LAMENT FROM EPIRUS An Odyssey Into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music

By  Christopher C. King  |  Forthcoming May 2018


In the tradition of Patrick Leigh Fermor and Geoff Dyer, a Grammy-winning producer discovers a powerful and ancient folk music tradition.

In a dark record shop in Istanbul, renowned collector Christopher King uncovered some of the strangest—and most hypnotic—sounds he had ever heard. The 78s were immensely moving, seeming to tap into a primal well of emotion inaccessible to contemporary music. The songs, King learned, were from Epirus, an area straddling southern Albania and northwestern Greece and boasting a folk tradition extending back to the pre-Homeric era. Lament from Epirus is an unforgettable journey into a musical obsession, which follows a unique genre back to the roots of song itself. As King hunts for traces of two long-lost virtuosos—one of whom may have committed a murder—he tells the story of the Roma people who pioneered Epirotic folk music and whose descendants continue the tradition today. His journey becomes an investigation into song and dance’s role as a means of spiritual healing—and what this may reveal about music’s original purpose.


Forthcoming May 2018
ISBN 978-0-393-24899-9
6.1 × 9.3 in / 272 pages
Sales Territory: Worldwide




By  Christopher C. King  |  February 4, 2016

“Lauren” (2013), by Frank Hamrick

“Lauren” (2013), by Frank Hamrick

On Tuesday, August 17, 1915, the black soil of Frey’s Grove in Marietta, Georgia, became blacker after greedily lapping up the blood that slowly trickled down the leg of the recently lynched Leo Frank. A Jewish businessman, educated in Brooklyn, Frank had been found guilty two years before of murdering Little Mary Phagan, a thirteen-year-old girl who worked at his National Pencil Company factory in Atlanta. After what could be regarded as the first trial of the twentieth century that was wholly propelled by the conjoined twin juggernauts of political populism and media sensationalism, Frank had been sentenced to death by hanging, but this punishment had been reduced, upon an appeal, to life behind bars. Shortly after this commutation by Governor John M. Slaton, Frank was rushed secretly to the Milledgeville prison, flanked by a sheriff and two deputies. Even before the decision was made to spare Frank, a violent impulse of indignation and retribution had risen from the white, mainly Protestant population in and around Atlanta. Governor Slaton tasked a special police detail with both protecting Frank and detecting plots to exterminate him before he could be transferred. But several weeks after his transfer to the countryside jail and almost two weeks before the rope was slipped over Frank’s head, his neck was slit from left to right by a vengeful fellow prisoner, almost severing the trachea. The deeply sutured wound had almost healed when Frank was seized from the prison by an exceptionally well-organized posse of Ku Klux Klansmen—self-named “The Knights of Mary Phagan.”

If a coroner was present among the “brave and loyal men who took into their own hands the execution of a law that had been stripped from them,” as the Atlanta Constitution proudly reported the next day, the autopsy would have likely determined the cause of death as one of strangulation due to a hangman’s noose, not by the profuse blood loss from the reopened knife wound to the neck nor from the repeated kicks to his head with cleated boots. Among the “brave and loyal men” were doctors, former governors and mayors, sheriffs, electricians, preachers, telephone operators: a white-bread “A-Team” of Christian professionals with a tacit mandate to assume the reigns of earthly justice. As Frank’s body swung wildly from a branch in Frey’s Grove—the childhood playground of Little Mary Phagan—the tightly sewn wound in his neck opened into a jagged gape, a yawning crimson bloom that was photographed and reproduced widely. Images of his lynching were sold in sets of picture postcards to the thousands who thronged to the execution scene.

Death from strangulation, death from blood loss, death from cerebral trauma—all of these would have been superficial readings of Frank’s life force being taken away. In truth, he was killed neither by a man nor by the force of men. He died in the raging flames of hatred and the resulting smoke which obscured the impartial vision of justice. A murder, a botched and terribly obfuscated trial, and a tinder box of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, and “white rights” in post-Reconstruction Atlanta had resulted in yet another murder, the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, and the first strong resurgence of a then-dormant Ku Klux Klan since the group had disbanded in 1869. In this time, frame-ups, coercion, forced confessions, bribery, and political corruption came into sharp focus for the “grift-ridden” people of Atlanta. And it was all set to music. 

Before Georgia-born “Fiddlin’ John” Carson became the first “hillbilly” musician ever to etch his playing onto the 78 rpm disc in the South, which he did in Atlanta in June of 1923 (the Texas fiddlers A. C. “Eck” Robertson & Henry C. Gilliland recorded exactly a year earlier, but in New York City), he was known as a high-profile entertainment fixture in the city and the surrounding environs. In medieval England he would have been regarded as the court jester or the village idiot, depending upon the status of the audience and the mood of the ruler. Carson worked in the cotton and textile mills of Atlanta until a union strike rendered this stout linthead unemployable, and he turned to music as a full-time profession. At the turn of the century he became a bard skilled at extemporizing songs and rasping out melodic lines on his fiddle in an archaic fashion that mimicked the motions of chickens scratching for feed. What he lacked in technical skill he compensated for in roughly hewn yet evocative balladry.

Carson was in the forefront of composers and publishers of contemporary murder ballads—true crime tales rendered awkwardly, sometimes artlessly, but with sweet sentimentality that were then grafted onto a three-chord form. They were not song-catchers. They were death-chasers. Any event that claimed a life (or many lives) and was receptive to a moral lesson (no matter how forced) was fair game and fresh meat. And nothing was fairer or fresher than Little Mary Phagan.

In the records we have describing the twenty-five men who abducted and lynched Frank there is no mention of Fiddlin’ John. However, he must have been in the pocket of one of these respected crackers, as he turned up almost immediately after the press advanced upon Frey’s Grove to witness their “reclaimed justice.” He wrote multiple songs about the case, in fact “turned up with his fiddle at every Frank development within a radius of thirty miles . . . since the day Mary Phagan’s body was discovered,” as the Atlanta Constitution reported in the August 18th, 1915, edition. That same article gives a rare narrative of how music intersects with death: 

“Fiddlin’ John” Carson swayed the crowds when they were deprived of the picture of the slain man swinging in the heart of the woodland. “Fiddlin’ John” is a lanky mountaineer, who lacks a number of teeth, which doesn’t seem to impair his vocal aspirations. In his repertoire of folk songs, he has one that is adapted to a quaint, rural hymn, and has for its words a narrative of the murder of Mary Phagan “by Leo Frank, the president of the pencil factory.” “Fiddlin’ John” would fiddle and sing his song in a typical nasal twang, and he could be heard to the center of the square, around which were grouped hundreds of automobiles, buggies and mountain transports of the “schooner” variety, which were wagons covered with canvas over arched framework. The crowd would cheer and applaud him lustily, and, inspired by this show of appreciation, he would repeat his song, over and over again. Presently, when his hearers began to tire of the same tune, he deserted it, and replaced it with such well-known selections as “Little Old Log Cabin By The Lane,” “Annie Laurie,” “That Good Old-Time Religion” and “Mr. Shirley, The Furniture Man.” “Fiddlin’ John,” the troubadour of the mountains, basked in “reflected glory,” and it was not until the courthouse crowds began to tire of his songs and fiddle that he departed, reluctantly.

Despite onerous searches for printed lyrics of the songs that Fiddlin’ John sang and no doubt published, the only remains lie with the 78 rpm recordings made by Carson, his daughter Rosa Lee, Vernon Dalhart, and one of John Carson’s musical compatriots, Earl Johnson. Two songs were composed by John Carson: “Little Mary Phagan” was published in 1925 and “Grave of Little Mary Phagan” was registered in 1917. Based on the reportage of the Atlanta Constitution in 1915, Carson must have been singing the crowds the version of “Little Mary Phagan” that Rosa Lee recorded in 1925. Within the tight confines of three minutes, she compresses the twenty-seven months from Mary’s murder to Frank’s condemnation:

Little Mary Phagan, she went to town one day. 
She went to the pencil factory to get her little pay. 
She left her home at eleven. She kissed her mother goodbye. 
Not one time did the poor child think she was going there to die. 

Leo Frank met her with a brutely heart we know. 
He smiled and said “Little Mary, now you’ll go home no more.” 
He sneaked along behind her till she reached the metal room. 
He laughed and said “Little Mary, you’ve met your fatal doom.”

As with any “folk art” rendering, the criticisms are almost always from the outside, rarely from within. A highfalutin Northerner would point out that the rhymes are tortured, that the environs of a pencil factory are difficult to render in a lofty manner, and that the metrical parsing of the verses is all wrong. But from the inside, from the context where the song grew from two pools of blood—Little Mary’s and also Frank’s—the story holds together as does the moral. The ballad conveys the whole narrative but lacks the details. That is where the Devil is.

