George Chittenden and Lise Liepman: A Musical Journey

Couple shares over three decades of folk music expertise and joy

As the Greek dancers daily lives throughout the San Francisco Greek Orthodox Metropolis become dominated by practice after practice for the Folk Dance and Choral Festival (FDF) each year, quietly and confidently in the background lays the foundation of their performances – the live musicians.

This wasn’t always the case, as the dance groups originally used recorded music when the dance festival kicked off in 1975. As the competition increased, so did the performance level and the inspiration of adding live music was born.

While musicians from Greece were introduced through the years, another movement of serious and devoted musicians had also emerged on U.S. soil. It was the 70’s and the seeds were being planted.

“I started folk dancing in 1975 while a student at UC Berkeley and one of the first places I went was Aitos on San Pablo, Berkeley, CA, run by the Sofios brothers,” said Lise Liepman. The folk dance taverna became a hub full of dancing enthusiasts hungry to learn Greek and Balkan dances.

Dan Auvil performing at FDF 2016 on daouli.       PHOTO BY D. PANAGOS/GOA

Her husband, George Chittenden, was also introduced to Greek folk music through dance at that time but became more focused in college where he was recruited for Vesna, a dance troupe at San Jose State University that featured Greek, Balkan and Turkish music. “I started as a dancer but soon began focusing on the music,” said George. Within a few years, he picked up the zurna and clarinet in an attempt to accompany the dances along with his friend and percussionist Dan Auvil on daouli.

It was the mid-70’s and their dance colleagues encouraged them to continue as they accompanied the dance group in performances around the Bay Area. “Soon other opportunities presented themselves, such as being asked to accompany a cultural presentation of Turkish folk dance at the Olympics in 1976 in Montreal,” shared George. “At that time we could only play a total of four tunes on the zurna/daouli!”

“Through folk dancing I met my husband in 1981,” said Lise. “He was already playing music from the Balkans.” She had been exposed to the dancing and singing having been accepted into the Westwind International Folk Ensemble, under the direction of Dennis Boxell, and rose through the ranks to become choral director and co-artistic director.

Having studied classical music as a child, it came as a logical progression for her to take up a folk instrument. “I had toyed around with percussion and string instruments,” she added. Then in 1984, while attending a Balkan music and dance camp, she heard the santouri for the first time.

“I heard the sound wafting through the redwoods and was drawn like a moth to flame,” she recalled. “I knew right away that I wanted to learn to play that.” Her first studies were with Yianni Roussos, who also built her santouri.

“I had the good fortune to be exposed to excellent music through recordings,” added George. He was inspired by recordings of Tasos Halkias and V. Maliaras, studying their recordings along with the additional exposure he received through the Eastern European Folklife Center (EEFC) in Berkeley and the Balkan camps. “I met Joe Kaloyanides Graziosi there, among others, who were presenting dances that featured amazing music,” he said. Meanwhile, Lise had begun attending these camps as well and quickly joined George and Dan playing Greek regional music.

In 1986-87, George and Lise lived abroad, taking their studies to the next level. Based in Athens, they met noted Greek-American musicologist and dance researcher Ted Petrides, who introduced them to many musicians. “Ted took us under his wing, taking us out every week to hear music at different regional clubs. He introduced us to a number of musicians whom we studied with.”

Lise met the great Nikos Karatasos and Aristidis Mosxos who recommended her santouri teacher Tasos Dhiakogiorgis. She studied with him for five months, receiving a solid grounding in technique. She also met Dimitri Kofteros who became the santouri player with the legendary Domna Samiou as well as Marios Papdeas, all influencing her music.

George studied with Fotis Athanasiades (Epirus clarinet) and Theodore Kekes (Thracian gaida), among others. They traveled North and met Mitsos Hintzos (Serres), Vangelis Psathas (Naoussa), and Zaferiou (Alexandria). “I would always try to get a lesson with these masterful musicians. Everywhere we went, our love of the music opened doors and we had tons of great experiences featuring music and dance,” he shared.

George Chittenden and Lise Liepman (left) with Ziliá.                                            COURTESY PHOTO

In 1990, they met Christos Govetas and Beth Bahia Cohen from Boston, who were teaching Greek regional music at a Balkan Camp. Together they became Ziyiá, featuring regional instruments such as the gaida, zourna, santouri, laouto, violi, clarion, daouli, and doumbekleki. They spent the next twenty years playing at everything from FDF and the Hellenic Dance Festival (HDF) glendia and their performance groups, as well as at weddings, baptisms, dances, picnics, and more. They became known for the breadth and depth of regional music they could present.

“Ziyiá was hired one year for a seminar on live music at St. Nicholas Ranch, which was wonderful,” said Lise. “Over the years, I have wished for a closer collaboration with the directors, groups and musicians, not just one that manifests in the couple months before FDF,” she added. “I feel this is an untapped resource and would greatly benefit the directors.” She was sorry that the workshops didn’t continue as well. “We are all available for lessons, but over the years, very few have taken advantage of that. You have to be committed in order to play music and most people choose other paths.”

Édessa                                       COURTESY PHOTO

In the mid-90’s their band Édessa was formed specifically to play music from Édessa. Lise added the accordion and their repertoire grew as they played music from Albania, Armenia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Turkey. “We are in demand across the U.S. and have repeatedly travelled to Japan and Mexico as well,” she shared. “Music has given my life with George a depth and interest I had not anticipated when we first met. Our friends are through the music and dance community and are spread across the country and abroad.”

“I have continually found meaning, joy, and affirmation in playing music,” shared George. “Not only does the music continue to inspire, but the synergy of the interaction between music and dance has always been profound for me. I wasn’t raised with this, but it has always made complete sense.”

Likewise, Lise adds: “I did not grow up this way, coming from the more formal and distant world of classical music. My roots are German and Bostonian, all very proper. Music was a huge part of my life, but we rarely dipped our toes outside the classical world.”

“We have learned and adopted a lot of aspects of these cultures,” said George. “Our life and home have been immeasurably enriched by Mediterranean hospitality and food, in addition to music and dancing.”

Together, the couple has shared their musical gifts for over thirty years, enriching the lives of others who are fortunate to have crossed their path.

You can catch George Chittenden and Lise Liepman at the 2018 Folk Dance and Choral Festival (yourfdf.org) in San Francisco in performances for Oakland’s Ascension Cathedral dance troupes Titanes, Neo Zoe, Analypsis, and Seismos. For some of their FDF fun facts, follow the HJ Facebook and Twitter posts during FDF weekend, January 11-14, 2018.

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Email the author: Frosene Phillips

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