BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
George Pissalides profiles Eleftheria Arvanitaki, one of the great modern roots voices of Greece
How does a singer represent the music of her country in a particular period of time? In cultural terms, Greece has always existed between two worlds, but very wisely never chose between them. For the last fifteen years the music that Eleftheria Arvanitaki has been singing embodies in the most essential way a country whose past is steeped in the Orient, but at the same time tends to look towards the West. Either as a solo artist, or with her earlier group Opisthodromiki Kompania in the '80s, her work is the amalgamation of the best of the two worlds. Her exciting, expressive voice made her a favorite with many talented songwriters that helped her fulfill her artistic vision. Born in Athens in 1958, but raised in the Kallipoli district of Piraeus, Eleftheria was always very musical.
In her teens she never dreamed of becoming a singer. Her life would change forever in the summer of 1979 when she met Angelos Sfakianakis, Yiannis Emmanouilidis and Stratos Stratigopoulos, three long-haired neo-remfaetes who comprised the core of what later was called Opisthodromiki [Retrograde] Kompania. These were amateur, wandering musicians who played in Athens taverns for whatever money patrons would offer. During one of their ramblings on the island of Skopelos the trio found Eleftheria in a tavern singing for friends. Sitting at a nearby table and impressed by her voice, they asked her to join them in a couple of songs that finally lasted the whole night. The trio continued their travels around the Greek islands. On their way back to Athens they were 'discovered' by Dionysis Savopoulos (FR15Q). Savopoulos liked their music and their ethos and suggested they should play in a special program called Giganteorama held in a Plaka club that also included the folk revivalist/ archivist Domna Sarniou and trapeze artists.
They, thought that Eleftheria would suit the job and asked her to join them in the show. Eleftheria hesitated, but Sfakianakis persuaded her there was a bright future for them. It was at that point that the group took their name. Dionysis Savopoulos was so fascinated by Eleftheria that he declared that he had found one of the greatest Greek female singers ever. And their collaboration with Savopoulos skyrocketed the popularity of Opisthodromiki Kompania and their blend of rembetika. By the autumn of 1980, the group were back to their wanderings around Athens taverns, always appreciating the public who made them popular. Now much in demand, they were asked by the owners of small clubs and taverns to play on a regular basis. By now the trio had turned into a seven-piece outfit comprising Eleftheria (vocals), Sfakianakis (baglama, percussions), Emmanouilidis (bouzouki), Stratos Stratigopoulos (guitar), Lambros Karelas (accordeon), Eleni Kalatzopoulou (klarino) and Thanassis Bamboros (bouzouki).
This allowed them to play not only the early rembetika but also the more contemporary sounds of Vassilis Tsitsanis and Manolis Hiotis who had infiltrated western influences into their music and stood as inspiration for Eleftheria, blending Greek roots music and Western styles. If we want to understand the importance of Opisthodromiki Kompania as rembetika revivalists, we should go back to the early '70s. Even during the days of the dictatorship, first intellectuals and later students started to rediscover and re- evaluate rembetika from the '20s and '30s, often known to Westerners as the 'Greek blues'. They started to hang out in the legendary Haramba Club where Vassilis Tsitsanis and Sotiria Bellou played nightly for an enthusiastic young audience. After the fall of the colonels and the restoration of democracy, collectors and archivists like Kostas Hadjidoulis, Spiros Papaioannou and Panos Dragoumis opened up their archives and compiled the first historic reissues. But the first revival movement was overshadowed by the overkill of contemporary political song. All that you could hear was the paean-like music of Mikis Theodorakis and Maria, Farantouri and the pseudo-Brechtian songs of Thanos Mikroutsikos.
These composers represented an anti- roots movement, current in the Greek left of the late '70s, that despised rembetika and laiki - hard bouzouki music - and turned to the Soviet Union and nuevo cancione for inspiration. It may sound strange but K.K.E. was the only Communist party in the world that attacked peoples' music. K.K.E., the Greek Communist Party, then the most popular students' union, denounced rembetika as "a retrograde and reactionary product of the bourgeois society". But there was a section of Greek youth that showed disrespect towards music politics and went against the tide. They were mostly politically independent or neo- hippies belonging to the non-parliamentary left (Maoists). They were tuned in to American rock of the late '60s and also blues, to which they usually compared rembetika, Two of them were Sfakianakis and Emmanouilidis who exchanged their guitars for bouzouki and baglama. They preferred the early rembetika of Markos Vamvakaris and George Satis to the political songs of the times.
