JOHN PROTOPAPAS: PASSION FOR MUSIC
Growing up in South Africa, I often had the opportunity to be in environments where music played an important role and where it was often the predominant medium for transforming people. My most memorable moments were Greek weddings and gatherings with family and relatives. It was not uncommon for me to see rather old shopkeepers doing complete backbends and other rather strenuous and extreme physical movements with a little help from ouzo and lots of help from the live Bouzouki bands. Together with this was the warm and familial experience at the local Greek church where I experienced Byzantine chant together with the visuals of the priests and icons and incense. All of these elements were used as an aide to a deep spiritual awareness. To this day, the sounds of Byzantine chant trigger off many positive and spiritual feelings deep within me. In many ways, I believe that my early exposure to Byzantine chant is what ultimately led me to North Indian Classical music (both of which are monotonic systems of music).
Parallel to this were the culturally opposite experiences of watching African drummers and dancers spontaneously express themselves uninhibited with group participation as a key element. One as a tool for self transcendence, the other, a unifying and uplifting force in the light of the incredible oppression and suffering the Africans were experiencing at the time. African music to me always brings a great feeling of joy and celebration. Finally, I left South Africa, mainly due to the incredible injustice that was taking place at the time. I arrived in Greece where I spent some time exploring my roots, taking every opportunity to listen to live traditional music. The unique way of the Greek clarinet and the sounds of the Cretan lyre were my most profound musical experiences. Of course, I had fallen in love with Greece and traveling. Two years later, I headed East to India and after many unusual coincidences, met my main sitar teacher. I felt that I had finally arrived home. Not just physically but musically and spiritually.
For so many years, I had been developing ideas about music, self expression, improvisation etc. What I found in Classical Indian Music was the culmination and fruition of all these ideas. This musical system is not only spiritual in nature, but is a complete musical system where through rigorous training, one acquires the necessary skills to go deep into one’s creativity, touching on very deep elements of our human nature. It not only leads the musician and listeners into deep states of contemplation, but has the ability to touch on the most refined elements of sound and aesthetics.
Over the course of 23 years, I have continued my sitar studies mainly with Professor Virendra Kumar Sen, retired professor of DAV College, Dehra Dun and the late Gopal Shankar Mishra of BHU and Rabindran Narayan Goswami of Benaras. Also, I have had the opportunity to study tabla with Pyari Lal Mishra and Pakhawaj with Shri Kant Mishra, both of BHU, Banaras. Meeting my wife, Jan in Banaras in 1989 where we were married, has been a boon for both of us as she is trained in both Western Classical music (piano) and Indian classical music (vocal). Presently, we live in the USA with our two children: our princess Helena 14 who studies violin (western classical and jazz) and also Kathak (North Indian dance) and our 8 year-old son, Yiorgo who just wants to rock and roll. In the USA, I teach World Music at York College, PA. I also teach sitar, tabla and yoga privately. My wife is a doctoral candidate in Ethnomusicology with her main focus North Indian devotional music. We regularly perform and give lecture demonstrations at local colleges and have recently released our first CD: Bija: Seeds of Prayer. Ultimately, music is a blessing that comes through us and not from us. I feel classical Indian music when seriously listened to has the ability to give us a glimpse of that which we are all seeking in so many millions of ways: a gentle taste of the Beloved.