Nowadays most historians agree that Frank was innocent, that his trial was a pitiful sham, and that the guilty verdict was an expediency designed to preserve the integrity of the political powers in Atlanta. Someone had to be found guilty, and without any irony, the citizens of Georgia demanded an Old Testament exchange of blood for blood. The broad details of the crime allowed for such machinations.

Here are the fixed points in the narrative. Thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan left her home on Saturday morning, April 26, 1913, at 11:50 A.M. to collect her meager paycheck from the pencil factory. It was Confederate Memorial Day—a high holiday in the South. Around fifteen hours later, at 3:20 A.M. on Sunday, April 27, her body was discovered in the factory’s dirt-floor basement. A rope was drawn tightly around her neck and she had a deep gash on the back of the head. Within twenty-four hours, four suspects had been picked up: Newt Lee, the black night watchman who discovered the body; Arthur Mullinax, a streetcar conductor who knew Little Mary; and John Gantt and Gordon Bailey, former and current employees of the National Pencil Company.

At the height of the initial roundup, Leo Frank employed the Pinkerton Agency—a legion of flat-footed and heavy-handed private detectives who counted Dashiell Hammett as one of their own—to assist the city policemen with the murder investigation. This would ultimately prove to be an unwise move for Frank since the district attorney and all the cronies in the mayor’s office would interpret such a hiring as a strategy to protect himself. As the private detectives sought to collect evidence and gather interviews that led suspicion away from Frank, city officials began to worry that they might have an unsolved crime on their hands—an unwanted burden when elections were looming.

Thirty-six hours after the discovery of the body, Leo Frank was arrested and charged on suspicion of murder based almost solely on the fact that he was one of the last people to see Little Mary Phagan alive. There was and is no other evidence that suggests Frank had anything to do with her murder. Like a portentous dream from Aeschylus, one could perceive a rope slowly taking on corporeal form and dangling in a far-off tree.

Two days later, on Thursday, May the 1st, this shadowy noose tightened around Frank’s neck when police also arrested James Conley, a black janitor at the pencil factory. As Frank’s lawyers had been illegally barred from the third-degree interrogations of Conley and were never allowed access to the results of these “interviews,” it is impossible to verify the variety of changing stories that James Conley presented to the police and the district attorney. We do know this: Conley, who would also be tried, would move back and forth between implicating himself and implicating Frank, giving five different versions of the event in affidavits. His Janus-faced story hinged upon the existence of two bizarre notes found with Mary Phagan’s body.

Handwritten with stubs of National Pencil Company graphite, the short statements are almost illegible and unintelligible. The first reads, “That negro hired down here did this. He pushed me down that hole. A long, tall, negro, black, that did the work. Long, lean tall negro. I write to people with me.” The second note reads, “He said he wood love me and lay me down to play. The night witch did it but that long tall black negro boy did his self.” Naturally these were not written by Phagan—a point belabored by various handwriting experts brought into the trial. Conley would assert at various times that Frank transcribed these notes to him to put blame on Newt Lee, the night watchman, or any long, tall, black, lean negro other than himself.

One meaning of the term “wolf ticket” is a false lead or a clue designed to throw off the scent from the bloodhounds, to obfuscate a true pursuit. The notes left with Little Mary’s body are classic wolf tickets, but were eagerly exploited by the prosecution against the defenseless defense team. (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb famously employed a similar wolf ticket with their murder in 1924 of Little Robert “Bobby” Franks. They typed a ransom note after they had murdered Little Bobby in order to hide their true motive—that as Nietzschean Übermenschen, they could kill with impunity from an intellectual impulse.)

Very few minority communities in Atlanta escaped the vindictive and suspicious eye of the police, the mayor’s office, the loony detective agencies, and the sensational newspapers during the indictment, trial, and appeals of Frank. A Jew of German descent and a black man were being tried for a brutal murder. In the atmosphere of Atlanta, anyone deemed “foreign” or nonwhite could be viewed as guilty by association. Jewish businesses were shunned, if not publicly denounced, German restaurants were boycotted, and black neighborhoods were systematically cordoned off and raided. Even the Greeks of Atlanta were targeted. Demetris Vafiada, the city’s Greek leader, complained about the implication that the rope found tied around Mary Phagan’s neck had been fashioned by a Greek because of its unique knot. The small Greek citizenry of Atlanta protested on Whitehall Street the day after this nugget appeared in the Atlanta Journal. This did little to undo the Gordian knot. It was a bad time to not be a Scot-Irish ofay.

Political corruption, grift, and bribery were so rife in Atlanta during the trial as to almost be comical. Accusations and cross-accusations of bribing witnesses, detectives, and officers were cast about daily in all the local papers. Neighbors of the Phagans even attempted to retain their own lawyer to pursue more thoroughly a guilty conviction of Frank since the public fretted openly that the fractures in the district attorney’s office would cancel out the efforts of the prosecution. However, the lawyer in question, Thomas B. Felder, was so inept that he ended up being accused of bribing the bereaved parents of Little Mary, an event that created a journalistic tsunami in the May 25th, 1913, papers.

History places perhaps an unfathomable chasm between the generations that lived within a system of open racism and “fear of the other” and the generations that follow, those who learn about the experiences but never witnessed their darkest depths. I recall in the now-fading Technicolor hues of the 1970s my brother being horsewhipped on the street with a chestnut brown leather belt, buckle gleaming gold in the sun, by our grandfather—a Southerner who would have followed the Mary Phagan murder in the daily paper as a youth himself—for putting his hand in a bag of potato chips that he shared with a young black man. Fear of the black, fear of the Northerner, fear of the “other” was not merely programmed—it was instinctual, primal, and native.

Even Little Mary’s corporeal remains suffered. Her body was exhumed twice for further forensic testing. But perhaps the greatest victim of those two years was earthly justice—common decency. Balance was not sought and equilibrium was not maintained, neither by most of the city officials nor by many of the citizens. The political and judicial powers had their version of the murder—they worried that this rich Northern Jew, whom they saw as a depraved sexual predator, could murder an innocent Southern white Christian girl and get away with it due to his connections with organizations established north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The sad, predictable trope—the dichotomy between the powers of Northern industrialism pitted against the powers of Southern agrarianism—claimed Frank as its victim and served as an underpinning for all future bloodletting. Once these Atlantans determined that they could make James Conley tell their version, Leo Frank was doomed and no other suspect or story would suffice. Though he would be found guilty, sentenced to death, appeal his sentence, and be granted commutation, in the end he had to be consumed by the earth—the people of Atlanta had cried out for blood and they saw Frank as the only suitable sacrifice.

The May 15th, 1913, edition of the Atlanta Constitution contained a discovery, a nascent theory that never took root. Perhaps the prosecution cast it aside since it muddied the waters of the case against Frank. Maybe the mayor or the Pinkerton Agency or any of the dozens of people who had their hands in the pot decided that it was irrelevant. The headline read: VICTIM OF MURDER PREPARED TO DIE. The article focused on a slip of paper found inside of Little Mary Phagan’s metal pocketbook—a small satchel that she carried with her at all times except for that fateful morning. On this tiny note was written “April 20, 1913—My name is Mary Phagan. I live at 146 Lindsey Street, near Bellwood and Ashby Streets.” Solicitor Hugh M. Dorsey believed that folded piece of paper implied that “she had already been threatened with death or had a premonition of an early demise.” He stated for the record:

Looks as though she expected an accident of some kind. By George! She must have. This slip was written only six days before she was killed on Confederate Memorial Day.

Perhaps briefly, solicitor Dorsey entertained the notion of an alternative explanation, a different killer with a different motive. Possibly he even realized that Frank had no motive, no reason to kill Little Mary Phagan or anyone else. A reason: it helps to have one.

Although forensic science was still in its infancy, the two coroners, Dr. Hurt and Dr. Harris, did maintain that Little Mary Phagan had not been sexually violated prior to her death. Therefore, rape was not a motive. Further, the $1.20 pay that Mary collected was no reason for her murder. Everything rested upon James Conley’s coached testimony. It was enough for the jury to convict Frank of the crime that “startled the entire Southland.”

Part of seeing anything is apperceiving that which is not present—everything has a context and flow just as our actions have a meaning, either explicit or tacit. That Frank had no reason to murder Little Mary Phagan mattered little to the court. He was painted as a one-dimensional caricature, a beast of wantonness with “abnormal” desires. Conley testified that Frank made him write those notes and move the body to the basement. For his admission as an accessory to the crime Conley served only a year in jail. Almost seven decades after the trial, Alonzo Mann, at the time of the murder just a fourteen-year-old employee of the pencil factory, gave a sworn statement that he saw Conley drag Little Mary Phagan to the basement. This testimony by Mann, along with the Anti-Defamation League’s constant pressure to characterize Frank’s trial as unfair, led to a posthumous pardon of Frank in 1986.

