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May 28, 1997


The world in your orchestra pit

Text and photographs by Suparn Verma

Violinist Karen Briggs
Karen Briggs, violinist
If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would meet a Greek man and perform all over the world with him," says violinist Karen Briggs, shaking her head in wonder, "I would have laughed in his face."

Karen, part of Yanni Chryssomallis' symphony orchestra, shot into fame after her solo performance at the Acropolis. "Earlier, I used to face a lot of opposition from purist players," she says. "But the Acropolis helped legitimise my form of music."

Karen, a sixth generation musician from the US, has decided to concentrate on her style. "It took me 10 years of hard work," she says, "to find out what I really wanted to do. And what I really wanted to do was jazz, church and gospel music -- and not the classical stuff I was doing then."

Working with Yanni has been a fair trade-off for Karen. "Initially, though, it was strange working with him. He could not understand why I played certain notes the way I did. There was a culture clash, too, but now, after six years of being together, he has a sense of what I'm trying to play. Besides, no one else offers outside talent such an opportunity. He writes the backdrop and we weave the cloth."

Pedro Eustache, flautist
Pedro Eustache,

Which, according to Venezuelan flautist Pedro Eustache, who dazzles with his virtuosity over flutes -- he plays the Chinese flute, the Armenian duduk and the Indian flute with equal ease -- is one of the reasons behind Yanni's success.

The other is his strongly-welded team. "Yanni's dedication and the level of perfection he expects from his musicians is so exaggerated that we rehearse continuously for seven-eight hours. He tapes every rehearsal and listens to the tapes till three in the morning. Yanni's extraordinarily perceptive mind has forged his music in a genre which does not exist."

Pedro's ambitions changed after he lost his daughter to brain tumour eight years ago. "Now, I want to be like Bach, who dedicated everything he created to God." To broaden the horizons of his art, he studied classical music in France, jazz in America and Indian classical with Hariprasad Chaurasia in India. "I can play Armenian music," he says modestly and is, at the moment, learning the Bangadeshi tipari.

Yanni at the Taj
Yanni at the Taj
Yanni's artistes come from all over -- from places as far-flung as Armenia, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Australia. Danny, the long-haired son of renowned Puerto Rican percussionist Walfredo Reyes Sr, has been with Yanni for the last two-and-a-half years. He freelanced for a long time, experimenting with jazz, pop and Latin music. "I have been fortunate enough to play an instrument and make money out of it. Making music, as far as I'm concerned is a miracle. Every time I play, I feel a river of energy flowing through me."

Virtuoso performances overwhelm Danny who still has to recover from his encounter with tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. "I met him two months ago; his performance left me shaking, I could not sleep that night." For all his enthusiasm, though, he misses his family a great deal. "I wish I could see the Taj with my wife. I really wish I could describe the feeling, but it's impossible. Seeing my son born is the only experience that beats it."

Danny teams up with Joel Taylor, who replaces Yanni's long-time drummer Charlie Adams. "Both Charlie and Joel are great drummers. Charlie was more aggressive, Joel is more from the heart."

Joel Taylor, drummer
Joel Taylor, drummer
Joel, who hails from Wyoming, has been at the drums since he was a kid of eight. "I pretty much taught myself till I was 20, which was when I joined the Berkeley school of music." In 1981, he moved to Los Angeles, where he now lives with his Japanese wife and three cats.

"I have been doing a lot of work for commercials. I played the drums on the latest Coke ad, as well as the Surge ad which was premiered at the Superbowl. As far as films are concerned, I have played the drums in B-movies only," he grins.

What he treasures most, though, is his tour with Dr L Subramaniam. "Dr Subramaniam's keyboard player, a good friend of mine, wanted me to play along with him. I also played the drums in Salaam Bombay." Besides, he's done a lot of jazz with musicians like Allen Holsworth, Bobby Coldwel, Henderson and Jeff Lorber.

Joel signed up with Yanni in March, after Charlie left. "I have never been in a band before," he admits. "But this is a steady source of income and the money is decent. Besides, I play for the music. I try to be really accurate, Yanni likes that." During the Taj show, Joel presented two short solos in Within Attraction and Marching Season.