They took their name Opisthodromiki Kompania both out of their love for the music of the past, and as a joke against K.K.E. and its opinion of rembetika. But what was it that attracted them to rembetika written forty years before their time? Eleftheria remembers: "It was the forthrightness, unadorned simplicity and outspokenness of the genre. Rembetika was the greatness of uncomplicated words and lyrics. Both melodies and lyrics were very simple and rich in meaning." "The themes of the songs concerned a particular subculture, a part of Greek society that remained purposely unknown to us. You see, the Communist Party always discounted it as the music of society's rejects, and the middle-class frowned on it and preferred Greek light and semi-classical music of the time. Our generation started rediscovering and re-evaluating not only rembetika but also smyrneika (from the Greek Orient) and started to see it from a new perspective without looking at it suspiciously or trying to marginalize it, as happened in the past." "Our aim was to unearth all these great songs, presenting them in a new way because we belonged to the '80s and not the '30s. But because these are classic songs and a part of our tradition and upbringing, these songs matter even today. Through rembetika we got to know Greek history troublesome period of Greek society that we did not know. Personally, I learned about the history of Hellenism in Asia Minor that was never well taught in school. Through music, I learned things that I would otherwise have learned very differently."
Opisthodromiki Kompania was a part of a back-to- roots movement that happened not only in Greece but also throughout Europe. Even so, nowhere in the world do the youth dance to the music of their grandparents every night. According to Sfankianakis, Opisthodromiki was modeled after Italian roots bands such as Nuevo Compaρνa Di Canto Populaire that revived folk and popular music. But they did not stick to rembetika. Their repertoire also included the laiki classics of the '50s and '60s and the current laikodimotiko hits (a mixture of Greek folk and laiki) of Makis Christodoulopoulos. In 1981, they got tremendous exposure when Savopoulos asked Hadjidakis - one of the best-known modern Greek composers - to check them out. Hadjidakis liked them at first hearing, and invited them to guest at the first Music Competition of Corfu, which he had organized. Appearing just before final results were announced, they stole the show from all the boring singer- songwriters. The event was broadcast live on Greek State Television and the group became an overnight success. After that, they were signed to Lyra and their live debut St/s Xanthis, Sto Aeginitio Ke Sto Ocn/matagogo Kos Live At Xanthe's, Aeginitio Mental Hospital And Supply Ship Kos] (CD 3347) was produced by Dionysis Savopoulos. The album showcased the eclecticism of the group and was highlighted by the Ninou-like interpretations of Eleftheria and the fine voice of Lambros Karelas (who later left to join Ta Pedia Apo Tin Patra). It was an essential souvenir of the era, bringing a refreshing sound to the Greek scene of the early '80s, and is the album that Opisthodromiki Kompania is fondly remembered for. In 1982 the group, with a different line-up which included singer Theodoris Papadopoulos, moved to the Green Park Club. Their performances every night between October and May for three years became legendary, turning the group into an important part of Athens nightlife and of youth culture. In 1983 their second album, Mia Nichta Me Tin Opisthodromiki Kompania [A Night With Opisthodromiki Kompania] (CD3361) came out on Lyra. It was a superior eclectic album of laiki and rembetika standards.
It also indicated that Opisthodromiki Kompania was a superb live group that was better captured on stage rather than in the studio. In the period between the two albums Eleftheria found the time to participate in another important record. It was Nikos Mamagakis's Kentro Dierchomenon (Transit Station) based on the poems of the great Salσnica poet Yiorghos loannou. She also sang in Dνonysis Savopoulos' Trapezakia Exo (Little Tables On The Outside) and the group also participated in his historic concert in the Olympic Stadium in 1983 to celebrate both the release of the album and the twentieth anniversary of his career. For a long time the group opened the concerts of 'Nionios', and Savopoulos gave them equal billing. But while all this was going on, internal conflicts were developing. Angelos Sfankianakis remembers. "We worked like a commune for equal wages. But we suddenly realised that there were those for whom music was an ideology, and those who worked like public officials." Nobody was certain about the future of the group.
