Since his debut album more than 20 years ago, the Greek-born composer and concert musician known as Yanni has built an international reputation as an idol of New Age instrumental music. Though his many detractors scoff that his music is banal, Yanni's worldwide fans are legion, and they've been coming out in droves lately. With a new CD on the charts and a new autobiography in the bookstores, Yanni is just finishing a North American concert tour. Reporter Craig McCulloch caught up with Yanni during a swing last month through the Pacific Northwest, and talked with him about how his life and music have been shaped by his unique immigrant experience.
Yanni's music is an eclectic fusion of ethnic sounds, from Native American chants to African rhythms and Asian harmonies. It is not uncommon for him to use a Paraguayan harp, Indian tabla, Armenian duduk, or an Australian didgeridoo in the same live show. He can neither read nor write traditional music. Instead, he uses his own brand of "musical shorthand," and it's apparently served him well. He has sold over 20 million albums since his first release, Optimystique, in 1980.
Born Yanni Chryssomallis in the small Greek town of Kalamata in November 1954, he showed an early interest in music that was encouraged by his parents. But his energies ranged widely. As a teenager, he became a champion swimmer. At the age of 18 he decided to immigrate to the United States to study psychology at the University of Minnesota, in America's northern plains. Year's later; he laughs as he remembers how shocked he was at first by the culture, the cold, and the cuisine.
"It took me a long time to get used to the food, [to] put ketchup on my hamburgers, because I never had ketchup when I grew up in Greece," he said. "It was quite a shock, because I went to Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, from Kalamata, Greece, never having experienced the temperature of below 30 degrees Fahrenheit or zero Celsius at the most and all of a sudden it was 20 below zero. Ice, snow. It was quite a shock. But, Minneapolis, Minnesota ended up being an incredible city to grow up in."
It was at the university, while earning his bachelor's degree in psychology, that Yanni's lifelong interest in music became a consuming passion. Despite his deep fascination with the human mind, Yanni says a career in psychology no longer excited him:
"The thing with psychology was that I was interested in finding out how human beings function more than I was interested in being a psychologist in the end," said Yanni. "But, when I came close to envisioning myself sitting in an office seeing patients, all of a sudden it didn't sound very good to me. So, I decided to try music full force right after college. And I was so in love with music that I knew that's what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life."
Following the 1980 release of Optimystique, Yanni's career took off, attracting a small but loyal audience that liked his atmospheric blend of world music and New Age spiritualism. But his records and CDs seldom played on popular music radio stations in the United States or abroad. Yanni's first real international success came in 1994, when he returned to his Greek homeland to record Yanni: Live at the Acropolis.
The concert, performed in the shadow of the Parthenon in a 2,000 year-old Athens Theatre, was a gamble. With no major backers in the music industry, Yanni decided to invest his own money in the lavish production, hoping it would boost his artistic profile and open new markets for his music.
The gamble appears to have paid off. The Live at the Acropolis concert album has sold over seven million copies, and the video of the performance is one of the best selling music videos ever released.
In a way, Yanni says, he went back to Greece to prove himself in the United States.
"What made that concert really special for me was playing in front of a hometown audience," he said. "My mother and father were there and a lot of the kids that I grew up with and my relatives. I've been gone for twenty years and haven't' come back to show them what I've been doing. And that made it really besides the Parthenon and the Harod Atticus theatre, how spectacular the setting was, but it also made it really special because of the family, coming back to Greece for the first time."
Following the release of several more studio albums, Yanni sought to build on the success of his Greek concert with more self-produced, and even more elaborate live performances, first at India's Taj Mahal and then in China's Forbidden City. The concerts resulted in the successful 1997 video and album Tribute.
The following year marked the end of a well-publicized romance with American television star Linda Evans. She and Yanni, who now makes his home in Florida, still consider each other to be good friends.
Yanni's latest CD, Ethnicity, offers an interesting blend of his hallmark instrumentals and vocal arrangements. The final cut on the album is Yanni's rendition of the traditional Greek folk song Jiva-Eri, which tells the story of children who leave their families to search for a better life.
Yanni says his emigration to America and years of world travel have given him a unique perspective on what it means to be human:
"The fact that I left Greece when I was 18 and moved to America, automatically helps your open your mind as far as not being absolutist about how life is, and how life should be and what's the right way and the wrong way," said Yanni. "I was very taken by the ancient Greek philosophers. And I liked the whole idea of all of us being citizens of the world. And that started when I was very young. And coming to America made it even stronger. And then in this country you see every nationality, and every religion, and every culture. You become more accepting or a least you get more exposed to different ideas. All of that opened my mind and I think it's an attitude that frankly, we all need nowadays."
Fans interested in learning more about Yanni and his view of the world have had plenty to chew on this year. In addition to snapping up the new CD, they've been poring over his new autobiography, published this past February, titled "Yanni in Words," which premiered at number fourteen on the New York Times bestseller list. On one level, the book is about Yanni's rise as an international star, his romance with Linda Evans, his philosophy, and, of course, his music. But Yanni in Words is also about the life and hopes of a gifted boy named Yanni Chryssomallis, growing up in Greece, spinning his dreams and coming to America to make them come true.