Greek musician Kelly Thoma has recently released an album titled “7Fish” where she showcases the mesmerizing sound of her modified lyra. Thoma’s exquisite modal music includes various musical influences from Crete (Greece), the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and India.
Kelly Thoma performs with the renowned acoustic music Ross Daly Ensemble and is involved in various other projects that include musical workshops and a music festival in Crete. I interviewed this fascinating artist based in Crete to discuss her background and new recording.
Angel Romero Ruiz – Can you give our readers a brief history on how you got involved with music?
Kelly Thoma – I was 15 years old, growing up in Athens when I first listened to a piece composed by Ross Daly on a cassette. I had absolutely no idea about this kind of music nor had I heard about Ross as an artist. I was living a completely different life going to school and to ballet classes up until that day, when a whole new world opened for me. It is as simple as that; those 6 minutes of music changed my life and led me to another “universe” that I had no idea it existed. Very soon I started searching for Ross’ music and subsequently various musical traditions of the East. I met him in person about a year later and this was destined to be a relationship to define me both as a person as well as a musical personality.
ARR – What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
KT – I have studied Cretan music as well as various modal traditions such as Turkish and Iranian, I have listened to a lot of Indian and Azeri music but I am not by any means a representative of any of these traditions. “My” music and “my” sound is a mosaic of thousands of little precious moments with hundreds of wonderful musicians that I have encountered so far, as well as musical experiences on stage, in classes, in parties, in villages, in studios. I would dare to say that I am influenced by musical personalities more than by musical traditions.
ARR – Who can you cite as your main musical influences?
KT – I could write a list of hundreds of musicians but mainly Ross Daly, Dr. N. Rajam, Habil Aliev, Zohar Fresco, Kostas Mountakis, Ballake Sissoko, Socrates Sinopoulos, Omer Erdogdular and Djamshid Chemirani. The reason why I am influenced by them is because they are creative. This is the feature that I admire mostly in an artist.
ARR – You have just released an album titled 7Fish. What’s the concept behind the album?
KT – This album is a compilation of 8 compositions each one named after a species of fish and one called “S”, which reveals the movement of the fish in the water, that is the silent and wondrous pattern of movement of fish which is accomplished by a gentle and continuous sideways lurch thus creating an S shape…I feel that if music is an endless ocean of possibilities, this collection is but 7 such…plus one.
ARR – Your music has traditional music influences but there is also a contemporary element. Your website mentions contemporary modal music. Can you elaborate about what this means?
KT – The term “contemporary modal music” has been created by Ross Daly and describes the sum total of contemporary compositions created today by musicians working within various modal traditions. This music is the continuation of the procedure of modal composing through a very free perspective and is not at all connected with the goal of “preserving traditions”. It is the contemporary expression of the beauty of modality (phrase-orientated non-harmonic music which often employs non-tempered intervals).
ARR – You were born in Piraeus, near Athens, but the instrument you use is a lyra, which is traditional Cretan instrument. When did you discover the lyra and why did you choose this instrument?
KT – I happen to have a loose Cretan origin from my mother’s side, but I do not think that this played an important role in my decision to play the lyra. I discovered this instrument through Ross Daly’s recordings and I first saw it live in one of his concerts.
The lyra is just a few pieces of wood with a some strings attached in order to create music, but in the hands of a specific person it is the means of transportation to a new magical world. Not Crete, not Greece, not earth. I chose it because watching Ross using this instrument to create art I felt “jealous” and wanted to do it too!
The fact that Ross is not a Cretan, not even a Greek made it very clear to me that music is beyond origin. He has inspired a lot of young students exactly because he does not carry tradition as a heavy burden, but as a means to go beyond oneself.
ARR – Is the lyra you use any different from a traditional lyra?
KT – The traditional Cretan lyra has only three playing strings and the shape is quite different to the lyra that I play. Mine has 22 sympathetic strings that resonate with the playing strings and gives a natural reverb. The technique is very similar, but we have incorporated elements from other bowed instruments like the Turkish kemance, the Bulgarian gadulka, the Azeri kemanche and the Indian sarangi. This creates a very different sound and therefore a different technique and repertoire.
ARR – Is there a favorite lyra maker you have?
KT – Stelios Petrakis is the maker of my main instrument. He is a wonderful musician and composer but has also been developing the lyra with sympathetic strings for about 15 years, which Ross Daly designed and first created together with Nikos Bras in Athens in 1991. Besides Stelios’ lyra I also play another one made by the Cypriot maker Leonidas Spanos.
ARR – Do you play any other instruments?
KT – Some musicians seek their musical integration through playing various instruments and others through only one. I happen to belong to the second category and I still have a long way to go on my path of musical seeking.
ARR – The lyra looks and sounds similar to a Middle Eastern/North African instrument called rabab and there is also another similar instrument in Spain called rabel. Are they all related?
