Storm Stereo #6 – Greek Folk Special

rebetiko-trio-dimitris-semsis-agapios-tomboulis-roza-eskenazi.jpg
The Smyrna Trio, featuring Roza Eskenazi

Hello my loves!

June is already here, the heat is setting in in Athens and I have so many tracks to share, I’ve got three shows waiting in the wings for you all. On this rather special-edition show we warm up with some early punk, psych rock and garage from the US, UK and Australia, we have some ’60s soul for those damn crush mixtapes, and we take a trip back to the 1920s and ’30s and explore the Greek blues, the Rebetika: heartache, drugs and outlaw life from the underground hash dens of Greece, Turkey and the US, as well as some other folk expressions from the regions of Epirus and Crete. Tracklist at the end. Download it here. (Let me know if you have trouble accessing the files, I will send them to you directly!)

Thanks to friends visiting from abroad, I went on a week-long roadtrip around the Peloponnese, and have also been walking around downtown Athens quite a bit, making some new memories in a city I left disdainfully hating. I felt a bit like a tourist guide (“Lydia’s Lonely Planet Guides” coming soon) pointing out sites and areas that were significant to the modern history of the country, which has included bloody civil wars, flooring fascism, population exchange, famine, genocide, military juntas, communist exile, student insurrections and the geographic and emotional uprooting of millions. And that’s just the first chunk of the 20th century.

Growing up only half-Greek in Athens—and in constant debate with myself about what parts and how much of my Greek identity I was supposed to embrace or reject—meant that for the better part of my childhood and teenage years I just ignorantly scoffed a lot of the things that were considered “traditional.” [My adolescent disinterest in the notion of “Greek rock” (whose bad renditions have plagued the Greek music landscape for decades) was also the reason why it took me longer than most Greek teen underground dwellers to discover and appreciate Greek punk (which claims a vivid and unique early history, in part thanks to the distinct sound of the Greek language).] After living in the US for almost four years and missing some aspects of Greek culture more than I thought I would, I warmed up to some of the sounds of my once-home, especially the rebétika, and would play them for hours on days when I felt homesick. After all, I wasn’t the first person to leave Greece for a land a few thousand miles away.

Rebétika can be best described as the Blues of the Greeks. In style it was an underground type of folk music, with varying sub-styles and also styles of dance to accompany it, and it was played by rebetes and rebetisses, who usually lived on the margins of society. However, in spirit it was so much more. It was in essence deeply personal protest music against the status quo and its allied bullies, against the prohibitions on personal freedom and expression. Rebétika became popular in the 1920s and ’30s, were banned in 1936 by order of the dictator Ioannis Metaxas (the apagorevména hasiklídika have reached cult notoriety), and then saw a revival and gained more popular acceptance during the German occupation of WWII, and then again during the Greek military junta (1967-73). The music is heavy on bouzouki, baglama and guitar, violin, cimbalom, lyre, clarinet and (my favourite) kanonaki, but also finger-cymbals, laouto and mandolin, among other instruments. The lyrics can get dark and heavy, as they usually describe the woes and worries of the poor, wretched songwriters. And while the rebétika captured a spirit of freedom and resistance that came about as the result of certain conditions and events of that time, the deeper emotions rebétika express are relateable and timeless, the roughened voices and profound, passionate words echoing true to this day.

Rebétes and rebétisses would gather in tekédes (hash dens) and drink, smoke hashish, coke and heroine, play music and sing about the bitter pains of life. The lyrics could get really raw and sad, though often retained a dark sense of humour, as the songs were about being an outsider, a societal devil down on your luck. Drinking, drugs, disreputable shenanigans, passionate love affairs, sexual exploitation and a deep dislike for the authorities were all referenced. In his song “Toumbeleki Toumbeleki” (1931) Kostis tells the tale of stealing a waste coat and then accidentally running into the man he stole it from. The chord plucking on that song is soul-crushingly sad and might bring to mind Johnny Cash, even though this song was written when Cash was still only a year old.  On “Last Night in the Dark” Vamvakaris sings, “last night in the dark two blacks cornered me / to interrogate me and take all my hash.” “The blacks” were the police, who were still a relatively new, black-uniformed feature of Greek urban centres (p.24-25) and who became the fear of rebétes, especially after weed was made illegal in 1925.

In the wake of the 1922 Asia Minor Destruction and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey after the war between them ended that same year, many of those who fled Anatolia ended up in Athens, Thessaloniki, Pireas, Volos and other port cities. (Harbor cities: where the moisture in the air and the rich mix of people has nourished underground subcultures for millennia). Some ended up even further, in the US, Australia, or as Gastarbeiter in Germany. And of course they continued to play music and sing about their distant and destroyed homeland, often highlighting the concept of xenitia—a deep feeling of nostalgia for one’s home when living abroad, often due to economic or wartime migration. For example, on “To Toust,” recorded in Chicago in 1935 (apparently a California recording also exists) they sing about going down to San Francisco and gambling away all their money on dice with the sponge divers. On “Ma, Don’t Send me to America” Rita Abatzi sums up her arranged marriage like this: “Like a goat they’re sending me to the slaughter / but there from my sadness they will have to bury me.”

