There aren’t many concerts you can go to and hear songs sung in six different languages—let alone listen to a setlist ranging from Brazilian sambas and polyphonic French chansons to traditional Greek folk music. This may sound like a whole festival of performers, but it’s actually just one group: The New York City-based Banda Magda. Since their founding in 2011, the group has toured in more than 22 countries across five continents, collaborating along the way with Grammy-winning acts from the classically-inspired Kronos Quartet to Brooklyn-based jazz/jam band Snarky Puppy. Surprisingly, one place Banda Magda hasn’t visited yet is the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). That is until now. Get ready, Saratogians, because this dynamic group of firecracker, international musicians will make their SPAC debut, giving the final SPAC on Stage performance of the season on Monday, September 9. (To purchase tickets, which are still available, click here; for 20 percent off the ticket price, use the discount code SLIVING.)
As for how best to describe Banda Magda’s broad, almost cinematic sound, blending song traditions and instruments from the Old World with the New, the industry label of “world music” is woefully inadequate. The group consists of an ever-rotating roster of talented musicians from around the globe—the US, UK, Greece, Japan, Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Israel and Turkey. The songs’ lyrics, often sung in French, Spanish, Greek or Portuguese, effortlessly transport listeners away on a rare verve and musical richness that cross all language barriers. The musical glue, so to speak, holding this incredibly eclectic group together is more or less the creative effort of one individual, Banda Magda’s inimitably talented founder, lead singer and accordionist Magda Giannikou.
Born in Athens, Giannikou developed her love for music early on from her mother, a pianist and elementary music educator, and father, whom Giannikou describes as a “music collector.” “My father had CDs, vinyls, cassettes, books about music, books about everything,” Giannikou tells saratoga living. “We all grew up in a very musical and artistic household, and that defined me as a person and also as a musician.”
After graduating from the National Conservatory of Greece and studying jazz piano and theory at the Nakas Jazz School in Athens, Giannikou began her music career composing music for TV and theater productions in her home city. This love of writing film music led her to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, where Giannikou studied film scoring and picked up an instrument more common on the European band scene than here in the US: the accordion. (In fact, Giannikou was Berklee’s only accordionist while in attendance there.)
Learning the accordion completely rewired Giannikou’s way of thinking about her music (let’s just say it’s not the typical instrument of choice for lead singers), and after graduating from Berklee in 2008, the Greek-born singer decided to focus on performing her own music versus writing it for films. That choice led Giannikou to New York City where, in 2011, she formed Banda Magda, recorded an EP and slowly began to make a living playing in restaurants. “Little by little, restaurant by restaurant, we started to have a name in New York,” says Giannikou. “We played in French, Portuguese and Italian restaurants, and I started learning a lot of repertoire and languages that I already loved but that I could [develop] more.”
From the restaurant scene, Banda Magda moved to venues around New York City and then gradually to touring both at home and abroad. The group dropped their debut album Amour, t’es la? in 2013—which reached No.9 on Billboard‘s Top World Music Albums chart—and caught the attention of popular jazz-fusion collective Snarky Puppy. The band soon was invited to go on tour with Snarky Puppy, even collaborating with them on their 2013, Grammy-winning album Family Dinner – Volume 1, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since then, Banda Magda has risen to the top of their musical game, touring and giving master classes across the globe, as well as recording two more critically-acclaimed albums: Yerakina (2014) and their most recent work Tigre, released in 2017. Giannikou says that the group is already working on recording its fourth project, which is actually going to be a tetralogy of albums, one for each season of the year. “It’s going to be an ode to the seasons comprised of songs and original music inspired by the sounds of the seasons,” says Giannikou. “It’s an environmental message: Preserving nature to preserve art.”
That new project, which has a working title of Aurore (French for “dawn”), will be out next year. However, those who go see Banda Magda at SPAC on September 9 will be treated to the world premiere of one the new songs from Aurore as well as a whole set of popular pieces from the band’s previous three albums. “We’ve heard so much about SPAC—that it’s a stunning venue and that [SPAC concerts] are a really big event in Saratoga Springs,” says Giannikou. “Our shows are very interactive and we look forward to being there.”