He’s the tall, lanky, kinky-haired Greek dude who turns heads in China. When we meet in hometown Ottawa for coffee, nearby native Mandarin speakers, who overhear us, are in awe of his fluency with the language or else recognize him from Chinese reality TV. From Stats Can to Shanghai, the excitable and emphatic man – born Yiorgos Sapounidis – has long led a double global life. We chat ahead of the release of a new album, Bringing the Greek Party to China!, and an #Ottawa2017 show.
Happy Lunar New Year, George. We haven’t seen you playing shows in Ottawa in a while. Where have you been?
I just finished recording a brand new album with a band. It took us a couple of years. We’ve selected well-known Greek songs and reworked them into a Greek-Chinese fusion. I’m singing on the album bilingually. There are songs played on the guzheng, a very traditional Chinese instrument, which is like a horizontal harp, and a Chinese pipa that, amazingly, sounds and looks like the Greek bouzouki.
It’s the Year of the Rooster and, having been born in 1957, it’s your year. Your lucky colours are gold, brown, and yellow, which are the colours on your album sleeve.
No kidding?! I feel it’s my year. The album is ready and we’re going to be releasing it [Summer 2017].
The saying associated with this sign is, “Being constant without changeability leads to woodenness.” Does this resonate with you?
I’ve never seen that, but I would agree with that because I am not constant and I am hopefully not wooden. I’m very spontaneous.
You’ve been invited to China for speeches, performances, Olympics, and reality TV competitions. How many times have you travelled there? Are you big in Greece too?
Since 2000, when I was first invited by the Chinese embassy, I’ve averaged two to three trips per year. I’ve been there about 40 times. I perform all in Mandarin and I’ve not been performing in Greece because these songs are novel to a Chinese audience. Greeks are not interested in hearing their own songs in Mandarin.
Do these folk songs give you the feels? I don’t understand Greek or Mandarin, but the pathos is apparent. So tell me: what are the new songs about?
It’s across the board. This is a party album of Greek songs with one ballad. What I find incredible about Greek music is that the songs have themes of angst, despair, desperation, and loss. When the songs are performed, the music is very uplifting and happy. There’s a peculiar, mysterious contrast between the angst of many of the songs and the uplifting way in which the songs are performed. That to me is very moving.
How does one transition from a doctorate to the world of folk-rock stardom?
There was no transition. I got my PhD in mathematical statistics at U of T in 1997, and throughout my academic career I always had this parallel passion and career of music performance. I began working at Stats Canada on Halloween of 1983.
You recently released yourself from the golden handcuffs. When did that happen?
Four years ago thanks to the previous prime minister. I took freedom 55 in 2012. There was an initiative to let a number of civil servants go at Stats Canada. Senior management was good enough to ask staff, “Who would like to volunteer to leave?” I signed up right away. I took a package and early retirement after 29 years at Stats Canada. It was a great time, a great employer, and I had interesting projects and that is a part of me; mathematics and statistics are part of me. I currently tutor a number of students at Carleton University and high schools. I don’t regret the decision. After retiring, I wanted to ramp up my performance from a community level to a professional level.
You sing in Greek and Mandarin, but you’re also fluent in other languages. Do you perform in those languages?
I speak French, English, Greek, and Mandarin, and I sing in Hebrew, Arabic, Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines), and Persian. Those are for fun because I have a knack for linguistics. I’ll perform those at parties, multicultural events, and senior citizens’ residences. I have one song in Hindi called “Mera Joota Hai Japani” from an old Bollywood film from the 1950s that goes over well. All of those organizations really enjoy it when I perform; in other words, the multilingual approach goes over well in Ottawa.
Years ago, Eyesteel Films made a documentary about your life. You held nothing back. The camera came into your bedroom and there were shots that showed you walking around in nothing but a guitar and a speedo. Is your life an open book?
Yes. I don’t safeguard things. I’m fairly open.
The filmmakers were very taken with the fact that you live at home with your mom.
I still live at home with my mom. During that whole experience, I didn’t hold back. Everything is out there.
Here we are in 2017, Canada’s big year. Have you been reflecting on this melding of cultures you incorporate in your music in light of the anniversary?
It’s always been a theme. I’m not making any new statements or realizations at this time. I’m always very accepting of all cultures. I think everybody has something to offer to society.
You’ll be back at Shanghai Restaurant, the scene of your rocking video from a few years back that features you and China Doll shooting back ouzo. What’s planned for this gig?
We’re going to really rock it out. It’s a pre-release show with advance copies of the album. It’s also a Chinese New Year show. I’m really glad and honoured to have been given the opportunity by Ottawa2017 and the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition to give a small show.
See Chairman George Friday, February 3 at Shanghai Restaurant. Advance tickets are $10.