by Phoebe Ryan
In February 2012, inspired by his most recent tour through Asia, Yanni uploaded a video on his Youtube Channel. The video is Yanni's own interpretation of and tribute to "The Nation Song" of China, composed as a birthday gift to China and its government, featuring a local children's choir and famed Chinese singer Lou Lan. She stands looking sharp, distinct in her white military garb amid the giddy children in pink dresses and tiny tuxedos. Every so often, she sighs away from the mic, motioning her arms towards the shining, obedient children, and smiles. There is much to be said about the song itself, even beyond its significance to the nation of China, which we will get to later. The important thing is that Yanni has taken the anthem of the world's most populous country, the treasured and beloved song of over 1.3 billion people, and re-done it in a way that is unabashedly, perfectly Yanni: the predictability and the swells of emotion, the soaring synthesized string pads and the gentle tinkle of piano keys, the intensely uplifting feeling of it all. Add in the cute Asian kids, and game over. That's quintessential Yanni. Emotional intoxication. You'd have to be deaf not to feel it (and lucky for the deaf, they can still see this video). Yanni's style is both so complex and so simple, I can only describe it like this: declaring a flower is 'pretty,' saying a sunset is 'nice,' and calling puppies 'cute.' While there are complex layers of meaning and implication beyond these words, they are also simply and inarguably accurate. Just like his music. It's rarely wrong in any way. It's just so right, you want to avoid it. You need to avoid it.
And that's what we do here in America. We laugh at the mere mention of his name. We see his memes on the internet, his ridiculous mustache, his forest of chest hair, and ignore that he is one of the most influential musicians on the planet. I don't blame anyone for not knowing this. You won't see Yanni's face on the cover of GQ or Rolling Stone anytime soon, because critics have thrown him into the your-career-is-a-joke corner and left him there to dissolve with Michael Bolton, John Tesh, and Kenny G. But he is not going anywhere, for one ineradicable reason: his fans. I've come to understand that once you are a Yanni fan, you stay a Yanni fan forever. It's not hard, because unlike 99.9% of artists today, he will never put out an album that is more or less relevant or enjoyable than the one before it. His music is timeless, odorless, nameless, and sexless, devoid of fashion and politics. David Segal explains why "Yanni's career is basically a miracle" in his brilliant Washington Post article “Love ya, Yanni. No, Really":All Yanni could do to make his career work was create and maintain a direct connection to his fans. Without airplay, critical support, or a voice, he had to bypass the music industry altogether. The ultimate DIY musician. After landing an Oprah appearance and selling well over 600,000 albums soon after, he spent all of the profits to fund a concert series that would be seen by 1.5 billion people around the world. You haven't seen Live at the Acropolis? Well, maybe you will come across it someday and watch it for kicks. But don't be one of those people who insist they've never heard Yanni before, because literally everyone has. He's written music for movies, television, and commercials all over the world. The US government hired him to score the film biography of Pope John Paul II. He's composed music for the Olympics every year since 1988, not to mention global sporting events from the Tour de France to the Super Bowl to the World Figure Skating Championships. He is everywhere. He is a world pop phenomenon. And I mean pop literally in terms of popular, a popular so popular it defies Nielsen Soundscans, Grammy nominations, Billboard charts--- a popular more akin to oxygen and breathing. Some will associate that in part with the New Age genre that's been forced upon him, but he dismisses that label with good reason. New Age musicians are content to be background music. Yanni, on the other hand, uses money out of his own pocket to ensure his shows are too spectacular and elaborate to go unnoticed. Not only does he tour with entire orchestras, lighting crews, and pyrotechnic specialists; he stages concerts in sacred monuments around the globe: China's Forbidden City, the Taj Mahal in India, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, and of course, the Acropolis in Athens, just to name a few. Yanni insists that he is simply a contemporary composer, and that must be the most accurate way to describe him. Flowers are 'pretty,' sunsets are 'nice,' and Yanni is a 'composer.'To appreciate why, imagine you're a record impresario and you hear this: He plays swoony, highly fraught instrumental music. Radio won't touch him, nor will MTV. When he tours he takes a spectacularly expensive orchestra. Kids hate him. Critics despise him. Oh, and another thing: He doesn't sing.-
(Segal, Washington Post, 2000)
Born Yiannis Chryssomallis in Kalamata, Greece in 1954, Yanni was raised in a small home with bare walls. Other than an upright piano that cost his father two years salary, they lived modestly. He and his siblings were always encouraged to pursue even simple hobbies, and Yanni was exceptionally passionate about three things: swimming, psychology, and music. In that order. The two latter were put aside while Yanni worked his way to qualify as an Olympic swimmer by the age of 14. But in his spare time, he would lay awake at night scanning foreign radio stations from Algeria, Egypt, Italy, Germany, and the Middle East. In the morning he would run to the piano and try to recall these distant tunes in his head, filling the rest out with melodies he knew well-- Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Bach.
Yanni's parents loved the fact that he and his siblings played the piano, but they were considerably more focused on a solid education. They believed the school system in Greece could only do so much, so they took matters into their own hands by encouraging their kids to explore outside of school. Philosophy, psychology, and religion were big in the Chryssomallis home. Mama Chryssomallis urged her children to study a panoply of religions so they could choose their own beliefs for themselves. Yanni's father got him hooked on psychology. "I was well into Freud, Adler, and Jung by the time I turned seventeen. That's young, perhaps, but not if you grew up with my father" (Yanni 83) explains Yanni himself in his autobiography Yanni in Words.
