Interview by Parisa Eshrati
"Night is when strange things happen. When shapes shift and blur. When it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s illusion." For Cyprus' Monsieur Doumani, darkness has been a means to explore a whole new dynamic to their music. While staying rooted in traditional Cypriot music, the band takes on a new experimental approach to create a conceptual portrait of the night on their latest release, Pissourin. We caught up vocalist and tzouras player Antonis Antoniou in an email interview to delve deep into the album's themes of darkness, and ultimately, how to find the light.
Let’s start by talking about your musical backgrounds before starting the band. It was traditional Cypriot music that brought you all together, so what was the unifying vision of how you would carry this music into a new generation?
We are all professional musicians coming from different musical backgrounds and trained in a different way. Cyprus is a small island, therefore we knew each other from different projects and we even collaborated in the past. Yes, we could say that traditional Cypriot music was a unifying aspect but we never wanted to just reproduce it. We shared the vision of trying to extract something new and fresh out of it and take this music to a different level. A level which would have been also much more interesting for the new generations.
We started experimenting with old songs by slightly changing the melodic lines, altering the tempo or even adding some new melodies and we realised that there was plenty of space to express ourselves through this procedure. Since the recordings of this music are very limited we felt some kind of freedom to play around with music but always with a great sense of respect towards these songs. The positive reaction from our audience and the great reviews we got since our first album has been a great confidence boost to carry on.
Your latest release, Pissourin, is a concept album dealing with themes of darkness and night. What originally drew you all to this theme? There is also an underlying subtext of light, reminders that it is always imminent in darkness. What does this light symbolize for you personally?
After the release of our third album, Angathin, we felt that there was the time to somehow change the direction of the band. So far we played mostly fun music with lots of playful arrangements and always with a humorous approach towards the music. We wanted to enrich our sound, to make it more electric so we added a loop station, effect pedals and some electronic touches to transform our sound. We were very excited with the new timbres we got from this transformation so we started working using our new tools.
The last two years were a very strange and awkward period for all of us but especially for people who work in the arts. Inevitably, this had an impact on our music and on the creative process of our new album. The imminent light is a reminder that always after the storm the sunshine will come. It's a reminder to keep fighting even under the worst circumstances and to never give up.
One of the many unique aspects of Cypriot traditional music is how it is so deeply ingrained in dance, and often the two don’t exist without each other. Please elaborate on the inherent movement that lives in Cypriot music, and ways you utilize that to expand on your sound and themes.
It's true that Cypriot traditional music is connected with specific dances and in the past the two couldn't exist without each other. People used to gather together to play music while others were dancing. It's still a very common practice in many parts of the island, especially in the villages. Many traditional songs have an upbeat and joyful character. This character has inspired us to create playful and humorous arrangements which were the main focus of our band especially in our first two albums. However, our last album, Pissourin, has a completely different character/approach as it is darker and more psychedelic.
This idea of “Pissourin” is also, as you’ve said in the liner notes, “[about] bringing us closer to our true self.” One way this idea is explored throughout the album is through allegorical use of animals and mythological creatures. In “Nychtopápparos”, for example, the bat is portrayed as a pestering creature that mimics feelings of anxiety. Talk to us about your use of symbolic imagery, and the importance of you connecting real-life images to draw on the idea of our true selves.
Pissourin is a conceptual album which has night as its main theme. During the night, life is experienced with a different mind state. It’s the time where all human beings release the stress of the day and start experiencing all sorts of different emotions. It's the time we can hear our thoughts and worries and we create scenarios and stories with our fantasy. Our imagination is expanding and also new and unexpected worlds may appear in our dreams. The use of mythological creatures and symbolic imagery adds to the album's surrealistic and psychedelic character.
Songs like “Koukkoufkiáos” and “Poúlia” bring up a notion of visibility in darkness, that even with only one eye open you can see something valuable and let it grow in your subconscious. How does this idea reflect on how this generation of Cypriots has persisted throughout the divide, especially now that borders are closed once again?
Firstly, the checkpoints are not closed now. They were temporarily closed due to the pandemic but now they are open again. Since 2004 Cypriots can go anywhere in the island and Greek and Turkish Cypriots created very strong bonds on many different fields. As a band we are very excited about this and we work towards the complete reunification of our island. We hope that some day all the different communities will live peacefully in this island. Let me tell you that it's very interesting that you connected “Koukkoufkiáos” and “Poúlia" with our political problem because we never thought about it in this sense.
The album explores a full range of emotions, from the complete madness explored in “Kalikándjari (Hobgoblins)” to uplifting tracks like “Thámata (Miracles)”. “Alavrostishiótis”, however, is unique in that it falls completely centered between these two worlds. What does this equilibrium symbolize for you?
As mentioned above, this album is a turning point for us. Its release comes in a very strange and difficult time for everyone due to the health crisis but also musically the band has a totally new sound and character. For us "Alavrostishiótis" is the song that brings some kind of balance between the 2 different eras of Monsieur Doumani. It has the elements of our new direction with some electronics and the use of a looped rhythmic pattern but at the same time it carries the lighter vibe of our previous albums.
Speaking of “Alavrostishiótis”, you just released a music video for that track filmed at the Roman theatre of Kourion. I’m curious to hear more about this space, and how these ancient landscapes influence Monsieur Doumani’s ethos in general.
We are very honoured that we had the opportunity to film "Alavrostishiotis" at Kourion. Kourion was an important city-kingdom in antiquity and stands as one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Cyprus. Its theatre is of great significance as it was constructed at the end of the 2nd century B and could seat up to 3,500 spectators. In the beginning of the 3rd century AD modifications were made, and the theatre was transformed into an arena that was used for fights with wild animals. Excavations began in 1933, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, whilst many other University Archaeological Missions - as well as the Cyprus Department of Antiquities - continued the excavations.
Today, it is the scene of many cultural activities and theatrical performances, especially during the summer season. Filming there with a beautiful sunset was a fantastic experience for us and we are very thankful to Cyprus Department of Antiquities for this opportunity.
What else can we look forward to from Monsieur Doumani for the rest of this year?
Now we prepare for the album presentations in Cyprus in late September and we are also planning a mini UK tour in October and a European tour in November. We missed playing our music live in front of an audience and we are super excited for all our upcoming concerts.
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