Frank never confessed, not in court nor in the minutes before he was strung up by the Ku Klux Klan. As I read descriptions of the scene immediately after he was lynched, my mind went back (or perhaps it went forward) to the aftermath of the Charlie Lawson murders. On Christmas Day 1929, outside of Danbury, North Carolina, Lawson killed his wife and six of his seven children (aged seventeen years to four months) before shooting himself. No note was left behind and no one could advance a theory as to why he did it. Just as the crowd rushed under the oak tree in Frey’s Grove to pull at Leo Frank’s tattered clothes, to tear away buttons, shoes, tufts of hair, most of his nose, so too did the “morbidly curious” snatch raisins from a cake baked by Charlie Lawson’s wife, untouched since that Christmas morning. Everyone wanted to have a memento mori, either out of fear or out of vengeance. And, as with Little Mary Phagan, a murder ballad grew from the blood of the slain Lawson family and was performed extensively in North Carolina.

This murder, like so many violent crimes, was labeled “senseless” (later it was revealed that Lawson’s oldest daughter had told her best friend that she was pregnant with her father’s child and that both her mother and father knew the truth—a reason in this case). But after we wrestle with the “senselessness” in which these things occur, something curious emerges from within us, something which could very well be weaved into our way of negotiating with the world. Our mind moves from that which is senseless to that which is sensical. What is bewildering eventually becomes comprehensible, primarily because we uncover the motive or the motives for a killing.

Perhaps these old murder ballads serve a deeper function, to help us traverse the liminal stage between the inexplicable and the understandable—much in the way that the older, more elaborate and lengthy periods of mourning help ease us from the acknowledgement of death to the finality of burial. There is a shared misery, a communal notion of lamentation contained within Carson’s ballad:

The astonished asked the question, the angels they did say.
Why he killed little Mary Phagan upon one holiday.
Come all of you good people, wherever you may be.
Supposing little Mary belonged to you or me?

Who killed Little Mary Phagan? Can any sense be made one hundred years after the murders of both Phagan and Frank? Conley cleaned up the mess so that he wouldn’t get in trouble. But why frame Frank then? Perhaps someone close to Mary, her stepfather or a relative, had carnal knowledge of the young girl and threatened her life. It is the case that J. W. Coleman, her stepfather, first suggested that Newt Lee, the black night watchman, was the murderer. We do not know, for instance, if Coleman was interrogated, if he had anything approaching an alibi, or if he knew Conley prior to the murder. It could have been the perfect frame-up. Perfect sense.

Not far from the prison in Milledgeville where Frank was seized was someone who had a seamless answer for the senselessness of it all. In a world where a burning bush symbolized both a covenant and a power outside of the corporeal sphere, where a man would sacrifice his son to prove his loyalty to his God, and where “Jesus thrown everything off balance,” Flannery O’Connor would likely point to our fall from grace as the underpinning for all this evil.

In A Good Man Is Hard to Find, O’Connor paints the senselessness vividly as a whole family is offed by The Misfit and his gang during a vacation drive. The Misfit is part me, part you, part everyone. We wrestle with what is understandable, what is inexplicable, what is right and what is unjust and we are no wiser than when we started out. The Misfit says, “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”

Chris King on Alexis Zoumbas in the Paris Review

The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.

A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.

The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.

And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them.


My fixation with Zoumbas—especially with his bow stroke and what it said about him, about his movement from traditional northern Greek melodies to an idiosyncratic expression of immigrant artistry—sprang from an earlier fixation with instrumental songs from Albania and Epirus. Zoumbas came from a musical tradition where the violin rarely led the entire performance and where the repertoire scarcely varied from one small village to the next. When he moved to New York in 1910, he found he could take this very old body of folk music and imbue it with his own story: his experiences of a strange land and his raw emotions. Zoumbas longed for Epirus, and this longing combined with his virtuosity to produce recordings of unfathomable misery and pathos. His music was colored by the Epirot concept of xenitia—a profound yearning for one’s home soil, and a corresponding ache for the emigrant by those left behind.

Villagers and musicians from Epirus believe that a unique body of melodies, played principally with the clarinet and violin, give psychological healing to all those who listen to them: a harmonic panacea. The two tunes most strongly identified with Epirus are the mirologi and the skaros, both improvised pentatonic instrumentals, with free melody and meter but regionally defined tonal emphases and embellishments. They’re ancient and primal. The mirologi was originally a vocalized funerary lament, sung over the body or next to the grave of the deceased for several years until the earth consumed the flesh; after that, the bones were exhumed, bathed in wine, and placed in the village. Mirologiare found throughout ancient Greek literature, in the epic poems and tragedies. At some point, the keening of mourning women was transformed into an instrumental that’s central to Epirot music and culture. This dark, melismatic piece is played at the beginning and at the end of the traditional feast-dances in Epirus, the paniyeria.

skaros is a shepherd’s song, as old as the mirologi. The shepherd would play a specialskaros with his flute to calm and gather his herd, essentially drawing them together in a hypnotic state. An especially well-crafted skaros, played in Epirus with the clarinet and violin, produces a kind of viscerally felt introspection.

I came to discover Alexis Zoumbas through two old 78 discs, one containing a mirologiand the other a skaros. Upon acquiring his Epirotiko Mirologi, “A Lament for Epirus,” I played it in my record room and a dark vastness opened; I wanted to uncover the instinct that created this music, this expression of despair. While his violin keened and wept, the horsehair on the bow of the contrabass maintained constant contact and dark tension, a tonal anchor. Zoumbas’s mirologi was the sound of a looming asteroid right before it smacks into Earth, ending all life and hope.

* * *


A map of ancient Epirus by Heinrich Kiepert, 1902.

As I unpacked his life and constructed a narrative, Zoumbas had inevitably taken on a corporeal form. The trek to Epirus to gather oral history from his family and village, the dossier of vital documents from the U.S. and Europe, and the shelf containing nearly all of Zoumbas’s twenty-odd instrumental discs seemed to imply closure. But then this record came.

An Albanian American and second-generation Bostonian, Steve John, had been graciously feeding me duplicate 78s from his collection. Three days after I’d finally finished the Zoumbas compilation, Steve called to inform me that he had acquired a stack of Albanian records and a very curious Greek disc, a twelve-inch record on the Me-Re label, established by an Albanian musician, Ajdin Asllan. I had acquired a 1946 catalog of the Mi-Re label a few days earlier and had scarcely thumbed through it. Now, looking up the disc, I shuddered in disbelief: Zoumbas was listed in a catalog the very year he died, sixteen years after his last documented recording. Typical of the time, the listings for the records were misspelled in Greek, so the title of this one was untranslatable. Only when I got the disc in my trembling hands did I realize that someone, probably Asllan, had etched the proper name of the song and the date of recording into the dead wax. It read: “O MENOUSIS (10-2-43).” After washing the disc, I glided the stylus into the groove and the old Greco-Albanian murder ballad echoed forth after having been unheard all these years. Slow, stark, and funereal:

Menousis, Birbilis and Resul-aga
Met at a taverna to eat and drink.
While eating, while drinking, while making merry,
They drifted into talk about beauties.
“A beautiful wife you have, Menous-aga.”
“Where did you see her, how do you know her and mention her?”
“I saw her last evening at the well—she was drawing water
And I gave her my kerchief and she washed it.”
“If you met her and you know her, tell us what she’s wearing.”
“A silver petticoat with golden coin.”
Menousis, drunk, went home and stabbed her to death.
In the morning, sober now, he wept her a lament:
“Rise, my duck, rise, my goose, rise, my blue-eyed one,
Rise and dress, put on your jewelry and join the dance,
That young men may see you and wither,
That I, poor man, may see you and rejoice in you.”

It was dizzying to hold the last disc, the only known copy, of Zoumbas in my hands, but perhaps it was more unnerving that this was barely a Zoumbas recording. The voices of four or five young men from Politsani—a village that’s almost wholly Greek Orthodox and Greek speaking, though it’s located about twenty miles within Albania’s border—dominate the recording. They sing in the iso-polyphonic style of Epirotes and Southern Albanians, in which one or more vocalists deliver the main melodic line while another singer or two add commentary, weaving in and out, creating dissonances and increasing the tension of the narrative. Another one or two people provide a constant drone an octave below the tonic key of the piece: a low, dark center. This tapestry of sound has its roots in Byzantine hymnody and Balkan epic song. Zoumbas’s violin and probably Asllan’s clarinet punctuate each verse, nothing more.

Questions flowed from this record, suggesting narrative detours that I must explore. Why, for instance, did Asllan choose to label and list this disc as a Zoumbas record when Zoumbas was no longer famous in the forties? His music, outside of Epirus, was too old-fashioned, reminiscent of a homeland that few longed for. Perhaps Asllan recorded Zoumbas out of friendship, maybe as a last glorious gesture before the void took everything away but this brittle piece of shellac. Because of rationing for the war, this disc wasn’t pressed until early 1946, implying either that Zoumbas saw and heard it right before he died—on February 7, 1946—or that he never saw it at all. And why had this disc found me? How had something so rare, so fleeting, ended up in my hands at exactly this time?

