‘You hear life in this music, that’s the power’

Yes, of course it is exciting: on Tuesday the band members meet for the first time and they dive into the rehearsal room together. Three days later, on Friday, they will tour for eleven concerts, starting in Almere. “But I’m especially curious,” says pianist and arranger Julian Schneemann (1992) about his new project ‘Island Songs’. “I’ve been working on this for so long, and now it’s finally happening.”

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For Island Songs, Schneemann traveled to the edges of Europe: Ireland and Crete. He studied the local musical traditions and found striking similarities, both in the way of singing and playing and in the social context of the music. “They are living musical traditions, where melodies are passed on from father to son. The role of music in the community is very different from here where we really only hear live music in concert halls. Music is really part of life there,” says Schneemann.


The choice for Cretan music is not accidental, says Schneemann: „I have been going to Greece every summer all my life, my parents have a wooden sailing ship there, an old fishing boat, and with that we sail to a different island every day. From an early age I have heard a lot of folk music there, that sound has settled in my ear. Crete is at a crossroads of cultures and the music contains many influences from Turkey and the Arab world.”

Julian’s father Bart Schneemann is artistic director of the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. For the New Year’s Concert 2020 he brought the Greek brothers Nikos and Adonis Xylouris to Amsterdam. Julian wrote the arrangements for the spectacular performance – which can be seen on YouTube – and had a click with the brothers. “When I asked them if I could come and study their music, they took me in for weeks. They are like rock stars in Crete. When I told them somewhere on the island that I was staying with the Xylouris brothers, people almost fell off their chairs,” says Schneemann.

In the summer, the brothers perform night after night. And everyone participates in the parties where they play, Schneemann noted: “Grandpas and grandmas, small children, teenagers with hooded sweaters, the local machos – they all dance. For me as an outsider that was a very romantic image. But I also saw that it could be intimidating: they had to keep playing, and they had to stay within the lines of tradition.”

The role of music in the community is very different than in the Netherlands

Folk music is a common thread through Schneemann’s professional existence. He is the son of classical musicians, he himself studied jazz piano at the Amsterdam Conservatory. But for his pleasure, he mainly listened to music from other cultures, in which he found something he lacked in classical and jazz: “The music is very earthy, they are strong, simple melodies, often very old, that sound slightly different every time. . You hear life, that’s the attraction.”

After graduating, he founded the group Caravan, with drummer Jeroen Batterink, a fellow student, and the Syrian oud player Jawa Manla, whom he knew from his work as an arranger for the NBE. The project was a success, they toured extensively and the third album was released this spring, Caravan III. The fourth member of Caravan, violinist Emmy Storms, also participates in Island Songs. “Emmy can play anything from a classical violin concerto to jazz. But Irish music is her great love. I liked that too, but thanks to her I started to delve into it even more,” says Schneemann.

the pub

Because he had no contacts in Ireland, he had to rely on the internet – and the pub. “That was no punishment,” laughs Schneemann, who drove around the entire island in a rental car. “In the past people used to come together at home to sing, nowadays it is mainly in the pub. As a child you get to know the tradition by being immersed in it.”

The Irish contribution to Island Songs comes – except for Emmy Storms – from the famous bodhran player John Joe Kelly. The bodhrán is a frame drum (kind of tambourine) that is played with a stick.

The melodies that Schneemann learned from his Greek and Irish colleagues form the basis of Island Songs, supplemented by some new compositions. At home he puzzled together arrangements, which he then taught his band members again during countless Zoom sessions. “There is a plan, but nothing is on paper – that was the agreement from the start. At Caravan I have always written all the music, but this is really a joint project. All musicians know the pieces, they embody the music. During rehearsals we will find out exactly how we are going to play.”

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