“The purpose of music in my life is to make this place a better world”.
Iris is a singer and political artist based in Manchester. She was born in 1954 to a Greek father and an Austrian Jewish mother who had fled from occupied Rhodes to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She returned to Rhodes with her family at the age of six and has since performed in many countries, including Greece, Turkey, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Holland, Israel, Switzerland and the UK. Iris has always mixed music and political activism, singing songs from different places and in different languages to extol values of peace, anti-racism, migrant rights, women’s rights and ecology. In particular, she has been committed to building a ‘cultural bridge’ between Greece and Turkey and she has performed with famous orchestras in Turkey as well as Turkish progressive metal group, Dreamtone. She moved to Manchester in 2014 and became the singer for RISE, a six-piece band which celebrated epic narrative song and social resistance.
IRIS’ MUSICAL LIFE STORY
Iris came from a ‘very diverse’ family. Her parents’ story, of fleeing from the German Nazis in Austria and the Italian fascists in Rhodes, deeply influenced her childhood and her artistic development. As they travelled through different places, Iris was exposed to different musical sounds and cultures.
“I travelled a lot as a child…and, when you travel a lot, you pick up different sounds, different influences, different languages, and they all may become part of your culture, part of your personality”.
After their return to Greece, Iris’ parents arranged for her to take classical music lessons. She started learning piano at age eight and, later on, she began vocal training. She studied at the National Conservatoire and the Hellenic Conservatoire of Rhodes. As time went on, Iris started to develop her own musical style and, despite her parents’ wishes for her to become an interior designer, she felt compelled to pursue a life in music.
“I think my mother mostly wanted me to become an interior designer. Maybe she knew that music is a very insecure profession, with hardships…But it’s more than a profession, it’s part of my life. Once I started when I was eight, I never got away from it”.
“Music was something in me, it was born in me. It’s been with me since I was very, very young. It was like an alter-ego, I couldn’t get rid of it if I tried! It was a deeper force that was always there, pushing me to go on and on and on and on”.
In the course of finding her musical purpose, Iris came to identify with a long line of Greek artistic freedom fighters, such as the famous composer Mikis Theodorakis. She became very involved in ‘political songs’, ‘folk protest’ songs and ‘epic’ poetic songs. Her resolve to use music as a tool to help ‘make a better world’, which was underpinned by the difficult experiences of her parents, was consolidated by events in the 1960s and 1970s, both within Greece and internationally. These events included the brutal military dictatorship in Greece (1967-1974) and the social upheaval and folk protest movement in the United States and many other places throughout these decades.
“I was living in an area that was very much under heavy political events going on…and [I was also] very much influenced by world political events going on all over the planet…In the United States, there was Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, rock music…There were a lot of political events in my region…A very brutal dictatorship in Greece…and the same thing also in Turkey…so I ended up with protest political songs from the Mediterranean…those things became a part of our culture in those countries…In those days, we didn’t have internet and we didn’t have a lot of means of getting hold of music and information…we didn’t have a television and the media was controlled by the military regime…so it used to go from person to person or sometimes via radio”.
Iris became a successful singer and she particularly became renowned in her region for singing with famous orchestras, including the State Symphony Orchestra and the Presidential Symphony Orchestra of Turkey, and bringing Greek musicians to collaborate with them, and for forming the band Dreamtone & Iris Mavraki’s NEVERLAND. In 2014, Iris moved to Manchester, joining her sons who had left Greece during the difficult economic crisis which started in late 2009. At first, she found this relocation somewhat isolating and she struggled to find other musicians who were interested in forming a band.
“I found it very hard to migrate to another place…It wasn’t easy to start over at my age, with a very long background in music. I had a career of 45 years behind me! To start from scratch, not knowing how and where and to whom to address, it was very, very difficult”.
