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Mode Plagal
The Uncle from Chicago, the Attack of the Sevenths and other stories
Mode Plagal
Takis Kanellos talks with RootsWorld's Nondas Kitsos
about the past, the present and the future of Mode Plagal.

Mode Plagal, an inspired, pioneering Greek jazz-folk fusion group, is unique in Greece and beyond, for its ability to cover over-familiar (and thus, potentially boring) material in a way that sounds fresh and new, carrying the Greek vernacular into the 21st century better than almost anyone else in the country today.

They have been going strong for twenty-five years as friends and fifteen years as a group, releasing their first album (Mode Plagal I) on AnoKato Records in 1995, before moving to Lyra Records where they released their next two albums (I and II) and then their collaboration with the Istanbul-based ensemble Bosphorus titled Beyond the Bosphorus on Hitch-Hyke Records. Apart from their own considerable success both within and beyond Greece, the three primaries in the ensemble, Thodoris Rellos, Takis Kanellos and Kleon Antoniou, are also sought-after session musicians and can be found behind recent successes by Alkinoos Ioannidis, Eleni Tsaligopoulou, Yiota Vei and Vassilis Skoulas; on recent projects by Greece's homegrown Dylan, Dionysis Savvopoulos; and in projects such as 667 and 'mandata sound.' Their session work results in the emergence of new ideas but also brings out the negative side, like the tension associated with playing in front of large audiences, day in and day out, performing material other than your own.

One late September day in 2005, in Thessaloniki, Mode Plagal's drummer and founding member, Takis Kanellos, talked about the past, the present and the future of Mode Plagal, touching on many of the subjects that are crucial for understanding the inner working of this unique ensemble: how they first encountered the Greek tradition, their relation to jazz, their belief and faith in the power of music, their future plans and dream collaborations, their desire to bring out the relevance of the vernacular music for today's audiences, the deconstruction of the technical details behind their success, their views on their success abroad and their future plans. It is a story with unfamiliar angles, based on coincidences and centered around friendship, inquisitiveness, quality and the joy of life.

Act I: The Past

When the three founding members of Mode Plagal first came together in 1980, they came from different backgrounds but had similar objectives. Antoniou was into rembetika, which was with him from infancy - his parents used to listen to traditional music from Epirus and rembetika and he was known to sing that kind of music in feasts and parties. Rellos was into Byzantine music and influenced by relatives like his uncle, a cantor in the Greek church. Kanellos was playing rock, blues and jazz. All three, however, liked jazz and its power of improvisation. They liked the spirit it gave them to produce music "without the need of an overwhelming virtuosity," as he self-effacingly put it. He says it was not a conscious effort to do something complicated or analytical, but rather to make music that would flow and be danceable, whether it was in a dance-alienating 17/8 or not. Their influences were multiple, but they focused on the great popular musical styles of Britain and America: rock, blues and jazz, and later New Wave, funk, soul and hip-hop.

They also were influenced by groups and singers from Greece and abroad - Led Zeppelin, Socrates (Drunk the Conium), Bourboulia, Poll, Area, and later Police and famous Greek jazz players Sakis Papadimitriou and Floros Floridis. Kanellos believes that the way Papadimitriou would hammer his piano or Floridis would play in a completely atonal mode opened their eyes to the freedom of jazz.

It was also during the Eighties that they were first introduced to ethnic influences from abroad - reggae, Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Youssou N'Dour and Peter Gabriel's various collaborations. The three of them were at a crossroads: they liked jazz and improvisational music for its freewheeling power and they all had grown up listening mostly to non-Greek music, but by 1990 they had reached a point where they were ripe for change. They felt that the traditional jazz scene had reached its saturation point and could see no reason for them: "to play jazz in the way you play a Coltrane part." There was a need in the Greek scene for new things to emerge. They tried a more ethnic sound ("including a lot of percussion and jungle-like sounds") in a live performance on Greek Public Radio in 1989. But it was coincidence that led them to delve into tradition and let it encompass their sound: a crate of records from an ethnomusicological series of traditional music from the whole of Greece that Rellos' uncle from Chicago asked him about. Kanellos relates the story:

