Bringing the Stage to Life with Magda Giannikou
April 5, 2017
Being a talented musician is one thing, but knowing how to command a crowd and tell a story with your music is a whole other beast altogether. Reeling souls in, peaking their interest, relating to them through the universally emotional power of music, and taking them along for the ride–that’s what Magda Giannikou embodies when she takes her place onstage. Accordion in hand and a lifetime full of cultural memories under her belt, she manifests a story effortlessly and brings the joyful relationship between artist and audience to life.
As the frontwoman for Banda Magda, she pours her heart, soul, and life’s story into every note, every bridge, every lyric. She’s a storyteller in every sense of the word. In anticipation of her upcoming collaboration with Nu Deco Ensemble next Thursday through Saturday, April 13th – 15th at The Light Box alongside a world-premiere tribute to Prince, we dove deep into her theatrical roots, background, and sense of expression. Take a look:
Your live performances merge theatrical storytelling like masks, characters, and plot twists. Where did this love for theater come from?
Watching my mother build sets for her school plays (she has been an art and music teacher for 40 years), sitting by her while she illustrates her books, watching musicals with my dad. I grew up in a very creative household. I trace it back to that and my passion for stories and literature. Integrating theatrical elements is a relatively new thing for us, but we plan to explore it more and more! I find the prospect of using improvisation both in acting and music so intriguing. It also feels so connected to my childhood and there is a lot of good, playful energy coming from that realization.
Why do you think it’s important to involve the audience into your performances?
I think that comes naturally to me. I used to be an educator in schools with 30 kids in a class – a great lesson in interactivity, attention span, fearlessness. I feel they were my first audience. Perhaps the effortless interaction I have with our fans as a bandleader has its roots in that era of my life. I feel that audience participation veers towards that, if directed in a way that not only accentuates the music, but also creates in them a sense of accomplishment. Our audience participation is not simple, it’s meant to be challenging. For me the beauty is when the segment of music they are asked to perform gets better and better by the second, seeing them feel the progress. Those little interactive bits during our shows are a symbol of how we can all improve if we try, and the power of working as a team.
Lately we have been also incorporating theatrical audience participation. It has become one of the highlights of our shows. It’s a little story that we ask 3 volunteers to perform. What’s crazy about it, is that every night, the story goes somewhere else, and all of that depends on the personality and interaction of the guest actors that are drawn from the crowd. Nothing is planned beforehand, all improvised. It’s AWESOME!
For me, an integral part of my work as an artist, is to encourage open-mindedness and confidence and push people to express and discover themselves.
How do you think music helps you tell stories? And connect with people?
Definitely. I think the fact that we are touring so much globally confirms this notion. We sing in Greek, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, and yet we have played rooms where no one spoke any of these languages and still felt 100% engaged with the music.
What inspires you about music the most and how can listeners feel that in what you create?
I find inspiration in stories, in beautiful landscapes, in languages, in fleeting moments, in drawings and collages, in long walks in Manhattan, in folkloric music, in 50’s and 60’s cinema, in musicals, in so many things! I see colours in everything I write. I think I see the color before I hear the music. Sometimes I wonder if my audience can see the same thing when they listen. Curious!
In your opinion, is music the most powerful way of connecting with people?
I think art is, in all its expressions, so long as it’s honest and well-crafted.
How do your cultural backgrounds and extensive travel knowledge affect the music you make?
Tons! A lot of initial melodies and ideas can be traced back to childhood, in language and music I learnt as a child. Traveling molds my musical aspirations as well in many ways. Sometimes it’s the experience of local musicians and their culture or it can be even more abstract. Certain landscapes trigger certain emotions that then lead to a different way of thinking. With every trip we take, my expectations and assumptions become weaker and weaker and I find myself more open to new ideas and [ways of] thinking.
Does your home country of Greece translate into the way you create music in any way?
I’d say yes, but not in a very obvious way. The influences are not immediately discernible, for the most part. I think Greek hospitality is the strongest. It almost feels like that in every show, I invite our audiences to a dinner party. I am a host. A good host needs to be kind, generous, warm, considerate and give the necessary energy to make the dinner party entertaining, connective, enjoyable and heartwarming.
Is it difficult to express thoughts and ideas in different languages or does it push you to explore a new side of self expression?
I wouldn’t call it difficult. I think it just gives me more options to express the feeling/concept. In a sense, these things come quite organically, a song starts from the beginning paired with a certain language. I am fascinated by language – both in sound and meaning. I hear language as another instrument. The vowels and consonants feel almost like a drum set: S is a hi-hat and P,B are bass drums. K is a rim shot. The way I write is many times determined by the sound, even more than the meaning. It’s also interesting to see how various languages accentuate various hues of my personality.
What do you love the most about collaborating with other artists? Any collaborations that have affected your music in particular?
I find collaborations with other artists very enriching. The colours become brighter and the experience more vibrant. They also push me to directions that I would never had thought of on my own, and I love the challenge. Singing with Louie CK is an unforgettable one, and I really enjoyed composing and performing with the Kronos Quartet. Probably the most enriching collaborations of my life to date has been my participation in Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner Vol.1 at the Jefferson Center in Viriginia. That experience led the way to many more projects and friendships that have formed a unique joint global artistic community, for which I am vastly grateful. That’s also the first time I got to work with our amazing manager, Dylan Locke, who was the artistic director of the Jefferson Center at the time.
You performed in Miami for the recent GroundUp Music Festival. How was that? And what did you think about Miami as a whole?
I LOVE Miami! I really felt so much at home during that visit. I grew up by the sea and so the proximity to the ocean always makes me deeply happy. North Beach lended itself beautifully as the festival’s backdrop, creating a setting that was gorgeous, playful and rejuvenating. Since then, I have been developing a lot of great relationships with local musicians and music educators that are all part of this great new artistic wave that embraces diversity and encourages discovery. After our performance with Nu Deco I plan to stay in Miami for a couple of weeks to teach at Live! Modern School of Music and get to know the city better. Hopefully also relax a little!
What can the audience expect from your collaboration with Nu Deco? And how does it feel to envision your music amplified by an orchestra?
Not sure if it’s widely known, but before Banda Magda I was all about orchestra and film music. I graduated Berklee College of Music in Film Scoring while at the same time studying composition and orchestra with Dennis LeClaire in Boston for many years. Since I became a bandleader, that passion for orchestra had to take a back seat. However, through the years I always tried to keep the love strong, writing and performing with youth orchestras and our own Banda Magda String Orchestra, a project that combines our rhythm section sextet with a string octet.
Our collaboration with Nu Deco is our very first with a professional orchestra and we are thrilled to share that experience with them. I met Sam and Jacomo in Miami and they are such a motivated, inspiring and hard-working team. They are very open-minded and I am intrigued by the potential of this collaboration. I think the audience should expect surprises!
How does it feel to be an artistic and musical force in a male-driven industry? Does it inspire you to empower other women in any way?
I don’t linger on the thought. I focus on my work and I always try to be kind, respectful, hard-working and take care of business. Gender has nothing to do with value and humanity. Like Bjork said in one of my favorite interviews of hers. “I want to see women that are characters and that can be themselves. Number 1,2,3.. can be what they are and number 10, yes, they happen to be women.” My value as a human being defines me, not my gender. The way I would like to inspire other women in the industry is to be fearless leaders, trust in their vision and their craft, and follow their dreams with passion.
And there you have it! A true artist and connector at heart. Be sure to get your tickets to this world-premiere collaboration, it’ll be a once in a lifetime show!