A group of Cypriots in America are keeping the island’s history alive through the creation of the Sounds of Cyprus group. PAUL LAMBIS finds out more
What began as a modest event to celebrate traditional music from Cyprus has evolved into a well-known ensemble that has brought together Cypriots of the diaspora to present the island’s rich cultural heritage.
“The idea was to organise a Cypriot Night in New York with a repertoire of exclusive traditional music, but I hit a stumbling block when most of the musicians I was approaching knew very few Cypriot songs,” co-founder of the group Peter Douskalis said.
After meeting Elena Chris through a mutual friend in 2015, the two decided to collaborate and form a band centred on Cypriot music. “We began building our repertoire immediately and had our first public event in 2017,” he said.
Today, Sounds of Cyprus has evolved into a Cypriot ensemble performing traditional music in a variety of orchestrations and styles that honour the period of composition and instruments, performing them with a modern approach.
“The most beautiful thing about our group is that every member wants to learn more about the history, music and culture of Cyprus,” Douskalis said. “With Elena being a native of Cyprus, we all come out victorious with new knowledge and musical experiences.”
The group has now become a household name among the Cypriot community of America. “Our ensemble varies in size, depending on the scale of the event, but the core of our members includes Alex Tasopoulos who plays the viola, bassist Erikos Vlesmas, Stavros Papadopoulos who plays the pithkiavli and ney, and percussionist Mark Katsaounis,” Chris told the Cyprus Mail. Together with Douskalis, who plays the laouto, oud, mandolin and guitar, “we are a beautiful mix of Cypriot and Greek Americans, and it gives me great pleasure to share everything I know about my country, and its music traditions with them.”
Chris said the traditional music of the island and its history was ingrained in her growing up in Cyprus. “Our aim is to keep traditional Cypriot music alive and spread it to the whole world, especially the younger generations, to continue the island’s legacy, and the older generation as it recalls wonderful memories and evokes feelings of nostalgia of Cyprus.”
The group also plays an important role in America, particularly in terms of cultural inclusiveness. Douskalis and Chris have worked hard to ensure that Sounds of Cyprus practises diversity, inclusion and non-discrimination, and they have collaborated with a wide range of artists since their inception, including Turkish Cypriot singer Gizem Gokoglu and Turkish oud player Murat Heyder.
“In our repertoire we have also added Cypriot-Armenian music, Cypriot-French music, which was written in Cyprus in the 14th century, and contemporary compositions of living Cypriot composers,” Chris said. “That is why we are called Sounds of Cyprus, because we want to include all the songs from every era.”
Aside from private events, the band primarily performs in open-air venues such as Athens Square Park, Gantry Park State Plaza, Queens Night Market, and even Times Square in New York City, where the shows are free to the public.
“We have also performed at Princeton University in New Jersey, alongside renowned Cypriot composer and lyricist Alkinoos Ioannidis, and at the Ionian University in Greece, where short dialogue is interspersed between the songs explaining the origins of the music, and the instruments,” Douskalis added. “This is part of our multimodal concert-lecture structure where aside from the music, we also educate the audience about the traditions of Cyprus.”
Their cultural heritage is their roots, home, families, even place of being, especially for those of us that live far from these things, Chris and Douskalis said. “We must try harder to keep them alive. Nowadays, there are so many ways to do this, as long as there is the desire to do so.”
The group also intends to release an album of original music they have been working on, as well as an exciting calendar of upcoming events in 2024.
“We also have our bilingual Music and Kids initiative, which is an immersive child and parent experience designed for newborns and up to three-year old children that integrates music and movement while encouraging and fostering music and language,” Chris said.
Another milestone in the group’s career was when they applied for and were accepted for fiscal sponsorship from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). “The NYFA sponsorship is a highly competitive achievement that recognises excellence in artistry and positive impact on the community, and we are proud to have partnered with them,” Douskalis said.
Douskalis and Chris, without a doubt, have developed an exciting orchestra with a dedicated group of musicians, performing events that celebrate Cyprus in America. “Sounds of Cyprus has been recognised as an official representation of Cypriot culture in the United States. We have also been acknowledged for our non-discriminatory and open approach to celebrating all Cypriots and Cypriot culture, as well as our commitment to creating safe spaces that foster positive cultural exchange.”
To find out more about Sounds of Cyprus visit www.soundsofcyprus.com