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Kristi's Secrets

It's around two o'clock in the small hours of Saturday morning in the centre of Athens, and the skies have been dumping more rain on the city than England usually gets in a month of Novembers. Lightning is flashing, thunder is thundering, and in spite of my standing on the pavement, a small river is flowing over my new boots. Add to that the fact that Athens is being comprehensively dug up, re-modelled, re-routed and generally screwed around with in order to host the 2004 Olympics (memo to Ken Livingston: don't even think about it!) and you'll understand why traffic is totally gridlocked. My puny umbrella is singularly failing to keep the wrath of the gods off myself or my Athens education consultant Thalia Iakovidou, manager of Greek roots gal-of-the-moment Kristi Stassinopoulou, and getting a taxi anywhere is clearly a non-starter. Things, as they so charmingly say, can only get better - meanwhile, these boots were made for wading...

Kristi and Stathis
Photo: Theodore Xenos
Kristi and Stathis

And get better they do. Later that day, still gently steaming and squelching, I'm transported to the spacious flat-cum-studio occupied by Stassinopoulou and her musical/life partner Stathis Kalyviotis for a fascinating, stimulating discussion about the evolution of her music, her career, and the process that led to The Secrets Of The Rocks. The latter, if you missed my rave review in fR234, its track on fRoots No.20 or the way that it hurtled to No.1 on the World Music Charts Europe just before Christmas, is one of the best European roots albums around right now. In her surprisingly lengthy career, Kristi Stassinopoulou has just accomplished what we in rootsbiz know as 'doing an Emmylou' - radically jumping her music forward in a new, distinctive, original and inventive manner at a point when many artists might coast, wind down or comprehensively lose the plot.

Kristi is gentle, relaxed and personable which initially disguises what turns out to be a sharp intellect. She speaks fluent and articulate English, delivering her thoughts carefully, almost poetically as she describes a musical lifetime that is hardly a normal one for someone you'll find in the pages of fRoots. It's a strange old path that leads anybody from playing a lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar and representing your country in the Eurovision Song Contest to making challenging contemporary roots albums, though we're reminded that the latter jump was indeed made once before by the late Ofra Haza. And somewhere in there was an obvious influence from musics and lifestyles of the hippy era, which she is obviously too young to have been involved in at its peak. So we drink some wine, watch the sun set across Athens from their big picture window and let the story unwind...

"Musically speaking, my first thing was Greek Byzantine music, church music. I grew up in Athens, in a conservative Greek Orthodox family. I was spending many months as a child in my father's homeland, in a small town called Kalamáta, which is the most southern town of the Greek peninsula. And the strange thing about Kalamáta, which is a port, right up from Africa, is that you can listen to all the radio programmes from the Mediterranean Sea there. The sea has no mountains so the radio waves come very easily. It is a receiving antenna. It's the edge of Europe, actually. So I was listening to the Jajoukas - you know, the pipes that the Rolling Stones discovered? Oum Kalsoum, I knew her far, far before the name Oum Kalsoum was widely well-known as a world music artist. Anyway, I was acquainted with the sound of this music, Turkish music and also Balkan music."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 237, March 2003


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