In the United States, New Age composer and performer Yanni doesn’t have the mainstream stature that his 20-million-plus record sales might impart. He’s a pop culture oddity, ironically celebrated on t-shirts and covered with questionable sincerity.
But in other countries, Yanni (born Yiannis Chryssomallis) is more beloved. China appreciates him so much that the government gave him a panda, a first for a western artist. He’s also been allowed to play at some of the world’s most respected and protected places. He’s held concerts at eight UNESCO world heritage sights, beginning with the Acropolis in his native country Greece in 1993. That performance launched his international career, and the video of it remains the second highest-selling music video of all time.
To promote his new album, Sensuous Chill, Yanni performed in front of the Pyramids at Giza. We spoke to him about his panda, his archaeological world tour, and his claim that he’s “the most interesting musician in the world.”
How do you just decide, “I think I want to play at the Acropolis”?
Just because I’m a Greek guy that wanted to play the Parthenon doesn’t mean you get it. You have to go in front of the Archaeological committee, the mayor, the minister of culture, the minister of tourism; they have to see you. They have to understand that you will not damage the monument, but you will prepare a very appropriate presentation for the monument and for the culture. They have to know that you understand their culture, that you understand what their monument means to their culture. Once they trust you, then you may proceed with caution.
How do you build that trust?
It’s a question of personal touch and personal contact. They have to see the whites of your eye. They have to see you many times. When I went to China the first time to play in the Forbidden City, it was 1997. That was not the same china that it is today.
Playing in Greece, your home country, is one thing. Was booking shows at China’s Forbidden City and India’s Taj Mahal much harder?
The fact that we completed the Acropolis with no hitch, and it had been such a worldwide phenomenon, helped. It became my calling card. But make no mistake, I had to meet with the Minister of Culture in China, personally. When I went to talk about the Taj Mahal, I had to meet with the governor of Uttar Pradesh in person. And you know what we talked about? We talked about everything, the origins of religion, of history. He wanted to know how much I understood, who I was. He wanted to know, ‘Who is this man from Greece that wants to play the Taj Mahal? We’ve never given the Taj Mahal to anybody and we’ll never give it to anyone. Why is he asking for it?’ And after talking with him for an hour or two, I said to him, I hope you’ know I will treat the Taj Mahal with the utmost respect—as much as I treated the Parthenon in Greece. And that’s how I got the Taj Mahal.
Your 1997 performance in China went so well that they gave you quite an endorsement: they gave you a panda. Washington, D.C.’s National Zoo doesn’t even own its pandas. But you have one. How did that happen?
They do not allow anyone to adopt a panda, especially individual personalities or famous people. It happened after a long time. For example, few people know that the Chinese teach their children my music. They learn how to play ‘Nightingale,’ and I cannot remember the other song. I wrote a lot of music for them over the years. And they trusted me enough and they decided to give me the gift of a lifetime. And in the award, it says, ‘For promoting peace around the world.’ They said, ‘We trust you and we’re going to give you a vote of confidence.’ And the vote of confidence is, ‘You get to pick a panda. And you get to give it a name.’ So I picked a female, of course. And I decided to call her Santorini. Santorini happens to be the most beautiful island in Greece. And it’s two words. ‘Santo’ which means ‘saint.’ ‘Eirine’ is ‘peace’ in Greek. So it is the beautiful panda of peace.
Where is your panda now?
She’s in Chengdu, China. People always think I have her at my house! She’s an endangered species! I couldn’t take her home.
Let’s talk music. How would you describe ‘New Age’ music or your music to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
It’s difficult to put instrumental, electronic music into words. You have to feel it. And it has to do with my soul. The album is a song. The album is a piece of music that you’re supposed to hear it from the beginning, all the way through the middle, all the way to the end. You don’t just pick a song, drop the needle and see what the album is about.
You use instruments from all over the world. You hear a lot of different cultures represented in your music. Do you visit these places or just listen to a lot of international music when you write your songs?
I stop listening to music when it’s time for me to write music. Influences do seep in. But it’s from different cultures, and I don’t force them. I pick different instrumentation because I want the color. And I use electronics when the acoustic instruments aren’t capable of reaching certain things that I hear in my mind. If Beethoven had a synthesizer, he would have used it, I bet. Think about it, it took 200 years to develop the piano. Now you can just turn a few knobs and within 5 minutes you can create an entire new sound that may have taken someone 50 years to create back then -- they’d have to drill the bamboo, dry it, and bend it and drill holes in it and try to change that, change this, move the strings, stretch them out. There’s a lot of beauty to all this. And I never follow trends. I write what feels right to me.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Justin O'Neill is a digital audio producer at National Geographic. You can follow him on Twitter.