I’d thought earlier that the collection I produced was a proper lament for Alexis—he had never been mourned, and he died in a state of xenitia, yearning for his home soil. But as I sat alone in my record room, the needle trapped in the dead wax of the run-off groove, I realized that having stitched up a new suit of flesh for this specter meant I’d always have to look after him. In Epirus the dead are always with the living: they see them, they long for them, they care for them.

Lyrics translated by the Greek poet Demetrios Dallas.

Christopher King is an auricular raconteur and sonic archeologist. He produces CD and LP collections of music from old 78s through his studio, Long Gone Sound Productions, in Virginia.

Cooper Kenward Vinyl Asides

Episode 8: Christopher King

September 15, 2014

At 11:35 in the morning, we left Charlottesville, Virginia and watched the blacktop of US-29 swallow up the city in the rearview mirror. We were headed south thirty miles or so to the small town of Faber to meet 78-rpm record collector, writer and a sound engineer, Christopher King. The two-lane highway was quaint, but wild. The farmhouses, churches and antique stores that dotted the lush scenery were contrasted against the sunbathing blacksnakes that lay motionless on the roadside like fragments of rubber tires and the dead trees, which, engulfed by undergrowth, loomed like surrealistic hedge sculptures. Staring out the windows of the car, we practiced interview questions. The advice we had been given upon meeting King was simple but ominous: listen carefully and don’t say stupid shit.

King is a prominent figure among the kind of private collectors who reissue early 78-rpm recordings, and is a highly sought after sound director and engineer. He keeps a steady job at County records and Rebel records, he runs his own historical music production company, Long Gone Sound Productions, and collaborates with a variety of other labels including Tompkins Square, Bear Family Records and Revenant (he earned a Grammy in 2002 for his work as sound designer on Revenant’s box set Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton).Last spring, he was featured in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s New York Times article “The Ballad of Geeshie and Elvie” – a marathon article that traces the story of a rare and influential 78 recording with a mysterious background. King, owner of one of the two known copies of “Last Kind Words/Skinny Leg Blues,” could be seen in the article’s videos, spinning and talking about the record in his home studio.

Although he is known for his collection of pre-war country blues, Cajun and rural string band music, he has more recently produced material from his collections of ethnic performances from Albania, Greece, Ukraine, Turkey and Poland. His latest release, Alexis Zoumbas: a lament for Epirus 1926 -1928 (Long Gone Sound/Angry Mom Archives) featured ethereal, solo violin adaptations of the traditional music of Northern Greece.

King was waiting for us when we arrived, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. He was offering calming words to Betty, his bug-eyed Boston terrier, who had likely alerted him to our conspicuous arrival. (Because his house was set back away from the road, we had rolled past it a few times before confirming his address.) Although a young man, his figure appeared as though from a different era; his pomaded hair, thick-rimmed glasses, wool trousers and suspenders, more matched aesthetic of his depression-era farmhouse. After introductions, he served us coffee from a stovetop percolator, smoked another cigarette, and marshaled us into his dimly lit office. On the walls of his office hung black and white photographs of various blues and hillbilly musicians as well as a tasteful array of vintage ephemera. Three shelves with thousands of manila envelopes containing records were illuminated by a soft yellow glow. “Well, what would you like to hear?” he asked us.

Picking out our requests from the unmarked shelves he shuttled the records one by one over to his stereo system across the room. In speaking to us about his collection, King described himself, not as a collector of records, but as a collector of raw, emotive (preferably unhinged) performances. “There is something that runs through certain types of music,” he elaborated, “that is mysterious and beautiful and frightening and terrifying and yet it’s bound up with us, with our humanity.”

King is paradoxically both manly and sensitive. He speaks directly and with an intense growl that suggests – let’s cut the crap and talk about music as it relates to life and death. We listened intently with a mixture of terror and fascination as though watching a hammer fall slowly, but inevitably toward a coffin nail.

At times, his seriousness would yield to humor, but often when we were least expecting it. He told us a story about hunting 78s at the house of a man he met at a swap meet. It took him three years of persisting with the man until he received an invitation to junk through them. Upon arrival, however, he saw that the records “were in his fucking chicken coop covered with chicken shit. Thousands of 78s and roosters shitting all over them.” He smirked while telling us this. “But that was a pretty good find,” he concluded.

King collects the music that moves him. As the records played, he either bowed his head or smiled in silent wonderment. He likes records that contain riveting performances as well as a snapshot into the artist’s life. Of the compilations he produces, King said, “What I’m doing is more of a storybook. It’s a presentation of what its like for me to be engaged with the music.” As we started playing records, we saw what King meant by being engaged. He sat behind his consul, constantly micro adjusting the mixing boards (the manila jackets to his records have individualized settings for EQ and gain). Beside his turntable lay what appeared to be popsicle sticks of various sizes that he would balance on the stylus to achieve optimum pressure on the record. After listening to Charley Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues” he drew our attention to a second voice that mumbled between the verses. Patton was known for his gravelly voice and manly themes of drinking, brawling and women, but King’s theorized that Patton needed a friend at the recording session for encouragement. “Imagine playing your whole career in grimy juke joints of the delta and then having to travel to a strange city and record in a studio,” King empathized. “I think it means he was actually just a big pussy.”  

The way he listens can humanize even the most mythical of performer. To convey this form of listening to his audience seems to be King’s goal. His transfers are done with sensitivity to the ambient sounds that occur before, during and after the performance. “I’m interested,” he said, “in the audio information present in the studio such as a grunt, taking a breath, the slice of the rosin over the fiddle strings.” King’s work is to make a reissue record that expands the story of the source material and connects us more profoundly to the musicians. He does this not just with more sensitive hardware but with a new approach to listening that combines both the scholarly and the emotional attentiveness.

There is a breed of 78 collectors who are as equally concerned with preserving musical cultures as with connecting it back to modern ears. King, I believe, is one of them. The albums he produces from his collection such as People Take Warning! (Tompkins Square, 2007), a collection of pre-war murder ballads and disaster songs, as well as Five Days Married & Other Laments(Angry Mom Archives, 2013), a compilation of recordings from Northern Greece, use notes to describe the feelings and reactions to the records in addition to the facts and backstory of the recordings. He described his work perfectly when he said, “It does not make sense to put on rubber gloves and sterilize yourself when you’re trying to discuss music that you yourself are overwhelmingly in love with. Why try to divorce the narrative of the music from the narrative about why you love that music?” 


--- Jonathan Shifflett 




Albanian Traditional Music: An Introduction, with Sheet Music and Lyrics for 48 Songs — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

Albanian Traditional Music: An Introduction, with Sheet Music and Lyrics for 48 Songs.  

By Spiro J. Shetuni. McFarland & Company, 2011.  Sheet Music, Lyrics, Bibliography.

Folk music from Albania, particularly from the Central and Southern regions of the country, is rightly characterized as otherworldly, sublime, and in many instances, incongruent with practically all other European and Baltic musical expressions.   The distinction is so great between Albanian music and music from surrounding areas that adjectival descriptors are sometimes tortured in relation to their referents.  Indeed, when I heard my first pre-war 78 disc of Albanian music I was shocked by the dissonances, the multiple melodic lines, the foundational drones and the underlying power and beauty of the song.  I was without words to describe what I had heard.  The only melodious expression that is similar to the song and dance of Central and Southern Albania is the repertoire of Northern Greece, Epirus. 

Very generally speaking, the main distinction between these two musical approaches is linguistic but there are innumerable subtleties that further complicate any systematic approach to these two related folk forms.  What can be said is that music from this specific region is characterized by polyphonic singing with different vocalists contributing different melodic lines.  Typically a vocalized drone (iso) anchors the performance and the songs themselves are pentatonic in scale and move between free meter and fixed meter.   This, however, is a broad generalization.

There have been several LPs and a few CDs of contemporary traditional Albanian music issued since the late 1960s as well as a tiny handful of reissues devoted to the earlier 78 RPM era of capturing Albanian music.  Notable collections include A. L. Lloyd's Folk Music Of Albania, Robert Henry Leibman's Traditional Tosk Songs & Dances From The Lake Prespa Area, and Benno Häupl and Paul Vernon's Albanian Village Music.  What has been sorely lacking though is a detailed, logical, and systemic description of traditional Albanian music in the English language and how it is manifested among various geographic and ethnic lines within the borders of the country.  This conspicuous absence has been magnificently addressed by Spiro Shetuni's new book, Albanian Traditional Music.

Not to be understated, Shetuni has accomplished a Herculean task in a deft and nimble manner.  By arranging Albanian music along ethnographic regional lines and classifying the various styles and sub-genres according to their location in Albania, Shetuni has laid down a comprehensive yet easily understandable template.     His use of unambiguous terminology to parse the differences between various dialects and sub-dialects of music in a certain region is a case study in flawless ethnomusicological writing.

