In Greek Mode - Chris Williams introduces Mode Plagal, one of the more inventive bands on the current Greek roots scene.
Folk Roots - April 2002

One of Greece's most intriguing bands, Mode Plagal recently released their third album, Mode Plagal III. The group are hard to pigeonhole, although lables like 'funk', 'northern Greek folk' and 'jazz' inevitably come to mind when you try to do so. Rather than being anchored to the indigenous traditions of Greece their musical roots have as much to do with high quality seventies and eighties rock and funk as with folk music. In terms of global trends this puts them in an interesting position -most musicians start with a purely local musical perspective and only later branch out into unfamiliar territory.
Funk is definitely at the heart of what they do, even when they are using the traditional modes and metres of Greek folk music. They are one of the few Greek bands that can persuasively create the high-definition groove of a band like Little Feat. Much of this is due to the fluid but supertight percussion of Takis Kanellos and Angelos Polychroniou and, of course, the bubbling, melodic bass riffs of Andonis Maratos. On top of this rhythmic substratum they deploy guitar chops and keyboards with an elegant restraint that was for many years just about impossible to find in Greek bands.
Mode Plagal was founded by Kanellos, Thodoris Rellos (saxophone and vocals) and Kleon Antoniou (guitar and vocals). Maratos joined later, in 1995, and Manos Saridakis played keyboards on the new CD. Although each of them, and especially Rellos and Maratos, has an impressive musical pedigree in either traditional Greek music or classical harmony and composition in the Western sense they actually consider themselves self-taught. I asked them how they started.
"The original trio began by playing funk, jazz, afro, blues, rock and R&B in clubs in the late eighties. We gradually began to play original compositions and also started to use some elements of Greek traditional music. In 1995 we recorded our first album, Mode Plagal, which consists of original compositions and traditional pieces arranged by the group."
Years of gigging followed, and the band are renowned for their impressive live performances at all sizes and sorts of venue. They seem to have performed just about everywhere in Europe and in a fair bit of the Middle East too.
Most definitely not part of the mainstream folk scene, Mode Plagal have a strong liking for non-traditional bands including "groups playing in the '70s and '80s liks Socrates, Bourboulia and Alla Mandata who approached music in a similar fashion to our own." Good as they became as a rock/funk outfit, though, it was the addition of traditional musical elements that marked them out as a band with something new to say. The 1990s were a time of great experimentation in Greek folk music, and Mode Plagal have been by far and away the most successful group to incorporate this into a rock framework.
When they do draw on traditional material, much of this is from northern Greece, and the band acknowledge musicians like Tassos Halkias, Vasilis Soukas and brass bands from Edessa as being particularly influential on their style. I asked them to say more about this relationship with traditional music. Why the emphasis on music from northern Greece, and what connections did they see between that music and the music of Greece's neighbours?
"We see traditional music as a vast source of material and inspiration and as a starting point to improvise and be creative. We have a special link to the traditions found in northern Greece mainly because of the rhythms found in that region. They dance to many odd metres (fives, sevens, nines, elevens, fifteens, etc) which we find exciting and intriguing. We have travelled a lot in the area and have got to know the music from up close. Another reason is that the instruments used are quite close to the sound of the group. This music has many things in common with the music of neighbouring countries. Borders have never stopped the free interaction of music and musicians, and for a group that tries to form a link between James Brown, Halkias, Fela Kuti and Ivo Papazov, these traditions seem even closer."
Other foreign musicians that have been influential are "Area, Sly, Monk, Mingus, John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, Bob Marley, Toots & The Maytals, Jimi Hendrix, Paco de Lucia and loads of African and Balkan musicians." On the new album the reggae influences are foregrounded in the delightful arrangement of a traditional song, Fengeraki. There are quite a few jazzers amongst the influences here, but Mode Plagal have wisely avoided the excesses that have been the downfall of many musicians who have tried to mix their rock with jazz. They know that it is more effective to evoke a jazz sequece with a couple of deft guitar chords than by swamping a piece in jazz harmonies.
The latest album displays all their influences to the full. On the fourth track, Lerikos, for instance, the band adapt a bagpipe mode to Rellos' saxophone, turn a traditional metre into a heavy funk groove and wrap the thing up by quoting Hendrix. I asked them to explain how this piece came about.
