Born and raised in the Greek community of New Haven, Conn., Bilides was inspired by the area where the refugees of the village of Permata had resettled, including her paternal grandparents. Her study of old songs bemused and delighted her family, the New England resident recalls. “Smyrneika singing is very heartfelt; you can't be reserved about it, because it needs your full voice and commitment. ... I've always had one foot in the old country, so to speak.”
More Middle Eastern in sound, the traditional Greek songs of her repertoire are extremely melismatic and call on what she describes as “very different vocal skills that I learned on my own.” While you might expect the songs of refugees to be sorrowful, Bilides suggests that that art often offers solace to the world's most disenfranchised people. “In any culture, art is a release, a way to express the inexpressible, to vent, to prove endurance, to move forward, to remember why life is worth living.”
“People sing blues not to feel bad, but to feel better,” she continues. “There's a whole genre of Greek blues called rembetika, but my focus, Smyrneika, was a more cosmopolitan style, focused more on the celebration of life, mixed with nostalgia of course, but the songs were being written mainly to entertain.”
Bilides' other specialty, American cabaret, draws on greats such as Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald, and is vocally akin to latter-day Joni Mitchell. Despite being worlds apart, the singer attests that “both genres deal with feelings we all have experienced in some way, and both styles were popularized in the small, intimate atmosphere of a cabaret room or club, where you can be up-close and personal with your audience.”
While she speaks with expertise about her style of music, she says she's considered delving into other genres. “I always wanted to be a back-up singer in an R&B funk band, you know, the low voice in the harmony trio,” she says. “And I took bluegrass banjo lessons for one summer, just because I love the sound. But I'd need a few additional lifetimes. ….”
Regardless of what she's playing, one thing is key: serving the song. “My goal is to communicate the universal emotions and experiences of a good lyric, no matter what the language. A good song affirms, explores, or illuminates what the audience already feels inside, and that moment of realization is why I'm there; I'm just the messenger.”
Saturday: 3-3:45 p.m. on the Dominion Stage.
Sunday: 4:30-5:15 p.m. on the Altria Stage.
Sunday: 1-1:45 p.m. on the Dominion Stage.