Soaking Up Pan-Cultural Influences with Nana Simopoulos

Nana Simopoulos 2

Finding and recombining is what instrumentalist Nana Simopoulos does best on her new CD “Skins.”

A prominent, insistent beat on the track “Merely to Know” occupies the same space as a guitar, sax and ethereal vocals. Each instrument has its own tonal qualities but none eclipses the other in a democracy of improvised creation.

The fat, melodic sax intro to “Anases” is a tasty counterpoint to the delicacy of Greek vocals that lie like lace throughout this quite pretty song.

“Owl Woman” is tinged with Western and non-Western scales and intervals, and serves as an excellent contrast to mainstream expectations.

Surprises on each track make this album an unexpected aural experience.

When did you learn sitar and guitar?

My parents started both my older sister and I on piano when I was five years old, and a year later I announced to my parents that I wanted to play guitar and not piano. My dad and I took folk guitar lessons. My parents had given me an electric guitar when I was 8 and Jimi Hendrix was my hero. My first solo guitar concert was at age 10 and I played an arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” in a school talent show.

I became aware of the sitar at age 21 when I saw Collin Walcott from the group Oregon playing the instrument in Boulder, CO when I was a music student at the Naropa University summer school. I was very impressed by the sound and the look of the instrument. It wasn’t until I was already a professional musician that I had the opportunity to find one and learn how to play it. I had written music for a documentary that was shown at the Bombay Film Festival in 1989, and went to India with the director of the film who was East Indian and living in New York. I was then invited to watch lessons given by master sitarist Arvind Parikh and at the same time I studied with one of his nephews.

What attracted you to the sound these instruments make?

I don’t remember why I chose the guitar when I was so young. I friend of mine said that I may have asked my parents to learn sitar but they understood guitar! I thought that was very funny. After all, there were no sitars in our world, living in Baltimore and raised by Greek immigrant parents.

I also play the Greek bouzouki which emerged out of the Byzantine era. I heard Byzantine chanting at churches in Greece when we moved back at age 12 and all though high school. The sitar has a droning sound that is reminiscent of the constant tone of Byzantine chanting so it was familiar. It also has sympathetic strings and rich overtones which make the sound evocative and magical. 

What is your first memory of hearing jazz?

After living in Greece until I was 19, I transferred to Duke University. In my senior year there I heard my housemate’s boyfriend, also a student at Duke, playing jazz guitar in her room. His fingers were moving so fast and lyrically and he was clearly not playing anything written but was improvising.

I was fascinated and asked him to give me some lessons. Up until then, I was playing classical guitar, and some flamenco, folk and rock guitar.

My housemates were listening to Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie and Chick Corea. I recall someone was having a vinyl records sale. I bought Billie Holiday’s Verve sessions and started learning the standards she was singing. I also bought a duet album with Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass. His guitar playing influenced me a great deal. That year Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie and his orchestra performed at Duke, and I had the rare opportunity to hear them live. I also heard Sarah Vaughan live in a concert in San Francisco soon after I graduated. 

How do you take care of your voice?

Diet and exercise. Vitamin C makes the voice crystal clear. I make sure not to eat any junk food at all and keep to a low carbohydrate, low sugar diet. I exercise by riding my bike and swimming all year. I also try to get enough good sleep. I sing every day, too.

How do you switch among the different instruments/voice?

Music is a language of its own. The various instruments are just tools to express myself with, like the colors of a canvas. My favorite thing is to combine each of my instruments with unusual sounds. Right now, I have an ensemble with a vocalist who also plays slide guitar which is a very American sound, and it happens to sound wonderful with the bouzouki and the sitar. It feels natural to switch instruments on stage and I like the effect of having different colors during a live performance. I am used to singing and playing whatever instrument I am holding. 

Why is world fusion important to you?

I realized early on that as a jazz musician it would be very difficult if not impossible to say more than what the greats had already said such as Charlie Parker, Pat Martino and Billie Holiday. Having been raised in two distinct cultures and wanting to play jazz, it occurred to me that in order to express my individuality I could draw on my cultural experiences.

That lead me to use Greek rhythms in my jazz compositions and experimenting with different instruments in my compositions developed from there.

I enjoy expressing emotions such as joy, melancholy, celebration and even humor. I have one piece called “Eyebrows” where the audience and the band members raise their eyebrows at each other while the sitar bends the strings as our eyebrows go up and down. 

Whom are your bandmates these days?

My constant band member is my wife Caryn Heilman who plays percussion, keyboards and sings. We have been singing harmony together for many years now and our voices blend very well together. We are able to do a full evening performance just the two of us.

A long-standing member of my band is bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, whom I have recorded with and we have been playing in each other’s bands as well. In Greece I have a bassist and a percussionist whom I play with on a regular basis. With the Greek percussionist Solis Barkis, we use our voices as a percussion instrument. Most recently I have begun a collaboration with Pat Wictor in New York City who plays slide guitar and sings, and we also use our voices as percussion instruments.

Flutist and vocalist Wendy Luck has also joined our ensemble and along with Pat Wictor we are able to have moments during our concerts for vocal improvisation and use our instruments during others. This is a unique feature of our concerts.

