Yanni: 'Tolerance is not a luxury, it is a necessity'
In this exclusive interview, the superstar composer talks about bringing cultures together through music – and reveals there's a new album in the works
If there was anyone who could provide a qualified opinion on the evolving state of the region’s live music scene, it would be Yanni.
The veteran Greek-American composer has been performing his brand of evocative and eclectic orchestral music – some call it “new age”, but it’s a tag he detests – across the Arab world for the best part of a decade.
Since his debut regional concert in Dubai in 2011, Yanni, 64, has made the Middle East a key part of his touring plans, with visits almost every year to perform half a dozen shows spread across Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, in addition to Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain.
And in true Yanni style, many of those shows are performed in spectacular settings, including to a backdrop of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2011, in Jordan’s Petra in 2016, and at the Giza Pyramids in Cairo in 2017.
With so much travel, Yanni (full name Yiannis Chryssomallis) says his Arabic phrasebook is growing.
“Actually, since you are here, maybe you can help me with a new one?” he asks, in this exclusive interview with The National, a few hours before his Valentine’s Day concert at a packed du Forum on Yas Island.
“Your name’s Saeed, and I know that means happy or glad. How can I use that in a greeting?”
After a few minutes of coaching, he records the phrase “ana saeed ana-hina fi Abu Dhabi” (I am glad I am here in Abu Dhabi), which he practises in his changing room and delivers perfectly at the beginning of the show to rapturous applause. I watch on from the audience proudly.
The role of music in the Year of Tolerance
Once the Arabic class is over, I ask Yanni about the latest exotic concert locale he added to his ever-growing list earlier this month – a performance in the Saudi Arabian desert city of Al Ula. How did that stack up against a list of venues that included landmark shows at India’s Taj Mahal in 1997 and China’s Forbidden City a decade later?
“That was mind-blowing,” he says. “I have never been in the desert, proper, before and all of us stayed in this beautiful tent – obviously it was all very well done so we were comfortable. My daughter was with me and she was taking pictures all night long. We never slept, we all just kept taking pictures.”
With Yanni having first performed in Jeddah in 2017, one of the first international artists to play a public show in Saudi Arabia, he says the live music scene has grown rapidly in the Gulf. “But it is not just about the new venues and buildings,” he says. “Music, or art in general, is about introducing cultures to each other. And that has been my mission for many years. This doesn’t mean what I do in Abu Dhabi stays here. I will be going soon to perform in North America, Russia and China, and there I will be talking about my experiences in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The more understanding all of us have for each other, the more we welcome – and the less we mistrust – each other.”
And on that note, Yanni has nothing but praise for the UAE Government’s Year of Tolerance initiative. “I just love that because tolerance is not a luxury, it is a necessity nowadays,” he says. “Everybody has a role to play in that. As a musician, if I can do my job right, I can open your heart and mind. At that point, maybe someone can tell you something and you can either accept it or be tolerant if you don’t agree with it. And that’s why I have been accepted and tolerated in so many places in the world.”
Why Yanni is critic-proof
That is both an eloquent and wry acknowledgment of Yanni’s dedicated fan base – there are nearly 40 international Yanni fan clubs listed on the artist’s website, including in Tunisia and Syria – and of his detractors. For the dedicated, Yanni’s blend of symphonic grandeur and world music experimentation is positively transcendent. He says he receives many letters from fans expressing gratitude for its healing properties. Then you have the detractors, a sizeable bunch of critics who view his compositions as aural wallpaper and lacking in substance.
Explaining his success, which includes the sale of more than 25 million albums and perennially sold-out world tours, Yanni says it ultimately comes down to the listeners investing themselves in the music. The more you give, he says, the more you receive. “And that’s because I don’t preach in my music. I don’t say ‘here, you should feel this or that’. I simply put it out there and whatever people understand, they receive. It all depends on how open their minds and hearts are.”
This perhaps explains the hazy and undefinable nature of Yanni’s songs. They are usually unstructured in the traditional way and don’t deliver a defined idea. Yanni, a psychology graduate, is not interested in seizing your nervous system with hooks. Instead, he knows the best way to get his point across is through sustained messaging. Signature tracks such as the nocturnal Nostalgia and the heroic Santorini – both performed in Abu Dhabi – ebb and flow and rely on creating a mood. It explains why he found early success as an in-demand composer for American TV movies (including 1988’s Heart of Midnight starring Jennifer Jason Leigh).
His fee for such work not only supplemented his solo album recordings, but eventually gave him enough to pay the $2 million (Dh7.3m) required to produce his career-defining 1994 live album and television broadcast, Live at the Acropolis, which remains a masterpiece of music and spectacle.
Yanni says it is this relentless focus on feeling rather than hooks that allows his work to transcend generations and withstand criticism. “I’m hoping with the music being instrumental, I’m making an experience and an emotion. I want to make them feel love, or happiness or whatever else they want to,” he says. “This way I can make people’s emotions just go up and down. Hopefully, by the end of the concert, everybody is flying, so to speak. They will go home thinking, ‘I don’t know why, but I feel great, I feel like I can do anything.’ That’s what I want to do.”
As for those who missed out on Yanni’s Abu Dhabi show, don’t worry. He told the crowd that he will return for another run of UAE dates: “And we will be back again and again.”
A new album in the works
Yanni’s Valentine’s Day gig in the capital wasn’t completely a greatest hits affair.
In fact, he used the occasion to perform the a new piece, the minimal piano-led When Dreams Come True. The song arrives to the Middle East after being ingeniously composed throughout his 60-date North American tour.
The way it happened was that, unbeknownst to the band and crowd, Yanni would disguise the new piece as various versions of an improvisation that he would perform during each show. By the end of the final show in Boston last August, the song was completed and ready to record in his home -studio in Los Angeles.
“I did it in one take,” he beams.
“I will definitely re-record it, maybe we’ll do orchestrations for it.”
Yanni confirms that it will be included in his next album, the follow-up to 2016’s Sensuous Chill. But that’s as much as he is willing to reveal.
When asked for a timeline on a new release, he quips: “Now, you are asking too many questions.”
Updated: February 28, 2019 11:54 AM