Many people suggested to Eleftheria that she should leave the group and follow a solo career. But she still hesitated, uncertain what her next step would be. Finally in 1984, she recorded a self-titled debut produced by Angelos Sfakianakis (CD3375). Once again she sang rembetika and laiki classics backed by members of Opisthodromiki Kompania and great musicians like Ross Daly and Vassilis Saleas. For the first time she sang smyrneika classics like "I’ll Break Cups". There was also "My Suffering Heart", an Indian-style song from the soundtrack of Mother India. which was covered in Greece by Voula Palla. (In 1960 after the huge success of Mother India, there were hundreds of Greek songs which were inspired by or even imitated Bollywood music. They were called Omonia Sound' or indogyftika - indiagypsy - songs by the middle-class. Eleftheria's version of the song restored the reputation of the genre to a new audience.) In 1985 the group released a final album, Stin Mesi Tis Kompanias [In The Middle Of Compania] (CD3393). For the first time the music was exclusively laiki. They covered Akis Panou's Tell The Truth and also started writing original material, like The i/if/etacebyTheodoris Papadopoulos, a huge hit for the the group and stilt a favourite among Eleftheria's fans.
But at the end of the year the group disbanded. A whole era of Greek music was coming to an end- Most of the young rembetika/laiki kompanias had disbanded by 1987. Eleftheria pursued an ever more successful solo career. Angelos Sfakianakis was much in demand as a producer for Lyra. Three years later he, Theodoris Papadopoulos and Yiannis Emmanouilidis reunited as a trio under the name of Opisthodromiki and still release good time albums. After the group broke up, Eleftheria. This gave her the opportunity to guest on albums by some of the best songwriters in Greece. These albums, recorded between 1985 and 1989, include with Stavros Logarides on the George Zikas-composed set of contemporary laiki Me Ta Feggaria Hanomai [I Lose Myself On The Full Moon Nights} (now on Lyra CD 0129), Nikos Xidakis' soundtrack for the George Panoussopoulos film Mania (also on Lyra), and Stavros Kouyiomtzis and George Dalaras' Trelli Ke Angelν (Madmen And Angela) on Minos-EMI. From this last came Red Dress, one of her biggest hits. It is still played in those Greek discos which include a Greek special hour in their programmes - the so-called hellinikadika, cheap music bars, where the DJ spins laiki classics as well as today's glitzy hits for a dancing crowd. η 1986 Eleftheria released one of the most important albums of her career. Contrabando (Lyra CD3433) was a collaboration with the great entechno composer Stamatis Spanoudakis, produced once again by Angelos Sfakianakis. [Mikis Theodorakis coined the word 'entechno1-translated as'artful' - when he set Yiannis Ritsos's Epitaphios (Funeral) to music with western-styled arrangements of zeimbekiko dances]. Contrabando was a collection of roots-influenced, synth-based entechno songs. Spanoudakis wrote folk, laiki and rembetika rhythms and enriched the songs with the synthesizer. The album was a fine blend of the West and the Orient with a Western pop approach and from this point of view. Contrabando is radical.
But what attracted Eleftheria to collaborate with Spanoudakis? "Contrabando was a big risk. Until then, people considered me a laiki singer and rembetika was the laiki music of its time. Spanoudakis loves laiki music. His music also follows the European tradition. music that always excited me was the collaboration between Ravi Shankar and George Harrison, and generally the songs of the Beatles that were influenced by Indian music. This music had a significance for me and I always wanted to follow a similar path." In 1987 Eleftheria participated in one of the milestones of modern Greek music. It was Nikos Xidakis's Konda Stin Doxa Mia Stigmi (Close To Glory For Just A Minute) CD3460). It was an excellent collection of introspective laiki and entechno songs based on Byzantine folk and Greek music from Asia Minor from the pre-1922 period, including Ross Daly among the musicians. Eleftheria comments: "Of all the albums in which I collaborated, Konda Stin a Mia Stigmi was the one that was closer to the work I had done on smyrneika and rembetika. For me it's one of the most important albums of the last decade." Indeed, The Rough Guide To World Music calls it "one of the best Greek discs of the last 20 years". Two years later, in 1989, Eleftheria switched to Polygram Greece, and released Tanirama (CD 841844), her second collaboration with Stamatis Spanoudakis. The album was less synth-based and it was weak in comparison to Contrabando. She also appeared on Savopoulos's controversial album To Kourema (The Haircut) and appeared in his shows in Plaka. Savopoulos introduced her, paraphrasing a famous slogan of the student riots of 1973, "Bread, Education, Eleftheria Arvanitaki" (Eleftheria is Greek for 'freedom'). In 1992 came Meno Echtos (I Live Outside The City) (Polygram CD 849303}, an album with songs written by Christos Nikolopoulos, George Zikas and Nikos Xidakis. But, most important, it included Greek versions of American new-age/ ethno-jazz group Night Ark's Picture and Homecoming, written by Armeno-American oud player Ara Dinkjian. How did this collaboration really start? "It was radio DJ Xenophontas Rarakos who handed me Night Ark's CD and suggested that I should interpret the two songs. Starting from those two songs I made Meno Ektos.