Iris’ breakthrough in her musical career in Manchester came via her political activities. As a CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) member, she became part of a network of activists with shared political values. Through this, she met several musicians who came together to form the socially-conscious band RISE. They performed songs in Iris’ repertoire, from Greek and Turkish songs to Italian protest songs, as well as original compositions and their successful concerts attracted a diverse audience. With the band no longer performing together, Iris is now seeking out new opportunities for performance and collaboration, and she has also written a book, The Unending Journey, which tells the story of her parents and reflects on their influence on her career as an artist.
“I had been trying for two years and I wasn’t successful, other musicians weren’t interested in this type of music…A friend of mine in CND introduced me to a quite well-known theatre director, Hazel Roy, and she introduced me to Aidan [Jolly] and to Carol [Donaldson] and they introduced me to the other musicians”.
“Manchester is a very diverse, multicultural city, a very progressive city. [At our concerts], we got English people, we got people from Greece and Turkey, we also got Kurdish people, some Italian people. A lady from Germany spoke to me once. I spoke to many people from different countries…I think they were very surprised, they were amazed, that somebody was performing songs from their part of the world”.
THE MEANINGS OF IRIS’ MUSIC
Iris has dedicated a great deal of her life to education and political activism through song. She speaks about the power of music to express experiences, inform people and raise social consciousness and she has been particularly committed to causes relating to war, racism, human rights, migrant rights, antisemitism, women’s rights and environmentalism. Her ability to sing songs in many different languages enables her to raise awareness of these issues amongst people from different places and backgrounds and to show their relevance across different contexts, while at the same time celebrating the diversity of human culture.
“Music is one of the performing arts, to me, that goes directly into your soul. It has an immediate direct appeal on your senses, you know? It’s different than painting and sculpture or ballet. Music is more direct and songs, which have lyrics, are even more direct. It has a bigger effect on people”.
“You can tell them why songs were written, the purpose of that music. It’s like educating people to become more culturally aware. It’s also to take the message over to many people in many countries…and to show people that these things have been happening in many countries and that people did compose or wrote songs or made music in different parts of the world to make people more aware”.
One of Iris’ main objectives has been to create a ‘cultural bridge’ between Greece and Turkey, two countries which have been locked in conflict for centuries. Inspired by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which combined musicians from places across the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine, to make music together, she has participated in numerous projects to bring together Greek and Turkish musicians and to promote peace between the two nations.
“In Greece, I started creating a cultural bridge with our neighbouring country, Turkey…We’ve had a lot of problems, for hundreds of years and actually now more than ever…I wanted to prove that art can pass messages to people and create a different awareness through songs, through music…We have had some very, very successful projects…But there is a lot of fanaticism and hatred on both sides and it was very difficult and now it’s even more hard than ever, because there is a lot of tension going on at the moment…But I believe that we have planted some small seeds…Music can heal some parts and it can create a small ray of hope”.
PROTEST MUSIC IN MANCHESTER
Iris suggests that, while musicians in Manchester tend to be open to music from different cultures, most are not so familiar with or aware of the kind of music that she performs and her first experiences in the city as a musician were somewhat challenging.
“They have political songs here, but it’s in a different way. It’s a completely different musical scene. The rock and the metal music that did appear here in 60s and 70s and 80s was very political – very, very political in many ways. But it’s not in the same context like we have in the Mediterranean, because of the political background we’ve been through, not only because of World War Two but because of dictatorships in many countries. Spain had Franco for so many years and the same in Italy and Greece and Turkey. This has made the sound of the music different and the way of composing different…We have a very strong heritage of this and we carry that with us”.
“I didn’t know the mechanisms of how to open the doors and to reach out to people and organisations and to groups who would be interested in our music. I wrote to about ten different orchestras to perform the Greek music with an orchestra, like I did in Turkey, but nobody answered…I think people were not very familiar with this kind of music”.
“I think there are some barriers in the music scene. Where is the fado? Where is the flamenco? I wasn’t able to find a Roma band [either]. There is a very large African community here and you can find a lot of African music going on. But I haven’t seen this from the people from Europe, I haven’t seen much”.