Geographic isolation is the main reason why the music of Central and Southern Albania (and Northern Greece) is so distinctly different from the rest of the Baltic and surrounding European countries.  The Pindus mountain range along with the Vikos Gorge acted as a natural “buffer” that kept foreign occupations at a low boil and also insured that the largely pastoral culture that existed in these regions since pre-history retained its relative purity and ethnic character.  Although the unique musical style and repertoire germinated and spread very early in Albania, it was not until the 1940s and 1950s that proper Albanian ethnomusicology developed to document the songs and instrumentation of that country.  This took place, by and large, under the supervision of the communist government of Enver Hoxha.  Besides being fiercely isolated from all other countries, Hoxha’s regime also promoted nationalism and an intense interest in preserving Albania’s cultural heritage, especially its folk music tradition.  From the late 1940s onwards, Albania’s government has fostered festivals and competitions among the various ethnic and regional groups of musicians.  It is this span of time, after World War II, that Shetuni’s book is focused.

Shetuni divides Albanian folk music into roughly four different dialects (broad styles) that have specific geographic locations and boundaries.  Gheg traditional music is found in Northern Albania (Ghegëri), Tosk music is located in Central and Southern Albania (Toskëri), Lab music is found in Southern Albania (Labëri), and Urban music is found in the more densely populated cities throughout Albania.  Crucially noted by Shetuni is the fact that Gheg music is almost exclusively monophonic and Tosk, Lab and Urban are primarily polyphonic and instruments normally accompany Gheg and Urban music whereas Tosk and Lab are almost always a cappella.   Besides discussing the various sub-dialects and styles found in various villages and regions within a dialect, Shetuni goes to great lengths to describe each stylistic variation based on what he calls core structural groupings.  These descriptive terms are:
    (I) rural traditional music and urban traditional music
    (ii) vocal and instrumental
    (iii) monophonic and polyphonic
    (iv) sung and danced
    (v) female and male
    (vi) youth and adult
    (vii) traditional music performed individually & traditional music performed collectively
    (viii) a cappella vocal traditional music and instrumentally accompanied vocal music
The application of these various terms in their logical combinations more than adequately conveys the musical nature of each and every dialect and style.

Although this analysis may be sufficient in and of itself, Shetuni goes even further by providing transcriptions and translations for 48 songs from each dialect,  musical notations for these songs, and notations for the typical modes encountered in each dialect.  He has also posted the 48 songs that go with the text at:  This tome along with these musical examples presents an almost complete picture of traditional Albanian music that exists to this very day.

Admittedly outside the stated scope of this work, the only addition that I would have appreciated is a more thorough discussion of the history of Albanian folk music prior to the late 1940s along with a narrative of recording sessions, important recordings artists such as the Leskoviku family and Bilbil Vlora, and the pre-war commercial endeavor or recording Albanian musicians.  From this reviewer’s experience, almost all the 78 RPM recordings made in Europe prior to the Second World War would fall within the category of Urban dialect (except for a rare 1930 session in Athens, Greece for Pathé) but it does beg the question why more rural village groups were not documented and recorded.  This desire aside, I can still give Mr. Shetuni’s book the highest praise and recommendation.  No other book or article in English comes close to capturing the nuances of traditional Albanian music while at the same time conveying an authoritative command of Western music theory.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2013; 261-263.  “These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2013; 261-263, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”      

Family Story: Hear Christopher King tell the birth of Riley at 78rpm

So often they seem beyond belief, the yarns that are spun around town and around dinner tables, late in the night or in passing on the street.  They are mostly told secondhand. Or third.  Stories from the family lore too wild to think they could have actually happened, and so exciting and colorful we would hardly want to live in a world where they couldn’t.

Often a delightful dubiousness is added to these tales by the distance they traveled to reach our ears, the wine, and the festive manner of telling. This was not the case on the summery night when our friend, acclaimed 78 collector and producer Christopher King, shared with us his family fables. His were told firsthand, and with demonstrations to help us picture the action.

“Did we tell you how our daughter, Riley, was born?” He asked us later, nonchalant as he cleared our plates.  After the stories his family had already shared, of ceiling snakes and hatchets and the town where they live in Virginia, we knew this legend, saved for last, must be the best one.

LISTEN: Christopher King “February 21, February 22″

Dennis McGee - Himself - Valcour Records — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

 Dennis McGee - Himself  - Valcour Records 

Few people can be justifiably regarded as both an originator of a particular style of music and also as a conveyor of an older style of folk music in its own right.  Fewer still are those who were aurally documented in the 1920s & 1930s and in the 1970s & 1980s who showed little loss of skill or recollection of repertoire.   One such artist was the unique Cajun, Dennis McGee.

Not only did McGee record from 1929 to 1934 with such artists as Amédé Ardoin, Sady Courville, Wade Fruge, and Angelas Le Jeunne, but he also later recorded two "studio" albums in 1972 and 1977 with Sady Courville for Morning Star and Swallow, respectively.   Every recording mentioned above was done either with a second fiddler and with McGee providing the vocals, or in the role of the accompanying fiddler behind an accordion player and vocalist.  This new CD, Dennis McGee - Himself, presents McGee in the role of solo fiddler, playing mostly previously unheard instrumentals without the company of a second fiddler or an accordion player. It is a revelation on par with "junking" a stack of unknown & unissued test recordings by one of the most majestic and unique fiddlers ever to draw a bow.

Since McGee was one of the earliest Cajun artists to record commercially, most musicians, collectors, and scholars regard him, along with the black accordion player, Amédé Ardoin, as the source of most traditional Cajun tunes and the techniques developed to play them; the true vine, as it were.  What has been lacking, up until the release of this material recorded in 1975 by Gérard Dôle, were recordings of McGee performing unaccompanied and, perhaps more importantly, performing the more archaic and obscure types of Cajun fiddle tunes that were popular in the 19th century.  This is essential since mazurkas, polkas, gallopades, varsoviannas,  and cotillions held a strong place in the early Cajun fiddle and dance repertoire but became less popular with the introduction of the diatonic accordion.   One of the most revealing aspects of this collection, though not explicitly stated, is that traditional Cajun fiddle music is defined more by its repertoire than by its style. 

When contemporary Cajun musicians and aficionados play fiddle tunes identified with McGee, they mainly play the waltzes, two-steps, one-steps, and occasionally a reel, that McGee either recorded in the early part of the 20th century with Ardoin or Courville; or, more likely, recorded in the early 1970s with Courville when they were "rediscovered."  Although these popular pieces in the McGee, (and subsequently traditional Cajun) tune-body, possess an irresistible charm, it is interesting to hear and observe how the earlier dance tunes such as the mazurka or the galopades bleed into the more popular, and easier to play, waltzes and two-steps, coloring certain strains of the melody.  Students and teachers nowadays try to play these early waltzes and two-steps with the melody constantly being complemented with a drone, i.e., playing simultaneously the prime note with a first or third note an octave below.  However, listening to McGee on this collection, one notices how cleanly McGee plays the melodic line, with only subtle and measured use of the drone notes.

Indeed, when one listens carefully to McGee's masterful fiddle duets with Courville and Fruge, one can discern McGee carefully and forcefully playing the melodic line while the second fiddler tastefully supports the melody with chords, harmony and atmospheric drones.   What this collection reveals clearly is how sophisticated and emotive McGee's playing was when he had no second fiddler or accordion player by his side.  It also gives us a breathtaking glimpse at what the earliest Cajun fiddle music and social dances must have sounded like before the introduction of various outside elements such as the diatonic accordion,  the electrification and amplification of instruments, and the rapid assimilation of other styles such as Western Swing and classic Country & Western music.

It is no hyperbole to assert that most of the tunes heard on this particular set have probably not been heard since McGee learned them in his youth, at the turn of the twentieth century.  The fact that McGee was a "student" of a fiddle master who was a hundred years old suggests that McGee was able to tap into the earliest repertoire of Cajun social music; the fiddle music for balls and dances that were all the rage in the Antebellum South.  Due to the relative geographic and cultural isolation of Southwest Louisiana at the time, what McGee was able to learn and perform could certainly be defined as one of the rarest American musical treasures of the 20th century.

The producer of this collection, Gérard Dôle, met McGee in the summer of 1975 while on a field trip to Louisiana.  Fortunately, McGee was both talkative and receptive to recording.  Of particular interest to the student of Cajun fiddling are the numerous comments that McGee makes on the origin and function of a particular dance piece as well as a demonstration of the various tunings that he used.   In addition to the detailed and highly personal notes by Dôle, there is a complete transcription of all the Cajun French comments (translated into English) by McGee during the recording available as a download from the website of Valcour records. 