KT – Almost all of the upright bowed instruments found in North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia and North India are somehow related. Some of them are very close, immediate relatives of the lyra such as the Turkish kemençe, the Bulgarian Gadulka, the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian lyrica, the Calabrian lyra of South Italy as well as the various types of lyras found on other islands and in other regions of Greece itself.
There are even instruments in North India, specifically Rajasthan, which bear a very close resemblance to the lyra such as the Sarangi, Sarinda, or Kamaycha. Other instruments are somewhat more distant relatives but relatives all the same such as the Persian and Azeri spike fiddles known as Kamanche,
The Lyra itself seems to be one of the earliest bowed instruments, mentioned in the 10th century by the Persian chronicler Ibn Khordadbikh.
ARR – Going back to your album, you invited musicians from various Mediterranean countries and the Middle East. How did you connect with them?
KT – Being a student of Musical Workshop Labyrinth on Crete, I have the chance to connect with hundreds of musicians from various musical traditions. This is the philosophy behind Labyrinth anyway. Musicians get together, play music, become friends, eat, discuss, and live together. It is a natural process that puts the person as the essential vessel of tradition first and not merely “tradition” as a somewhat abstract “sacred cow”. So, for example Pedram Khavar Zamini, is not just the Persian that plays on my CD, but is my dear friend Pedram with his jokes, his life, his brothers and sisters, his own way of playing the tombak.
That is, I could not have put any Iranian tombak player just to have the “flavor” of tombak in a given piece. The wonderful musicians that play in 7Fish are all my friends and teachers from Labyrinth and I did not “choose” them because I wanted to combine elements from various traditions, but because I feel that my sound and my compositions are complete by their contribution.
To mention them by name they are: Ross Daly, Zohar Fresco, Pedram Khavarzamini, Giorgos Manolakis, Aris Kornelakis, Efren Lopez, Pavlos Spyropoulos, Sofia Efkleidou, Taxiarchis Georgoulis, Giannis Papatzanis and Miriam Encinas Laffitte.
ARR – For years, you’ve been part of a series of musical workshops called Labyrinth. Tell us a little about these workshops. What content do you teach at your workshops?
KT – Musical Workshop Labyrinth was founded by Ross Daly and started its activities in Houdetsi on the island of Crete in 2002. Labyrinth exists since 1982 in various forms and combinations but in its current shape it functions for the last 13 years. It is a meeting place for musicians that come from various traditions of the world. It focuses on modal music, but it also includes musicians from Western traditions. Basically, it does not exclude anything and anyone, as long as there is intention for serious study, creation, friendship, respect and collaboration.
We organize seminars and master classes with great teachers from all over the world and this attracts a number of about 400 students every year. Each seminar lasts for 6 days (6-7 hours of study every day) and the lessons take place in the village where students and teachers live, eat and play together.
In the seminars of Labyrinth the subjects that are taught are repertoire, technique, expression, composition as well as sound engineering.
ARR – You are also one of the organizers of the Houdetsi Festival. What’s the concept behind the festival?
KT – Houdetsi is a small village in Heraklion, on the island of Crete, of about 800 inhabitants. Before Labyrinth was established there it was nothing more than one of many villages in the middle of the mountains with not much in the way of cultural events happening.
The seminars of Labyrinth breathed life into the local tavernas and a few businesses started to flourish. However, the seminars were addressed to a certain number of people (20 students maximum in each seminar) coming from abroad or from other parts of Greece.
Despite the fact that the village was benefiting from them there was not enough essential communication between the villagers and the musicians. There was of course music in the tavernas in the evenings, but we were inviting master musicians from all over the world that did not have the chance to play proper concerts during their stay.
In 2010 Ross and his colleagues decided to find a way to share the beauty of music and collaboration with the local community. So we established Houdetsi Music Festival, a 4-day celebration as a means of constructive communication with the village.
From the first year the philosophy was volunteerism and sharing. The whole village, young and old people work hard for the preparation of the festival and the musicians play for free.
The first year we surprisingly attracted an audience of 4,000 in 4 days! Six years later, the last festival grew to the number of 40,000. It is now a very big organization with 5 music stages, more than 100 stalls with local products and handcrafts as well as musical instruments’ exhibitions. 150 musicians played in more than 60 concerts in 4 days. But still our main goal is to keep the festival free for the people and inspire the local community to share and volunteer for the best possible result.
ARR – Has the Greek economic crisis affected your workshops and the festival?
KT – Except for a sponsorship that Labyrinth got in 2003-2005 for construction work of the building, as well as for a few concerts that we managed to realize in the garden of the school during that time, we have not been able to obtain a serious sponsorship from the Greek government or from Europe since then.