After that I tried to contact Ara Dinkjian, Night Ark's main songwriter. I wrote him a letter telling him who I was, and I also sent him the CD so he could listen to my versions of the songs. I invited him to Greece and I discovered that he's a great collector of Greek traditional music and that he had played with the great folk clarinettist Petro-Lukas Halkias in the States. I discovered that we have common music roots and we are influenced by music in the same way. That's how I started a close friendship with Ara Dinkjian which still exists today." In 1994 the album Ta Kormia Ke Ta Maheria (The Bodies And The Knives) (Polygram CDS27059) was released. It marked the culmination of Greek-Armenian collaboration between Arvanitaki and Ara Dinkjian. For this album, she specially invited Dinkjian (oud, cumbus and saz) and the percussionist Arto Tuncboyaci, the second half of Night Ark's songwriting team, to play in the studio. The Academy- award-winning poet/lyricist Michalis Ganas wrote the lyrics for most of the songs. Eleftheria remembers. "Originally we planned to include three or four songs in the album. But Ara brought more material than I expected, and we decided to make an album out of it. In this album there were three people of different musical backgrounds. There was Ara Dinkjian with his Armenian roots; me, with all the work 1 had done all these years; and finally Dimitns Papadimitriou, who is a great classically- trained entechno composer, but who at the same time has a great knowledge of Greek traditional music.
The sound of the album was an amalgamation of all these influences. It would sound very different had Ara worked alone on the album, and I don't think Papadimitriou would ever have written those songs. Maybe he would, but not in the same way you hear on the album. The album kicks off with an Armenian song, Blow My Soul. It includes some of the best lyrics on the album; "You, my body made of clay / And you, my wooden klarino / Who is he that keeps us in this dance? / Is there anybody who dreams of us / and cares about us? / and when he awakes will he recognise us? / Or will he turn to the other side?" The track was later included on Charlie Gillet's compilation And The World's All Yours (Debutante). An important factor in the final success of the album were the arrangements of Dimitris Papadimitriou. I asked him how much Greek music existed in the original compositions and how much he had modified them to give a Greek sound. "We had a musical co-existence on the album. Ara and Arto played their parts in this collaboration. The arrangements kept some elements that are distinctively Greek. Greece is closer to Europe, so there were also European (tonal} elements in the arrangements. Since the compositions were written by a musician who is culturally both Armenian and American at the same time, there were American elements in his music. It is not strictly Armenian; there are ethno- jazz influences. He sent me songs in which he had already written the arrangements but I had to rearrange them. In these I made the minimum modifications excluding the elements that are closer to ethno-jazz than Armenian traditional music. In other songs where there were no pre-existing arrangements I followed a Greek path.
