When Primavera en Salonico slide into one of their hypnotic Mediterranean grooves, the tension slowly builds. Then Savina Yannatou, the band's singer, opens her lips and takes you into another dimension, a place where space, time, and geography are suspended, filling listeners with a soulful sound that's at once achingly spiritual and frighteningly earthy, a pure timeless cry beyond words. She has an impressive multi-octave range that can soar in a heartbeat from a girlish giggle to the ageless howl of a dying old woman, all sung with a clarity and lack of effort that's astonishing. The six musicians of Primavera en Salonico -- Kostas Vomvolos, qanun, accordion and musical director, Yannis Alexandris, oud, guitar, Kyriakos Gouventas, violin, viola, Harris Lambrakis, ney, Michalis Siganidis, bass, Kostas Theodorou, percussion, bass -- have varied backgrounds stretching from free jazz to folk. Vomvolos assembled the band to back Yannatou for a single tour in 1993, but after a few concerts it was obvious that something special was happening, and they've been playing together now for 15 years. There is a lot of improvisation in the music, and while folk music has always been fluid, the jazz background of the players allows them to follow the vocal flights of their lead singer no matter where inspiration takes her. "Sareri Hovin Nermen," an Armenian folk song, is full of loss and yearning; Yannatou's anguished vocal and Lambrakis' ney create an aura of unbelievable melancholy. Ney figures heavily in the arrangement of the Bulgarian folk song "Za Lioubih Maimo Tri Momi." It starts off at a sprightly tempo with qanun and oud playing entwined rhythmic lines, then dissonant ney and bowed bass come in disturbing the harmony with their unsettling racket before Yannatou's voice returns to smooth things out. "Dunie-Au," a traditional song from Kazakhstan, gets a minimal arrangement, just Yannatou's soulful vocal and sparse percussion, with occasional oud, guitar, and qunan notes in the background. When Yannatou sings "Albanian Lullabye" alone it is indeed soothing, then Lambrakis' ney swoops in sounding like a carrion crow or a harpy and Yannatou jumps into her high register, a mother crying out to protect her child from the unseen powers of the night. It's another chilling moment, then peace returns and Yannatou ends the song with a whispered a cappella vocal, the melody sounding similar to "Amazing Grace." It segues neatly into the Ashkenazi hymn "Omar Hashem Leyakoyv." Yannatou sings sweetly accompanied by sustained notes from accordion and violin. The album's one uptempo track, "Radile," opens with one of Yannatou's wordless improvisations, squealing out notes that sound like a combination of vocal chords and violin, then the band comes in and ney, percussion, bass, and violin set up a swirling dancing rhythm full of unexpected shifts of time and tempo. The set closes with the melancholy, violin drenched Italian love song, "Addio Amore," and two Greek tunes: "Peperouna," played with an Arabic lilt accented by pulsating bass and percussion and slowly devolving into a conversation between Yannatou's wordless exclamations and a flurry of clattering percussion, and "Ah, Marouli" where Yannatou's ululating vocal is supported by the ensemble playing a measured Arabic groove. Western critics often use the word "otherworldly" when describing the music of Primavera en Salonico and Yannatou's unpredictable singing, and it's an apt description. The band's Mediterranean based fusion of styles is truly hypnotic, one of the most unique world music sounds you'll hear anywhere.
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AllMusic Review by AllMusic