NEW YORK – When talented Greek artists like Eleni and Souzana Vougioukli grace the world’s great cultural venues like Carnegie Hall’s Weil Recital Hall, as they did with a recent concert, powerful and vital message is transmitted: The Hellenic achievement continues in spite of the crises and challenges.
The program described them as “two world music performers [who] present their authentic and intense repertoire based mainly on the human voice,” and intimate instruments. Eleni, who was born in Thessaloniki and grew up in Xanthi, and Souzana, who was born and raised in Xanthi, alternated on piano and guitar.
They began with a fascinating duet of two Thracian songs from their Northern Greece homeland, and then took the audience on a musical journey throughout the Mediterranean world,
The sisters sing in multiple languages and dialects, including the songs of the Greeks of southern Italy, Portuguese Fado, Sephardic Jews, and numerous Balkan traditions.
Their musical endeavors are a search for “the deeper root to each song.”
To the passion and mystery that was originally mined by composers and lyrists now gone – both known and unknown – the young women add new dimensions with their artistry and especially in the case of Souzana, unique and moving intonations.
The musicians were as comfortable performing American blues and Jazz as they were with age-old Mediterranean music, but they returned again and again to the Greek roots.
On some piece, both sisters sang, as in the Cypriot song that extolled the beauties of a girl named Iasemi – Jasmine: “Ta mavra matia Iasemi mou, ta fridia ta megala – Your dark eyes my dear Jasmine, your generous eyebrows.”
In the midst of a concert that evoked the feeling of humanity as one great family, they dedicated that song to a dear friend from Cyprus who could not attend as she was recovering from illness.
When it was time for two Rebetika – which they described as the Greek blues – Eleni announced that it was the audience’s one chance to get up and dance.
The invitation went unanswered – not through lack of desire, but no doubt because no one dared to miss a moment or a nuance of their performance.
The song Hariklaki, with its poignant lyric “zylevo kai kleo – I’m jealous and I am crying” was the opportunity for some trilling improvisation by Souzana on piano and for Eleni to delight on guitar and finger cymbals.
Eleni then walked to the piano for a song about dice and horse races – a story that rarely has a happy ending but makes for moving listening if you are not a recent victim – the great Tango song “Por Una Cabeza – Losing by a head – came to mind.
Souzana’s versatile voice took another turn with the Nickle Song. The sweet song with the lyrics “They put in a nickel and I sing a little song, da da, da da,” included some nice yodeling.
Both engagingly welcomed and thanked the audience and Eleni told them how proud they were to be able to perform at Carnegie. “It is a dream come true,” she said.
Their first CD, which introduced them to the wider musical world in 2009 was appropriately titled “Eleni & Souzana Vougioukli.“ The sisters have a new release, “To be safe”, which includes their own compositions, some of which they performed at Carnegie.
The sisters were introduced by the concert’s presented Leong Ying.
“I met the girls at a scientific conference in Nepal two years ago. Their father Thomas xxx is a famous Greek mathematician and I am a nuclear physiciast and they performed at our meeting and I became captivated.”
I met them at the top of the world but I brought them her to New York which we consider the center of the world. They are amazing talents and they always wanted to perfom her so I said “I have a drea, you have a dream, let’s make it happen.”
The event also had a charitable component. Leong is devoted to marathons – the new York marathon was two days and he himself ran in the 2500 anniversary marathon in Athens in 2011 – all proceeds from the autographed posters that they were selling will be contributed to The One Fund Boston for the victims and families of the Boston Marathon attack.