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Monday, December 02, 2002

Arts & Letters

The Future of Greek Popular Music - Part 2

Globalization and its Discontents

In the first part of this article, (The Future of Greek Popular Music: Missing in Action), I described Greek popular music from the Fifties to the Seventies as a cultural milieu arising from a particular set of social, political, and formal conditions. We can certainly consider the laiko tragoudi as one of the most fundamental expressions of an entire set of new social experiences. It was a vibrant popular form stimulated by the urbanization and industrialization of Greek society, and the subsequent class stratification that resulted. Although it was disseminated through the radio, cinema, and commercial recordings, it did not originate in recording studios, and it was not an artistic movement. The laiko tragoudi was a working-class, grass-roots movement emerging out of working-class neighborhoods in the country’s urban centers, and it articulated the various aspects of everyday life.

The increasing development of different class arrangements in the Eighties, however, characterized by the growth of an enormous and amorphous middle class, necessitated a different response to popular music, and the beginning of the end of the laiko tragoudi. People began to identify themselves through and with different musical expressions. As I noted in “Missing in Action,” the issue is not people’s identification with a different musical style, since what defines popular music is its relevance to the social environment of the audience that chooses to engage with it. The issue is the fact that the new musical expressions that replaced the laiko tragoudi, and have constituted what is considered Greek popular music for the last 10-15 years, are of such low quality.

Martin Stokes has written (in Ethnicity, Identity, and Music: The Musical Construction of Place, p. 3) that music “evokes and organizes collective memories and present experiences of place with an intensity, power and simplicity unmatched by any other social activity.” With different – and clearly distinct – socioeconomic strata in the Greek society of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, the laiko tragoudi became the voice through which the working class asserted its social identity. The more the laiko tragoudi was embraced as a form of cultural and social affirmation, the greater was the demand for it. Having grasped the public’s esthetic sensibilities, a number of great performers began unleashing some of the finest popular music ever recorded in Greece.

At the outset of the Eighties, however, as the major shift in both class identity and class reality in Greek society began to occur, clear-cut distinctions between different socioeconomic levels blurred, signifying the emergence of a different social configuration, marked by the gradual convergence of the center and the periphery in an enormous and (as a friend pointed out to me recently) artificial mass called the mikromesaioi. Within such an assimilative framework, much narrower and less flexible, the constant negotiation and reshaping of cultural expressions necessitated by continuous social, economic, political, and cultural changes ceased to exist. The laiko tragoudi was not a monolithic musical form. Its power and appeal resulted from its ability to be in continuous dialogue with its surrounding social, economic, and political conditions. The emergence of a monolithic middle class – and the corresponding diminution of ongoing social, economic, political, and cultural changes and developments – signaled, at the same time, the gradual decline and eventual disappearance of the popular musical genre known as the laiko tragoudi. Simply put, the conditions that had led to its rise had simply ceased to exist.

The laiko tragoudi has now been replaced by musical expressions characterized by dreary, misguided sounds and lyrics, bloated with unimaginative, second-hand, unoriginal, and repackaged elements. To many hearing the superficial assimilation of European pop music into what passes as Greek popular music today, it is globalization that is clearly to blame for the sorry state of the genre. If one looks closely at the music scene of countries with strong popular musical traditions such as Brazil (samba, bossa nova), and Mexico (mariachi, banda), however, it becomes immediately evident how important globalization is in understanding popular musical idioms today.

The continuous process of selecting, adapting, and appropriating musical elements other than local and endogenous ones to create new popular musical idioms and forms distinguishes both Brazilian and Mexican music. The result in both cases has been highly original hybrid forms. The case of Brazil and Mexico is quite important, in fact. The effects and realities of globalization are such today that they render it almost impossible for musicians to function within a local or national musical landscape alone. The continuous flow and presence of musical forms other than local ones have forever shifted the boundaries within which popular music functions today. The input into mainstream Brazilian and Mexican popular musical forms of non-local expressions became an opportunity to reexamine and reconstruct local identity and music in both cases. The initial engagement with the other has been followed by a return to the local. As Helena Simonett points out in her brilliant study of banda (Banda: Mexican Musical Life Across Borders, p. 87), the assimilation of musical forms other than Mexican ones into the banda genre resulted in a new musical form, technobanda, which has maintained its Mexicanness.

