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Markos's ghost (rebetika)

Jon Corelis 22 Feb 12 - 07:41 PM
Nigel Parsons 23 Feb 12 - 07:01 AM
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Subject: Markos's ghost (rebetika)
From: Jon Corelis
Date: 22 Feb 12 - 07:41 PM

Here is a brief essay I wrote on rebetika artist Markos Vamvakaris which some people have said they liked.

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MARKOS'S GHOST

This world is a lie and our life is a lie,
since one day our body will go under the black earth.

Even the rich are worth nothing:
in a brief moment they'll go out like a candle.

We must rejoice in this lie of a life,
we must revel in it, however we find it.

Death withers wealth and beauty:
in this lie of a world, only evil abides.

                         -- Markos Vamvakaris

With Markos, we are getting to the heart and soul of rebetika.
Markos Vamvakaris was a poor boy from the islands who wandered into
Piraeus in the rough days of the early 1920s. By days he worked on
the docks or, later, in a slaughter house, and by nights he frequented
the port's various disreputable dives where, before audiences of
pickpockets, drunks, knife-fighters, thieves, pimps, hash-freaks, and
smugglers he created some of the greatest music of the twentieth
century. Markos was really a musical genius on the order of Mozart or
Chopin, or perhaps a better comparison would be with Couperin, who
also created great works of music based on a single instrument and
which were characterized by a combination of intellectual astringency
and deep emotion. It is somewhat ironic that this creator of the most
quintessentially Greek artistic expressions of the 20th century, whose
song Frankosyrian Girl has become virtually a second Greek national
anthem, was born a Catholic, which means he might be considered in a
sense not thoroughly Greek. Not that there is a great deal of
prejudice against Catholics in Greece, but Greek ethnic identity is so
bound up with Orthodox Christianity that a Greek who was not at least
ostensibly a member of the Orthodox church must inevitably have felt
like something of an outsider.

Perhaps it was exactly because he had the special perspective of an
outsider that he was able to give such a definitive expression to the
Greek imagination. For he certainly understood his country. I
sometimes think that you can hear the entire history of Greece in
Markos's music: the clang of swords before the gates of Thebes, the
slap of trireme oars on the foam off of Sounion, the circumflexed
vocatives of ephebes debating with Socrates in the agora, the urgent
emptiness of the wind sighing in the hills above Ano Syros, the
suspended inflections of the terminal notes of the Last Liturgy as the
priests were sealed up in the wall of Hagia Sophia, the leathery
squeak of the skin of Daskoloyiannis being stripped from his flesh,
the hiss and stamp of the death dance of the women of Souli, the
ecstatic fizzing of the fuse leading to the powder kegs of Arcadi, the
heartbreaking arpeggios of the laderna players of Plaka, the crackling
of the flames of Smyrna ...

I had a couple of encounters with Markos's ghost in Greece. The
first one took place on one of the thoroughfares near Omonia Square in
Athens: a man with a laderna had stationed himself on the busy
street. His instrument looked very old and authentic, and it was
playing an arrangement of Frankosyrian Girl, barely audible above the
hideous roar of central Athens auto traffic unless you stood very
close. The laderna-man was an elderly, stocky fellow looking vaguely
like Markos himself as he appears from photos taken at the end of his
life. The sweet strains of the old song seemed a tiny oasis of
delight in the midst of the cementopolis.

Afterwards I visited Markos's home island of Syros, and while
walking at random high in the upper town I came across Markos
Vamvakaris Square, a small but attractive whitewash and marble plateia
dedicated to the island's most famous son, complete with a bust of
Markos himself, seeming to look faintly puzzled at how the boy who had
left Syros in 1920 for the docks and hash dens of Piraeus could now
have returned home in this incarnation as a Hero of the State. I know
nothing about the history of this square -- I had read that even
during his lifetime the town of Syros had named a street for him, but
the square looked relatively new. No doubt the passage of time, and
the fact that his songs had belatedly become wildly successful
vehicles for every Greek pop star and composer, led to this civic
recognition, an example that popular morality can be forgiving of the
disreputable life of a genius whose works eventually did, after all,
make lots of money.

Jon Corelis
Windows of Air: Songs by Jon Corelis


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Subject: RE: Markos's ghost (rebetika)
From: Nigel Parsons
Date: 23 Feb 12 - 07:01 AM

What do you say to the ghost of Imelda Marcos?

Shoo


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