Saturday, February 12, 2011


"What I want to do, is to show how ένα τόσο δα σκατουλάκι όργανο, can have applications beyond our wildest dreams." When Doctor Matthaios Tsahouridis speaks about his Pontian lyra, known in Turkish as kemence, his brilliant blue eyes become remarkably keen and his mouth remains half open in ecstasy, as he strokes the strings of his instrument with the sensitivity and possessiveness of an impassioned lover.
There are two types of musician - the failures, like me, for whom the instrument is an opponent and a foe, a wild beast that must be vanquished and coerced into making sounds that are akin to a cross between the violin stylings of Colonel Klink and the screams of a constipated Harpy - and those, like Matthaios, for whom their instrument is an extension of themselves, a natural sounding post from which the melody of the beauty of their souls can resonate within the wider world. In Matthaios' case, the observation is an apt one, since his latest project, a fusion of musical inspirations, with his equally talented brother Konstantinos, is entitled «Ψυχή και Σώμα.» As the name denotes, he gives his music at all and it is carefully calculated to wring those hidden heartstrings hidden under the layers of bitterness, guilt, anger and frustration that silt up one's soul during the drudgery of everyday existence, conferring musical absolution upon us all. And all this, mind you, on the most unlikely of instruments: the Pontian Lyra.
For unlike most interpreters of the Lyra, who seek merely to mechanically parrot traditional tunes and keep them in suspended animation in a time prior to the Genocide, Matthaios, deeply infused with all the manifold aspects of the music of the Black Sea, has absorbed it, understood it and remoulded it into something strikingly new and contemporary. His remarkable exploration of the tributaries and unknown paths of Pontian music, coupled with an eagerness to test its versatility, rather than preserving it, as most Pontians tend to do, in the vacuum of a ghetto culture, of marginal relevance to the rest of the world, have been the yardstick by which his luminous musical career has developed. Born in Veroia, he displayed his musical promise early, winning the First Prize in a Pan-Hellenic Music Competition, organized by the Greek Ministry of Education at the Athens Concert Hall in May 1996. In June 1997 he was awarded a scholarship by the Bishop of Veroia, in order to continue his music studies in London. The generosity of this gesture is something that Matthaios has never forgotten. Upon arriving in Adelaide this month and unpacking his suitcase, the first thing he did was to place a photograph of his mentor, the Bishop, on his bedside table.
After successfully completing his Bachelor Degree in Music Studies and his Masters in Ethnomusicology, in 2003 he was awarded a scholarship by the 'Michael Marks Charitable Trust' for his doctoral research in the field of Performance Practice. Since December 2007, Matthaios holds a PhD in Performance Practice titled 'The Pontic Lyra in Contemporary Greece', one of the first PhD theses in the UK referring to the performance practice of non-western traditional musical instruments and the first PhD worldwide about the Pontic lyra, its origin, music, repertory, performance techniques and musical possibilities. Here then is the magic and grandeur of Pontic music made accessible to a world stage.
Proof of the pudding is Matthaios' unlikely rendition of Greek folk songs on the lyra. His performance is low key, yet eminently subversive. One gets the feeling that he is merely toying with his audience, sounding them out in order to draw out their preconceived assumptions and musical prejudices, before exploding them with three strokes of his bow, as with a wry smile, he turns to playing laika, songs by the Turkish singer Ibrahim Tatlises (you thought no one would notice, didn't you?) and then culminates in an amazing rendition of Bolero, followed by some free-styling jazz. Truly then, this instrument in his hands, is a universal one.
Given then his global outlook, it is fitting then that Matthaios should also turn his virtuosity to instruments that belong to the same family as his weapon of choice. He has mastered the violin, laouto, oud, bouzouki, guitar, Persian kamancheh, Afghan rubab, as well as the Afghan and the Uzbek ghichaks. Now, after a particularly sordid and musically excruciating encounter with yours truly, he is turning his mind further east, to the Chinese erhu.
