Canadian artist George Sapounidis, better known as Chairman George, has a new album titled Bringing to Greek Party to China! It’s a ground-breaking recording that combines traditional Greek and Chinese music, Mandarin Chinese vocals, rock and infectious electronic dance grooves.
In terms of musical instruments, Bringing to Greek Party to China! connects Greek bouzouki and Chinese pipa and guzheng. The music video for the irresistible song “Golden Night” is fascinating and a lot of fun to watch.
Chairman George talked to World Music Central in September 2018 about his background and Bringing to Greek Party to China.
Can you give our readers a brief history on how you started singing and composing music?
I began taking guitar lessons in Montreal in 1968 and learning folksongs by different artists from the Joan Baez Songbook. Then when we moved to Greece in 1970 my mother found me a classical guitar teacher in Athens (a Greek protégé of the Spanish virtuoso Andrés Segovia no less) and in my teens I continued to take lessons and perform classical repertoire. At the same time since we were living a bohemian lifestyle in Greece I was meeting troubadours and buskers on the Greek islands which further inspired me to sing and perform publicly.
In university in Montreal and later in Toronto I met singers from different cultures so I began singing in Hebrew, Russian and Spanish. I took a delight in singing multilingually. In the 1980’s when the famine in Ethiopia happened I wrote a song and discovered a joy and ability in songwriting.
In 1988 I began learning the Greek bouzouki after listening and feeling impassioned by the Greek blues the Rembetika. I travelled to Greece with a musical partner and we started my first band Ouzo Power which performed at Canadian music festivals.
In the 1990’s, after finishing my PhD in statistics in Toronto and working as a folksinger extensively in Greektown, I returned to Ottawa where I had a day job in the federal government and I met a woman from Beijing who inspired me to learn to sing a traditional folksong in Mandarin Chinese. This was followed by challenging myself to write songs in Chinese. This is when my music career took a radical new direction towards Asia.
What do you consider as the essential elements of your music?
The essential elements of my music consist of sung vocals in different languages, translation of lyrics, and proficiency on the Greek bouzouki and acoustic guitar. This includes the incorporation of an eclectic array of cross cultural musical styles. I engage audiences on stage using humor while unraveling some of the mysteries of Greek and Chinese culture and language through music.
Whom can you cite as your main musical influences?
Theodore Bikel, David Wilcox, Danny Michel.
Tell us about your first recordings and your musical evolution.
My first full album on cassette consisted of duo interpretations of Greek Rembetika with the use of mandolin instead of bouzouki and translating Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin into Greek. The second EP consisted of standard Greek popular repertoire using larger ensembles incorporating African Senegalese rhythms. I then began dabbling in different languages and made a demo recording of songs in Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, Chinese and Greek.
When I performed my first Chinese song at the local Chinese New Year Gala in 1998 the roof fell in when the audience was applauding every 15 seconds. I realized I had discovered a vast new audience, endless musical possibilities within a new culture and my innate facility with languages.
In 2000, I gave my first major concert in Greek and Chinese in Ottawa where I invited the Greek and Chinese Embassies. Subsequently, I received an invitation from the Chinese Embassy to travel to China to perform at two international festivals. It was at this point that my music career took a radical new direction towards Asia.
My 2005 album consisted of exclusively Greek and Chinese traditional, popular and original material followed by my 2008 album of Olympic themed songs and then my 2011 CD of experimental rock-infused Greek repertoire. The culmination of my Greek and Chinese influenced musical arc has culminated in the present album where we have fused both cultures by presenting re- worked standard Greek repertoire in Mandarin.
What musical instruments do you use?
I use the Greek bouzouki and acoustic guitar myself. In my band we also have Chinese pipa and guzheng as well as bass, electric guitar, drums and backup vocals.
Your new album features Chinese musicians, electronic dance music beats, Chinese vocals and Greek influences. How did you come up with this combination?
After many years performing Greek and Chinese repertoire side by side my producer Ross Murray and I decided in 2013 to go to the next step: a fusion of both. This had never been done. We chose 10 of the most well-known quintessential up tempo Greek popular songs with the intent of presenting Greek party songs to Chinese audiences, hence the album title.
I started translating these songs into Mandarin with the help of a translator while at the same time ensuring equal numbers of syllables in lines and incorporating rhyming. I developed bilingual vocals for these translated lyrics. We brought in Chinese instrumentalists we knew locally and my producer who is a recording engineer infused some of the renditions with electronic dance music beats.
What has been the reaction so far?
Chinese audiences in China are very surprised and interested in hearing Greek songs in Chinese. Greek people are astonished at hearing their own songs recreated in what seems to them to be an incomprehensible language. Greeks are proud to know that their music is being promoted in a vast new environment.
How did you meet the Chinese musicians?
I met the Chinese musicians in my home town of Ottawa, Canada. I already knew them well after years of performing in the local Chinese community.
You sing in Chinese, is it Mandarin? Do you speak Chinese or is it phonetic singing?
Yes I sing in Mandarin Chinese. I speak in Mandarin Chinese and comprehend fully all lyrics that I sing.
If you could gather any musicians or musical groups to collaborate with, whom would that be?
I would like to collaborate with English rock musician Peter Gabriel whom I have not met – however, more realistically I would like to collaborate with English rock musician and multi Grammy award winner Chris Birkett whom I have met.
What would the ideal Sunday look like?
Being on a quiet Greek island having a good swim in the sun all day with friends followed by Greek dinner in a taverna while listening to live Greek music performed by local musicians.
What would you like to learn?
I would like to learn how to cook properly in a Cordon Bleu school.
What is your favorite food?
Greek cuisine followed by Thai cuisine.
Favorite movie or movie genre?
If you weren’t a musician, what would you have become?
I would become what I in fact I already am: a mathematician with a PhD.
Your greatest triumph?
Being the subject of the award-winning W5 CTV / BBC international television documentary ‘Chairman George’ produced by EyeSteelFilm in Canada and directed by Daniel Cross a fellow Montrealer whom I met by chance on the other side of the world in China.
What do you like to do during your free time?
Swim laps and then meet friends for a home cooked meal.
What country would you like to visit?
Do you have any other upcoming projects to share with us?
We are creating new interpretations of Canadian popular and traditional repertoire in Chinese.
George From Athens To Beijing (2005)
Expect The World (2008)
Ouzo Power Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (2010)
Golden Night (2014)
Bringing to Greek Party to China! (2018)