I have one favorite sax player in Athens, Sam Marlieri, and one in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, Charlie Tokarz, who plays two horns at the same time.

What was it like to perform at the 911 Memorial?

I was incredibly moved and honored to have been asked by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to curate a “Call to Prayer” with musicians I chose for the 10-year memorial. Each group or individual I found represented a different country and tradition. I invited Tibetan monks, a Hindu vocalist and choir, a Sufi musician, a Jewish cantor and a group of 15 chanters from the Byzantine Cathedral in New York and an African drum and vocal ensemble. At the end I brought them back on stage after each one performed their traditional music. All 40 musicians then sang and played a piece that I wrote in an ancient Greek scale with Greek lyrics that translate to “I Will Remember You.” It was wonderful to hear them improvise in their own language and also sing in Greek all together:

What was your experience at the Jazz Panorama?

Highly enjoyable playing with Hayden Chisholm, who is a remarkable New Zealand saxophonist living in Belgrade, and also with Caryn; and Manos Loutas on bass and Solis Barkis on percussion. The audience was warm and readily sang a circle song with me at the end of the concert.

The reviews were outstanding and greatly lifted my spirits. It had also been many years since I had played in Athens with the great jazz drummer John Betsch. We had just performed at the Jazzy Colors Festival in Paris a few weeks before where John lives. We had a great time reminiscing about the musicians we knew and loved who are gone. Jim Pepper, the Native American sax player, was one of them. After the show we went upstairs to the bar/restaurant and the DJ recognized us and found a recording of John and Jim Pepper’s, which utterly blew John’s mind and brought him to tears. 

What are the challenges to working with an ensemble from different countries?

Not much as long as there is enough time to rehearse the music. My music is based on a good deal of improvisation inside a structure with melodies and parts for the different musicians to play.

The musicians are usually great at reading the parts and improvising over the harmonies. We usually need two days to go over the music together, but I typically send the scores to them at least a month in advance so they have time to learn the music on their own.  The biggest challenge is going into a venue that is new and having to adjust to different stages, sound equipment and sound engineers.

Years ago, the sound engineers would not listen to me or even ignored me altogether even though I was the band leader because I am a woman. That has changed now partly because I am clearly in charge and I have more authority now that I am older and the climate in general around women has changed.

What do you like about the jazz festivals like Montreux?

I like the opportunity to play for audiences who are knowledgeable about music and particularly jazz; and at the same time, offer them something new that they have most likely not heard before. I also love traveling to new places and Montreux is a stunningly beautiful city. 

Do you feel jazz today offers more of a social statement than ever before?

Jazz is a relatively new style of music if you compare it to folk or classical music. I believe jazz gives musicians the opportunity to cross cultural boundaries. A jazz musician can find herself on a stage or in a living room or cafe with players she cannot communicate with verbally, but can play music with because we all speak the same musical language in jazz. This speaks volumes to the notion of one world, one voice, the human voice. 

Your most recent CD- highlights of writing and producing it?

One highlight of my latest CD “Skins” was researching the poetry of the mystics. I started with Rumi and Hafiz, but then discovered women mystics such as Mahsati Ganjavi, a woman Sufi poet from Azerbaijan, and Kojiju, a Buddhist nun from Japan who lived in the 12th century. Finally, I discovered Owl Woman, who was a Shaman from Arizona. Just reciting their poetry and finding the music inside the words was mind-blowing. It was a difficult process and I am very happy with the final results.

Another highlight was recording my musicians all over the place. I recorded with saxophonist Dave Liebman in Pennsylvania, Charlie Tokarz in Massachusetts, Mary Ann McSweeney and Royal Hartigan in Brooklyn and the Greek musicians in Athens. Hearing the music emerge into a recording is always enjoyable, surprising and inspiring.  

Nana Simopoulos CD cover

What new rhythms, melodies, harmonies, etc. do you want to explore?

Lately I have been doing a lot of work with vocal ensembles. These past few years I have taken workshops with Bobby McFerrin, Sheila Jordan and more. I have begun teaching workshops in circle singing in places like Cape Town, Ghana, Italy, Greece and the US.

The most recent ensemble work I have been exploring has been with writing parts and improvising with voices, and also adding unique sounding instruments such as sitar and slide guitar.

We just had our first performance this past weekend in Brooklyn with an all-vocal quartet and everyone played unique instruments.

Favorite collaborations?

I enjoy collaborating with choreographers and writing music for modern dance. I also like to collaborate with filmmakers and score music to their films.

Where will you tour or perform this year?

Soon I will be going to Greece to perform and then we have been invited to Montenegro to a music festival on the coast. Before that, we hope to go to Zagreb [Croatia] and play in a jazz club there.

What do you want people to know about this genre that they might not know?

My music is very individual and does not fit into any genre. The closest is jazz because it is open to improvisation and the creation of new forms of music.

Other comments?

I wish to thank my father who passed away least year and whom I started playing guitar with. He was a singer with an excellent voice and at the time he made the choice to become a psychiatrist. He devoted his life to the mental health of others.

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Nana Simopoulos.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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