When Magda Giannikou graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music with a degree in film scoring she saw two possible paths ahead of her.
Checking out opportunities in Los Angeles, she took some meetings and saw that she could gradually climb the ranks from intern to assistant to eventually writing film scores herself, “and for some reason it didn’t feel right,” she says. Most of her Berklee friends were heading to New York, and while that road looked murky and the destination uncertain, she decided to plunge into the unknown.
Not quite a decade later, the Greek-born composer, singer, producer and accordionist is the guiding spirit of Banda Magda, a flamboyantly theatrical, idiosyncratically polyglot ensemble that has earned international renown through its passionately inventive performances and collaborations with the likes of Snarky Puppy and Kronos Quartet (who commissioned a piece from her for the 2013 Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival).
Celebrating the release of the new album “Tigre” (Verve), which takes its name from a signature Giannikou set piece with narration and lyrics about an avaricious tiger, Banda Magda performs Oct. 18 at Freight & Salvage and Oct. 19 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center.
Fascinated by languages since she was a child, Giannikou sings in English, Spanish, French, Greek and Portuguese, but the band’s international sensibility reflects more than just her linguistic facility. For this tour, Banda Magda features bass guitarist Andres Rotmistrovsky and guitarist Ignacio Hernandez, both from Argentina, and the Japanese percussion tandem of drummer Keita Ogawa and Mika Mimora on vibes.
Giannikou maintains a steady core of musicians but has developed a deep bench of players who can step in when a regular band member has a conflicting engagement. As she has in the past, Mimora is filling in for the combo’s regular Argentine percussionist, an instrumental tweak that serves Giannikou’s music well.
“What I love about the vibes is they’re so fantastical,” she says. “They really make you wander off into imagination and dream, and so much of my music is about creating transporting and cinematic sounds.”
She first forged deep ties with Argentinian musicians at Berklee, a connection she attributes to a shared Mediterranean culture (transported to Argentina via its majority population with Italian roots). “There’s similar behavior and family values,” she says. “The funny thing is the other players are Japanese, and for that I have no answers.”
The band’s multicultural identity was born as much out of economic necessity as personnel. When she moved from Boston to New York in 2008 Giannikou floundered for the first six months. Eventually she let go of her pride and worked up her gumption, becoming “really determined to do anything to perform,” she recalls. “I’m going to find every single restaurant that has live music and go talk to them. I started playing at this Italian restaurant, and the word got out.”
She gradually lined up a full calendar of gigs, working in restaurants serving French, Italian, Brazilian and Greek cuisine, while developing repertoire to fit each establishment. By 2010 she was eager to present the band in a concert setting. She lined up an engagement at the East Village venue Drom, a New York showcase for international music.
The show sold out, but her real break came a few months later when bassist Michael League, the leader of Snarky Puppy, subbed in Banda Magda for a Bastille Day performance at a French cultural festival. He immediately struck up a tight friendship with Giannikou and the band, and ended up going on a European tour with Banda Magda a month later.
A charter member of the extended Snarky Puppy clan, Giannikou contributed to 2013’s “Family Dinner – Volume 1” (Ropeadope Records), the album that featured the Grammy Award-winning Snarky Puppy collaboration with Lalah Hathaway. League also made a point of connecting Giannikou with presenters he knew would understand her music, facilitating Banda Magda’s international reach. She often draws on the Snarky Puppy crew when she’s producing other projects.
Their mutual admiration society became completely evident in an email from League, who wrote that Giannikou “is truly and utterly unique in all the ways an artist should be. I don’t know that I’ve met another artist as versatile as Magda. Whether conducting, arranging, songwriting, singing, producing or playing (from double bass to pandeiro), she is a graceful, emotional force in every respect. She gives her whole self to every musical moment.”
Rather than moving to Hollywood and creating soundscapes for other people’s stories, Giannikou has become the auteur of her own fantastical vision, creating a singular and welcoming menagerie of sights and sounds.
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 18
Where: Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley
Tickets: $14/$18, 510-644-2020, www.thefreight.org
Also: 7 p.m. Oct. 19, Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz, $25/$30, 831-427-2227, www.kuumbwajazz.org
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