Lucid Culture: “In a remarkably ambitious and even more remarkably successful display of musicianship, scholarship and archivism, oud virtuoso Kontanis is simultaneously releasing two brilliant albums...What the Silk Road Ensemble was to the early zeros, Kontanis is to the later part of this decade, a master of many styles but most of all his own, for that reason one of the most exciting new artists to come around in the last several years.”
Lefteris Bournias ~ clarinet
Megan Gould ~ violin
Anastassia Zachariadou ~ kanun
Timothy Quigely ~ percussion
Phaedon Sinis ~ politiki lyra (kemence)
Mavrothi T. Kontanis ~ oud and voice
Most of the material for both albums was drawn from rare old Greek 78 rpm recordings from the 1920’s - 1940’s. These songs are often labeled “Smyrneika” and have their roots in the urban music of Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), and later Athens and Salonika. After the hostilities of WWI and the burning of Smyrna, many Greeks and Armenians were forced to leave Asia Minor (Turkey) and come to Greece for the first time. They brought with them their common musical culture, which often featured the outi (oud), violin, lyra (kemence), kanun, and clarinet. Most of the refugees settled in and around Athens and Salonika, and their music greatly influenced the “Rebetiko” movement in Greece’s cities and the folk music of the mainland and islands. Mavrothi’s family is originally from the province of Halkidiki, near Salonika, where the “Smyrneiko” influence of the refugees is very evident in the folk music, and usually weddings and other social events would include an oud player in the band.
Both albums were recorded simultaneously over two months, and relate two rather different stories to the listener. “Sto Kafesli Sokaki” is comprised completely of traditional music, and brings together 16 rare songs originally performed by some of the most recognizable names of the time, including Antonios Dhiamantidis (Dalgas), Roza Eskenazi, Rita Abadzi, and others. These songs reveal the strong ties cities such as Athens and Istanbul shared and allow us to peak into the emotions and struggles that were experienced from day to day. Many of the pieces are love songs, even of the forbidden kind (between Greek and Turk), and some even talk about death and how hard it is to lose someone and to be left behind. For each of the songs, Mavrothi and his fellow musicians did their utmost to preserve the spirit and unique arrangements of the original recordings, which are very lovely and often delicate.
The second album, “Ksylini Kardia (Wooden Heart),” while including some similar repertoire and arrangements in the second half of the CD, focuses primarily on the various ways the oud has been used in the Aegean over the years, and begins with strictly instrumental (mostly original) material. These instrumental pieces fall under what is considered the Ottoman classical tradition, with some stylistic accents that combine traditional and contemporary styles. The vocal songs which follow complete the collection by reminding us that the oud is first and foremost a folk instrument, used to accompany and reinforce the voice. Combined, these songs form a more complete picture of the oud in the Aegean across time and several musical styles.
As a primarily self-taught singer, Mavrothi has been deeply influenced by performers such as Antonios Dalgas and Hafiz Kemal, and also by Byzantine chant. He has studied under some of the most revered contemporary oud players in the world, and when performing combines the emotive phrasing and ornamentation of older players with some of the more modern techniques heard in Greece and Turkey today. The talented musicians featured alongside Mavrothi are a mix of Greeks and Americans who share a strong passion for this music and worked extremely hard to preserve the authenticity of the traditional pieces in the recordings, enriching Mavrothi’s own compositions as well. Lefteris Bournias is one of the most well-known and admired clarinet players in the US and Greece, and his fiery yet subtle playing leaves you wanting more at the end of each of his featured tracks. On violin, Megan Gould shines sweetly, reminding us of how the violin was played nearly a century ago in Greece. The gentle playing of Anastassia Zachariadou on the kanun and Phaedon Sinis on politiki lyra (kemence) are lovely combinations of older and newer styles. On percussion, Timothy Quigley personifies subtlety and sensitivity, playing on a range of traditional instruments.
Mavrothi T. Kontanis was born in 1979 in Pennsylvania, USA, though his family’s origin is from Halkidiki, Greece.
As a child, he showed interest in several instruments, including the clarinet, guitar, and bouzouki. However, at the age of 16 he discovered his true passion, the oud, and began lessons with his first teacher Stamatis Merzanis immediately. Since then he has studied with many other renowned masters including Münir N. Beken, Emin Gündüz, John Berberian, Kyriakos Kalaitzides, Dinçer Dalkılıc, Yurdal Tokcan, and Ara Dinkjian. In addition to playing oud, Mavrothi has become an accomplished singer and violinist, and also enjoys teaching and writing.
By combining his love for classical, urban, and folk music from Greece and the Near East, Mavrothi hopes to heighten awareness of the great beauty and freedom that exist within this unique and diverse musical tradition.
Mavrothi has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East playing traditional and classical music from all over the world, as well as original compositions of his own with various ensembles. He has been featured on several albums and the film soundtrack of “AmericanEast,” and is planning the release of two albums in the Spring of 2008 that will showcase the oud and diversity of sounds from the Aegean region. Mavrothi’s composition “Uşşak Saz Semai” was performed by Dr. Münir N. Beken at the “Echoes of Diversity” symposium at the University of Performing Arts in Vienna, Austria in November of 2007, and he has recently been commissioned to compose a piece for the “Music of the Stones” project headed by visual artist William Berry.