So, the recent economic crisis does not have a huge economic impact on our “numbers”, since we have always been struggling anyway…
However, the number of students is increasing every year so Labyrinth manages to survive by its own means. There are a lot of problems of course that would be solved if we had the money to invest in infrastructure (i.e accommodation and proper classes for the lessons) or management, but we seem to be doing fine thanks to the income from the seminars, the help of the Municipality and the Prefecture of Crete as well as the power of volunteerism of specific Labyrinth “lovers” . What has unfortunately been affected is the number of Greek students that come to the seminars that because of the crisis cannot pay the fee. For them we try to find scholarships, which is also difficult in our days…
The festival is realized with very little money thanks to the fact that the artists play for free and that a lot of very hard work from collecting garbage, carrying chairs and tables to advertisement and decorations are all done for free by the friends of Labyrinth. A good sponsorship would of course help immensely and would make things much easier for everyone, as well as to put a more professional profile to the amateurish way that some things are done.
ARR – How’s the current traditional and roots music scene in Greece?
KT – On the island of Crete, where I live, traditional music is extremely live! There are literally thousands of young people playing the lyra, the laouto, the mandolin, or the daoul (small percussion) and music is an integral aspect of everyday life.
There are about 10 radio stations that play only Cretan music and on local TV channels music is also promoted a lot. Especially in the Summer, but in the Winter too, there is music in every small village and in all the bigger towns of Crete with people dancing and singing until the morning at occasions like weddings, baptisms or religious celebrations.
Of course we are not talking about very attentive audiences with deep knowledge of the Cretan tradition or always players with high aesthetics.
..As you can understand from the thousands of players and singers there are only a few that make the difference…But fortunately these people are quite a few in number and surprisingly young! I could mention Giorgos Manolakis, Stelios Petakis and Zacharis Spiridakis as some of the shining examples of young musicians that have assimilated their tradition, the repertoire and the original style, but are at the same time very creative and active in the musical scene of the island as well as abroad.
For the rest of Greece I do not have an immediate picture so I could not be very specific, but I can say that there is definitely a lot of music in North Greece. However, I am not sure to what extend the new generations are willing to take their tradition further, as much as the young people do on Crete.
ARR – If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with whom would that be?
KT – I recently seem to be listening to a lot of Malian and Senegalese music. I go through “phases” of course, but this period it’s all African music in my car…!
We collaborated with Ballake Sissoko many years ago, but I would love to meet him again and try to play more together. I also love the work of Malick Pathe Sow and Bao Sissoko who I met in Rajasthan with Ross a few months ago but did not have the chance to play together!
On the other hand I just trust my destiny and I am looking forward to the surprises of life without trying to push collaborations. I have been very lucky so far…
ARR – Do you have any upcoming projects to share with us?
KT – Apart from the work which I do with Ross as a duet, as well as in many other projects of his, I collaborate with three women that play bowed instruments and we form the group called Tokso (“bow” in Greek). They are Anne Hytta from Norway who plays the hardanger fiddle, Eleonore Billy from France on the Swedish nyckelharpa, Leonor Palazzo from Belgium on the cello and myself on the lyra. We play our own compositions, we have produced two albums and we are on tour twice a year. Our next tour is in November in Norway and Denmark.
Apart from that I am l very much looking forward to the concert we will play with Ross at the Carnegie Hall in New Υοrk on December 4th. Also I am planning to present more concerts of my own compositions as well as start the production of my new CD.
But my main plan is to continue to play music that I love and meet people that want to do the same…
Kelly Thoma also appears on the following albums:
“Beyond the Horizon“, with Ross Daly (2001)
“Kin Kin“, with Ross Daly in Australia (2002)
“Iris“, with Ross Daly (2003)
“The Golden Thread“, with Stellamara (2008)
“White Dragon“, with Ross Daly and Huun Huur Tu (2008)
“Meditenaneum”, with Oni Wytars (2009)
“Vuslat”, with Cihan Turkoglu and Victoria Taskou (2011)
“Tokso”, with Tokso Folk String Quartet (2011)
“Em Casa“, with Celina da Piedade (2012)
“Ditto”, with Giorgis Manolakis (2013)
“Cor Amant”, with Tokso (2014)
“The other side”, with Ross Daly (2014)
“El fill del Llop”, with Efrén López (2015)
Official website: www.kellythoma.com
Author: Angel Romero
Angel Romero y Ruiz has been writing about world music music for many years. He founded the websites worldmusiccentral.org and musicasdelmundo.com. Angel produced several TV specials for Metropolis (TVE) and co-produced “Musica NA”, a music show for Televisión Española (TVE) in Spain that featured an eclectic mix of world music, fusion, electronica, new age and contemporary classical music. Angel also produced and remastered world music albums, compilations and boxed sets for Alula Records, Ellipsis Arts, Music of the World.