Written by Alexa Peters
February 25, 2016
Musician Magda Giannikou emanates joy. Even with a heavy accordion strapped to her shoulders, she flits about the stage, leading Banda Magda with the dance of her accordion bellows and girlish singing voice. A stylish marriage of Audrey Hepburn’s sophistication and Carmen Miranda’s vivaciousness, Giannikou has the look of vintage stardom about her. Add in her impressive musical talent, humor, and heart of gold, and it’s clear you’re witnessing a star on the rise.
Giannikou began her life many miles away from this American stage, in a suburb of Athens, Greece called Voula. Giannikou’s description of her childhood self seems so counter to her stage presence.
“I had a lonely childhood. I always felt strange, always had a hard time finding a sense of belonging while I was growing up. It was hard for me to connect,” she said.
Early on, though, she discovered solace and connection in music.
“My father is a great music lover and connoisseur of music and he would play for [me and my siblings] music from all over the world… I got into music because he nurtured me with it. Alongside that, my mother is a musician. She plays the piano and writes music for children, and she’s an architect and art historian,” said Giannikou.
Using the musical education her parents afforded her, Giannikou spent much of her childhood studying the intricacies of her favorite musical scores. “I wanted to be a composer, I wanted to write for films, that was my dream,” Giannikou said. She also learned many languages, accounting for her amazing ability to speak (and sing in) French, Spanish, English, a little Japanese, and her native Greek.
In her early twenties, after graduating with a classical piano diploma in Athens, she wrote music for TV. Then, she decided to pursue film and music at Berkelee College of Music. Once in school, she picked up the accordion and became the only accordionist at Berkelee at the time. The instrument opened her up to a whole new expressive experience.
“It’s almost like I’m playing a string arrangement. I control dynamics and I lead the band with accordion like I’m conducting. Because I’m a very dynamic personality — the fact that the bellow has so much dynamic ability I think fits so well with my music and personality,” Giannikou said.
The switch ended up being hugely transformative. Not only did it give her an increased sense of musical authenticity, but it rerouted her path.
“I won the Georges Delerue Award for excellence in film scoring, and [through it] I got to meet a famous composer and his wife in Hollywood. I told her, ‘I have this love for film but also this new passion about playing and performing live and I want to do both.’ She told me, ‘You can do both, but not at the same time.’… So, then it was a decision — what do I do?”
Instead of moving to Los Angeles for film composing, Giannikou chose to put that childhood dream on hold and move to New York and pursue performing. At first, Giannikou thought she’d made a mistake.
“I was depressed for six months… I couldn’t find any gigs in the beginning.” Giannikou said. “And I was supremely jealous of people who were performing. One day I just decided, ‘Man, I’m going to do this.’”
With fiery intention, Giannikou formed her band, Banda Magda, made a short sampler EP of their material, and literally pounded pavement, giving the EP to any restaurant in New York that would take it. Only one restaurant got back to her — a little place in SoHo — but that made all the difference. Suddenly, Banda Magda had gigs every night and people began to know them. Then, they made a couple albums and were invited on tour with the internet-famous group Snarky Puppy.
“Snarky’s leader, Michael, has always been so supportive. Our new album will be recorded on his record label,” Giannikou says.
The new album, Tigre, is set to be released by September 2016. In it, Giannikou addresses directly her challenges with belonging and authenticity. Each song on the album, as Giannikou explains, is about all the different kinds of fear that keep you from being you.
“It’s so important — authenticity and uniqueness — and it’s easy and difficult at the same time, I feel, because by definition everyone is unique, so why can’t we just be? I get very disappointed when I see people that haven’t had the opportunity or capacity to tap into that power of really understanding yourself and your value,” Giannikou said.
Giannikou recommends finding the things you love and having the courage to pursue them. “I think it’s about failing and trying things and failing again — you toughen up and almost like an onion, you take off layers. And then you find out what’s inside,” she said.
Along with releasing and touring with Tigre, one of Giannikou’s future goals for Banda Magda is to begin further focus on educating people in world music traditions. She wants to change the current tour model so that she and her band can stay in communities for a few days, hold masterclasses, and interact more with local music students. Really, Giannikou is always looking to find new ways to celebrate the joy and sense of belonging that music has given her.
“My driving force is this deity that I have made up in my mind — the protector of the stage, of the performer, of the music. Because when I go up there I feel elation and belonging. I don’t know where it comes from — I love people, talking to people and connecting with people. I love this idea of prosperity by giving out positive energy.”
For more information on Magda Giannikou and Banda Magda visit her website. Below is a sneak peak of Tigre, as well as one of Banda Magda’s music video for “El Pescador” from their last release, Yerakina. To support Tigre visit Banda Magda’s crowdfunding page.