Nevertheless, she reflects that, once she made connections with more like-minded musicians through her CND contacts and started performing with RISE, she found a supportive, politically-conscious audience in Manchester.
“I think, at most of the performances we did, the audience was consciously aware of what they were going to experience. Maybe not the very, very first performances, but I think it got around, and people started knowing. I think people did start getting aware. We were already heard by a lot of people and they were really, really warm as an audience…My voice and the meanings of the songs got through to them”.
However, she recounts that her confidence as a musician in Manchester was shaken by the ‘Brexit’ process – the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, the national referendum in June 2016 and the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ political campaigns proceeding this.
“There are a lot of things that I love and I like here in Manchester, but I was very much affected by the whole Brexit process, it influenced me terribly. You’re an immigrant and you’ve come to a country which you want to settle down in and suddenly you find yourself against propaganda…Of course, this is not everybody, but there was a very strong propaganda going on – we saw it and we read it and a lot of events started to happen…It was a shock”.
“The support for leav[ing] the European Union from the political left was a very big shock to me. To find so many people on the left who are for Brexit was shocking. We’re all supporting universal solidarity and they’re talking about closing their borders and it doesn’t sound correct…A friend of mine was driving me home one day and she’s supposed to be very, very much on the ‘left’ side, and she said to me: ‘This thing with immigrants has to stop’. And I was so shocked. I said: ‘Do you understand that I am an immigrant sitting next to you? How can you say such a thing?…This is a multicultural society’. It was a very, very upsetting thing”.
Still, Iris is hopeful that the progressive and multicultural character of Manchester will persevere, as long as those who share these values fight for them. There is no doubt that Iris will continue to advocate for these values, expressing and supporting them through song and through music.
“This is a country which I considered one of the most progressive and open minded and warm countries, and I do still consider this. The UK has not tolerated racism, like other countries. Other countries have not given such a big fight as the UK has against racism, it’s very well known for condemning racism, it’s done things to ban it, to stop it…I think we have to try and fight and go on in life”.
‘SAN TON METANASTI’ (SEE VIDEO)
This video shows Iris performing with the Symphony Orchestra DESO of the Izmir University, along with Greek musicians, an example of the 'cultural bridges' she has helped to build between Greek and Turkish musicians and audiences.
The song itself also reflects historic 'bridges' between Greece and Turkey. It was written by the famous Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli while he was living on the Greek island of Samos as a political exile. Its Turkish title is ‘Kardeşin Duymaz [Your brother/sister doesn’t hear]’, Greek versions have since been recorded by several musicians, including Maria Farantouri and George Dalaras, as ‘San Ton Metanasti [Like an immigrant]’; a mixed Greek and Turkish version has been recorded by Olcay Bayir. The version sung here is the Greek one and the orchestra is based in a place, Izmir, Smyrna (Turkey), that also has a symbolic connotations in both Greek and Turkish music history, particularly for the impact of the smyrneiko style on rebetiko.
‘ANTONIS’ (SEE AUDIO)
This song was composed by the famous Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. It appears on the album Mauthausen (1965), which was based on the words of Iakovos Kambanellis who produced a memoir about his experiences as a survivor of the Mauthausen concentration camp, where more than 100,000 inmates were killed. The album focuses on a love story between a Greek communist and a Jewish women within the camp and it decries the cruel and inhumane conditions while also celebrating acts of subversive solidarity. ‘Antonis’ is the name of the Greek communist and this song narrates a story in which he answers the call of a Jewish inmate to help him to carry heavy stones up the camp’s infamous quarry staircase.
Iris sings the song in this recording with RISE and she indicates that it has an important message for people today.
“[The message is] that these things should never happen again, like the World War Two and the Holocaust and antisemitism, which is rising tremendously at the moment. All kinds of racism, and Islamophobia, and anything that has to do with fear and the far right. As a singer, as an artist, as a human being, you have to fight to never let these things happen again”.