Yanni An Artist in Constant Renewal

The Greek-American musician and composer Yanni recently wrapped up a tour of several Latin American countries. Panorama of the Americas caught up with the artist on one of his stops and spoke with him about his musical ideas and projects.

By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez / EFE

The stage lighting is dim, deep midnight blue, interrupted only slightly by direct lighting on the musicians and scores. The murmur of the audience is broken by a clarion call that leads to a fanfare of strings and brass. Yanni’s entrance quickly follows; dressed in his customary black attire, he sits down at the piano to play One Man’s Dream, one of his anthems, and the overture to a two and a half-hour crescendo. The Greek-American musician plays with intensity, switching between piano and eight electronic keyboards, while directing ten musicians. And this concert, held in Panama last June, was no exception: wild applause from his fans tends to begin with the very first song of every concert.

From the very beginning of his career in 1992, Yanni’s compositions have been characterized by grand overtures and triumphant, rousing airs that have made him a favorite among contemporary instrumental composers. His latest musical compendium, Sensuous Chill, has pleasantly surprised listeners with its playful and relaxed air.

Panorama of the Americas spoke with the Greek-American composer and musician about his work and the new challenges he faces. “Sensuous Chill is a unique album; I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if I’ll do it again. I wanted something completely different, to change everything, get out of my skin, let some fresh air into the attic, work with different musicians, open the door to a little fun. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I’d release it,” he explains.

It was a bit of a return to his pop and rock origins. “I wanted something fresh, to get away from the piano a bit and back to my roots from thirty years ago. And even though the rhythms are a little stronger, the structure of my melodies remains. You can hear Yanni in them.” In any event, the concert in Panama, which was part of a tour that included San José (Costa Rica) and several cities in México, sought to reflect this new vision, while respecting his characteristic style. “I’m playing a lot of my favorites, but also new material, songs that my audience hasn’t heard before. The concert is full of colors, unpredictable, a journey with an ending you can’t really anticipate. That’s how I like it: to see surprise in the eyes of my audience.”

The surprises that characterize the artist’s performances have much to do with his ability to incorporate into each of his works melodies from different cultures and ethnic groups, including those from Latin America. “The Latin flavor has always been in my music and I work with many Latin musicians. And whenever I hear a new instrument, say the Armenian   duduk   or the Australian didgeridoo, I look for ways to incorporate it into my music. There are no limits to our imagination and creativity.” Another characteristic element of Yanni’s shows has been his taste for performing at World Heritage Sites. The Acropolis (Greece), Teotihuacan (México), Morro de San Juan (Puerto Rico), and the ruins of Panama la Vieja have all served as stages.

“These shows are extremely difficult to stage —it took us three years to organize the concert at the Acropolis— but they’re magical places. You know that when your audience sits down and is looking at the Taj Mahal, for example, it’s a very different feeling than the one you get when you sit down in a theater to look at a stage. And we performed differently at the Taj Mahal: the moon was full. We were the first to play there and we’ll most likely be the only ones, given how difficult it is to get permission,” he adds.

The musician, however, feels less than comfortable with the classification of his music as New Age. This may seem contradictory since his career, along with the careers of countless others seeking to unite ancient musical traditions with modern composition techniques and instrumentation, began at the same time as the movement.

“I don’t think the kind of music I compose follows any specific trend. For example, in the 1990s, rap music became very popular, then it was hip-hop and techno; but I just kept on making the music I felt in my heart and that was never negotiable. It can be risky following trends; you can dry up, or people might suddenly stop following the trend. I guess I was lucky because I’m still here.”

This is Yanni’s secret for remaining current throughout a career now into its third successful decade: stay true to your own idea of art, without closing the door on the influences around you. A secret that will surely continue to drive him in the future. “I feel strong enough to continue making music. I think I’m getting better as I get older, as I continue to learn. I write better music and my performances are better. My imagination grows even more colorful thanks to my travels and I feel I’ve a lot of new things to say and a lot of new music to compose.”

Panama was the last stop on his Latin American tour this year. New stages await Yanni in North America and the Middle East. “I’m just happy to have toured the world, playing my music and refreshing it as I go. There are countries where I’ve never been, others, like Panama, which I’m visiting for the second time, and others that I’ve seen twenty or thirty times. The most important thing for me –and let me write this out for you, because it’s ancient Greek– is gnothi seauton: Know Thyself. This gives you the strength to overcome difficulties and remain clear about where you’re going.”