Because of the prevailing multicultural climate, and, maybe more importantly, because of the sheer number of Mexican newcomers, Mexican and Mexican American musicians no longer need to assimilate to the “superculture” (the American mainstream). The Los Angeles Mexican and Chicano musical landscape is not only heterogeneous but shifting as well. Neither concepts of intercultural conflict nor networks of marginality seem useful any longer as theoretical frameworks. Accelerating processes of globalization (“mass mediaization” and transmigration) challenge us to rethink our cultural concepts. What is needed when looking at contemporary musical landscapes is a mode of thinking that is open to these broader processes, one that includes at once the microworld and the global cultural flow, and that accounts for the complex interplay between local and overarching music systems. The (techno) banda phenomenon is probably the most striking example of the power and efficacy of a transregional subcultural sound. While Los Angeles’s spawning ground and local dynamics have been seminal in the unfolding of this music, a transnational culture industry involving big recording and entertainment companies north and south of the border catapulted technobanda out of the barrios. Yet…it seems that, in general, banda musicians consciously address Mexican (Spanish-speaking) audiences and do not aspire to penetrate the mainstream market. Banda Machos and other bands have become successful without giving up their Mexican identity. In fact, they are successful because of their Mexicanness.

In the case of Greek popular music, the issue is not the use of non-Greek musical forms, but rather the quality of such forms, and the process of their appropriation and assimilation. Listening to Greek popular music today leaves one with the impression that its creators and promoters are competing to introduce the ugliest global popular-music elements into their work. Furthermore, the process of inserting such global elements into one’s personal style is as vulgar, crude, and unimaginative as it can get. The combination of non-local with local musical idioms has utterly failed to create new and exciting material. In the process, however, the music has also lost its Greek identity. Indeed, to paraphrase Simonett, it is paradoxically because of its non-Greekness that contemporary Greek popular music has become so successful.

  Enter Giorgos Margaritis, Thodoris Manikas, 667, and their CD, Ola tha ta diagrapso. This recording constitutes by far the best work of Greek popular music to be produced in the last few years. It is important to point out that there have been other works of high quality in the past. Nikos Xydakis and Manolis Rassoulis have produced great music as well, but this particular work is very different. Not only does it articulate an original and dynamic sound analogous to some of the great laika tragoudia of the past, but it also constitutes a great example of music as an artistic space for the reception and confluence of different local and non-local cultural elements.

The record was brought to my attention by a friend, who had pointed to its enormous appeal to different types of audiences. Indeed, the music was a hit with both fans of the laiko tragoudi and old rokades (rockers). When I heard it for the first time, it became immediately clear to me why it has such cross-generational and cross-cultural appeal. It opens with a brilliant adaptation of a Camper van Beethoven song, one of the best and most influential New York bands (Take the Skinheads Bowling, etc.) of the Eighties. What follows is the establishment of a hybrid esthetic that manages to incorporate a global panorama within a local popular Greek framework.

The work is the result of a great collaborative effort. Giorgos Margaritis is what one would call in Greek a pure laike phone (popular voice), whose previous work wasn’t really of the quality to bring him the attention he deserves. The band 667 is made up of veteran musicians equally comfortable in articulating or mixing Greek and pop-musical elements and sounds. It is staggering how many different elements of the Greek folk and popular tradition converge in the recording’s twelve songs.

The work is the child of the producer, Thodoris Manikas. Manikas is not only a producer, journalist, and critic, but, most important (for those who know him), a compulsive collector of various things, from the oddest (chocolate wrappers) to the plainest. As such, his archives are legendary. To listen to his work in Ola tha ta diagrapso is to see the mind of an archivist and collector at work. The record is literally a collection of hundreds of different Greek folk, laika, reggae, pop, rock, and funk elements and expressions, brilliantly mixed together to forge and articulate a new esthetic. To listen to the final product is to hear years of experience and intimate knowledge of all these different musical forms at work.

Talking to Manikas at a recording studio in Athens about three weeks ago, it was interesting to hear how the record came to be. It was his idea, an attempt to empty his mind of years and years of musical experience. At a time when people rush to declare themselves experts in one thing or another, and to produce in fields that they barely comprehend, it is a pleasure to see someone emptying the file cabinets of his brain after years and years of careful accumulation and cataloguing. The results are obvious. One only has to hear Margaritis and 667. I just hope that Manikas has many more such files to empty, as it would be to the benefit of long-suffering Greek popular music. In the event, from what I heard in the recording studio in Ano Kipseli, Manikas has a few tricks left up his sleeve.

Next: Ola tha ta diagrapso

In addition to being a co-founder of, 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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