticeable ‘London’ influence that makes it sound different from other Greek music. Nikos responded:

We haven’t played in Europe yet, but we know loads of people who have heard the music. It’s an interesting question. The approach is different. When we get to the rehearsal it’s just raw material. There’s no “we’re going to play it like that”. It’s more open. Everyone brings his own ideas, so it’s more organic.

Thodoris adds:

Also one thing that makes a difference in London – well anywhere in the UK – is that we have to be there at a certain time, and we’re all so busy that we have to leave at a certain time. I don’t know if that might not be so important for the music, but it makes you think differently. I think if we were in Greece or Cyprus the three of us would just be hanging out all day.

Michalis expands on this idea:

I think what changes is the context. This is something that has been occupying my mind in these last few years of being creative. I mean, my album was filtered by many of these discussions about the aesthetic element and the traditional part and where you play, and all of the musics you’ve been playing with. It’s a long process, and I think the context changes the music, not the opposite. Music itself is organic – it’s malleable – not solid. It can’t be superimposed on the context and then break it, no! The context is solid because it is connected with the community, which is different in every city. You go to the Barbican, and the music is dead. You have to rebuild it for that specific time and space. When you go to a fest in Crete you really have to be naked, without any filters and be primitive, to play for the people who are dancing and banging on the tables, enjoy making a racket! It’s very different.

So we wondered if the band is thinking of adjusting in some way to audiences here. Michalis responded:

No no. We don’t do it on purpose, but it happens.

And Thodoris added:

Yes, well it varies because we are not a traditional trio. We don’t play in the traditional way so there are not the same expectations. In the traditional way you follow the crowd. You follow the steps and the people who sing. The musicians are entertainers, not artists. When you present your music here you allow people to come to you. When you are a traditional musician you have to go to meet the audience.

So in a traditional setting perhaps there’s less distinction between the musicians and the audience. Michalis explained:

That’s why I prefer playing in small venues in London rather than going to bigger ones because it’s harder to connect with people in larger venues like the Barbican and Southbank, as has happened to me. The really exciting thing to happen on these occasions would be to let people be creative and improvise, to come to you. It’s tricky, but if it happens it’s great!

Well, The Michalis Kouloumis Trio certainly managed to connect with people today at Bloomsbury Festival’s SOAS World Music Stage. We wish them well with their future performances, whether here in the UK or their Eastern Mediterranean homeland.