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Artist Profiles

Gunter Baby Sommer: Kommeno - A Threnody

By Published: April 1, 2013
"There is also Diamanda Galas. I was very influenced by her vocal techniques, especially when I saw her singing live. As it happens, with Maggie Nicols we have collaborated in some concerts recently. Yes, somehow it is near. I can express myself more easily without words— with sounds that remind of words, but these words have no meaning. This inarticulate way to communicate feelings instead of meanings is stronger for me and also for the audience. This is what I have been doing for years, besides singing songs. It is a liberating process for me."

It is a liberating process for the listener as well, and Yannatou's description of her approach accords immediately with Sommer's intentions for her. He says, "In this project, Savina is not there as a soloist. I needed her voice as a color, as an instrument in this project. It is the timbre of her voice that is so very powerful here."

Listen to "Marias Miroloi" and how Voulgaris' yayli timbre combines with Floridis' bass clarinet and how Yannatou's wordless vocals swoop and soar over drums and bass in a way that is heart-wrenchingly affective. And the contrast with this when later in the track a church bell sounds, and Maria Labri, a survivor of the massacre, begins to sing accompanied just by Sommer's drums is astounding. It is a moment of transcendence that defines the achievements of Songs for Kommeno. Music and politics become one, not in any superficial agit-prop sense but through the coming together of aesthetic and ethical concerns.

And this is not an isolated moment on this astonishing record. The opener, "Tears," is both the prologue to this tragedy and a promise of a healing to come. And there is in the last three pieces—"Lullaby," Sommer's "Children Song" and "Kommeno Today"—a sense that mourning may become remembrance and ultimately reach a place where a shared acceptance, if not forgiveness, might mean that these horrors need no longer distort the present. Music surely cannot do this alone, but at least it says that the possibility of doing so exists. That is the gift of Songs for Kommeno to all the towns and villages of Greece, Serbia, Vietnam, Rwanda and now Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

We ask Sommer what his hopes are for Songs for Kommeno. His reply is simple and direct:

"I hope that this CD can do something to stop us forgetting history. What big politics cannot achieve we must strive for through our own engagement in society—do those things that bring us together rather than drive us apart. It was hard for her, me as a representative of a perpetrator nation, but Maria Labri gave me her hand, and I took it and am so thankful for her gesture. I have received a lot of responses from around the world as a result. It is a music that brings people together because it has a very real history to it. For me, jazz music should be willing to engage far more with the themes of real life."

Some might say that the past, even evils such as Kommeno, should be left to rest, but, as Sommer and Yannatou suggest, these atrocities keep being repeated. But there is another specific reason to remember Kommeno, Distomon and Kalavrita. Not only did Germany occupy Greece between 1941-1944 but they charged Greece for the cost of their occupation and also extracted a loan from Greece of 476 million reichmarks. In 1945, with the Axis powers defeated, peace terms were imposed on Germany. With respect to Greece, however, payments of reparations were to be left until such point as the two Germanies were reunited. Since German reunification in 1990, successive Greek prime ministers have raised the question of repayment of this debt only to be rebuffed time and again. That loan, without interest, would amount to $14 billion in today's money; with interest at three percent over 66 years, it would be over $95 billion. Remember this next time you hear Angela Merkel or some other German politician lecture Greece on the subject of debt and fiscal responsibility.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Gunter Baby Sommer

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