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Friday, January 03, 2003

Arts & Letters

The Future of Greek Popular Music - Part 3

Ola tha ta diagrapso




In the second part of this series (“The Future of Greek Popular Music: Globalization and its Discontents”), I referred to Ola tha ta diagrapso (I Reject Everything) by Giorgos Margaritis and 667 as the best work of Greek popular music to be produced in the last few years. The recording does not hesitate to display its sources and intentions. The opening track, an adaptation of Camper van Beethoven’s Opening Theme, is the listener’s initial glimpse into the world constructed by producer Thodoris Manikas. To open a recording of one of Greece’s best-known popular singers with an adaptation of a song by the self-styled masters of “surrealist absurdist folk” is an intense and ambiguous experience, and one aimed at provoking distinct responses by the listener. It is also a risky proposition for a commercial product.

In discussing the opening track of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica (Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, p. 60), Langdon Winner argues:

Where most popular records try to entice listeners with a catchy riff in their opening few moments, this one begins with a rugged test of endurance. Beefheart’s Magic Band launches into a grating, off-center guitar line that sounds like a sawmill given a log too heavy to cut and slowly grinding itself to pieces….Beefheart openly entreats his listeners to leave “those old worlds, take my kind hand” and join him on his mission. Although its tone is anything but alluring, the invitation is explicit. Beefheart is not concerned to build bridges for his audience or to make it any easier for anyone to come along. Either you’re interested or you’re not.

That’s what the adaptation of Opening Theme feels like. There are no tricks, no unnecessary polish, no populist bent. Opening Theme is a straightforward proposition. You either jump into it or you don’t. It should come as no surprise that Manikas would choose Camper van Beethoven for the opening track of Ola tha ta diagrapso. Indie rock’s collage artists, the band was notorious for its ability to experiment with ska, country, folk, polka, and Hawaiian music, creating improbable and outrageous new sounds, and constructing its own defining characteristics. As I have mentioned in “Globalization and its Discontents,” Ola tha ta diagrapso is literally a collection of hundreds of different Greek folk, laika, reggae, pop, rock, and funk elements and expressions, brilliantly fused together to forge and articulate a new esthetic. Opening Theme marvelously anticipates and prepares for what is to follow musically.

The confluence of so many different musical elements might give the impression that the record lacks internal coherence. But Manikas masterfully taps into samples of sounds to construct a narrative and attain musical continuity. Traces of the melody in Opening Theme appear in the record’s second song, Echo apopse kaimo megalo (Tonight I Have A Great Yearning), which is built on the back of a folk melody. The original melody has been broken into many pieces and reconstructed with new textures subtly added. It is easy to accuse Manikas of being too smart, and Ola tha ta diagrapso as being nothing else but a vacuous and rather academic display of his vast musical knowledge and experience. The recording’s two opening tracks, however, quickly dispel any such notions. This work has nothing to do with opportunism or self-absorption. As the Opening Theme blasts its way along, one gets the feeling that all this is really about a bunch of guys with great interest in pleasure and having fun.

When I was in Athens last November, I had argued with a friend over Ola tha ta diagrapso. He had contended that the record’s cross-generational and cross-cultural appeal was problematic since the music was nothing else but a fat illusion effectively presented so as to appeal to a wide audience. His point reminded me of Greil Marcus’s reasoning in In the Fascist Bathroom (p. 298):

In the mainstream rock-n-roll of the mid sixties you could hear an eagerness to reach other people. In present-day mainstream pop music you can hear a confidence that people will be reached. But reached with what? With a proof that people can be easily reached.

Is Ola tha ta diagrapso just another example of easily reaching people or, to put it another way, of easily persuading them to buy whatever is served to them as long as the wrapping is appealing? I don’t think so. Ola tha ta diagrapso is much more than a fusion of different popular elements. The record’s takes on ska, reggae, folk, afro-beat, funk, and Greek folk and popular musical elements are difficult and complex, and they require great musicianship. The music is also infused with a rare sense of wit and wackiness, at least by Greek popular standards. This all makes it anything but easy listening. Finally, its use of other musical expressions and trends, which allow it to articulate its own personal esthetic and sound, creates an album of tremendous appeal.