Dôle also notes that the recordings were made using a Nagra III and a Beyer M 69 N Dynamic microphone.  The capture is remarkably warm and splendidly detailed.  McGee, even forty years earlier, was a fiddler who could be shrill and sharp in his attack on the fiddle and yet most of the recordings made in 1975 are not only smooth but are also very faithful to the original melodic line.  For instance, McGee's performance from 1975, seemingly very relaxed, of Adieu Rosa, is stunningly close to his 1929 recording for Vocalion.   This conceivably impossible task for an eighty-two year old man is a testament not only to McGee's passionate artistry and command of repertoire but also to Dôle's ability to coax out these nearly forgotten tunes from a true master.

A few words are in order about the producer, recorder, and notes-writer of this collection: Gérard Dôle .  Mr. Dôle, in addition to recording this and several other field recordings of traditional Cajun musicians, has also issued several LPs and CDs of his own playing as well as the earliest known instructional LP on learning to play the Cajun diatonic accordion.  If this were not enough, he has also authored the seminal text on Cajun and Creole music prior to the American Civil War, Histoire Musicale Des Acadiens - De la Nouvelle-France à La Louisiane 1604-1804.  This CD is an invaluable addition to his overarching contribution of texts and recordings pertaining to Southwest Louisiana.  I cannot overstate the importance of this release for those that wish to have a deeper knowledge of traditional American, French, and Cajun fiddle music.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”

Road To Rembetika: Music Of A Greek Sub-Culture — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

From A.R.S.C. By Gail Holst  Greece: Denis Harvey (Publisher), 2006 (4th Ed., originally published in 1975).190 pp (softcover).  Song Translations, Bibliography, Selected Discography, CD Companion. Available via Traditional Crossroads Greeley Sq. Sta.PO BOX 20320 New York, New York 10001

Traditional Greek music, especially the song and dance of the urban underworld of Athens and Piraeus, has captivated many scholars and collectors of early ethnic 78s.  Several dozen reissues of rembetika,  the music of the rembetes, have been produced over the last twenty years including many boxed sets.  What was largely presumed about the music of the rembetes (defined broadly as a sub-culture of the Greek-speaking urban working-class) was that it shared much in common, aesthetically and sociologically, with the blues music of the Mississippi Delta and especially its later urban manifestations in Chicago.  What has been lacking is a detailed study in English of the origin and development of rembetika as a form of traditional indigenous expression in its own right.  That was, in part, a role that Gail Holst's Road To Rembetika would serve.

Granted, it is somewhat strange to review a book that was first published 37 years ago but this new fourth edition contains a CD companion produced by Traditional Crossroads, a label that specializes in Middle-Eastern and Balkan music.  What this book and CD provides, which to this day has not been appreciably added to, is a contextualized and nuanced history of this popular folk music's creation, development, decline and eventual revitalization in the 1960s.  It is, however, a personal and subjective history based upon the author's immersion in Greek culture during the late 1960s, a time of strong social and political upheaval.  Therefore, it is both a history and a memoir.  Based on this, there are at least three different and complementary ways of understanding Road To Rembetika: first, the author's own "road" to discovering rembetika and the culture that fostered it,  second, Greek society's own movement, or road, to acknowledge rembetika, and third, a limited study of the scales and modes of performances (makims, or "roads") that define the style and feeling of rembetika.

The genesis of rembetika as a popular urban folk form was relatively recent.  Although some of the songs and instrumentation existed much earlier, rembetika more or less appeared during the early 1920s following the "population exchange" between Greece and Turkey when over one million Asia Minor Greeks were resettled as refugees into the urban centers of Athens and Piraesus.  Many of these Greeks had lived for generations in Asia Minor and spoke Turkish fluently. Having assimilated themselves with Turkish culture, including the deeply complex Turkish classical music style, these refugees brought back to the Greek urban centers a music that was a unique synthesis of Turkish, Greek, and Balkan modality, scale, and rhythm with an equally idiosyncratic lyrical body.  Many of these songs, at first, dealt with love, of course, and a longing for their old homeland, Asia Minor, but rapidly added the themes most common to these refugees: hard times, criminality, bravery in the face of adversity, and, most famously, the use of hashish and other drugs as "social markers."  These themes became quickly identified with the "marginal society" to which the rembetes belonged.

The author's narrative of both the societal and musical development of rembetika is punctuated with her then contemporaneous accounts of interactions with various "old-school" rembetika performers.  It is during these vignettes that Holst describes music and dance, food and politics, not as an outside scholar, but as an insider…as a person taken in by the rembetes.   What might seem off-putting to some, to wit, Holst's deeply personal and subjective presentation of the living culture that nurtured rembetika in the 1960s, is to this reviewer an asset.   It explains, in part, her enthusiasm and motivation for engaging with and learning from this music and circle of musicians.  Though the atmosphere of the writing is firmly entrenched in the style of the late 1960s and early 1970s (as it should be) it is just as refreshing as reading any of the excellent books published by Studio Vista and edited by Paul Oliver or The Country Blues by Samuel Charters.  These books, like Road To Rembetika, exhibited a tone of excitement and curiosity, in part because of musicians who were active in the 1920s & 1930s were being "rediscovered" and in part because this obsession with a folk-art form was a type of rebellion against their parents' mores and the values of the post-war West, ironically enough as a generation that held sympathies with their grand-parents' generation.

The only fault that I find with Holst's work is the very minor treatment that she gives to the musics that came before and coexisted with the more popular rembetika.  A more encompassing work, one that described various demotika, or village folk-musics, would paint a fuller and deeper picture of various harmonious expressions that constituted the palimpsestic topography of Balkan and Turkish culture.  Just as a tome concerning American Rural Blues should be supplemented with chapters concerning African roots, medicine show and minstrel tunes, shape-note singing, and early jazz, a book that describes the rise of rembetika should describe fully all the musical traditions that both informed it and competed against it.

Holst provides detailed Greek and English translations to 66 songs that are central to the repertoire of rembetika.  The CD with the book contains 17 tracks, most of which appear to be good transfers from 78s that retain much of their clarity and convey the tremendous emotional appeal that these performances must have had in the cafes, taverns, and hashish dens, or teké.  A particularly revelatory track for this reviewer, included on the CD, is The Stoker by Yiorgos Batis (recorded in 1934).  Both the style of deliberately understated singing and the delicate interplay of the baglama and bouzouki are suggestive of an American Country Blues performance of Rowdy Blues by the enigmatic Kid Bailey and partner.  

In summation, Road To Rembetika, if supplemented with a basic knowledge of 19th and early 20th century manifestations of Greek and Turkish rural music, is an excellent primer and foundation text for the study of early popular Greek urban music.  It is hard to argue with a book in its fourth edition and in print since 1975.  As a memoir, a musical travelogue, and a snapshot of a folk music on the cusp of revitalization, l would highly recommend this volume without reservation.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”

To Scratch Your Heart -- Early Recordings From Istanbul. Honest Jon’s Records, CD & LP — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

To Scratch Your Heart -- Early Recordings From Istanbul. Honest Jon’s Records, CD & LP

            The title of this collection comes from the Turkish satirical writer, Refik Halid Karay.  Karay, reporting on the mass purchase and public use of the then newly developed phonograph player, asserts:

        Listening to a song from a phonograph, which I assume Edison simply invented

        as a new year’s present for his grandchild, was as difficult as swallowing honey

        from a carob.  Then the gramophone arrived with its flat, hard-body records, and

        the American’s sound machine became cheaper and easily available, drowning

        out the world with blabbery, loud music and din.  What a state Istanbul was in!

        On streets lined with coffee house, the cacophony of forty-odd gramophones

        playing at once will gnaw at your ear, scratch your heart, and blow your head up.

To Karay, the early commercialization and consumption of recorded Turkish music must have been a societal and aesthetic irritant.  The musical and cultural tapestry that existed in Istanbul during Karay's lifetime during the early twentieth century was likely just as rich, if not richer, than the recordings found on this collection.  To us modern consumers, eighty to ninety years later, these recordings are a refreshing musical panacea and an incomparable treasure.  

            If there is one unifying theme to this set it is that an overwhelming diversity of regional, ethnic and personal musical styles were captured in Istanbul during the early days of recorded sound.  Istanbul was a cultural nexus between East and West, a crossroads of Europe and Asia where endless varieties of “backwoods” and urban musical expression cross-pollinated with rural and “uptown” performers.  A very small, yet excellent sampling of the fruits of this city’s recording activity is found in this two CD/ four LP collection.  Every track contained in this anthology is by artists that lived in Turkey but Istanbul was also a recording hub for Albanians, Armenians, and Greeks, to name a few.

            The massive undertaking of providing a sampler of early traditional Turkish music is achieved admirably by Honest Jon’s Records by relying on mainly mint copies of the 78s, primarily (if not exclusively) taken from H.M.V. issues.  As there is no discography found in this release, the reviewer can only infer from the artists featured that the producers used HMV material for their masters.   This is good in that HMV discs from this time period were produced from exceptional materials and pressed in plants that exercised high standards.  The studios and the engineers were also top notch.  Finally, many of the finest artists living in Turkey were recorded and promoted by H.M.V.