The other Greek folk music I focused on here was the Epirus sound, but we also took a quick trip to Crete, via Nikos Xylouris on his collaboration with Hrysanthos, “An Order from Death,” which is about making a deal with Haron, the boatman at the gates of Hades. Nikos Xylouris, aka Psaronikos, was from the historically Antifa village of Anogeia on the island of Crete, and both his younger brothers Psaroyiannis and Psaradonis have written some stunning works of music, psychedelic and sorrowful, which have retained the traditional element in a beautiful and moving way. It can be found in the vivid string arrangements and melodies of “100 Flouria,” sung by Hrysanthos. This song, often subtitled Drosoulites, refers to a Cretan urban legend where thousands of moving shadows walk the planes of Fragokastello in the Sfakia region of Crete in the early morning dew of the summer months of May and June. The locals connect it to the ghosts of the 600 or so revolted villagers who died in that area during the May 17, 1828 battle with some 10,000 Turkish soldiers.

Hrysanthos himself was from Pontus, an area located on the southern banks of the Black Sea, which has also seen much destruction and whose music reflects its troubled history, with songs and dance that are characteristically staccato and fast, almost trance inducing. (We’ll explore the Pontus sound at a later date.) Similarly, the region of Epirus has some fascinating and captivating sounds. One of my partners had family from both the Pontus and Epirus regions, so I came to really love some of the traditional music from those areas. It is not music for the light at heart, even though it was often created to elevate feelings of sadness. The music is heavy on flute, lyre, laouto, clarinet, guitar and violin, and the music’s minimal compositions reflect the austere physical surroundings of the Epirus mountaint range. The people from the area of Pagoni, in Ioannina on the border with Albania, have a distinct atmosphere to the music they create, the polyphonic and choral vocals, and the lyre and mournful melodies giving it a spine-chilling effect.

There are surely many, many unique folk sounds from around Greece and its diaspora, and we shall visit some of them in the future, but I hope you will find this initial introduction to the Greek folk sound as interesting and moving as I did after I finally listened and learned to understand, and appreciate, the sad and passionate history behind it. Let me note here that, as with a lot of traditional music around the world, it is often taken to heart by nationalists and other such hate groups who believe in the purity or superiority of a certain people, so it is sad that you will find some of these traditional songs uploaded on YouTube and attached to nationalist and patriotic slogans and imagery. The tumultuous history of Greece was never short on geographic upheaval and cross-cultural pollination, and its rocky mountains and windy islands have been home to immigrants, refugees, partisans, fleeing slaves and oppressed populations many a time, so if anything, these songs express the sorrows and loss that are a result of hatred and war, whether racially motivated or otherwise, and I believe ultimately condemn those destructive notions with every note.

Next time I have a ridiculous (hilarious?) beach-side, summer chilling low-brow show for you, with trash pop remixes, techno grooves, ’90s throwback jams and other shamelessly dancy tracks. We’ll return to more sophisticated grounds (sounds) after that. Until then, take care and be nice to each other.

With love from outer space

—Obsessionist

___________________________________________________________________

YOUNG IDENTITIES – Positive Thinking (Negative Reaction)

ΠΑΟΚ – Στις Συνοικίες και στους Δρόμους (In the Projrcts and on the Streets)

THE LEFTOVERS – I Only Panic When There’s Nothing To Do

LONDON – No Time

THE DAMNED – See Her Tonight

JACK & THE RIPPERS – No Desire

THE SHAPES – Airline Disaster

THE WIMPLE WINCH – Save My Soul

GONN – Don’t Need Your Lovin

PENTRAGRAM – Be Forewarned

RODRIGUEZ – I Wonder

FRANKIE LYMON & THE TEENAGERS – I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent

FABULOUS FLAMES – Do You Remember?

THE ELECTRODES – Go Away

WENDY RENNE – After Laughter (Come Tears)

THE TROUBLEMAKERS – Get Misunderstood

Ε. ASIMAKOPOULOS – Το Τουστ / To Toust (The West)

MARIKA PAPAGIKA – Μανάκι Μου /  Manaki Mou

RΙΤΑ ΑΒΑΤΖΙ – Μη Με Στέλνεις Μάνα Στην Αμερική / Mi Me Stelnis Mana stin Ameriki

ROZA ESKENAZI – Τραβα ρε Μάγκα / Trava Re Mangα

Α. KOSTIS – Τούμπελεκι Τούμπελεκι / Toumbeleki Toumbeleki

MARKOS VAMVAKARIS – Χθες το Βράδυ στο Σκοτάδι / Hthes to Vradi sto Skotadi

SOFIA VEMBO – Πόσο Λυπάμαι / Poso Lypamai

DANAE STRATIGOPOULOU – Να Ερχόσουν για Λίγο / Na Erhosoun Gia Ligo

NINA SIMONE & JEFF BUCKLEY – Under a Lilac Tree (Marco Rigamoti mix)

ANTHOULA NOUSI – Μ’επισαε Βροχή στο Δρόμο / M’epiase Vrohi sto Dromo

NIKOS XYLOURIS & HRYSANTHOS – Του Θανάτου Παράγγειλα / Tou Thanatou Paraggeila

HRYSANTHOS – 100 Φλουρι’α (Δροσουλίτες) / 100 Flouria

Ν. FILLIPIDIS & P. LALEZAS – Ζαλίζομαι / Zalizomai

PETROLOUKAS XALKIAS – Βορειοηπειρώτικο Μοιρολόι / Voriepirotiko Miroloi

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