Xylouris White

Camelot Lounge, March 6


Xylouris res
Photo: Prudence Upton.

George Xylouris’s is a voice in which you could imagine Homer intoning The Illiad 3,000 years ago, and part of the fascination of the music of Xylouris White is that it is a collision between two worlds. Xylouris champions the music of his native Crete, singing and playing the laouto (Cretan eight-string lute), while Jim White (of the eccentric rock band Dirty Three) thunders on the drums. Traditional Cretan music purists may well find White’s contributions somewhat bewildering, while Dirty Three purists – if such creatures exist – might consider Xylouris’s serpentine music an odd context in which to relish the hero they are used to hearing with Warren Ellis.

Traditional music that manages to survive is not actually static, but, like a slow-moving river, gradually evolving. Insert a natural improviser like White into this music’s midst, and it is as though the river has been transformed into rapids, his whole conception being to respond and create in the moment. The upshot is that this extraordinary collaboration fuses ancient and modern into something new, potent and primal, with the feeling of unpredictability being as compelling as at any purely improvised concert I have attended.

Where a traditional percussionist might play repetitive rhythms behind these songs White is primarily concerned with shading the drama, turning gentle sections into dreams and faster passages into reckless stampedes. Dynamics, texture and density were used to brew vitality at least as much as the rhythms themselves, and he could even infuse rubato passages with a sense of surging energy. Often the most effective music came when Xylouris’s dark baritone was being coloured by White playing with mallets, and when Xylouris was at his softest White was almost exaggeratedly restrained.

The only downside to the spontaneity was a raggedness to some endings, as was also the case when I last heard them. But that is a small price to play for the power and the glory of this magnificent musical tradition being born anew before our ears.