Alfreda Gerald, on the other hand, has a classical background and has been singing in the opera for the last four years. "Yanni wanted a lead vocalist and put the word out. The specifics were that the candidate should be a mixture of Aretha Franklin and Shaka Khan," she smiles. "The best thing about being with Yanni is I get to sing everything I know -- R&B, gospel, opera."

Alfreda modulates her voice to emulate the sounds of instruments, "I like to touch people with my voice, which I consider to be a gift from God. Before going on stage, I apply a lot of body oils to keep away the flies and drink hot tea."

Jeanette Clinger, vocalist
Jeanette Clinger, vocalist
In fact, she and her partner Jeanette Clinger take such intensive care of their voice, they even brought their own canned food from the States. Jeanette, an accomplished singer, performer and song writer, has toured extensively with Sheena Easton to Hong Kong, Britain and the US.

Jeanette, who jokes her Christmas present last year was joining Yanni's troupe, started her career at the early age of four, as a singer on the Danny Kay television show. Having been brought up in a tour circuit family, she travelled the country with her family singing group for many years.

Finally, the wanderer settled down in Hollywood. "I have just released my album Catch A Dream. And I'll be recording new material based on my experience at the Taj as soon as I get back. In fact, I woke up this morning humming a new tune."

Ming Freeman, keyboardist
Ming Freeman,

Ming Freeman, Yanni's Taiwanese born keyboardist, also started young -- he was 11 when he turned professional. His first band, formed with the help of his brothers, Wesley and Tracy, was called Mother Goose. After migrating to the US, they joined an Asian-American band called Zhizen (natural man).

But the urge to branch out on his own was constant and, in 1978, he tied up with guitarist Ed Wing to form the East West Band which played a fusion of Asian and jazz music. From 1988, he worked with pop stars like Gladys Knight, Sheena Easton and Paula Abdul. Yet, it was only when he joined Yanni in 1994 that he experienced a sense of homecoming.

Ming, despite his waist-length tresses, has an impassive face. He prefers to let his work do the talking. The only time he opens up is when the topic veers towards Yanni. "I find Yanni's music very beautiful and inspiring. I am the glue here -- I hold everything together, the keyboard and the orchestra parts. I even support Yanni on the keyboards."

David Hudson on the dedgeridoo
David Hudson on the

This year, Yanni introduced a new sound to his orchestra in the form of the dedgeridoo -- the ancient music of native Australia. David Hudson, a native Australian from the Tajpukai/Guguyalangai, says, " Being part of Yanni gives more exposure to indigenous Australia. The didgeridoo is becoming very popular with people who like the sound and play it for the trend. This instrument will occupy the same place as the sitar did in the hippie movement. It's the ancient voice of the future."

The dedgeridoo it is a four-foot-tall ancient instrument made from the eucalyptus tree. It is hollow because the termites eat the inside out. The instrument has no keynote; the player vibrates his lips softly to create ancient earthy sounds from the traditional aboriginal instrument. "The trick," according to David, "is blowing and breathing at the same time."

David, who also dabbles in dance and acting (he recently featured in the Island of Dr Moreau with Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) has released a 12 CD compilation called The Sounds of Australia. During performances, he wears his native attire which represents the sawfish and consists of a bark around his waist and small white circles painted on his body.

Armen Anassian, conductor
Armen Anassian,

But Yanni is not just an amalgamation of sounds, says Armenian Armen Anassian, who joined him three years ago as a replacement for conductor Shardad Rohani. "Yanni knew me; at that time, I was conducting for my own group called Classical Band in California."

Armen is intimately involved in Yanni's creative process. "Yanni has surrounded himself with many talented people to make sure he has the right kind of musicians to create his music. Since he cannot read or write music, he writes his music in a shorthand which only he can understand. He plays his composition, records it and gives it to the music arranger who arranges it. That is when I meet the arranger and we start work. Yanni's music is very different, it has a bit of everything -- classical, jazz, rock and roll. That is why it appeals to everyone."

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