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 www.ARSC-audio.org.”