Banda Magda's leader talks film scoring, Snarky Puppy and working with Louis C.K.
Written by Jenelle Janci
June 10, 2016
As a child, Magda Giannikou fell in love with her collection of film scores.
“Aladdin,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Out of Africa” and the 1994 remake of “Little Women” were among her favorites. She’d listen to them on repeat, letting the music create an image in her mind.
“I have a very vivid imagination,” says Giannikou, the band leader of Banda Magda, which performs at Long’s Park on Sunday. “For me, film music sort of fulfilled that in some ways. I would sit in my room and imagine all of those things. This music sort of made it feel alive.”
Giannikou also loved singing. She sang to her elementary school students as a teacher in her native country of Greece before moving to America to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2003.
She studied film music and took her assignments seriously, but couldn’t help but let her eye wander to her classmates who were in bands.
“I loved it (film music), but at the same time I was a bit jealous of people who had gigs and performed on stage,” Giannikou says. “I was like, ‘Man, I want to do that as well.’ ”
Her plan was to go to Los Angeles after graduation to continue her career in composing for film. She found herself at a crossroads when her friends told her they were all planning to move to New York City.
“I chose friendship,” Giannikou says.
They formed a band to earn some “bread money,” Giannikou says. Banda Magda performed in restaurants for two years, before its audience became too large for the eateries. They graduated to venues, then toured, then began playing festivals.
The band’s sound is a hodgepodge of genres and cultures, blending jazz, French pop and Latin elements.
All the while, Giannikou has kept her spark as a composer. She’s earned awards, including the Georges Delerue Award for achievement in Film Scoring, and the BMI Film Scholarship, and worked on numerous composing projects, including a song for Louis C.K.’s television show, “Louie,” in 2010.
“I didn’t know who he was during the session, which was a blessing,” Giannikou says. “Because had I known, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. I would have been so nervous.”
It wasn’t until Giannikou was home that she realized who the comedian was.
“After the session, I went home and thought, ‘I’m going to Google this really nice guy that I met today,’ ” Giannikou says. “I started watching all the episodes and watching everything that he has online, and I was star struck.”
Giannikou is a composer first and foremost, she says, which influences her work with Banda Magda.
“There’s a cinematic approach to how I write songs,” Giannikou says. “It has a bit of this fantasy world.”
Giannikou creates all the string and horn arrangements for the band, and her education helps her make those musical visions a reality.
“My knowledge of the orchestra and generally of orchestral arranging helps me to create it without compromising my personal vision at all,” Giannikou says.
When she wasn’t listening to film scores as a child, Giannikou listened to a wealth of world music with her parents. Because she heard music in several different languages in her formative years, she says, to her, it feels only natural to create music in multiple languages, too. Giannikou sings in seven different languages with Banda Madga, and is fluent in four: English, French, Spanish and Greek.
She writes the lyrics in other languages and takes great pains to communicate a message in accordance with the music.
“Lyric writing takes forever because of that, because I want the meaning to be in complete harmony with the sound,” Giannikou says.
Banda Magda has been known to collaborate with the instrumental collective Snarky Puppy, which performs with Justin Timberlake, Kirk Franklin, Snoop Dogg and others. Giannikou met the band when Snarky Puppy’s Michael League filled in on bass for a Banda Madga gig.
That week, a band dropped out of Snarky Puppy’s Family Dinner series at Rockwood Music Hall, where Snarky Puppy would learn other artists’ songs and perform them live. Since he had just learned Banda Magda’s songs for the performance, he suggested they perform them for the series.
“It felt like we knew each other forever,” Giannikou says. “The friendship is not just with Michael, it’s with every single member. We are so close.”
Giannikou says Banda Magda is currently working on its third album, “Tigre,” which the band hopes to release next spring. The project is inspired by overcoming fears and obstacles, as Giannikou says the band did during its initial years of growth. The album will also have a visual component.
“It kind of represents defeating the fears and obstacles, and where does confidence come from and where does courage come from when you need it,” Giannikou says. “We want to leave the audience with a very positive feeling.”