"(Around 1990), we got our hands on some tapes of traditional Greek songs and instrumentals from the Simonas Karras Collection ("Syllogos Pros Diadosin tis Ethnikis Mousikis" – Association for the Propagation of National Music). (…) Thodoris (Rellos) bought each one of them and didn't listen to them, just put them in a crate and send them off (to an uncle of his in Chicago who had asked for them). It was a large collection and after some time the uncle taped those vinyl records and send him back those tapes which Thodoris listened to and got us to listen to them too."
Mode Plagal According to him, it was a sort of homecoming for the three of them, their return to Ithaca - it was like their exploration of music had finally come to fruition in the place where they had started. They had rediscovered this treasure trove of Greek traditional music - its value was uncontested but they had not paid any attention, focusing instead on foreign music. So they decided to focus on welding together those two elements, the foreign influences with the Greek tradition, to create something timeless, not reproducing the existing songs but focusing on contemporary experiences rather than "the princess in the castle waiting for her prince," as Kanellos put it. Part of that process was their emphasis on using non-traditional instruments: the drums, the bass, the guitars, the saxophone and the piano, instead of bagpipes and tambourines.

This collection arrived at the right time, as the culmination of a process that had already started in the Eighties when they had first set out listening to songs from Epirus with their pentatonic scales, a mode used in Africa (and American blues), Asia and other musical traditions.

"I remember in particular a song from Thrace called "Black Swallow" that in the Karras' collection exists as a bagpipes-and-voice-only version. Listening to that sound I felt that something really ancient was in there, something primordial. The song could exist in that version, being transmitted from generation to generation without the need for any technological gimmickry or electricity for many centuries."

Apart from the pentatonic scale, the variation in rhythms of the Greek traditional songs and the uniqueness of them in the world provided another creative spark:

"We also saw that there were rhythms that could not be found in any other part of the world. On a global scale, most traditions use rhythms based on the fourths and the thirds or the sixths which is two times three, the twelfths etc. Those can be found all over the world. In Macedonia and Thrace, however, you'll come across what we call sevenths, ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, fifteenths etc. and that mesmerized us, this rhythmical variety, because it was like a toy we had not come across before and that we wanted to get involved with. Of course, in the Indian Classical tradition there are all those complicated rhythmical systems but they do not exist in the same way. They change all the time, unlike the Greek musical traditions that are simpler and follow the same rhythm from the beginning to the end.

"Actually, around that time, in the early Nineties, a friend of ours, Dimos Dimitriadis, who was studying saxophone at Berkeley, in the States, also got involved in that and he brought us a transcription of a traditional instrumental from Florina that he believed it was in 17/8. So we go: 'what on earth is that?' and we started playing, following that rhythm and we tried to make it funkier and I must admit that for some time we were really addicted to this whole 17/8 thing and of how to play it. I actually remember we were in the Sykies Jazz Festival in Thessaloniki (I think it was in '93) and we were playing the 17/8 and I lost it at some point, because we still didn't know it that well, so I lost it because I lost my attention ... then I tried to find "1" again and I couldn't... it was a real mess. We actually recorded that. Anyway, since it actually is a 7/8, a 3/8 and another 7/8 the excuse I used for the guys was that I really didn't know where all those sevenths were attacking me from... some years later I came across some musicians from the Florina region and nobody knew it as a 17/8, but everybody said it was a 16/8 and so in the last couple of years I've reached the conclusion that most likely that rhythm didn't actually exist."

Once this initial spark of creativity set Mode Plagal aflame, more coincidences and solid work got them moving. Their international career, for example, was boosted by a positive review in an American magazine, Modern Drummer, and invitations to play abroad were accepted on a piecemeal fashion.

