Episode 1: July 2019
Panayiotis Athanatos // Athens, Greece
We sat down to talk music, immigration, minority identity and all things society with the fabulous and talented Panayiotis Athanatos, 29, of Athens.
Panas has been living in the US for the past 2 and half years gracing New York with his Jazz Guitar abilities. If you’ve had the privilege of hearing him play you will agree he has more than earned his spot on Culture Piece Magazine’s Episode 1 in our series of Emerging Immigrant Artists in NYC. What is even more exciting is his depth and insight on the importance of Jazz and his perspective on issues that plague us all.
Now let’s talk about the obvious, what do we have to learn from some random Greek guy about a random American genre of music? Yeah, A LOT. And it’s going to remind you that what you’re doing is important and necessary especially in this knowledge era of machine people.
How has New York been to you as an immigrant?
*Perspective- New York is unique for an immigrant because it is the greatest cultural hub in the United States. Huffington Post wrote in 2013 that there are more foreign-born New Yorkers than there are people living in America’s third-largest city, CHICAGO. On a list put together by the U.S Census Bureau, Dominican born New Yorkers are number 1 accounting for 12% of the immigrant population in NY while Greece ranks dead last with less than 1%. So, it’s a fair question to ask – How has New York been to you as an immigrant? Not the US but New York, what have you learned, and do you have a stronger sense of pride in being Greek because of this?
“From my experience having lived in Greece and in the Netherlands and then here, when it comes to including minorities and educating people on racism here it has been talked about the most and a part of everyday life. You grow up in Greece and its 99% Greek people, of course everyone talks about how we shouldn’t be racist and everything but it’s not like we have any chance to really see it on an everyday basis, and I went to the Netherlands and it was the same thing… nothing is like New York on diversity. Sometimes when I am working, I see that no one around me is from America, from the bandstand to even the audience there are local people but mostly tourists that have come from all over the world... I always wanted to live in a society like this, that’s why I wanted to come to New York, I think the most beautiful things come from diversity, you must have diversity, if you don’t you become stale. It’s the same thing with music. So when I came here I realized, like I said earlier, that I had come from a society that dealt with racism from a safe distance. And I had to confront those things with myself and what that really means, and I think it’s a wonderful thing because eventually this changes you…but you cannot ignore the problem, you have to go through it… I am in a precarious situation because I am a minority here, maybe I do not look so much like a minority but I am a Greek person in New York City so you ask me how I perceive being specifically Greek in this society, how I find myself in this whole thing… it’s not really pride – I think that where you grow up kind of shapes you and then hardships inform you. So coming from Greece I’m happy that I grew up there because I had to face a lot of those things and that has made me a little more humble, a little more ready for a situation… I’m happy I carry this with me… but my pride is not in being Greek necessarily but pride in the path I followed, the things I faced there, it happened to be Greece. I don’t feel better or weaker or stronger, we are on the same pool and we’re all screaming anyways.”
So, how did you become this Greek person coming to New York to play it’s traditional music?
“When I was growing up, music was something I just wanted to share with my friends, it was stimulating to me in the same way as like a board game. So I was playing with my friends but I wanted to meet more people who were also doing this, this was maybe when I was around 17, 18 years old. I had not had any formal teacher by this point but I went to one of the famous Conservatories in Athens and met my teacher Yiotis Samaras - he is a guitar player and he was the one to introduce me and motivate to do Jazz music. He was the reason for me to be a Jazz musician. To introduce me to improvisation and it was the thing I was always looking for, maybe I didn’t know it, but it was. I had never listened to Jazz in this way… I learned the history and how Black musicians had used this music and how this whole thing fits from a social point of view, not an art point of view but what it meant socially. There is something special about something that is created almost spontaneously. Its words and sentences. And how this whole thing that may seem arbitrary to the audience still though is very much defined by the person who is playing it. It may seem random but it’s not random. It’s like talking and from person to person it’s different.”
What does Jazz have to offer us now?
“2 things pop up in my head, first is very pragmatic, in the beginning you had people perform, humans, actual human beings banging on drums and there was value in that, there's something spectacular about watching actual humans manipulating matter to create emotion. And then recording happened, and that had value and you put a machine into a machine… then digital music happened, and the actual material aspect of music lost its value, the actual cassette or instrument has no value. So Jazz music once you play it *Claps* That’s it! It will never happen again. So watching it is an experience on its own and it’s something that THE MAN, the machine, cannot conquer. This will always have value. This is how it used to be in the first place, eternal. Jazz music for people shows you that watching people do an actual thing is way more valuable than any recording will give. How spectacular it will be to watch a human do this thing and you have to witness it; you have to be a part of it. And that’s really special in a society where we tend to be disconnected from everything else and even ourselves. For Jazz you have to connect, you have to actually be there. The second is something we spoke of earlier, you have to arrive to something with maybe a little bit of expectation but not with a set plan… you’re stepping into the unknown, you have to be okay with that. It offers people that idea to sometimes go with no plan, and let the world surprise you, be moved by the unexpected, don’t be afraid of that”
Challenges as a musician?
“You are sacrificing all of this for something and then there's all these people who do not care. That creates some cognitive dissonance, why am I trying to perfect my art? It’s always a battle between cynicism and romanticism. What if I focused all this energy into something my society appreciates more? Would I have an easier life, but ultimately would I have a happier life? It’s an interesting question, with music it’s still so intangible…”
We can talk about the value that Jazz has especially now in this knowledge era and its machine to machine so we can see the value and then at the same time say “is this even necessary?!” It makes me think there's always beauty if you have the eyes to see it, a lot of people now don’t have the eyes to see it. So I think the most valuable thing is to throw all of these beautiful things out into the world for the chance at someone seeing it and it changing them.
“I hear what you’re saying, I don’t know if it’s more of everyone throws in their little match and eventually one of the matches lights and it burns all that hate to the ground or if it’s a gray canvas and everyone puts their drop on it and if people thought they didn’t matter that drop would not be a part of this collection so we need people to remember that what they are throwing at the world is important”
What projects are you working on now, future goals?
“Now I have my main quartet. I’ve built that the whole time I’ve been here… so I have this band. I realized too when I came here that there was all this music I used to listen to, soul and funk. You hear it in passing here. So I have another band, we play soul and blues. I call it the George Benson Project; it’s inspired a lot by this amazing guitarist George Benson. And then the third thing is I enjoy being a side man for other people. People who have their own projects and trust me with performing them and being apart of that. In terms of future goals, for me for a long time it’s been to improve myself, to communicate with my fellow bandmates on a deeper level. It’s like a conversation so it’s wanting to improve communication. But eventually, you know what I’d like to do? I want to create art that is not commercial. In the sense that it doesn’t have to be in an album, it doesn’t have to be in a little package. Like just ART. Something that is kind of hard to put a price on, I think there is great value in that. The most expensive thing has a finite value and in my head this kind of art is more valuable than that. Art for the sake of art. But it's hard to do this because I like not being hungry. It’s a fine balance between pleasing people and pleasing yourself. It will take a lifetime… It’s hard in this society to want something that cannot be tagged… I think a lot of the fear that comes towards the minorities and the LGBT community is that other people can’t seem to put a tag on it. So we need to always have this point A and point B and it becomes you are the problem because you fuck up with my plan it’s hard to let go of the fear because you have to accept your limitations and the fact that there are things in life that you won’t understand EVER but that doesn’t mean that we should eliminate them“
What is the best way to support you?
Panas has biweekly residency at Mezzrow Jazz club in Manhattan, and weekly residency at Shrine in Harlem. His Facebook page is the best place to stay up to date on his work and where to see him perform.