By Jordan Reisman
The Greeks are here and they are singing in French. When I say “the Greeks”, I mean one Greek and that one happens to be Magda Giannikou. Regardless, she’s here and she’s got a band in tow, Banda Magda. They released their debut album, Amour, t’es la?, back in July which features an entire army of guest musicians and sometime-band members.
Though she is Greek-born, from a beachy suburb of Athens called Voula, Giannikou flirts with styles and languages that couldn’t be further from the land of democracy (she has said before that Banda Magda is comprised of “two Argentines, two Greeks and two Japanese.”) Amour t’es la? is a record not built for audiences who demand the same style drilled into their heads as it moves from French pop, to bossa nova, to jazz, all beckoning the listener to keep up.
BTR had a chance to speak with the Greek multiculturalist, fresh off a US tour with Banda Magda in support of the new record. Starting at the very beginning, she cites her mother as her initial musical influence recounting times when her mother, an “educator”, would sing and play piano to young Magda. Just being sang to was not good enough for our hero, as she would “get very jealous and I wanted to do the same.” The multicultural aspect of Giannikou’s musical awakening came from her father who she said would “play me records when I was young of all sorts of genres and different cultural backgrounds.”
Giannikou’s first aspiration was not necessarily to be in a band or touring, it was to compose film scores. In 2003, she used this “crazy passion” to move out of her home country and make her way over to Boston to enroll in Berklee’s film scoring program. While scoring remains a passion of hers, she became interested in really living the band life while in school.
“Basically it was a combination of me starting to fool around with lyrics and songs and wanting to perform because when I went to Berklee, I just wanted to compose and write, conduct, and orchestrate; do the film thing. Then at Berklee I saw everybody playing and just having fun on stage, and I actually never had that opportunity. I rarely had it because I had to conduct something so I was like, ‘Aghh, all these people having fun performing. I wanna have fun too!’” says Giannikou of her time at the renowned music school.
Coming from a family of such musical education advocates, Giannikou never had those “reckless abandon” moments on a stage before. She had no bad high school Battle of the Bands placing to speak of. She admitted that during her adolescence it was “very hard for me to find my place.” She considered being a pianist but she found there were already so many and so in an effort to distinguish herself, she picked up her grandmother’s accordion that she found in the attic. While seen by some as silly or overtly ironic, Giannikou has nothing but reverence for Weird Al’s vessel of success.
“I see it as something extraordinarily beautiful and very versatile. Some of my favorite music in the world is accordion music or bandoneon music. I don’t care what people say,” said Giannikou.
(Just in case you’re still not sold on just how knowledgeable Giannikou in musical styles across the world, she cited Brazilian forro music and the French accordionist Richard Galliano as her favorite artists who incorporate the instrument.)
After getting a band together at her alma mater, Giannikou decided she wanted to have a project where she could be the focus but also equally exhibit the talents of her fellow musicians. With Banda Magda she’s doing just that.
“It’s good to have your name in there somehow. I didn’t want to go as Magda Giannikou, singer-songwriter, as much because it’s not exactly that. It’s centered around me; I direct it and I lead it but it’s a band,” says Giannikou on her frontwoman position.
Though the band is hers, Giannikou features an astonishing number of auxilliary musicians on the band’s debut album, unafraid to share some of that glimmering spotlight on New York City’s talent. She calls the recording process a “huge production” which boiled over into their album release show, in which they featured 20 people on the stage performing, including a dulcimer player.
She calls this open door policy for her band the “consequences in the community,” meaning that each musician has his or her own circle that they bring along to the party, consequently creating the larger Magda community.
Her acquisition of the dulcimer player, Max, was spurred by a subway ride that he was performing for, causing Magda to “lose five stops in order to listen to him.” She reported to Marcelo Woloski, her current resident percussionist, about her find and he replied that HE had a dulcimer player in mind named Max.
Small world in the dulcimer community.
This is not to say that Giannikou’s band has no limits, she asserts that the “core of the band” is six people. This way they’re still able to travel together and plus, paying twenty people for every show? Girl’s gotta make a living! For the future though, she said that she would like to “experiment with becoming more like a little orchestra.”
The lyrics for Amour t’es la? are written entirely in French, unsurprisingly. The name translates to “Love, are you here?” The song titles (some include “Fond de la mer” and “Couche Toi”) and lyrics are obviously undecipherable to a non-Francophone but that was Giannikou’s intention all along.
“I was starting to learn the language because I was living with someone who was a Francophone at the time and I was only starting to write lyrics. I decided that I’m going to try to write in French because not many people understand French here where I live, in my circle. They wouldn’t be able to be very judgemental about it so it leaves me more freedom to mess up or experiment or write whatever crazy thing I want to write,” she says on her choice of language.
For the record, however, the grammatical correctness of her lyrics is “not right” but you wouldn’t have known that, would you? She ran them by a few native speakers and they told her, “We wouldn’t say that but it’s kind of cool. You should leave it.” And the record was born.
The feel of the album is very unique, as if you’re stepping into a Parisian cafe and hearing the dulcet tones of a street performer outside. At least that was my take. Giannikou’s was a little different, and way trippier. She asked me if I’ve heard of “synesthesia.”
“What I have is some weird form of that, I think. Whenever I hear something, I see it written down, spelled in Roman letters with particular colors. That really defines how I write because every note has a color and every chord has a color and different voicings have different colors. When I come up with an idea for a song, it has a very particular color and when I know what I want to say, I see a painting that’s very precise but not precise at all actually,” says Giannikou about her color-coded songs.
When asked about the album’s overall color, Giannikou said, “No, it’s just a jungle.” It appears Magda’s music is what happens when you mix the colors together.
To Decipher the Colors with Magda Giannikou, click here.
Check out Magda Giannikou’s music and interview on the latest episode of Discovery Corner on BTR.