The dominant presence of a producer such as Thodoris Manikas can be problematic, of course, since it can result in overproduction and, subsequently, a patronizing of singers and musicians. But Margaritis is not a typical singer. In a recording that is dominated by the anonymity of so many different musical elements and forms, Margaritis treats each song as his own personal story and never allows himself to disappear into the music. Nowhere in the CD is this more evident than Oi dromoi tou pouthena (The Streets To Nowhere). The song is framed by sounds that seem to have a permanent presence, brilliantly expressing the notion of meaningless and nothingness suggested in the lyrics. Margaritis’s singing in this particular piece manages to stand outside the music. He adopts a tone that suggests that he has his own presence, independent of the music and its requirements.

Methismena deilina (Drunken Sunsets) is a haunting song. It has rightly been called one of the best Greek popular songs of the last few years. Its textures and moods tentatively recreate the heartbreaking plight of loneliness. As the dark guitar sound and Margaritis’s voice roll out, the listener begins to feel the anguish of solitude and the bruises inflicted by it.

It is appropriate that Pou tha pas, chara mou (Where Will You Go, My Sweetheart) occupies the middle of the recording. The song anchors Ola tha ta diagrapso since it clearly articulates the musical essence that the producer, singer, and band attempt to bring to the recording: a work that rhythmically transcends boundaries; that borrows from soul, reggae, funk, or afro-beat, while at the same time managing to maintain its hold on a foundation built on the Greek popular musical tradition. Manikas surveys what other very successful popular singers are doing, and goes in exactly the opposite direction. This is not the usual frothy and syrupy mix of rhythms, tunes, and genres. Pou tha pas, chara mou is fusion that bites, and its reggae rhythms are infectious.

The rest of the CD seems to come closer to what I perceive Greek popular (laiki) music to be, although there is enough room for other rhythms and styles. I will focus on the tenth song, however, Den zitao tin kalosyne (I’m Not Asking For Kindness). There is an unwritten rule in judging music that stipulates that what is good is determined by how long it stays on one’s record, tape, or CD player. Objectively, Den zitao tin kalosyne might not be the “best” song on the album, but I’ve listened to it four or five times every day now for over six months.

The song is an exceptional tale of uninhibited sexual desire and longing. It opens with a set of strings that ache and beg for sex. Margaritis then enters with a slow, powerful, affecting, and intimate voice, with burning lyrics that focus on the emotional effect of the banalities of everyday existence upon sexual pleasure. The song begs for pure sexual pleasure. It yearns for the rare magical moments when two bodies fully immersed in each other, sweat, and sheets are all there is. It pleads for a moment of pure sexual ecstasy. Still, it is not its sexual allusions that make the song so arresting in the end. After all, sexual references abound in popular music. It is rather its uncanny understanding of the virtual impossibility of attaining such moments, and of the complexities involved in doing so, that makes it feel so wrenchingly close, familiar, and, ultimately, painful.

In a year that had very little to offer from a musical perspective, Manikas, Margaritis, and 667 have not only given us by far the best album of the year, but also one of the most glorious Greek popular musical works of the last 15 years. Ola tha ta diagrapso is not only a musically adventurous effort, but, more than anything else, a profound attempt to break through the limbo that has plagued Greek popular music for so long. Ola tha ta diagrapso is daring, loud, funny, intimate, beautifully wacky, and lucid. It also signifies a process through which contemporary Greek popular music can begin to emerge from its current degenerate state, as it expresses an original and dynamic sound comparable to some of the great laika tragoudia of the past.

In addition to being a co-founder of greekworks.com, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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