A PhD-trained statistician for the federal agency Statistics Canada is an unlikely candidate for becoming a singing sensation anywhere—much less in China. But this is the surprising path the life of Canadian-born George Sapounidis took after 1999, when he was first exposed to Chinese folk music through a friend in Ottawa.
She asked him to learn a song from Northwest China, and it took him two months to do so, but it ended up earning him a spot in a Chinese New Year celebration in 2000 which led to officials from the Chinese embassy inviting him to their country in October of that year.
When Sapounidis was flown there by the Chinese government that first time, he says, “I remember breaking through the skies and hearing, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re now flying over mainland China.’ I peered through the clouds and saw below me this ancient land. It was—what’s the Greek word—a Eureka! moment. I was over this 5,000-year-old land, which is parallel to the ancient culture to Greece. It was magical, that moment.”
Fifty Million Television Viewers
Having recorded over six albums and completed 40 different tours in 25 different Chinese cities, he has collected two nominations for Best World Music from the Canadian Folk Music Awards along the way. Sapounidis has over 50 million television viewers on average for his Chinese performances.
Forming a one-man fusion of the two ancient musical cultures, the Canadian statistician-turned-troubadour selects representative Greek songs from genres like rebetika, endehna, laika, dimotika and then uses a Mandarin Chinese translator to make the words rhyme—and she (the translator) also uses the same number of syllables in each sentence.
That not only makes for a more natural sound when converting the song to Mandarin Chinese but makes it more enjoyable for his Chinese listeners.
His lyrics are always a 50/50 blend of Greek and Mandarin Chinese words.
Sapounidis’ website explains his appeal by saying “from ancient cultures are born revolutionary sounds. Driven by a determination to reimagine songs of the ages as sounds for our age, Chairman George presents a unique form of artistic fusion—one where bouzouki cohabits with the pipa, where melodic Greek songs are performed in Mandarin, one where there are no borders. It’s a Mediterranean cruise up the Yangtze, and this is the soundtrack. In an era with too much conflict, Chairman George brings worlds together in celebration.”
The gifted musician and statistician used to spend eight months of every year working for the Canadian government and spent the rest in China as his alter ego “Chairman George,” bringing his unique musical fusion to audiences there.
He explains some of his appeal by saying that “the bouzouki is similar to an instrument from Northwest China, where the Muslims live, called the Dongbula. They love the sound of it.”
Chairman George has “a Huge Heart”
Music critic Richard Thornley says of Sapounidis’ music: “It hangs together beautifully, has a huge heart and is one of the truest and most creative musical fusions that I have ever heard.”
The Canadian artist received his moniker from a documentary called “Chairman George,” which was shown on CTV and the BBC.
Since he was the “only Greek in the world who can sing in Chinese”, as Sapounidis says in the documentary, he saw it simply as his duty to sing at the Olympics.
He would then be accorded the honor of becoming a torch-bearer for the Games in Beijing in 2008 and for the Games in Athens in 2004.
One of his latest ventures was an album containing ten songs, called “Bringing the Greek Party to China!”
This East-meets-West project found unity in diversity, as traditional Greek songs were reborn as Mandarin musings, from beauteous ballads to bombastic disco floor-fillers … a Mediterranean cruise up the Yangtze!
Asked if he gets stopped by Chinese while traveling there, he replies with good humor “No, I’m not like a Brad Pitt. But when I landed at Beijing International Airport, I saw a guy who started looking at me, and he started playing air guitar.
“But what’s funny,” the self-deprecating superstar tells interviewers, “what I get more of is when people think I’m Mr. Bean… when I have done national television in China, the broadcasters will do a split-screen, with my face on one side and Mr. Bean’s on the other side.”
The groundbreaking musician sings not only in Greek and Chinese but also in English, Italian, Hebrew, French, Farsi, and Arabic. Admitting that he is seen as a “curiosity” at home in Canada, Sapounidis has performed to sold-out audiences of 30,000 people in China.
He says that he would “love to go back” to China after the pandemic situation resolves. “Despite the difficulties we are all experiencing right now, I feel quite inspired to do multilingual live streams and also write.” He notes that he is looking forward to doing shows for Chinese state media for their “Mid-Autumn Festival.”
“Modern Ancient Greek”
“I feel a modern ancient Greek,” he told Greek Reporter recently. “Ancient Greeks traveled throughout the known world at the time. They brought back not money and gold, but also culture, science and ideas.”
“I am not diluting myself as a Greek. I am actually enhancing myself as a Greek. I am promoting Greek culture. Although I am a Canadian, I am primarily Greek,” he says.
The Canadian troubadour’s music is available on his Youtube channel, called Chairman George, which features many of his compositions and videos.