This unlikely — and kismet — project brings together a scion of Cretan music royalty with an Australian drummer for a musical collaboration like no other. Meet Xylouris White.
Xylouris White hits the road
Currently on tour to promote their sophomore release, ‘Black Peak‘, on Bella Union records. I had the opportunity to catch up with George Xylouris and Jim White to talk about their unique musical partnership, and more. They’ll perform in Chicago on December 3.
Meet George Xylouris
The Xylouris name is synonymous with Cretan music. This musical family has become known as Cretan musical royalty. Raised on music, George — known by some as “Psarogiorgos” — is an heir to this dynasty. Music is life for this famous family. Born and raised in Anogeia, Crete, down the hill from the Cave of Zeus, he’s the son of Psarandonis, and the nephew of Nikos. George, who’s been playing laouto since he was 6, spoke about his musical upbringing.
“As a kid, we listened to music a lot, along with my father and uncle. It was so great to grow up in a musical family. It gave me inspiration. They are among the main reasons I’m here now. I learned to play from my uncle, Psarogiannis.”
He said that he’s a “traditional” laouto player, and plays Greek and Cretan music, and other “stuff”. He got his start playing with his father at village events. They recorded music together, too. George and his father went to Australia in the late 80s. He met Jim, and they quickly became friends.
George stayed in Australia for 8 years, and formed The Xylouris Ensemble. Two of their albums were nominated for ARIA Fine Arts Awards in Australia. The band is still active, and now includes his sons. He’s toured Crete extensively, and performed at music festivals around the world.
His approach to music may seem a bit unorthodox. Typically in Cretan music, the laouto is not the lead instrument. The lyra is typically the main instrument, and the laouto provides a rhythmic background. George plays his laouto as a solo instrument, and approaches each piece as a celebration of his beloved instrument. The laouto, in essence, becomes the lead guitar of this music. It sets the tone for the presentation — at times haunting, poetic, or warrior-like. His compositions are like a reinvention of the laouto, and he continues to explore and present it in new ways. And that’s where the magic is.
Meet Jim White
Born and raised in Melbourne, drummer Jim White actually lived in Chicago for a time. Since 1980, he’s lent his unusual style to various bands. He found international notoriety in the 1990s, with The Dirty Three, an instrumental rock band. They toured the world.
“We arrived in Chicago, and there, they really took us to heart. Our record company, agent, were there. So I moved there and started cheering for the Cubs. How about those Cubs?!”
George plays a 4-piece drum kit. He’s played many different genres, including country. He discovered Cretan music in the 80s, and became an avid listener.
“From the first time I heard it, it stayed with me. I loved the energy. I like to take that energy and go with it. When I get inspired, I go with the feeling rather than the technical.”
Jim’s own expressive, energetic style blends well in this realm.
Xylouris White forms
George and Jim stayed in touch, and about 3 years ago, they played a few times together in Sydney. There was chemistry, and they decided to explore it and see where the musical road would take them. They recorded some of the music. Later, Jim came to Crete, where he and George recorded some more. Xylouris White began to grow its wings, which led them to New York, to record there as well. George described this time.
“We liked what we were doing. I do what I always do. We combined Jim’s sound with it, as well as other influences, different sounds. And then we continued what I’ve been doing all my life — telling stories. It’s been fantastic to play with Jim. There’s a lot of energy in this collaboration. We continue to play and develop our music.”
Jim said that the collaboration felt really natural.
“We liked each other’s music. We found it inspiring. Two different worlds joined together; they’re actually more alike that what people might think. It’s not a conceptual construct. It’s a natural progression.”
Xylouris White began playing regularly in New York in 2013.
Released in 2014, their debut album, ‘Goats’, topped the Billboard World Music charts. George described the mostly instrumental album with an analogy.
“It’s like goats walking in the mountain. They may not know the place, but they can walk easily and take risks and feel comfortable. Really, the goats inspire us.”
Their latest album, ‘Black Peak’ is out now. It’s named after a mountain top in Crete, and as they say, “recorded everywhere”. They said the name was symbolic, as they feel they have reached the peak of their careers, which allows them the freedom to stretch the boundaries even further. This album also eatures George’s vocals, and it pays homage to both men’s histories. It’s produced by the Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto.
The music is frenetic; new and fresh, but yet familiar, with ancient echoes. It’s ruggedly wild, and evokes the legend of the Kouretes, a band of mythical warriors, who danced wild, noisy war dances in front of the Cave of Zeus, in hopes that the wild rumpus would keep Cronos from hearing the infant’s crying. With thundering drums, and a reimagined laouto, it’s definitely something you don’t want to miss. The energy will capture you.
Black Peak (Bella Union records) is available on Amazon