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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Arts & Letters

Tradition Is Not Enough: Rebetika Revisited

As part of their fifth annual Greek festival, New York City’s World Music Institute and its partner, ADaM Productions, hosted a concert (held at Symphony Space on April 16) dedicated to a constellation of legends: the women of rebetika. Roza Eskenazy (Mes’tou Manthou to teke), Rita Abatzê (Kalogria), Marika Papagika (O logos): these names are legendary to generations of fans, even those who are lifetimes (both chronologically and sociologically) removed from the 1920s hash dens of Athens, Piraeus, and Thessalonikê. Revisiting this music were two contemporary singers, Mariô and Gioulê Tsirou. Mariô’s last New York appearance was a solo concert four years ago; this time, she appeared alongside the young singer Tsirou to survey some iconic rebetika selections spanning the 1930s to 1950s.

Mariô (dubbed in her publicity materials as “the living legend of rebetika”) began singing and playing accordion at thirteen. She then went on to perform rebetika and laika, including a stint with Markos Vamvakarês, one of the great rebetes of the style’s golden age. Tsirou’s career, thus far, has largely been as an accompanying singer; she has worked with such artists as Eleutheria Arvanitakê and Manôlês Mêtsias, as well as having shared stages with Iôanna Geôrgakopoulou (Psêlê vrochoula epiase) and Anna Chrysafê (Ein’adikia, ein’adikia). For this New York performance, the two singers were accompanied by a very fine ensemble, with Dêmêtris Livanos on bouzouki and lafta, violinist Kyriakos Gouventas, guitarist Giannes Papagiannopoulos, baglama and tzoura player Thanasês Boukouvalas, and pianist and accordionist Panagiôtês Papageôrgiou.

As the evening soon made clear, however, tribute concerts are dangerous things. On the one hand, the performers (and promoters, for that matter) count on the goodwill of their audiences. Success does not necessarily depend on the gifts of the performers; instead, these events are meant to tap into the listeners’ deeply rooted yearning to recapture the exhilaration of first hearing these songs, whether that first time was sitting in some smoky club or curled up on a living-room couch. It doesn’t matter, really, who’s on stage: the sense of camaraderie, of shared love and admiration, washes away expectations. On this evening, the Symphony Space audience was certainly primed to have a good time: a crowd of obviously well-heeled Greek Americans, many of a certain age, started their obligatory clap-along as soon as the first taximi kicked in to a regular rhythm.

On the other hand, it’s impossible to hear recreations of great performances without the echoes of the original whispering in your ear — and that’s precisely the issue that bedeviled this particular concert. Neither Mariô nor Tsirou are very compelling performers, either in terms of technical command or emotional range. Neither have particularly good vocal skills. (Mariô was once better in this regard, but time has definitely taken its toll.) Although rebetika are not a classical style per se, they are quite demanding technically, bearing obvious stylistic parallels to Turkish and Arabic classical forms. A large part of rebetika’s beauty are their ornate vocal ornamentation, which range from coy glides to curling arabesques to pyrotechnic runs — and neither the so-called “living legend” nor her protégé could manage these displays of singing prowess. Tsirou swallowed her notes and had poor enunciation. Mariô shouted her way through most of the concert, frequently lost sight of the songs’ makams (modes, also known in Greek as dromoi, or “roads”), and often descended into unknown pitch terrain, occasionally accompanying herself arhythmically on zills.

As such, it was impossible to hear songs like “Tha spasô koupes” (originally sung by Marika Papagika), Kôstas Tzovenos’s “Enas mangas ston teke mou” (first recorded by Marika Kanaropoulou), or Vasilês Tsitsanês’s “Apopse kaneis bam” (first recorded by Sôtêria Bellou (Laiko tsigaro)) and not wish that you were at home surrounded by piles of records and CDs instead of seated in a darkened concert hall. For example, near the beginning of the concert, Tsirou launched into one of the best-known of all rebetika, “Chariklaki,” a 1930 song by Panagiôtês Tountas that was memorably recorded by Roza Eskenazy. It was hard not to compare Tsirou — whose pitch, like her delivery, wore flatter and flatter as the tune unfolded — to the great Roza, who recorded “Chariklaki” as a very young woman with amazing vocal agility and again in the 1950s with far more coquettishness and sizzle than the younger Tsirou could now manage in her (ostensible) prime.

