Greece is a country with a rich tradition. Whether it is the philosophy or the architecture that continues to influence us or the food that traveled across the globe. It forms an interesting intersection of cultures – geographically and socially. Between the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and Turkey, it is also the route for international transport from North Africa. Like that the local music and culture absorbed influences from different places forging them to something uniquely their own.
Singer Marina Satti has inhabited that intersection from her childhood days. As the daughter of a Greek mother and a Sudanese father, her expression lives in the ambiguity of multiple cultural influences and languages. “It has been a constant inner struggle to understand and normalize my identity”, she says. Through music Marina found a way to make peace with the multiplicity of her personal roots. Her debut record YENNA is a document of the harmony found in the ambiguity.
For the album she travelled all over Greece, meeting people, connecting with other musicians and creative minds. “Making music while traveling is like a diary,” she says. Leaving her hometown and her comfort zone was an important step, the singer explains. YENNA means “birth” in Greek; she tells me during our interview. And the record and its making represent exactly that to her:
“It has not only been a musical journey, but a personal one.”
As a well-traveled artist, Marina Satti draws from influences from the Balkans and the Near East in her musical output as well as her formative education at Berklee Music collage. On her debut record, she thrives for the eager goal of bringing all those influences together. “Part of what drove the record was stepping out of my comfort zone, musically and personally.”
Greek traditional music, with traditional instruments or just the power of the voices of polyphonic songs, can seem like quite the contrary, to the urban music culture that Marina encountered while living cities like Athens and Boston. The contemporary style of music in the urban context is digitalized, globalized, and fast-paced. Here the artist found another source of inspiration. “I am driven by both, the urban culture I encountered and the traditions that I grew up with in Crete.”
During our video call, the singer is in her hometown Heraklion in Crete. On the occasion she jumps up to show me the landscape from her window touched by the shy warmth of the winter sun. “It was so interesting to come back here,” she goes on. “Everything seems so different now that I am grown up.”
One thing she noticed when she came back is the different ways of expression. The Cretan culture has a specific musical tradition and way of speaking, Marina tells me. The Mantinadas are a big part of the communal exchange between people. Small poetic and lyrical folk songs, she compares them to Haikus. They are short poems of fifteen syllables each with poetic lyrics, symbolism, and images from the nature.
“What amazes me is how people are living their everyday lives here and someone looking from the outside might not see anything creative about. They are taking care of their sheep, family, or making olive oil. But when you hear the way they speak, you notice the poetry in their lives. I was talking to a woman and at first, I thought she was reciting poetry, but it was her own words.”
In Marina Satti‘s musical output, the relationship to the tradition can be heard clearly whether it is her record and the song Yiati Pouli M’’, her cover of a traditional Greek love poem, or through the choir projects that she leads. The singer breathes new life into the tradition with her voice.
“There is a way of connecting and exchanging through musical expression. The people here live outside of the urban environment and the fast-paced mindset that comes with that. Music is present as a communicational tool here. I love the music because I love the social aspects of it. Or maybe it is the other way around and the music makes me love the way of life?”
The two seem like entities too intertwined to regard separately. They come hand in hand. The music needs the social and the social breeds the need for creative expression through art. “The way of interaction and the expression through art feels so real and raw here”, Marina names as something from her hometown that she misses.
Greece is located at an interesting geographical crossroad. At the intersection between the Mediterranean, the Near East, Turkey, and the Balkans, it picked up a lot of cultural influences from different places, melting them to a music culture that is rich and unique yet sprinkled with details from other cultures.
Crete as an island has different traditions than the North, Marina explains. “The south of Greece has some traces of the Turkish tradition in its expression. I admire that culture and the music so much.” That is also why the artist chose to record the music video to the single Yiati Pouli M’ in Istanbul. “You feel the heat. The power of the heat combined with the proximity to the ocean influences the music and the poetry. I think that is why the music from places like Sicily and Spain also carry this vibe.”
Marina Satti expresses her deep-rooted admiration for music tradition and cultures through different musical projects. Music is the language through which she communicates, and which allows her to find these ties, intersections, and similarities of expression. “Music is the means I have. It is my language and my approach to achieving the things that drive me in life.” And ultimately, the singer tells me, what she wants to achieve is freedom. “I want to be able to escape from the expectation that Western life holds. Freedom or the pursuit of freedom is something that I feel strongly in my life.”