Considering Matthaios globe-trotting career, we are privileged to have had the rapture of his performance in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney this month. When juxtaposed against his peripatetic mission to gain worldwide appreciation for the capabilities of the Pontic lyra, the various unfortunate attempts by certain local compatriots to employ his visit as a means for furthering endo-tribal strife are sad to say the least and have not left, in this world famous virtuoso, an impression of ourselves, that we would have found flattering.
Truly, the scope of his vision is breathtaking. In January 2005 Matthaios won the British Arts Foundation Fellowship Award 2005 as the best UK performer-instrumentalist, working in a non-western musical tradition. He has performed at WOMAD Music Festival in Reading, WOMEX World Music Expo in Rotterdam (Holland 2001), Roskilder Rock festival (Denmark 2002), Teatro Massimo for UNESCO (Palermo Opera House, Italy 2002), Royal Albert Hall (charity concert for the Children of Afghanistan, London 2002) and at the Royal Festival Hall at London's Southbank Arts Centre. In August 2004, he also performed the main music theme of the BBC television for the coverage of the Olympic Games of Athens 2004.
In the same year, Matthaios collaborated with Ostad Ardeshir Kamkar on the Persian kamancheh in Tehran. In May 2005 he performed at Herodus Atticus Theatre in Acropolis, Athens, accompanied by ERT Contemporary Symphony Orchestra for the opening ceremony of the Athens Festival.In 2006, Matthaios was the co-artistic director for the opening ceremony of the International Byzantine Congress of London with Prince Charles as Patron. In March 2007 he performed at the Porchester Hall (Bayswater, London) with Cat Stevens, a man he describes as humble and throroughly inspiring. In March 2008, he performed the lyra as a solo artist at the Royal Albert Hall with one of his most successful projects called 'Journey Beyond Borders', with Hussein Zahawy and Yusuf Mahmoud while in July 2008 he performed at the Athens and Epidaurus Festival with Ostad Shahram Nazeri and Ostad Ali Akbar Moradi. In October 2008 he was a soloist with the ERT Symphony Orchestra of Contemporary Music at Thessaloniki's Song Festival Context with Classical Greek music composer Mimis Plessas and his brother Konstantinos on vocals. Further, in November 2008 he performed with Swiss singer Yasmin Tamara well-known Hollywood Melodies accompanied by Ukraine Symphony Orchestra at Victoria Hall, Geneva. His appearance as a solo artist at the Art Palace Centre of Suleimaniye in Iraq in February 2009, a comman performance for the Iraqi president makes him the first Greek musician to visit and perform in Iraq after the war. And all this, mind you, at thirty three years of age.
It takes a certain amount of courage and purity of soul to expose and not conceal one's internal world. It takes a great deal of intelligence and understanding to synthesize and tie that internal world to a corpus of a tradition. In just three decades, Doctor Matthaios Tsahouridis has become the leading world exponent of a hitherto obscure musical medium. To these visionaries, whose conception of their art (not to mention Greek culture) is so generous in scope that they would have the entire globe rejoice in it as much as they do, that we should ascribe glory, for they will ensure that the wealth of our tradition, presented in such a way as to guarantee a positive reception, will enthral audiences and instil in them, an understanding of us that only comes from the musical dissolution of linguistic and other barriers.
The kemence rumour mill alludes to a command performance by the languid lyrist for Prince William and his bride to be. Nonetheless, in the immediate future, his is departing Antipodean climes for an Iranian fusion performance at the Casa dela Cultura Iraniana, Venice, Italy. Diatribe wishes Matthaios well, for in his brief sojourn in Melbourne, he has permitted us to catch a fleeting glimpse at the divine, pausing only to point out that while ruminating over things musical, he mentioned: "I need a new act name. What would you suggest." Without hesitation, I reposted: "Lord of the Lyra," conjuring up images of Pontian-clad clones of Michael Flatley pounding and gyrating around him on stage. "I like it," he smiled, "I may use it." Little does he know that in a Pontian cave, far far away, a solitary, wizened and long bearded Pontian is gloating over his instruments, cackling: "One Lyra to rule them all, One Lyra to find them, One Lyra to bring them all and in the darkness bind them, In the Land of Melbourne where the Pontians lie." Of course, royalities for the use of the name, will be gratefully accepted.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 February 2011.