by Nova Herman
July 31, 2009
When one thinks about Greek music, the word traditional comes to mind - at least it did for me, before I became familiar with Saskatchewan's Arkadia. "It's not traditional Greek music at all," songwriter and performer Stephan Lentzos stresses. "We are breaking new ground…If a Greek person heard it, they would say, 'wow this is really unique and different'."
The band of Greek-Canadians have been aiming to be the alternative between pop and Greek music since 1997. Their first album was very successful, grabbing the attention of the music community and winning awards (Arkadia received several nominations for The Bridge/H Yefera at the 5th Annual Greek Canadian Music Awards 1999, with "Karthiochtipi" winning Song of the Year.)
Arkadia released their new album, Seismos in December 2001. While The Bridge was about connecting Greece and Canada, Seismos has less of a symbolic meaning and more of a thematic one. "A lot of songs on this album deal with the topic of change" explains Stephan, "The only constant in life is change. Within change there is disruption, and within disruption there is the world falling apart in some cases."
Hence Seismos, as in seismic, as in the world falling apart - in Stephan's words 'breaking new ground'.
It is an international change of mind that Arkadia ultimately seeks to achieve. "We are perceived as Greek music because we have Greek lyrics, but we want to take it to a point where if we do our job, it will be perceived as more than that, as what we like to think of as 'Ethnobeat'. When you hear African music, you don't think Zimbabwe, you think World. If we do our job that's the direction we want to take it."
Arkadia is composed of ten people in all, larger than your typical band. The group also has the additional challenge of having two of its members located across the country. Arkadia's bass player is in Ottawa and one of their singers in Toronto. They will fly both of them into the estimated 25 gigs they will perform this year. "The challenge (of a large band) is a logistical one. Trying to get everybody to a photo shoot on a Sunday afternoon at 2:00, instead of making three phone calls, you make nine. Advantages? People bring different ideas in, which adds more flavours, more colours to the band. And definitely more harmonies. Harmonies are becoming our trademark. We pay a lot of attention to that, and we think that really differentiates us not only from other Greek music, but from a lot of the stuff that you might hear on radio."
Stephan feels that although their music is different from the songs you would hear on popular radio, it is still able to reach a wide audience open to new experiences. "To me, music is just music and I think that's what I try to portray. It's not like I set out to say 'hey everybody this is Greek music and I'm going to reach you'. To me a good tune is a good tune. It doesn't matter what genre it is. It doesn't matter what language it's in. The biggest compliment I can get is somebody walking up to me that doesn't speak the language and saying, 'wow that's really good'. People are more willing to try something new or different these days."
Though he is a Greek-Canadian, surprisingly, Greek music is something that is relatively new to Stephan.
"To me it was the way you might feel when your parents put on opera - you didn't really want to hear it but it was in the background. I didn't really start looking at Greek music until "The Bridge" and since then I have been immersing myself in it a lot more."
Stephan took music lessons as a child and eventually began to play by ear. His approach to composing Greek music is no different than his approach to writing English tunes. "The first time, I was playing my guitar and something would come out and I would follow that lead. This time around I did the same thing, I think that's my style. All my songs come from the music. This time on Track #8, I tried to do what I call a sketch. I thought about my experience going to Greece and what it meant to me, so I tried to come up with a concept and hoped something would come out." He does admit the language continues to challenge him from time to time. To write a song, no matter what genre it is or what language it's in, and know that it's going to touch someone is hard enough. Try to do it in a language that you don't necessarily have mastered!"
Seismos is the next step in this process for Arkadia, and their fans continue to support their brand of music. Over four hundred people attended the CD release party in Regina, and the group is currently planning a tour of the Eastern seaboard.
"We've taken something that ought not to work - Greek/Global style music, living in the prairies – and we've turned it around to our advantage because we realize that not many people are doing what we are doing. So instead of accepting that, 'well we shouldn't be doing this', we've taken it to a different level, and it's forced us to think way beyond the borders of Saskatchewan."
Arkadia is now getting airplay around the world on Greek radio and in addition to doing North America shows, they are considering an Australian tour. "In Melborne, Australia there are more Greek people anywhere in the world except for Athens, so if you can hit a market like that you don't need to go anywhere else."
But Stephan is proud to call Saskatchewan home. "The endless sky, the possibilities are endless. You can do absolutely whatever you want. I think that's why we have so many good writers and musicians here. I think in some way the wide open space influences them, I'm sure it does."
"We've got a really good scene in Saskatchewan and it comes down to that you have to be very organized and you have to be planned in your marketing approach. The product definitely has to be there. If you've got something to say, say it, but make sure you do it right. If you go through all this trouble, a whole summer sitting in a hot basement recording when it's plus 30 outside, make sure you really want to do it. You've got to have passion. You have to really believe in it. To me that's the big 'x' factor that separates a band that does things at home and doesn't."
Is Arkadia doing it right? "I think so," reflects Stephan, "and it (the hard work) is all worth it, right down to every note."