Their third record was a departure. They decided that III would be collaborations with a number of guest vocalists. This provided the opportunity for the band to move forward, to work in different ways and to build upon their session work, as well as an opportunity to include new material on their records, such as rembetika. For example, they used to play "Lads across your neighborhood" live as Tsaligopoulou's backing band. The song appealed to them as they felt they could tamper with it and make it their own. "Thracian Christmas Carols" was recorded live in the studio, with Savina Yannatou getting into a dialog with the saxophone. They played with the melodies and it became a true collaboration, something quite different for them. In general, Kanellos felt that when there is a guest singer: "(…) we are certainly a little bit more reserved; there is a kind of respect. Between us there is a war going on."

Beyond The Bosphorus
Beyond the Bosphorus posed new challenges. It was commissioned by Nikiforos Metaxas as a collaboration with his ensemble Bosphorus, and was to be a place where Mode Plagal's own compositions would be featured for the first time. It is also where they first began using the Oriental timbre. According to Metaxas: "We did it with a lot of pain and love, believing that only the power of true love can unite all the paradoxes and opposites which one finds in this mother of all cities [Istanbul]. This was the reason we tried to merge all kinds of musical trends and sounds."

Its follow-up, of which "a draft copy (exists) but I'm not sure when exactly it will happen and how," is tentatively named Underground Cities and is dedicated to Cappadocia (famous for its outstanding natural beauty and its Byzantine churches and monasteries carved into the rock of the mountains) and both bands are looking for a sympathetic record company to issue and distribute it, as Greek record companies lack the necessary funds to fully back it, the way these records deserve to.

Act II: The Present

Although the Greek music scene has a lot of nuances and a lot of artists who could be of interest to audiences beyond the country's borders, with a few notable exceptions, it's been really difficult for most Greek artists to find their audiences abroad. Not so for Mode Plagal, who seem to have found the magical key to the people's heart. According to Kanellos, this is because their mix of the unfamiliar Greek melodies and rhythms coupled with the familiar timbres of the jazz-rock band let the foreign audiences see something of themselves in it. It is something that people have mentioned to them in many places abroad, including Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and Syria.

I also asked him about how they come to pick a song and if there is a difference between their work on a traditional theme and their own compositions:

"We usually like the songs, the themes and one of us would get one, somebody else another, someone might have imagined of something, there is a fermentation of sorts and then through blood, sweat and tears an end result appears that might be quite different from the initial idea but we are always keen on retaining the melody and the rhythm.

"My own XYZ piece would go through the same review process by the band… it's not easy for one person's idea to get accepted by the others, we have to sit down and talk it over, it's quite painful the way in which you produce an artistic product, even if it's a cover version or our own piece."

When asked about his feeling towards live performances versus the studio, Kanellos said that he personally preferred live, because the studio poses a danger of losing spontaneity. He expressed his desire to make a live album, something far closer to what the band sounds like that would also show their interaction with their audience.

Act III: The Future

Their new record will be their own compositions, mostly songs, although some traditional material is planned as well. They hope it will be out: "before spring 2006, but I don't know if we can make it." They are currently exploring their options regarding its distribution, including: "(…) whether we will distribute our CDs over our [web] site or create our own label. But right now we are in limbo regarding the record company that will publish our next record. "

Among their future projects are more collaborations, including African and Moroccan musicians they had met and played with during the "Jazz aux Oudayas 2004" festival in Rabat. They are currently working on plans to meet again to record or perform together in the near future.

Mode Plagal is a group that has a firm grip on the technical details of their music and they play some of the most improvisational music in Greece today. They have a unique ability to filter through all the information out there and find influences that will help them enrich their music. Their extended session work expands their musical horizons and perfects their performing skills, and their live performances allow them to interact with a demanding audience. It is a sign of the times that a band so important to the Greek musical scene, with a worldwide audience and a unique spirit, has trouble securing a record deal. My hope is that IV and Underground Cities will be recorded soon, somewhere, so the improvisational and collaborative curiosity of Mode Plagal can continue to enrich our lives. - Nondas Kitsos

Visit the band's web site

Past RootsWorld reviews:
Beyond the Bosphorus

Some CDs are available from cdRoots

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