The music of Kelly Thoma defies boundaries and borders and creates a unique fusion of ancient European traditions, mixed with the artist’s own experiences from the Eastern Mediterranean region. An outstanding lyra player, composer and performer, Thoma belongs to a rising generation of musicians who have returned to the essence and study of traditional modal music. A true devotee to the world’s music, she studies and seeks inspiration from musical styles stretching across the Near and Middle East, to Celtic and Gaelic traditions. This universality creates the unique and distinct sound that defines Thoma, and gives her the freedom to perform and improvise with musicians across the globe.
The Piraeus-born artist released her first personal album “Anamkhara,” (meaning ‘friend of the soul’ in Gaelic) in 2009. She has been part of the TOKSO Folk String Quartet since 2008 and over the last 14 years has performed with Ross Daly in concerts and festivals all over the world.
It was after listening to Daly performing live in Athens that Thoma began her study of Cretan lyra in 1995. She has since played lyra in many of Daly’s recordings and is a member of the Labyrinth music workshop, of which Daly is the founder and artistic director. Located in the small village of Houdetsi in Iraklion, Labyrinth is a centre for the study of traditional and classical modal music embracing musical styles such as Raga, Makam, Dastgah, Byzantine and Ayak.
If you were to define the music of Kelly Thoma with a single label, would be ‘contemporary modal music’. A term by Ross Daly, it speaks of musicians framing their study of classical traditions in a way that creates vibrant personal expression.
If you are travelling through Greece between July and early September of this year, check out the Labyrinth calendar for information on their music workshops. Not to be missed is the festival taking place August 1-4 in Houdetsi, a four-day event featuring incredible concerts, a magical atmosphere, instrument makers, art and crafts and of course, Cretan delicacies!
David Benforado for The Goddess of the Hunt: What made you study the Cretan lyra? Was it a performance you saw?
Kelly Thoma: Since 1995 I’ve been a big fan of Ross Daly and his music. I was not familiar with either Cretan music or with any other kind of modal music before I first listened to a piece of Ross’ called “Isios Choros” on a cassette. This experience was the beginning of a long journey into the realm of a new world. I first listened to Ross live at a concert in Athens and it was that night that, for some reason, I decided that I would learn how to play the lyra. I loved all the instruments I heard that night, but the sound of the lyra played by Ross took me into another dimension.
GOTH: In your first personal album “Anamkhara” (2009), you collaborated with contemporary masters such as Ross Daly (lyra, tarhu), Zohar Fresco (bendir, tamburello), Pedram Khavar Zamini (tombak), Ahmet Erdoğdular (vocals) and Efrén López (hurdy-gurdy). What was your experience working with them in the studio?
KT: This was a gift I was given by my master-friends, which I will never forget. The only way I find to pay them back is to try to become better and continue to love music the way I do. Working with your idols can be inspiring as well as stressful! But the amount of joy you get when you hear their contribution in your new music is incomparable.
GOTH: In addition to your personal album, you participate in many diverse groups, such as TOKSO Folk String quartet. How do you switch between different styles while still keeping your own distinct sound?
KT: I do not feel I have to switch from something to something else. I am always connected to the musical experiences that have touched the deepest parts of my soul and this gives me unity and continuity in what I am as a musician and as a person. Of course, every time, I learn and enjoy new things, new sounds, new perspectives but it’s always good to have your own way of filtering the new experiences.
KT: If we knew what inspires us it would be very easy to be inspired all the time! We would just “sit next to” the inspiration and write beautiful music every day. But this is not the case. Inspiration can come at the most odd times and moments, for no reason, for no specific duration and never when you ask for it. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately.
GOTH: What is your favorite experience in the Labyrinth Music Workshop?
KT: My favorite experience at Labyrinth is the moment when, after many, many hours of playing, you lose yourself.
GOTH: What are your plans currently and for the immediate future at the Labyrinth Music Workshop?
KT: From the beginning of July until September we have resumed the summer seminar sessions with 30 master classes with musicians from various musical traditions. Like every year more than 300 students from all over the world come to the little village of Houdetsi and attend lessons from these master teachers. This year is the 10th anniversary of Labyrinth in Houdetsi on Crete and the 30th of the project as a whole. This will also be the 3rd year of the Houdetsi Music Festival, from August 1-4.
For more information including concert dates, visit: www.kellythoma.com.
Tags: Ahmet Erdoğdular, Anamkhara, ancient European traditions, Ayak, Byzantine, celtic gaelic, cretan, Dastgah, Efrén López, Kelly Thoma, Labyrinth Music Workshop, lyra, Makam, Pedram Khavar Zamini, piraeus, Raga, ross daly, TOKSO Folk String quartet, Zohar Fresco