That longing for freedom, musically and personally as those two are connected anyways, resonates in her music as well. YENNA is a record that cannot be ascribed to one genre or tradition. Its music is rooted in the cultural and personal exchange, the journeys that Marina has undergone but it claims the ultimate freedom of not dwelling in one place. It is traditional and contemporary at the same time and melts the ambiguity between the two with ease.
Through her work with the choir, the singer gets to express another side of her love for music. The Fonés choir revives traditional music in the 21st century. Every note that Marina Satti touches, bends the linear perception of time and is at home in the future of music as well as its past. The choir is a project that Marina founded from an urge to explore and uplift the tradition of Greek polyphonic music. To bring the beauty of the folk songs closer to young people she started Fonés, which now includes over 150 members.
Fonés is inspired by the communal aspect of the traditional music that Marina loves so much. “Traditional music is centered on the vocals. That is the first instrument that the people had. In every part of the world, you have this tradition of polyphonic and a Capella music. There is something about the vibrations that you can just feel. It is amazing to sing with other people. In Crete for example, they sing the Mantinadas together. Tomato, cheese from Crete, Raki, and they sing. Just like that. Oh, and a bonfire.”
The Power of the Voice
Drawing inspiration from beyond the Greek tradition, Marina Satti also mentions The Mystery of The Bulgarian Voices ensemble who she is a big fan of. The power of the communal singing is the core of that project, as well. Singing makes you enter a delicate relationship with other people. The voice is the instrument that is the closest to us – as it is literally coming from inside.
“Polyphony is not just meant in the literal way that there are a lot of voices. It also has a metaphorical aspect, the exchange and communication with others. Music is the thing that brings us together.”
In her all-female choir the strength of vocal unity has an empowering effect. Singing together creates solidarity while also highlighting the individual voices of the people. “It is so interesting to lead an ensemble and to pay attention to the ways in which the singers interact. How they sing, exist, and evolve together.” The choir is an intergenerational project. There are women from the age of thirteen to fifty years old. “Some could be the mothers of others. That creates an interesting dynamic and a good place to learn from each other.”
Tradition sparks a lot of inspiration, but often also imposes the burden of certain ways of life. Especially growing up in a small community in Crete, the singer tells me about the expectations that she was faced with. “There are different rules than in the city. Different perceptions of gender roles, for example, like having a family, getting married. When you live amongst all those voices reproducing these patters, it is hard to rethink and reexamine their values. But that is an interesting and necessary journey.”
While it is important to keep your ears open to the surrounding, it can also be suffocating if the surrounding is homogenous. “I grew up there, but I left to be free. Now I have come back, and I can look at things from a different point of view. That allowed me to revisit the traditional sounds.”
To go with the record, Marina Satti compiled a playlist for us with her musical influences from the Greek traditional music canon. The list includes Meraklina a song by Nikos & Adonis Xylouris who are Cretan singers carrying on a long family tradition of musicians. Psarantonis is the grandfather of the brother duo and also part of the list with his song Ntourou Ntourou. “You can really hear the mountains and the wilderness of the island in his voice,” Marina comments.
Domna Samiou is another important figure in the history of Greek traditional music. She traveled all over Greece and recorded traditional songs. “She saved the traditional music for us to listen to”. Michalis Kaliontzidis is a singer from the Northern region of the country. “He is from the region close to the Black Sea but you still hear some commonalities to the music in Crete. The power and the rhythm connect it all.” Historically, Marina explains, both Crete and the Northern border of the country were involved in many battles and wars shaping their stern character, which seeped into the music.
“I am so in love with traditional music.”
Marina Satti bridges tradition and contemporary RnB and pop influences. She draws from her travels across different regions and her upbringing in a multi-cultural and bilingual household. The outcome is a beautiful record that draws from a deep line of tradition. This depth can be felt in every song, whether it is the electronically produced beat of Adii dromi or the raw a Capella voices on the opening track Yiati Pouli m’. Cultural dialogue is inscribed in Marina Satti’s music – the language she speaks best.
YENNA is out now via Walnut Entertainment.