            Some of the most prestigious artists to record during the “Golden Age” of early Turkish music are featured on this set including the great Münir Nurettin Selçuk and Hafiz Aşir.  What is most exciting is the inclusion of two very rare and unusual performances.  Two taksims, or improvisations, one on the piano by Kamil Efendi, and the other on the rebab ile (pumpkin-violin), by Eyyubi Mustafa Sunar Bey, are the highlights of this set.  For those familiar with the modality and use of sub-tones in Turkish music, the playing of a taksim on piano is a nearly impossible task.  The inclusion of the piano taksim also demonstrates how cultural synthesis and exchange occurred in Istanbul during the early twentieth century: modalities and approaches to performances that were unique to this region were adapted to Western instruments, expanding the range of that interment.  Mustafa Bey’s recording of the seldom-heard rebab ile is exceptional in both his perfect intonation and in the dark overtones produced by this instrument.  Listening closely to this performance suggests several of Bela Bartok's more introspective passages and one is left to wonder if he may have heard a rebab lie during his travels through this country.

            The taksims on this set cover a wide variety of Turkish folk instruments including the oud, clarinet, tanbur, zurna, kemençe, and şerare. Indeed, the sheer number and diversity of taksims is one of the many strengths of this volume.   Of the thirty-two tracks in this collection, there are fourteen taksims.   Art songs, gazels, and the other main variety of “contemplative” Ottoman instrumental music, the peşrev, are very well represented.  That being said, perhaps the only issue that I do have with this set is that other types of early Turkish instrumental (and vocal) music are noticeably absent.  Curiously, two of the most exciting types of Turkish music with which I am acquainted are not included in this collection.  The Zeybek, a dance closely associated with Western Anatolia and the Aegean region, is absent as is the Havasi, a dance originating from the Romani-Turkish communities.   Also as mentioned in the notes, there are no religious songs included in this set though most of the performers were well trained in the musical recitation of the Koran.        

            The disc transfers and digital re-mastering on this volume are strikingly clear, articulate and warm.  The pitch appears to be correct on most, if not all, of the recordings and the ambient tone of the original recording session is remarkably intact.  As mentioned above, the reviewer feels that most of these discs must have been in exceptional condition.  Andy Walter at Abbey Road did a stellar job of keeping the detail and nuance of the performance preserved while reducing the non-musical artifacts inherent on the surface of the disc.  Having listened to both the CD version and the LP version, this reviewer found no discernible difference in either the overall sonic conveyance or in the depth or warmth of the playback.  Perhaps a system with a different d/a converter would yield a dissimilar result.  However, I am sure that there are quite a few people that just enjoy the notion of playing an LP and having a larger graphic format.

            The highest mark that I can give to Honest Jon’s, a record store cum label established in 1974, is their choice of Gokhan Ara to write the notes.  Mr. Ara displays the rare ability to be firmly erudite in early Turkish music theory and history and to be an impassioned and animated writer.  A gifted musician, scholar, and collector, Gokhan articulates a set of notes that makes this music comprehensible to the layman and compelling to the specialist.  His clarity of explanation is exceptional. 

            The packaging of both the CD and the LP are also worth noting.  The CD is attractively presented as a modified digi-pak with beautiful salmon toned stock.  The thick booklet is rich with pictures of the artists and period hand-tinted photos.   The LP is gorgeously packaged in a large slipcase and a tip-in booklet.  All in all, “To Scratch Your Heart” is a very tasteful, well-produced and stunning tribute to an early body of recorded ethnic music.   I encourage them to explore more the rich diversity of early Turkish music recorded in Istanbul and to issue more of these stunning sets.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”

Opika Pende - Africa at 78 RPM. Dust Digital Records — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

Opika Pende - Africa at 78 RPM.  Dust Digital Records

DTD-22 (4 CDs) 

The sheer immensity of Africa, a continent that could easily contain within its borders the United States, Western Europe, Argentina, China and India combined, was a geographic fact that took on new resonance for me as I began to review Opika Pende.  Surveying the folk music tradition captured on 78 RPM discs of a particular country, such as Albania, or even a state, such as Mississippi, can prove to be a daunting task, replete with omissions and unintended oversights if one is striving for completeness or attempting to defend a thesis.  Jonathan Ward's epic four CD box set, Opika Pende - Africa at 78 RPM, provides a thoroughly satisfying portrait of the African continent's music and gracefully acquits itself of the two aforesaid pitfalls.  He asserts in his introduction:

I have created this compilation with one simple goal in mind: to showcase a diverse amount of long-forgotten music from Africa that transports me as a listener.  It is one person's offering of music that is wholly unavailable except in its original elusive and fragile format.  While it is not definitive, nor am I attempting to construct or invent a narrative, there are important connections to be made.

By stating the intention to present a vast array of music captured on 78 RPM in Africa that moves him, Ward can now weave a tapestry of exotic voices and obscure instrumental styles that can lead the listener to unexpected and unfamiliar musical territory.

As Ward details in his introduction and throughout the annotations, the history of commercially recorded music in Africa started in Northern Africa, in Cairo, Egypt at the turn of the last century and, for the most part, remained in that general area for almost three decades.  It was not until the late 1920s that companies realized that they could record artists and groups from Sub-Saharan Africa and then sell machines and discs to this thriving population.  This activity of traveling to a given country and determining which artists and genres were popular enough to record was largely very selective, and entire countries, such as the Belgian Congo and Kenya, were not even visited by recording engineers until after World War II.  That so many different countries in Africa were even represented on 78 RPM is a minor miracle when one reflects on the time, expense, and resources that were necessary to capture these performances.  In many instances, these discs were pressed in quantities of one hundred or less and yet these largely European concerns saw a return on their money and labor.

Most of the major record labels to record in Africa were, at first, based in the original colonizer's country such as Pathé in France, Odeon and Polydor in Germany, and HMV in England, but over time local entrepreneurs saw the potential for profiting from sales to their local, and, regarding language and dialect, relatively minuscule populations.  This incentive to capture indigenous musics by natives for natives created a virtual explosion of regional and independent labels that sought out local talent in order to feed the growing demand for this modern luxury: the phonograph player and songs frozen in time.  Though the annotations do not specify, I suspect that close to half of the recordings presented in this collection were captured by small, local labels.

Besides the incredible number of individuals and companies involved in the "boom times" of capturing music on disc in Africa, one can stand awestruck at the bewildering diversity of styles, genres, and levels of musicianship demonstrated on the continent.  Songs based on hymns, both Protestant and Catholic, Islamic prayers and songs of devotion, funky big-bands, comic sketches, staid choirs, syncopated string bands, and otherworldly instrumental solos were all recorded in Africa, and this collection contains many other variations and examples.  Perhaps the fortunate (and unfortunate) conflux of colonial powers and immigration worked to create such unlikely and idiosyncratic sounds.  One such performance, Cuisine Roulante!, by Orchestra André Phillipe de St.-Pierre from the Island of Réunion (off the coast of Madagascar) is a perfect case in point.  Though this reviewer has been fortunate enough to hear eight sides recorded by Odeon in the early 1930s in Réunion, it nevertheless strikes me how much the music of this small island is reminiscent of string band tunes from the Southern United States as well as the jive bands of Haiti and the smaller jazz groups of New Orleans.  As Ward points out, this small island was a melting pot of French, Chinese, Indian and pan-African immigrants, all of whom contributed to its unique Creole culture. This lesson of immigration and assimilation is repeated throughout the collection.

Another track (among many) that captured my attention was the sole example of music from the nation of Ethiopia.  Having heard a few other 78s from this region originally captured on Odeon in the early 1930s and reissued on Decca, I had expected that the solo singing of Yetna Taddeghegn on spike fiddle [JHH: IS THIS RIGHT, SINGING ON A FIDDLE?  SHOULD IT BE SOLO SINGING WITH A SPIKE FIDDLE?], recorded in the 1950s, to sound more "modern," but I was pleasantly surprised by his unvarnished vocals.  Isolated areas, such as Ethiopia and Epirus (Northern Greece), seemingly demonstrate that certain folk sounds become immutable...changeless in their beauty and power.

In addition to documenting the regional variation of stylistic choices and repertoires, this collection also contains a wealth of obscure and rarely heard solo instrumental performances.  One would certainly expect to hear the mbira, or thumb-piano (there are at least four tracks containing this instrument), but Ward selects a host of percussion, reed, string, and wind instruments, some of which are uniquely African.  A goje fiddle (one string) solo from Niger, a pluriarc konou or bow lute from Guinea, and the ndingidi or one-string tube fiddle are among some of the most esoteric instruments heard in this box set.  However, an Arabic violin solo by the Egyptian master, Sami al-Shawwa is only slightly more familiar to the ear, as is a lively accordion solo by Salia Koroma of Sierra Leone and an anonymous musician’s flute solo from Madagascar.  A wealth of finger-picked guitar, both with solo singing and choral accompaniment, is also found in the set.

