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Artist Profiles

Gunter Baby Sommer: Kommeno - A Threnody

By Published: April 1, 2013
And it most certainly took a musician of Sommer's stature to pull off a project as weighty, socially and musically, as Songs for Kommeno. Growing up in East Germany had sharpened Sommer's thinking both about his art and politics but without either his work or his personality ever becoming doctrinaire or rigid. Sommer belongs to that circle of extraordinary drummers that has developed out of Northern Europe's jazz and improvised-music scenes, and long before the Berlin Wall came down he was in demand on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Now approaching his 70th birthday, Sommer's discography exceeds 100 recordings, and he has played with the cream of Europe's and America's improvisers, including bassist Peter Kowald
Peter Kowald
Peter Kowald
1944 - 2002
bass, acoustic
and pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, saxophonists Peter Brotzmann
Peter Brotzmann
Peter Brotzmann
b.1941
reeds
and Evan Parker
Evan Parker
Evan Parker
b.1944
sax, tenor
, as well as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith
b.1941
trumpet
and the great Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
Cecil Taylor
b.1929
piano
.

From the outset, it was clear that Songs for Kommeno had to be a collaboration between Sommer and Greek musicians. "I had known Floros Floridis [reeds] since 1980," Sommer tells us, "when I was doing some pioneer work in Greece in improvised music with Wadada Leo Smith and Peter Kowald. After that, we played together often. I got to know Savina Yannatou through Peter Kowald. The music had to sound Greek. And so I met Evgenios Voulgaris, who knows and understands Greek traditional music, through Floros. They both knew the bassist Spilios Kastanis very well. Through that collaboration, we were able to bring that Greek soul into the music alongside contemporary improvisation."

It is this that makes Songs for Kommeno so very special. It does much more than articulate a tragedy. It is a righteous "Never again," a "No pasaran" ("They shall not pass") to the future— not just for Greece but for any place and time. For this is music of power and beauty, from Voulgaris' opening, "Tears," through his gorgeous, tender "Lullaby" into the deep heart of the record and Sommer's remarkable episodic suite "Marias Miroloi" (Maria's Lament). It speaks in all tongues for victims everywhere.

As this record has been so much a collaborative effort, it would be wrong to single out any one of these five musicians for praise. But the choice of Savina Yannatou to articulate this music was an inevitable one. Hers is one of the great and most expressive voices of world music, her talents and reputation as an artist matched by but a handful of others. Who else could convey such terrible beauty without resort to words that would themselves only distort? Who else has the ability to channel the blues and jazz while remaining true to the music of her country? It seems, however, that Yannatou was initially unsure whether she should take part in the project, as she explains:

"I was very reluctant at the beginning. I don't like to use people's tragedies for making music. But anyway, I was more convinced by Floros that this project would be more a project against war and violence. Finally, it was not so open, but never mind. For the people of the village, I think it means a lot, and that is what matters."

This is an argument that Sommer takes up and addresses head on when he says, "Kommeno is a symbol for criminality in war. War is itself already a crime, but it keeps on happening. Oradour-sur-Glane in France in 1944, Srebrenica in Bosnia, Syria, the Congo—Songs for Kommeno stands for many places where these crimes happen."

Because to take a stand artistically or morally must require a knowledge of history. Again, and as with each of these five musicians, it is that awareness of tradition and of history and of the possibility of combining traditions that makes Yannatou's contribution so special. As she points out, "It is obvious that these vocals are based in different cultures, but it is also an important part of free-jazz singing. So it is also a part of the American-Northern European approach, and this is how I use them. I use them as a part of personal expression when I improvise. I mix them all without thinking where and how."

And there is in her singing—wordlessly—something that succeeds in conveying a sense of place, time and history, for which the only immediate points of comparison that come to mind are the Scottish singer Maggie Nicols and American diva Cathy Berberian. We ask how she approaches his work with a project like this.


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