Even though ranked among the top-25 vibraphonists in the world, Christos Rafalides remains down to earth
Top-notch vibraphonist and composer Christos Rafalides grew up in Kozani, moved to Boston to study and found his inner voice in New York, where he first left his mark as a member of the Manhattan Vibes quarter. His latest album titled Home is scheduled to be released on June 23rd, a project made up of seven original compositions, tailor-made to each separate musician that has contributed. The title of the album came up after the fact that all musicians recorded their respective parts from home, due to the pandemic restrictions. Home teams up musicians from different cultures, nationalities and backgrounds, featuring a multifaceted and pluralistic lineup: Antonio Sánchez (Mexico), Thana Alexa (Croatia), Mauricio Zottarelli (Brazil), Giovanni Mirabassi (France/Italy), Brad Mason (England), Victor Provost (Virgin Islands), Mike Pope (USA), Petros Klampanis and Thomas Konstantinou (Greece).
Christos Rafalides moved to Boston at a really young age, having earned a scholarship for the prestigious Berklee College of Music. “It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t that hard, either. It may sound like I’m evading, but that’s the truth. It goes without saying that making a new start in a foreign place, into the unknown, especially in the pre-Internet times, was no piece of cake. At the same time though, it was exciting as everything was new and fresh! I had the chance to meet new people with whom we shared the same passion, to learn, to put myself through the test and get better and better,” he explains. In the field of arts and culture, there’s always room for people with drive and talent, and I feel happy to be the one welcoming the younger ones who come to New York to take their shot!”.
Over the past years he has teamed up with distinguished musicians from different cultures, nationalities and backgrounds. This act of getting together and coming closer is still valuable
to him, after all these years. “This is one of the main reasons for choosing to live away from my homeland for the past thirty years. At first it was for academic purposes, as I aimed to gain a fully-rounded music education. However, as time went by, this mingling with people from different cultures and nationalities added new dimensions to my identity as an artist.”
Throughout his career, starting from the Manhattan Vibes quartet and the collaboration with his mentor, Joe Locke, all the way to the Trio he founded and the partnerships with acclaimed Greek and international musicians, he admits that a joint mindset between all involved parties plays a pivotal role. “Compatibility in terms of aesthetic and vision means the world in this genre of music. Jazz goes way beyond the composer’s partiture, as we have the room (and the privilege) of improvisation, which allows us to develop our proper thoughts on each piece. You can only imagine how unpaired an improvisational solo would sound if not governed by the same mindset as the rest of the musicians,” he goes on to say.
Matched by a group of top-notch jazz and classical music performers, Greek-Canadian composer Christos Chatzis, Petros Klampanis and Antonis Sousamoglou, he became involved in the music experiment bearing the name of Sonic Convergence, providing “music answers to the blazing questions of our rimes” with vibrance, contemplation and humor. In his book, experimentation is “a necessary element of progress that tinges things with a touch of risk, as it dares to move and think outside-the-box. Sonic Convergence was a thrilling experiment, as it posed a one-of-a-kind challenge: to form a joint vision, despite coming from different fields, and create something new, fresh and exciting. I feel that we planted a seed for this music quest to grow, while challenging all traditional forms and aspects of the music status quo.”
Christos Rafalides makes no distinction between the Greek and the international audience, rebuffing my own doubts as to whether a devoted jazz audience does indeed exist in Greece. “Nowadays everyone has access to jazz thanks to the Internet. People can now learn how to appreciate and comprehend jazz music, but also delve into it if they feel like doing so.” Even though ranked among the top-25 vibraphonists in the world, Christos Rafalides remains down to earth, a quality valued by everyone around him. “Music is no sport, where you have to be a winner or a contender for the top. The distinction you mentioned obviously means a lot to me, as it is the outcome of hard work and persistence. However, it is equally important to remain connected to my origins. You can easily get carried away with music, isolate yourself and start to float aimlessly.”
In January 2022, within the framework of the Jazz Chronicles hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, he showcased Silver Lining, alongside pianist Giovanni Mirabassi. An Italian pianist and a Greek vibraphonist, both renowned and cosmopolitan, get caught up in a jazz dialogue. “I met Giovanni a decade ago, when he invited me as a guest to join his trio band, in Paris. That’s when the prospect of further collaboration dawned on us. Our music DNA can be detected in drama and opera, with lyricism as the common
denominator. Our music ‘upbringing’ in Europe and the US, as well as the profound respect we have for one another, brings out our best version, guaranteeing an on stage balance.”
If he had to choose between large-scale venues and performances in smaller jazz clubs, where the distance between the artist and the audience is practically eliminated, he opts for… both options, as “each one has a sweet spot to it,” as he points out. “Large-scale venues generate awe, multiplying the effect of the sound and making each note sound and seem immense – yet the sense of responsibility grows along with it! Smaller venues get you closer to the audience: the feeling of active participation becomes more intense; you develop a different kind of connection with everyone around you.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining”, suggests an optimistic English proverb that gave the name to Silver Lining, implying that something positive may come up even in the most difficult
times. So, is it safe to assume that he feels optimistic for what lies ahead, in this ever-changing world? “I am balancing between optimism and realism, by nature: I try to be prepared for any scenario that may come. I consciously choose to be an optimist, yet staying away from being naive. Otherwise, how will you find the courage to get out of bed every morning?” he answers in full honesty.
In his personal cosmos, his birthplace Kozani falls into the definition of home. “It helps me to remain down to earth, reminding me where I started from. Growing up in Kozani in the 80s is an identifying feature when living in New York. I feel a unique bond with the people of my homeland, which keeps getting stronger and more meaningful every time I return,” he says of his city, in which he hosts concerts every chance he gets.
“The pandemic swept everything away: the quarantine took a toll on performing arts and all artists found themselves in a tough spot. Post-pandemic life has brought a feeling of normality, enhanced by the change in the political scenery, which sort of appeased a tense situation. The Big Apple is no longer accessible to its residents, as it has become totally unaffordable and unbearable in terms of living conditions. The way I see it and even though it’s deprived of its glamor, New York will remain a pole of attraction and a pent-up dream for a lot of folks,” he says with regard to his post-pandemic life in the US. If he had been living elsewhere, and if he were to choose a place to live on purely artistic criteria, he would still end up in New York, which he describes as “Pericles’ Athens of the 21st century, at least art-wise.”
His goal or, to put it more accurately, his desire for the near future is no other than to stay creative and up-to-date, drawing energy and inspiration from everything new, innovative and different. “In ten years from now, however, I would have no problem picturing myself on a little trawler in the Aegean Sea, fishing and allowing my mind to break free from conventions and limitations”. As we wrap up our talk, we ask him what kind of advice he would give to his 20-year-old self today. “I think I would urge him to follow his heart, because ‘life knows best and I trust it’, as a friend says.”