If it sounds like I've romanticized his upbringing, it's probably because I have up to this point. I didn't tell you he had a fetish for blowing things up, I didn't include the fact that he slept with his first prostitute at thirteen, and I didn't mention that he is a complete and utter crybaby. You need to understand that, having read all 369 pages of his life story in a day, I'd be doing everyone a disservice if I didn't come across a little brainwashed. Yes, I read Yanni in Words voluntarily. Yes, I am truly fascinated. Yes, Yanni is magical. But what you need to take away from his childhood story is that he was raised in the kind of environment that spawns curiosity, pushes boundaries, blurs lines. Even his negative behavior shows that he was eager to experience life, take risks, and fulfill his desires. He was born and raised to be a cosmopolitan, and he finally had the opportunity to test it out on November 8, 1972, the day he left Greece for the University of Minnesota.
His father spent his entire life savings to send his children to America for college. Greece in those years (from the late '60's to the early '70's) had been completely warped by the rule of a US-backed military junta that rewrote the histories in textbooks, demanded all young men shave their heads, and suppressed all political dissent. Yanni's parents sold their home and moved to a one bedroom apartment to afford their children an American education and a chance of freedom. Yanni arrived at college essentially an expatriate, or some kind of refugee from poorer circumstances, and he wanted to fit in immediately. “I wanted to be free and open to change. I wanted to try new foods, a new culture, and new ideas… I didn't even call myself Yanni. I was John. John Chryssomallis, the name on my passport and enrollment forms" (Yanni 90). He grew his hair and beard, ate fast food for dinner, smoked pot, and got a job at the university's cafe washing dishes and sleeping with blonde co-workers. He studied English out of textbooks, sometimes eight to ten hours at a time, and was fluent in only a few months. He immersed himself fully in this new place, desperately trying not to stand out as a foreigner (except to the blondes). Ulf Hannerz suggests in Transnational Connections that "an exile… is often no real cosmopolitan" because "the involvement with a culture away from his homeland is something that has been forced on him"(Hannerz 105). While this change was indeed forced upon him (he begged his parents to let him stay and finish his schooling in Kalamata), upon arriving in this new land, he displayed an "openness and drive toward greater competence" (Hannerz 109) which Hannerz notes is one of the main characteristics of a cosmopolitan. He took pieces of the culture that he enjoyed (the women, the social life, the language) and filtered out the parts he didn't enjoy (surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, top 40 music and the three minute pop song structure) and developed a new identity for himself in this foreign land. Hannerz says that Yanni's kind of cosmopolitan often has “a narcissistic streak" (Hannerz 240) and “picks from other cultures only the pieces which suit himself" (Hannerz 103). Like so many cosmopolitans, Yanni has the desire to assimilate and absorb other cultures, while keeping his roots grounded. But now that his celebrity is so massive around the globe, he can't just blend in with the locals anymore.
In fact, his recent attempts to honor and embrace other cultures have come across not merely as multiculturalist, but as almost imperialist. There is too much symbolism, too much state-manifested tokenism. Even as he aims to bring everyone together in his music, across all races and ethnicities, it could fairly be argued that he creates a greater rift between those who commit themselves to the idea of a unified global culture and those who are willing to settle for insincere gestures of unity. As philosopher and cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah explains in Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, multiculturalism designates the disease rather than curing it. This designation is especially apparent in his interpretation of "The Nation Song" which takes the rich heritage and traditions of the Chinese and condenses them into an easy-to-swallow three-minute YouTube hit. Similarly, in his tribute album to Mexico, El Mexicanissimo, he uses the instrumentation and harmonic principles of traditional Mexican music and melts it together with his own predictable Yanni style. There is nothing progressive about either works. They are 'pretty' and they are 'nice,' and by the very blandness and reductionism of those qualities, suffocate any opportunities for real dialogue among people.
But the man is harmless and a true cosmopolitan, however misguided his attempts seem nowadays. He transcends this mess of multiculturalism with his smile, his spirituality, his energy. He is too positive of a person to see the far reaching negative results of his actions, but in any case, who would argue that there needs to be less positivity in this world? Surely not his fans, especially those homebound by illness, who believe listening to his music is therapeutic and contains healing powers. What matters is that he takes responsibility for mankind and gives people what they want. He does not need to apologize, he does not need to change his ways: he is Yanni, and his talent will continue to speak across continents, religions, races, and beliefs.When I compose I blend a rainbow of styles and ethnicities and witness the souls of many cultures come together obviously and easily…When I see how our musical souls come together in art, I ask myself, "Why can't we do the same?" The answer is we can… we have no choice but to become a global community… If our souls can come together in music, they can come together anywhere, and as a [human] race we can achieve harmony and peace." (Yanni 9)
Ankeny, Jason. "Biography: Vangelis." AllMusic. Web. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/vangelis-p112251/biography.
Appiah, Anthony. Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.
New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006. Print. Hannerz, Ulf. Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places.
London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Metcalf, Steve. "10 Steps to the Yanni Phenomenon: The Musician's Popularity Defies Critics' Assessments." Los Angeles Times. 07 July 1995. Web.
Segal, David. "Love Ya, Yanni. No, Really." Washington Post. 13 Oct. 2000. Web.
Werbner, Pnina. Vernacular Cosmopolitanism. Thesis. Nottingham Trent University, 2006.
Sage Publications, 2006. Print.
Widran, Jonathan. "Review: Live at the Acropolis." AllMusic. Web.
Yanni, and David Rensin. Yanni in Words. New York: Miramax, 2002. Print.
Yanni in Concert Live at the Acropolis. By Yanni. Prod. Yanni. 1994.
Yanni- The Nation Song. Perf. Yanni and Lou Lan. YouTube.com. 17 Feb. 2012. Web.
Yanni- Voyage. Perf. Yanni. YouTube.com. 1 Feb. 2011. Web.
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