Music is as much a part of being in Greece as ocean and sunshine and tomato salads in summer, and wherever there are people gathered outside the home there is usually music. Turn a corner, walk past a cafe, sit in a harbor or on a boat, inside a taverna or outside on summer nights and there will be a melody playing somewhere in the background. The songs of the present or of times long past form part of a musical sound track to life in Greece that is just as natural as the crickets chirping or the waves washing up to the shore.
My original impulse in putting up a music section was simply to offer a few recorded tunes that I’ve loved at some point, not to educate anyone on Greek music, because I am not educated in that way at all. I’ve let Greek music float through my experience in a very relaxed way, not paying attention to names of songs and singers, and now am almost embarrassed at how little I know, given the time I’ve spent there and how much I’ve enjoyed it. The few artists and songs that I do know are here mainly because my Greek friends knew and loved them, or because they were the song of a certain year and on the radio all the time.
On the other hand, a couple friends do know quite a bit about it, and it seems silly not to share their knowledge, so what you’ll get here, along with some of the songs that I’ve liked, is a little bit of background on the music and musicians.
Around the time of my first trip to Greece, young Greeks began to take an interest in the older, urban popular music, rebetika, and a revival of those old songs began, which is still going strong today. I first came to know those songs from hearing them played by younger musicians rediscovering them, and only later heard the original tapes or saw the old musicians on black-and-white footage, or in their final years as they were brought back to appear on Greek TV. For years i carried around a tape of my friends on Skopelos singing one of the songs I loved the most, “Ta Ziliarika Sou Matia” (“Your Jealous Eyes”). I had no idea where the song came from, and even though I loved the sound and feel of it, I could never really figure out what a lot of the words meant. Now that I’ve read the online translations, I don’t feel so bad about that, because the ones I’ve read don’t make much sense in English. We just know that she’s crazy jealous because she loves him. But it turns out that the song is from 1936, from Markos Vamvakaris, one of the very, very great old timers, the one most people consider the greatest. And now there is the Internet, and you can find more of him if you’re so inclined.
Along with the urban music that everyone loves, there’s the rural music of Greece, the music played in the countryside. That’s something I’ve heard less often, the sound of the lone gaida (Greek bagpipe) player, or the town musicians with their violins who play for local functions, and then on Greek TV, especially around Easter time, there is a lot of traditional dance shown, along with the music of each region, and some of that music, especially from the Pontic region, is very appealing to me, ancient, high-pitched, alive, so I’ve included something from there.
Like everything else on this site, it’s just my personal, random, nonprofessional taste. But as a brilliant Sean Penn tells us in one of my favorite Woody Allen movies, “Well, that’s all right. Music is for everybody.”
“Ta Ziliarika Sou Matia” (“Your Jealous Eyes”) by Markos Vamvakaris, 1936
This was the first rebetika song that I came to know and love, and of course part of that came about because I first heard friends singing it often in one of the loveliest tavernas I’ve been to in Greece, the Delhina in Skopelos. Here’s an audio recording of Yiorgos Xintaris, Kostas Kalafatis, and Nikos, also from Skopelos, whose last name I don’t remember, playing it for Greek television in the 80s.
Here’s the original by Markos Vamvakaris, recorded back in 1938. Not too different in style or feeling from the way the Skopelos guys are playing it, I think, though there seems to me a kind of deeper, heavier funk in the texture of the voices and instrumentals. There’s a documentary about Markos Vamvakaris, named after a remark he made, “I like hearts like mine,” and both rebetika books mentioned in the book section of this site give his story. There’s no doubt that Markos had a heart full of feeling, or that he lived, completely, the life he wrote and sang about. Born in 1905 on the island of Syros, he came to Pireaus in 1920, fleeing the police, and around 1925 he first heard the bouzouki. In six months he was playing, living the life of a rebetis, and he remained a rebetis, musician, and composer for the rest of his life, through good times and bad, leaving behind songs still played, recorded, and loved today.
“Aeroplano Tha Paro” (“I’ll Take an Airplane”) by Panayiotis Toundas, 1933
“Aeroplano Tha Paro” (“I’ll Take an Airplane”) was written by Panayiotis Toundas in 1933, and it’s still being sung and recorded today. Toundas came to Athens from Smyrna in 1924 and became, first, the director of the Athens branch of Odeon Records, and then in 1934 the art director for Columbia Records in Athens. A musician himself, he wrote and produced a number of early popular Greek songs, including but not limited to early rebetika, and he wrote many songs for Rosa Eskanazi, a hugely popular artist of that era.
