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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Greek superstar Yanni: ‘My music is not just for entertainment – it goes beyond that’

Ahead of his first-ever concert in Abu Dhabi, globe-conquering Greek musician Yanni tells us about the highs and lows of an incredible career, why he almost walked away from it all – and what brought him back.
Greek musician Yanni took a surprise break from music after a very successful career in the mid-1990s. Getty Images
Greek musician Yanni took a surprise break from music after a very successful career in the mid-1990s. Getty Images

There was a time, not so long ago, when Yanni disappeared without a trace. At the height of his record-breaking, famous monument-ticking, mid-1990s success, Yanni suddenly walked away from it all.

The Greek composer of swirling, innocuously uplifting instrumental music – who will perform for the first time in Abu Dhabi on Thursday and Friday – had, in his own words, “burnt out”.

“I was pretty convinced I wasn’t going to be coming back,” says 61-year-old Yanni, speaking from his home in Florida. “I found that there is a line where if you cross it, you burn out – and I found it out by crossing it.”

On the eve of a 1998 Latin American tour, Yanni pulled the plug. His gargantuan touring juggernaut had got too much – a year earlier, he had performed record-breaking gigs at India’s Taj Mahal and the Forbidden City in China, two months apart.

He fled to his parents’ home back in Greece – he did not touch a piano for a year or give interviews for two years.

“They would have to put me in a loony bin if I continued – I would be gone,” says Yanni.

“So I did what every other brave boy does when he’s in trouble – I ran back home to my mum and dad.

“I did not play anything for a whole year. I wanted to know if the Yanni I knew could exist without music. Was I just connected to the music, if I couldn’t enjoy life otherwise?”

What was it that pulled him back from the brink? His fans, he says, because while his music may have been the thing driving Yanni crazy – and legions waiting in dentists’ waiting rooms, the world over, too – to converts it takes on a near-religious significance.

“What turned me around is very poignant,” says Yanni. “My sister – she was very wise – she brought me 60 to 80 letters from fans. I put them aside. I said: ‘I don’t want to get back into this stuff, leave me alone,’ and I just left them there for a month.

“One afternoon, I decided to just glance at the top one, I started reading and I never stopped. And I started crying – I remember that – I kept reading and crying ... I’m close to crying right now because I can feel it [again].”

Mixing syrupy synthesisers with lush orchestral sounds, Yanni’s easy-on-the-ear instrumental exoticism often attracts listeners in spiritual need, and is often associated with converts of the new-age movement – though despite topping Billboard’s new-age album chart at least 15 times, he detests that label.

“I realised I mattered to these people,” he says. “They were saying: ‘Your music is healing us’, ‘I went through therapy with your music’, ‘I beat cancer because of your music’, ‘I lost my husband and thought about committing suicide until I listened to your music’ – it was the fans that turned me around.”

Divisive though his music may be, Yanni’s huge success – more than 25 million albums sold – was unprecedented, and completely unpredictable. Think about it – he breaks all the rules. Typically packaged in two modes – poundingly heroic or reflectively ambient – his vocal-less electronic histrionics could never work on mainstream radio or music television.

Meanwhile, Yanni’s live show requires an expansive, and expensive, orchestra. The critics, of course, would not touch him with a long stick.

But Yanni’s solution was to defiantly do it his way regardless.

Born in 1954, the son of a Greek banker, Yiannis Chryssomallis moved to the United States at the age of 18 to study. It was only after gaining a degree in psychology that he began a career in music, releasing an increasingly ambitious – and successful – string of largely self-produced, keyboard-led instrumental albums starting in the mid-1980s.

The big breakthrough came in 1994 with the release of Live at the Acropolis – an epic, career-defining concert with a 60-piece orchestra, which had been filmed a year earlier at a 2,000-year-old Greek amphitheatre.

Framed by Athens’ looming Parthenon, the live album and concert film sold seven million copies, while TV broadcasts reportedly reached 500,000 viewers in 65 countries.

Yanni paid for every penny of the US$2 million (Dh7.3m) spectacle himself.

“It was the biggest gamble of my career – my life,” he says. “I can’t even quantify it. Everybody around, including my record company, advised me with intensity: ‘Do not attempt to do anything like this, it will fail and you will lose all your money.’

“I spent every last penny I had – by the time I finished editing, I had maybe $50,000 to my name.”

The success of the Acropolis concert set Yanni’s formula for conquering famous sites, paving the way for the Taj Mahal and Forbidden City shows, as well as concert spectacles at Russia’s Kremlin, Byblos in Lebanon, the pyramids of Egypt – and, in 2011, a historic show in the shadow of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.

There have been return visits to Dubai World Trade Centre in 2013 and Sharjah’s Al Majaz Amphitheatre in November last year, but the 2011 show is a memory Yanni holds dear, admitting there is “no reason to even try” and top that performance when he comes to Abu Dhabi.

“I’m at the best part of my life right now,” he says. “I am absolutely blown away with my art.

“My music is not just for entertainment – it goes beyond that, and that I did not do on purpose.

“I never sat down to write a peace of music to help you avoid the pain of chemotherapy, or heal yourself, or stop the pain because you lost your wife or husband or child ... I wrote all the music, within my heart, with what I feel about humanity.”

• Yanni performs at du Forum, Yas Island, on Thursday and Friday. Tickets from Dh495 at www.ticketmaster.ae.

rgarratt@thenational.ae