Ever since the Chinese embassy invited GeorgeSapounidis,a tall lanky Canadian civil
servant of Greek descent, to perform at an international folk festival in Shanghai
in the fall of 2000, this populous nation has not been able to get enough of him.
They have invited him back time and time again since then – the Nanning
International Arts Festival of Folksongs the same year, a Beijing tour in May 2002
and again, four months later in September.
Another music tour followed in the fall of 2003, a concert in December and the
ten-day Shanghai Baoshan International Folk Arts Festival again in the fall of 2004.
Although he has been performing regularly at all manner of folk festivals, awards
ceremonies, multicultural events, variety shows and special events as well as on
Canadian radio and television for over 20 years, it’s George Sapounidis’ concert
tours of China that have catapulted him to stardom in that country – famous more for
its traditional Chinese opera and astounding acrobats than bouzouki-playing westerners
singing Chinese folk songs. From his first performance in Shanghai, this multilingual
civil servant was a hit. Even poker-faced Chinese soldiers broke into smiles. At the
Nanning Festival, thousands of excited fans crowded the stage, even followed him in
the street. TV stations and newspapers competed for interviews.
Why the special affinity for Chinese culture? You could say it caught him by surprise.
George had already been performing in several languages when he founded his
multicultural band Ouzo Power in 1988, giving a new spin to Greek music, bringing in
jazz elements and translating the songs of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin into Greek for
audiences at folk and multicultural music festivals as well as CBC TV and radio —
even producing two albums. One night, while entertaining friends of different
nationalities at his home, he was asked to sing in Mandarin.
Intrigued, and with help from his Chinese girlfriend (herself an acclaimed poet),
he learned a traditional Mandarin folk song over the next few weeks, working his
way through it phonetically. He was hooked. His repertoire of Chinese folk songs
began to grow – as did his Mandarin language skills.
Soon he was performing for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa which in turn invited him
to perform in China. Audiences loved him, disarmed and enchanted that a westerner
would come into their midst and perform their songs with such depth and emotion.
Upon returning to Ottawa, George formed a new band, the George Sapounidis Trio,
with percussionist Ken Easton who plays an impressive variety of exotic instruments
from the didgeridoo to the African thumb piano, and Jeremy Moyer, another
Sinophile who plays a variety of Chinese stringed instruments. They perform
songs, new and old, from around the world.
Yet, by day, this Montreal born folksinger is a Ph.D. bearing statistician who works
for Statistics Canada in Ottawa (where he goes by the surname Sampson) employing
statistical software and mathematical formulas to design business surveys.
The songs he composes in Chinese, by contrast, are sweet and simple reflecting yearning,
friendship, loneliness and love.
In 2000, George introduced a CD of international folk songs and in 2002 he produced
a CD called Songs about China and Greece. His latest CD, George from Athens to Beijing,
released in the summer of 2005, comprises a variety of traditional Greek and Chinese
folks songs along with some personal compositions reflecting the latest twists in his
personal and musical quest. Some of the songs were recorded in China with Chinese
backup musicians and singers – one was even recorded live on the Great Wall –
and others recorded in Canada with Canadian and Greek guest artists using a wide
variety of international instruments.
When Beijing won the Olympic bid on July 13, 2001, George felt that the cosmos had come
into play – the two musical worlds he straddled were about to converge when the Olympic
flag would be passed from Athens to Beijing. It reflected his own artistic life, as he puts it,
“building bridges between cultures.”
“It crystallized what I had been doing for the past threeyears,” George says,
“juxtaposing and fusing the music of both cultures. Now it was larger than him.
He felt it was destiny.