Ward's careful and diligent labor at researching and annotating this massive volume is highly laudable.  In fact, to describe his individual annotations for each and every track as a highly impressive discographic and ethnomusicological achievement would be a regrettable understatement.  In this reviewer's experience, discs such as those found on this anthology are exceedingly rare and information on the companies that produced them and the artists who made them is rarer still.  An astounding amount of footwork and patient canvassing of specialists must have gone into this project, and Ward thankfully provides a very thorough bibliography of works and persons consulted.  His blog,, contains many postings of folk music from around the world, all originally issued on 78 RPM, and they are all diligently researched, similar to the tracks found in this collection.

As should be expected, there is a wide spectrum of sonic quality regarding the transfers in this set.  Most tracks sound quite clean and possess a depth of response with much detail and articulation of subtleties.  There are a few tracks that have apparent surface noise from having been played and abused by the ravages of time.  These, however, are not really a distraction. More common are the funky "studio" conditions where the performances were captured.  I say "studio" since it is likely that many of these 78 RPM sides were recorded in the field under less than ideal conditions and with less than perfect equipment.  Since many of these labels were privately funded and locally run, they likely used the more inexpensive instantaneous devices which were known for their difficult miking.  Be that as it may, for those who are familiar with field recording sessions and aural artifacts associated with 78 RPM playback, these flaws are not a concern with this box set.  The programming of the individual four discs is also exceptional and seemingly flows from one area of the continent to the next.

With Opika Pende Jonathan Ward has produced an unprecedented and monumental achievement in compiling, researching and annotating a largely undocumented discographic body of recordings.  A collection as lovingly and professionally produced as this is very rare.  The sheer attention to detail paid to each and every track is simply amazing.  I highly recommend this set to anyone who has an interest in the genuine, raw folk-music of Africa, and I hope to see Ward produce additional similar volumes.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”

Greek Rhapsody - Instrumental Music From Greece, 1905-1956. Dust to Digital Records DTD-27 (2 CDs)- Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

The story of commercially recorded Greek music is a complex and, at times, a contentious narrative. Disputes arise regarding questions of ethnicity, language, genesis, development, and identity. When all moot points are suspended, however, we are left with the physical artifact: the 78 RPM disc which contains the auricular expression. The shellac record is the primum movens of this inquiry and all other judgments, assertions, and arguments are to be measured against it…especially aesthetic or sentimental ones. It is this huge body of pre-1956 recordings made in mainland Greece, the US, and Asia Minor that is our evidence. Any contemporary collection that asserts that it reflects or represents the music of a given time and a given place must indeed contain a balanced treatment of styles, instruments and repertoire.

Greek Rhapsody is an oddly articulated and, in a few crucial ways, strangely malformed attempt to present the instrumental music of Greece as recorded in the 78 RPM format. Its most obvious flaw is in its unbalanced presentation of styles, instruments and repertoire to the point that whole regions (and stylistic variations contained therein) of Greece go largely unrepresented, distinct repertoires ignored, and superb artists forgotten. Though such a collection that could encompass multitudes fairly is perhaps overly ambitious, this particular project claims “to present as comprehensive a selection as possible of the instruments current in Greek popular music of the time” and “to be devoted to a panorama of historical instrumental recordings of Greek popular and folk music from the earlier decades of the 20th century.” On both of these claims this collection falls short, perhaps on the former more than the latter. 

Before this critique a little context is necessary. From 1453 to 1832 most of Greece was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish capital, Constantinople, became the center of culture and artistic expression for this Muslim empire. At the same time, Constantinople was regarded by Greeks as the true center of Greek Christian Orthodoxy. After a failed attempt to reclaim Constantinople during the unsuccessful Greek invasion of Turkey from 1919-1922, the Lausanne Treaty on exchange of populations in 1923 introduced approximately 1.4 million Greeks from Asia Minor to mainland Greece, most of whom were settled in Athens and Piraeus. Religion was used to define ethnicity and nationality, so the population exchange introduced Christians from Asia Minor to overcrowded urban areas in Greece, but many of these immigrants only spoke Turkish and had only known Turkish culture. It is at this time that Asia Minor melodies and Turkish/Arabic scales were rapidly grafted onto and amalgamated with mainland Greek musical style and technique. Of course there were earlier, gradual introductions and mixings of Turkish and Arabic music on the mainland, but this sudden arrival of musicians and “music consumers” introduced a style of popular urban music that came to be known as rembetika.

A commonly understood distinction in Greek music is one between laïki, urban popular music, and demotic, village (folk) music. Roughly speaking, rembetika falls under the category of laïki, and music played in the villages of Northern Greece (Epirus), Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace, Peloponnese, and most of the Aegean islands including Crete, is defined as demotic. With few exceptions, Greek Rhapsody contains only instrumental pieces that are laïki, popular urban music, and this is a regrettable omission that greatly diminishes the richness of Greek music and overly simplifies, if not misrepresents, the narrative of Greek musical expression and recording.

One reason, among many, for the difficulty in appreciating the full tapestry of traditional Greek music is the geo-political shifting of Greek governance and, simultaneously, Greek culture. Even though Constantinople was the capital of Ottoman rule and the cosmopolitan core of Greek music and literature until the end of the Greek War of Independence and the population exchange in 1922, I maintain that Greek culture and its music is not a monochromatic phenomenon, either in concept or in manifestation. Perhaps Greek “popular” music is best understood in terms of its derivation from Asia Minor melodies and Turkish and Arabic scales, but popular music is not the same as folk music. While Greek musicians may have been perfecting their style and repertoire in Constantinople and Asia Minor, Greek musicians in mainland Greece and in the islands were also playing melodies that were hundreds of years old and were quite distinct from their Asia Minor counterparts. Diversity in folk expressions such as the dance instrumentals from the Peloponnese, contemplative instrumentals from Epirus and Greek Macedonia, and “concert” music from Crete and the Aegean islands paints a fuller picture of Greece where, in the words of David Brewer in Greece, The Hidden Centuries, “the beliefs and the practices of ordinary rural folk…sustained the Greek people and linked them to the illustrious past.” In other words, if one took Greek Rhapsody at its word, then one would think that it contained a “panorama of historical instrumental recordings of Greek popular and folk music from the earlier decades of the 20th century.” This is hardly the case.

    For instance, among the 42 tracks there is not a single one that represents the playing of the zourna or pipizi (double-reed aerophones) or the gaida (bagpipe) from the Peloponnese region, Thrace, or Macedonia. There is also not a single track demonstrating the Cretan lyre, a prolifically recorded instrument both before and after World War II. Strangely, there is not a single track of instrumental clarinet playing from the region of Epirus, an area that produced most of the finest clarinet players ever recorded. There are only two clarinet tracks to be found in the whole collection, when it could be argued that the clarinet was the principle instrument featured in most demotic recordings. There is, however, an abundance (if not overabundance) of bouzouki, mandolin, and guitar tracks. This may be explained by the fact that 16 out of the 21 tracks feature the multi-instrumentalist Spyros Peristeris on these three instruments. There is certainly nothing wrong with presenting a collection that is almost wholly focused on the repertoire and technique associated with one genre (rembetika); nor is there anything wrong with presenting one artist as an exemplar of that style. Where the issue lies is in the assertion of “comprehensiveness” and representation of “popular and folk” within the context of an anthology. This collection states as much but falls well below the mark when such an assertion and representation could easily be accomplished given the number of advanced collectors in Europe and America who have fine demotic collections.

Despite these critical flaws, there are some staggeringly beautiful recordings to be heard. Markos Vamvakaris’ Taxim Serf is profoundly confident and rapturous. Equally moving is D. Arapakis’ Memetis and Manolis Hiotis’ Giouzel Taxim. There are mistakes to be found in the annotations so the curious reader should double check the bewildering plethora of citations presented in staunch and exhaustive MLA fashion. For instance, the entry for Alexis Zoumbas, one of the finest folk violinists of the age, is fraught with error. He was born 29 September, 1883 (not 1880) and died 7 February, 1946 (not sometime in the 1930s), and he immigrated to the US in 1910 (not 1914). Other assertions about Zoumbas in the entry would have been dismissed as absurd if the very easily obtained documents concerning his life were consulted.

The sound quality of the two CDs containing the 42 tracks is good considering the wide variety of labels, time periods, and surface decay and compromise. Many of these recordings exist in very scarce quantities, so one should assume that a rigorous canvassing of rembetika collectors took place. With the criticisms and reservations above in mind, I would recommend this collection to those who wish to hear a curated sampling of Greek urban popular music. 


Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2014;45(1):105-107, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”