I used harmonies that you can hear in Greek folk music. I worked as a Greek musician, knowing that the album was aimed at a Greek audience. I wanted to show that there is a cultural and musical bridge between Greek and Armenian civilisations rather than show their differences." The Bodies And The Knives was probably the most important album in Eleftheria'ssolo career. Not only was it a great album but it very soon went platinum. In the summer of 1995 Eleftheria toured Greece with Ara Dinkjian, Arto Tuncboyaci and her regular band. The culmination of the tour were two dates n Athens' Rocky Shadow Festival. The event was filmed and recorded and a mini-LP was released. It included a three-part instrumental piece (Imprevisiσn With Oud, Tamzara, Greek Thracian Dance) and their versions of Picture and Homecoming. Freed from the entechno arrangements of the studio, the two songs came closer to the original and the Armenian tradition than Greek rootsy entechno. This mini-LP (Polygram 5778712) is as essential as The Bodies And The Knives and best represents the Greek-Armenian collaboration between Eleftheria and Night Ark. leftheria spent most of 1996 out of the public view, dedicating her time to her second pregnancy and recording her next album, Tragoudia Gia Tous Mynes [Songs For The Months] (Polygram 537052}, written by Dimitris Papadimitriou. It is a collection of entechno songs based on poems written by Odysseas Elytis, Costas Karyotakis and Maria Polydouri. The two last poets were the foremost representatives of Greek Neo-Romanticism of the mid-war period. There are also songs based on folk disticha (Disticha were songs comprised of only two lines in which the whole meaning is enveloped). How did Eleftheria decide to work on an album with poetry-made-music? "We had not planned to do it. Back in 1993, the time when we collaborated on the TV soundtrack of Anastasia (Polygram CD 521638), Papadimitriou played me one song from the album.
It was Elytis's The Complaint. Dimitris and I decided to make an album based on lyrics written by poets more suitable to sing. The four poems of Odysseas Elytis come from his collection The R's Of Eros. In the introduction to the book he had written that these poems were to be sung just accompanied by a guitar. Of course we used more than just a guitar!" Dimitris Papadimitriou adds: "We sent Elytis's songs to his companion, Julietta tliopoulou (also a poet}. During this period Elytis was writing an important book, that was destined to be his last one. Julietta told us that Elytis had listened to the songs, he had approved them and he expressed his wish for more poems to be set to music. / Told You About The Clouds is rooted n the folk tradition of the island of Lesbos (the birthplace of Elytis). I wrote a percussion- based folk melody because I wanted to express Greek paganism, that is the personification of the forces of nature, connected with twelve gods." "1 used the same approach also to the poem of Karyotakis. He was a romantic poet. Romanticism has to do with the cult of the exotic, and it glorifies the dark side of the self, the passions. Greek Romanticism was considered to be an imported movement, but that's not true. Rembetika was the Greek Romanticism on a musical level.
The outlaws, hashish-smoking rembetes, were the Greek proletariat underclass that was admired for its dark side. Karyotakis was aware of this kind of music. In one of his poems he refers to the kind of music two friends danced to in a taverna. In a second poem he talks about 'amanedes heard in the organ grinder'. So I wrote a song that would express the memory of such kind of music." Finally, I asked Eleftheria where, after working on all these albums, she believed Greece belongs? To the West or the Orient? "Personally I don't care for this kind of dilemma. We belong to ourselves, and this is a very multi-dimensional and multi- faceted thing. Our music and culture belongs to Greece and eastward." Recommended Recordings: 1980s: a fine selection of tracks from all of Eleftheria's Lyra albums, including those with Opisthodromiki Kompania, Nikos Xidakis (from Konta Stin Doxas Mia Stigmi), Stavros Logarides (from Me Ta Feggaria Hanomai) and Stamatis Spanoudakis (from Contrabando) are on her 'Greatest Hits' double CD Stin Archin Tou Tragoudiou [At The Beginning Of The Song] on Lyra 4883/4. 1990s: Ta Kormia Ke Ta Maheria [The Bodies & The Knives} (Polygram CD 527059) and the Live At Brahous EP (Polygram 5778712) are also particularly recommended by the Folk Roots editorial staff. All of Eleftheria's back catalogue on CD, including the many collaborations, are available in the UK from Trehantiri, 356-357 Green Lanes, London N4 1DY, Tel/Fax 0181 802 6530. (Thanks to Trehantiri for additional help with this feature, and for first introducing us to the magic of Eleftheria in the late '80s via the Stavros Logarides and Nikos Xidakis collaborations.) Stop Press: There were unconfirmed rumours at press time that a major UK date would be added to Eleftheria's European tour taking place in November.
Folk Roots Magazine (UK), November 1997