Lefteris Bournias:
Clarinet master of music East and West

Renown clarinet virtuoso Lefteris Bournias will join The Maeandros Ensemble on Friday, October 9, 8:00 p.m. at Peter Norton Symphony Space (Broadway at 95th Street, New York) for a concert on “Old World Sounds from Greece and Turkey”, sponsored by the World Music Institute that this year celebrates its 25th anniversary.

By Demetrios Rhompotis

Led by the brilliant oud (lute) player/vocalist Mavrothi Kontanis, the ensemble recreates the music of the 1920s -1940s, specializing in Smyrneika and early rembetika ("Greek blues") songs, which have their roots in the urban music of Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna and later Athens and Thessaloniki. The program will feature many songs which were originally performed by the most recognizable names of the time, including Antonios Dhiamantidis, Roza Eskenazi and Rita Abadzi, along with music from the Ottoman repertoire. Violinist Megan Gould and percussionist Timothy Quigley will also join for what is promising to be a memorable evening.

Lefteris, although born and raised in New York, is the artist par excellence to feature in a program encompassing songs from both sides of the Aegean. His parents came to the US from the island of Chios (abreast the Turkish coast) but their ancestors moved there from the town of Krini, modern day Tsesme, in Asia Minor. While a young child, he remembers sitting on his father’s lap (Elias Bournias, a Greek flogera player) and under his direction, bang out rhythms on pillows while listening to Turkish and Greek night club music.

At this point, one could say the rest is history and avoid a longer introduction; things, however, are not that simple. While his interest in music was there from the beginning, his involvement with the clarinet at which he has excelled ever since, prompting New York based jazz musician and composer Spiros Exaras to call him “perhaps the best of all,” came later. It was Classic Rock and the bands of the 70’s that captured his attention and while in Athens, where the family moved for a period of time before resettling to New York, he asked his mother to buy him an electric guitar. She was hesitant at first, as he remembers, but then she conceded, offering an alternative at the same time: “Hey, why don’t you get a clarinet instead and make your father happy?” “Clarinet!!!,” he exclaimed. “What are you talking about?” But almost like a bolt of lightening, the idea stayed with him and that summer he bought his first clarinet.

He was also extremely fortunate to live near a legendary gypsy clarinetist, Vasilis Soukas, and he soon frequented his house for lessons while attending the Athens Conservatory of Music under the guidance of clarinetist Mr. Farandatos. Upon returning to New York with his family, Lefteris attended the Aaron Copeland School of Music, earning a B.A. in Performance, and a Masters of Science in Music Education, and attempted a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology (still pending!). Ever since, he has performed and recorded with many highly acclaimed groups, singers and musicians, amongst them, The New York Pops (under the direction of Skitch Henderson), The New York Philharmonic, En hordes, Uri Cane, Charles Genus, Henry Hay, Matt Garisson, Gene Lake, Charles Blesing,Steve Haas, Elektra Ensemble, Nikos and Giasemi Saragoudas, Spiros Exaras Band, Avram Pengas Noga Group, Ara Dinkjian, Uri Yunakoff, Omar Faruk Tekbelik, Okay Temiz, Selim Sesler ,Takis Zaharatos, Hristos Antoniadis, Stathis Aggelopoulos, Eleni Legaki, Nikos Hatzopoulos, Makis Hristodoulopoulos, Pitsa Papadopoulou, Peggy Zina and Doukissa.

As a diverse and versatile musician, Lefteris moves between Greek traditional, Gypsy, Classical, Turkish Gypsy, and elements of Jazz (rhythmical and harmonic) with the ease and grace of a real cosmopolitan! No wonder he is eagerly sought after for weddings, family gatherings, concerts and other social events. Responding to the demand, more than a decade ago he was instrumental in forming Apollo Orchestras with the goal of serving the Greek- American Community with quality, traditional, and modern Greek music as well as American music


This coming October, as part of The Maeandros Ensemble, you will appear at the Symphony Space, offering a wide range of Greek and Eastern Mediterranean music, especially from the area of Smyrna. It sounds very exciting.

Yes. I am very excited. My roots are traced back to Asia Minor. My father’s side of the family was originally from "Krini" or what they call today Tsesme. They had moved to Chios many generations before the Catastrophe (the genocide and forced expulsion of the remaining Greeks from Turkey) and settled in a village atop Mount Pelineon called Spartounda. Every year I travel to Tsesme and Smyrna and I must say, I feel a special connection, a vibe if you will. I am sure it is my ancestors greeting me in my return to the homeland. As you can imagine, I am in turn nostalgic and being able to play the music of my ancestors ...Well it is something like a ritual, a tribute to all Hellenes that lived and thrived in Asia Minor.

Is Maeandros trying to reinterpret this extremely rich tradition, in other words, are you also experimenting by amplifying it and perhaps incorporating other elements that match and enhance their expressive capabilities?

On the contrary, Maeandros is trying to capture the energy and nostalgia of that period in time. We try to do this by staying as close as possible to all stylistic nuances of the time. Everything, from the original orchestration, forms, timbre of instruments etc. but mostly trying to recapture the lost soul of that music. I myself have been playing a metal clarinet in the key of G in order to stay as close as possible to the timbre of the players and especially the legendary Sukru Tunar that recorded much with Greek singers during that time.

Was the Cafe Aman America project, of which you were part, an early pioneer of some sort in terms of reintroducing this music to America with a local flavor?

The Cafe Aman Project was an experimental project which kept elements such as nuances in text (Greenglish) and adding different elements like style (electric guitar), experimental harmonies and traditional instruments to songs of the cafe Aman period recorded here in the U.S.

You started as a rock musician, playing guitar, and then you turned to traditional Greek and South European music, taking up clarinet! At first, it sounds like an oxymoron, but given the fact that both styles, rock and traditional music, express genuine needs, are they as different as they sound?

I think all music has a common thread. I would not be the musician I am today without my influences from the rock bands of the 70's which I so adored. The soul in much of this music, based on rhythm and blues, expressed hardships, much similar as our traditional music. The improvisational nature is the backbone that connects the two. Using "traditional" instruments or rather more modal elements to newer forms is something that has been done and is being done as we speak. The Spiros Exaras Band is an example of a union between contemporary harmonies and traditional rhythms in a improvisational frenzy. Local musicians around the world are being discovered through the Internet, YouTube, Facebook etc. and the world is more unified in many ways, music being one of them. I am writing certain things now that will be using world elements. I am envisioning vocalizing from distant, remote parts of the world in a dialogue with clarinet.

It seems there are three kinds of "ethnic" music: a) the very traditional, as close as possible to the original form b) a more flexible style, incorporating new things and instruments c) a vague attempt at creating sth. that sounds exotic enough to claim "ethnic" status. Can you be both "ethnic" and original, creating even a totally new form of music that will be able to organically absorb elements of many traditions, remaining at the same time totally modern?

It should be the goal of every artist. That is to say to be their own and to create their own sound and stuff. To be "modern" takes care of itself. We live with today’s sounds. We have different vibrations than people who lived even 50 years ago. The main goal is to take these vibrations and interpret them with your own experiences. This will make you original, to be distinctive and recognizable in your music.

As far as discography, is there anything new in the offing?

There is one album coming up with Electra Curtis with Shimon Shaheen and Bob Stewart on Tuba, another with Pashalis Periphanis and his ensemble from Thrace, and two more, one of dance music with The Kavala Brass Band and one with my wedding band Apollo Orchestras. I am also gathering ideas and building my studio for my own project to come soon.


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