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Interview with Stelios Petrakis Quartet

The Stelios Petrakis Quartet is one of the international acts scheduled to perform at globalFEST on January 17, 2016. The influential North American world music showcase will take place at Webster Hall in New York City.

The ensemble’s founder, multi-instrumentalist, composer and luthier Stelios Petrakis talks to World Music Central about his background and the upcoming performance.

Angel Romero – Can you tell us about the band you will be taking to globalFEST 2016?

Stelios Petrakis – My love and admiration of Cretan music have led me to form a new ensemble, the Cretan Quartet. My aim is to condense and present in a lively and tasteful way, my own “Cretan” compositions and the pieces of our traditional music that I admire and find moving. This program is strongly stamped by and filtered through my personal taste, drawing on my long familiarity with the music of the island and my experience of strictly aesthetically delimited and timed “shows” at international festivals. It is in concert form, and at specific points includes dancing with or without musical accompaniment.

The truth is that most of the programs set up by ourselves and others engaged with the music of Crete are static affairs, with musicians seated in a row, playing their instruments and music with great virtuosity. This, of course, is more than enough for this type of concert, especially when the music being played are of a high standard. But when we play traditional dance pieces, which is what most of them are, sometimes you feel there’s something missing… We’re missing the movement, the spatial expressiveness you find at every fiesta and in every group of friends in even the smallest Cretan village.

The musicians in the quartet, all young and exceptionally skilled and talented, trust my aesthetic standards and, above all, are keen and have the time for hard work. I present them in brief, through a personal point of view.

Thanassis Mavrokostas (dance, mandura flute and lyre cello)

Thanassis is a top dancer with his own style, combining perfect technique with strength, nimbleness and an improvisatory mood. As the student from birth of his parents, Dimitris and Eleni Mavrokosta, he has different roots (Anogia – Agia Galini) and vast experience of and contact with Cretan dance, despite his youth. He is also an excellent musician (lyra – mandolin – mandura), a dance teacher, a singer and, above all, a connoisseur. He’s been my dance teacher for the last three years…

Andonis Stavrakakis (mandolin, lute and voice)

Andonis is a musician and singer of exceptional skill, ability and prospects. When you have skill, talent, and top teachers within your own family (Vassilis and Michalis Stavrakakis), the result is, predictably, also excellent… He incorporates the style and technique of the musicians in his family, while preserving his own personal singing and playing tone. We have worked closely together for several years, in the ensemble of Vassilis Stavrakakis, and our long artistic and personal contact forms the artistic cornerstone of the quartet.

Giorgos Stavrakakis (lute and voice)

Giorgos is the youngest and the most promising member of the Quartet. As the son of the Master singer Vassilis Stavrakakis, Giorgos is literally born into Cretan music. He represents the style and the musical aesthetics of his family and his village of origin, and, despite his young age, he is already a highly skilled musician. As a lute soloist and a singer together with his cousin Adonis, Giorgos brings undoubtedly a new atmosphere in the “Quartet”.

After this small introduction, I welcome you into the musical “microcosmos” of the Cretan Quartet, and proudly present you our first work, with the same anguish and joy that each -small or big- artist is presenting to his close friends his new creation.

AR – Many influential North American arts presenters will be at globalFEST 2016. What do you expect to get out of it?

SP – Our goal is to give at globalFest 2016 the best possible presentation of our work, the best possible show, and we expect to be well received. If this music, this show speaks to the hearts of the “presenters” the public of globalFest, we would be honored to be invited again and play for other audiences in other concerts as well…

AR – Can you give our readers a brief history of your band?

SP – After many years playing in Crete the traditional repertoire and abroad my original compositions, I felt the necessity to “bounce” the two sides of my musical activity in one band. This generated a result that is more “fresh” for the Cretan audience and more “deep in roots” for an international audience. I tried to get together all the benefits of both worlds; the power and the depth of the tradition together with the elegance and the technical perfection of the modern concerts – shows.

There was a proposal from a festival in Switzerland on 2012 which gave me the opportunity to form a band exactly as I wanted. Young great musicians ready for hard work, “cutting edge technology” sound design, modern compositions – arrangements and carefully selected old pieces.
I believe that music of Crete is not so much been present outside Crete and Greece, and that it has to be open to bigger and more audiences, because it’s beautiful, simple, and speaks immediately to the heart. So, “Cretan Quartet” was formed 4 years ago aiming these goals, and keeps improving and achieving better results.

AR – What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?

SP – Knowledge, respect and evolution of the music of the past, by emphasizing the good points, technical evolution – hi end result, modern compositions and arrangements, and the most alive presence at the show.

AR – Who can you cite as your main musical influences?

SP – My master Ross Daly, the Xylouris family, and the old master Kostas Moundakis are the main influences from my region and the instrument I play. More in general, Talip Ozkan and Mehmet Erenler from Turkey, Paco de Lucia, Vicente Amigo and Chicuelo, from Spain. The British band Iron Maiden, as well as some of my current colleagues, such as Efrén López from Spain, the trio Chemirani from France – Spain and Kelly Thoma from Crete.

AR – Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.

SP – I’ve been recording my music since 2002. My 3 first CDs (Akri tou dounia 2002 – Kismet 2003 – Orion 2008) were studio works that I have taken big care, many invited musicians that played, open arrangements (maybe too open) and mainly new compositions.

This “recipe” gave impressive results, great critics and awards, and actually great CDs – results that I am proud of, and when I listen to them now, I think that I wouldn’t change anything if I had to record them again. But these open arrangements, with many guests, many different colors, led me to a deadlock: When presenting these CDs live, I was never happy because it was too difficult to achieve the same results live, where you really play for real – present to audiences… So as time went by, I worked on another direction. I took a more difficult path. I do more things with less elements, try to improve my skills on the instruments I play, and eliminate the big lists of guest musicians.

So, I try to achieve the same high level artistic results with different “tools’ which is more difficult of course, but, it keeps a taste a more obvious personal artistic character, and when presented live, it is much closer to what it is recorded on the studio.

What musical instruments do you use?

SP – I play the Cretan upright fiddle called Lyra, the lute and the Cretan pipe called mandura. In the band we also use mandolin, and a custom made instrument the Cretan cello, which in fact it is a Lyra shaped cello that I designed and constructed especially for the band. (I am a luthier too.)

How’s the traditional and contemporary folk music scene in Crete?

SP – The traditional folk scene is very alive in Crete, undoubtedly the most alive folk scene in Greece. We are somehow a part of the center of the scene, as the 3 members of the Cretan quartet play with the most important current Cretan singer, Vassilis Stavrakakis. So we play in big venues in wintertime and in big open festivals around Crete on Summertime.

Are you connected at all to the Labyrinth Music Workshops?

SP – I am strongly connected to Labyrinth musical workshop, as student and as teacher. The Cretan Quartet performs every summer in labyrinth’s Houdetsi festival.

AR – If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with, whom would that be?

SP – I always feel to play with musicians and bands that I like as a listener. Some of that I am happy to have already played with, and some others it can be possible that we will play one day together. Socratis Sinopoulos is a Greek musician I would like to play with, Chicuelo and Enrike Solinis from Spain, and many more.

AR – Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?

SP – I have a trio, Petrakis Lopez Chemirani – with Efrén López and Bijan Chemirani – that we perform original compositions. With this project we have already recorded the CD “Mavra Froudia” and we prepare the recordings of our second album.

Also I have a duet with Giorgos Manolakis, a highly skilled and open Cretan musician. We have made a live video on Tedx Heraklion, which is selected on a TED playlist.