This leads us to the other side of Mariô and Tsirou’s disappointing performance. Rebetika were born in mean streets, alongside poverty, crime, and despair. Lyrically, it’s powerful stuff: these are ballads of hash dens and deserted lovers, plaintive love cries to tough guys and girls hardened by the realities of life, and nostalgic odes to places long left behind. But neither Mariô nor Tsirou deigned to explore these depths; instead, they chose to cruise through the songs, barely hinting at the emotions within. (Mariô’s onstage persona as a prim giagia clad in a respectable pantsuit and sparkly brooch — as if she were on her way to a ladies’ auxiliary luncheon — did nothing to enhance the mood.)

Of all rebetika forms, the laments known as amanedes are as much improvisational vehicles as they are platforms for showing off virtuosic technical skills. Words such as “aman” (“mercy” in Turkish) become the springboard for extended improvisations in a given makam. Tsirou’s attempt at a traditional amane, a Hijaz mane, first recorded in 1934 by Marika Kanaropoulou, was no more than a bland repetition of Kanaropoulou’s recording. The one spot of vocal brightness came when Mariô sang another traditional amane, “Laledakia” (first recorded by Rita Abatzê), whose lyrics center on the ache for a home long since left behind. It was the one song in an extended set of nearly 30 tunes in which the singer seemed to connect emotionally with her material — apparently, more overtly melancholic lyrics suit her best.

Interestingly enough, the most perceptive and accomplished performances came courtesy of the instrumental accompanists. “Ta paidia tês geitonias sou,” first recorded by Marika Papagika in 1928 and sung here by Mariô, was listless, save for an exquisite lafta solo by Dêmêtris Livanos. Beautifully phrased and lovingly performed, Livanos’s solo excursion was in complete contrast to Mariô’s perfunctory, careless singing. This welcome surprise was shortly followed by an equally mesmerizing turn by Kyriakos Gouventas, whose sobbingly descending lines in Tountas’s song, “Lilê ê skandalaria,” far outshone Tsirou’s solos. Pianist and accordionist Panagiôtês Papageôrgiou also had some nicely bluesy solos (and his vocal accompaniment, though not credited in the program, was also a fine addition to the evening).

It’s frequently noted that rebetika bear quite a bit of similarity to Portuguese fado, Argentinean tango, Spanish flamenco, and, some argue, American blues. But even fado, the most uncommon of these forms, draws a larger and more mainstream audience these days than rebetika do. Why is this?

This concert, unfortunately, answers the question — at least in part. First, there was no attempt to explain or contextualize these songs for neophytes, except for some brief program notes on the rebetika style from noted author (and contributor) Gail Holst-Warhaft, as well as some mini-bios of the great, original, golden-age divas (Abatzê, Bellou, Eskenazy, and so on). There were also no translations of the songs’ lyrics — if you didn’t speak Greek, you were out of luck. Nor was there any thematic link to lead one selection to the next: songs were simply grouped in a vaguely chronological fashion. Surely such concerts can be performed in a more coherent and appealing way. Why not offer short synopses of some of the songs? Why not create thematic-set lists, to provide a conduit into the art form for those new to this music?

Second, the emotional emptiness of this rebetika concert was in stark contrast to other performances I’ve recently attended that featured the sibling forms of fado and flamenco. Recent years have seen a veritable blooming of stellar young vocalists eager to claim the traditional styles of fado, flamenco, and tango for their own. One prime example is the young fado singer, Mariza, who has lately been wowing audiences worldwide with her passionate and completely idiomatic performances of fado (which, just like rebetika, flourished from the 1920s to the 1950s). Another example is the young Spanish flamenco singer, Estrella Morente, who inherited the mantle of her father, the famed vocalist Enrique Morente. Her vital, soulful singing is transporting, and she’s earned international fans via the imprimatur of a record deal with Peter Gabriel’s Real World label.

Various listeners I spoke with after this concert uniformly agreed that Mariô was by no means the best choice for this music, but the general consensus was that the pickings these days are few and far between. The question then becomes: Where are the rebetika’s Mariza, their Morente? Are rebetika doomed to be a remnant of a faraway past, whose dramas, passions, and great singing are more or less irretrievable? Surely, somewhere, there must be at least one talented young artist who understands the demands of this music and can spirit it away from the tattered and bleached ruins in which it currently lies.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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