Rosa, who sang Greek folk music as well as rebetika, was born in Istanbul, and her family moved to Thessalonika sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. She is definitely a voice from another age, and there is a very enjoyable and interesting documentary film about her life and times, My Sweet Canary, if you are interested in her. Here is an early recording of “Aeroplano Tha Paro” by Rosa and Stelios Perpiniadis. The lyrics tell us that someone is taking an airplane, leaving forever for America, where they will find someone else and be happy together, flush with dollars. Ah, the golden dream of another time.
“Synnifiasmeni Kiriaki” (“Cloudy Sunday”) by Vassilis Tsitsanis, 1941
Vassilis Tsitsanis, probably the most famous and popular musician/composer in rebetika history, was born only ten years after Markos Vamvakaris, but he came from a totally different world. When he first left his home in Trikala (central Greece), it was to come to Athens as a law student at the university, and although he soon left his studies to become a full-time musician, making his first recording in 1937, by then the world had changed a little and rebetika was not just the music of the underworld. By the time the war was over, rebetika songs were no longer mostly about hashish, prison, or the mangas life, and the new songs Tsitsanis wrote carried the influence of European popular music.
“Cloudy Sunday,” a song that became a sort of anthem for occupied Greece, wasn’t recorded until 1948, but it was written and sung during the German occupation, supposedly sometimes right under their noses, and I can certainly believe that because even after I understood the lyrics, I wouldn’t have thought of this as a defiant or war-related song. It’s a quiet lament to Christ and the Virgin, a remarking of how a cloudy day reminds us of lost joy, a darkened life, a bleeding heart, and yet it’s not tragic. There’s life here, something to carry on with, a song to sing.
Back in the day, Tsitsanis’ songs were often sung by better vocalists than he was, most notably the incredible Sotiria Bellou and the more sensous Marika Ninou, but this version of Cloudy Sunday is sung by Tsitsanis himself, and I think it’s good to hear his voice, especially on this song.
“Rita Ritaki” (“Rita, Little Rita”) by Haris and Panos Katsimihas
In the mid-eighties I spent a lot of time in Athens, and one summer the song “Rita Ritaki” was on the radio everywhere. It had such an old-time rock and roll feel to it and was so happy and fun that I became quite fond of it and ended up buying the cassette it was on, Zesta Pota (which means hot drink). The cassette cover shows the two brothers—who happen to be twins—standing outside at night in front of a hot beverage machine, the kind you drop coins into. Anyhow, I came to love the whole tape, still have it and listen to it sometimes, and wanted to include these two songs.
“Rita Ritaki” is the song of a forty-five-year-old guy, who was looking for trouble he says, and found it by falling in love with eighteen-year-old Rita, who led him on a bit of a chase. The song begins with a little poem, saying more or less that the river runs after the sea, the poet after the muse, the wave toward the shore, but the singer is standing still, waiting for someone who has left him there again, alone and stood up at the rendezvous point.
“Mia Vradia sto Louki” by Haris and Panos Katsimihas
This song brought the brothers to public attention a few years earlier, when it won them a music competition in Corfu. Closer in tone to the other songs I’ve heard by them, it’s melancholic, lyrical, and feels like it’s been sung forever. I knew older Greek people (in their eighties back then) who totally didn’t get “Rita Ritaki” but loved the other songs. “Greek songs,” an old man said to me proudly one night when these guys were on TV. They feel that way to me, too.
“Ekaen Kai To Tsabasin” (“Tsabasin Was Also Burnt”)
Sung by Sofia Sinopoulou,
From the Album Guardians of Hellenism: Pontos, Cappadocia
One year in Skopelos I saw a folk dance troupe perform Pontic dances and was quite taken with them. Around the same time I’d started to notice that when the Greek TV stations played holiday music it was the Pontic music my ears perked up for, and that’s really about all I know. The music sounds ancient to me, wild and emotional.
The Pontus, the region around the southern coastline of the Black Sea, was settled by Greeks in ancient times. Over centuries empires rose and fell, boundaries shifted, and still Pontic Greeks remained in the area until finally in 1923, after many struggles and sufferings, they were expelled from Turkey as part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. As defined by the Treaty of Lausanne, they were “returned” to their own country, but by then they had lived in the Pontus for nearly three thousand years and the Pontian dialect was not even understandable to twentieth-century Athenians.
Now there are about two million Pontic Greeks living in Greece, mainly in Athens, Macedonia, and Thrace, and they still mourn the loss of their land and guard their culture proudly. Pontic music is said to retain elements of the musical traditions of Ancient Greece, Byzantium, and the Caucasus (especially from the region of Kars) and may be influenced as well by the music of the Pontus’ earlier inhabitants.
Here is an old lament for one of the destroyed villages of the Pontus.