"We heard Lerikos on a tape of traditional songs from the island of Patmos; it was sung by an old man with a bagpipe. We used to sing the song at parties or dressing rooms before the concerts. When we were in the studio we added a groove that seemed to fit and then combined it with a piece from northern Greece in the same musical mode, called gaida (bagpipe), in which the soloist (usually the clarinet, sometimes the violin and in our case the sax) imitates the sound and playing of the bagpipe. Then we just let it go. The Jimi Hendrix theme at the end (also in the same musical mode) came quite naturally as a finale."
A lot of what Mode Plagal do is improvised, and I said that I found their approach to this fascinating. Rock and jazz players often have quite different approaches to improvisation -jazz improvisation can range from the totally free to the very formal, even using the written conventions of the music. In much Greek traditional dance music the musicians are required to make quick, clever variations on the tunes without departing from the metre and thereby throwing the dancers into confusion; the Cretan, Kostas Moundakis, was a great master of this kind of improvising. Again, there is the improvised form known as taksim, which uses a quite different set of conventions.
"Our approach to improvisation certainly contains all these elements because they have become part of our journey as musicians. Each one of us uses elements of the music that has influenced him personally. Any piece can take many different roads and you can hear (hopefully) a combination of traditional and jazz, rock or other kinds of improvisation. For example, in Lemnos, Thodoris uses a combination of traditional phrasing and a more modern approach with overtones while keeping the traditionalrhythmic structure. Or his solo in Deli Papas could remind one person of Coltrane while to someone else it might suggest Tassos Halkias."
Many people have been struck by the diversity of the Greek musical scene, which in some ways has incorporated traditions from outside the country's borders at a deeper level than has happened in the UK. Greek audiences are used to hearing top class musicians from Turkey and the Middle East, as well as the full range of popular and classical styles in the Western sense. How do Greek audiences react to Mode Plagal's extraordinary mixture of influences, and what is the group's opinion of the current Greek music scene?
"Our main audience would be mostly jazz fans and rockers, at least in the clubs, but the music has a wide acceptance at outdoor concerts around Greece where the audience tends to be more diverse. Old people who have come to our concerts very often tell us, 'We don't listen to jazz or rock but we like it the way you do it'. The same happens with young people: 'We don't listen to traditional music but we like it the way you do it.'"
"There is a lot of potential in the contemporary Greek music scene and a great tradition on which it is based, but there is a limited access to it from abroad. It has no real identity on a global level yet. The same goes for traditional Greek music. Most people outside Greece think that traditional Greek music is only bouzouki and Zorba the Greek. Bouzouki is of course an important part of our tradition but only a fragment of it and a relatively recent one. We like all attempts to combine different kinds of music as long as they are not used only for effect, like using an ud or a ney just to give the song an ethnic touch, which happens quite a lot in Greek popular music."
With such a diverse array of influences I wondered how the band saw themselves in terms of current musical trends.
"It's hard to say about our relationship with modern musical currents, maybe because it's getting more difficult to distinguish between the kinds of music today. Although there are quite a few groups doing something like what we are doing, we feel closer to older musical currents like the Afro-funk scene of the '70s or like music by immigrants worldwide, who tend to combine their own traditions with the musical trends of the places they live in. If there is such a thing as an ethno-beat or a world funk-jazz current we could be part of it."
Over the years Mode Plagal have successfully drawn on the talents of guest musicians. On Mode Plagal III no less than four of Greece's leading vocalists are featured: Yiota Vei, Savina Yiannatou, Eleni Tsalingopoulou and Theodosia Tsatsou. Tsalingopoulou contributes a kind of rap on Lemnos and also sings a sad traditionsl piece from Thrace, Mavra Helidonia (Black Sparrows), a song of exile. The great Yiota Vei provides faultless traditionsl vocals on both Deli Papas and Stou Mavrianou t'Aloni (On Mavrianos' Threshing-Floor), the first of which is from Epirus and the second from Macedonia; on both of these songs intelligent production leaves a proper balance between Vei and the instruments, and the percussion in particular works surprisingly well in combination with this wonderful singer. Tsatsou provides a gutsy rendition of Ta Paidia tis Yeitonias Sou (The Kids From Your Neighbourhood). Yiannatou improvised on a medley of Thracian carols - Greek carols are interesting and (outside Greece) little-known entity- don't even think about Charles Dickens and all the rest of it!
With so many musical roads to choose from I wondered what the band's next steps were:
"Our plans for the immediate future involve recording an album in Istanbul with the group Borphorus, which consists of Turkish classical and traditional musicians, with original compositions of the members of both groups based on poems about Istanbul. After that we plan to record our next album with more emphasis on our own compositions and some experimentation with written speech rather than songs. And of course to play as much as possible in Greece and abroad."

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