If it is not for the fact that I was born some two thousand years after Horace, one would be forgiven for thinking that his quip: “The musician who always plays on the same string is laughed at,” was a broadside fired exclusively in my direction. Nicholas Koutsaliotis, accountant and successful restaurateur of the establishment “Nyx,” by day and ambidextrous bouzouki-player extraordinaire by night is perhaps a little more subtle. Whenever we play together, he looks at me quizzically during a break and asks: “Deano, are you sure that you’ve tuned up that violin?” Stalwart of the quality Greek music scene Achilles Yiangoullis is even more subtle: “Why don’t you try playing this in this way?” he ventures. My riposte, comes from Duke Ellington: “The wise musicians are those who play what they can master.” You can’t argue with the Duke.
Music is of course, an inescapable part of one’s life owing to its all pervasiveness. It oozes out of car stereos, mobile phones, PC’s and ipods at such a rate that it saturates the ear-drum, causing us to consider the most mindless lyrics a hit. Consider this English rendering of the hit song from Despina Vandi’s chartblaster 2001 hit «Γεια»: “How much, I miss you/How much I want you/Turn back/because I tell you/I can’t do without you/I’ll be lost without you/aaaaaah.” Now consider instead this heart-rendering Rumi-like verse: “Bring me a cup of wine,/And keep me company./For me this night, will be the last./Oh life, you drip poison,/I’ve had enough of you,/And the golden palaces you promised,/Are all fake,” and you will know why 1) there can be no comparison in nobility of sentiment and 2) why at the age of six I fell in love with Rebetika.
Truth be told, I inherited my taste in music wholesale from my father. The tapes he would listen to while driving are the sound-track to my childhood and even to this day, when I (thankfully rarely) hear Marinella’s song: «Άνοιξε πέτρα για να μπω,» I remember being driven home from school by my father after having committed a particularly awful transgression and listening to it, while being conveyed to what I determined would be, my final doom. My father’s original Cat Stevens and Simon and Garfunkle records (still in mint condition I might add), are the reason why dysfunctional sentiments such as “I’d rather be a hammer than a snail” and “I’m being chased by a moonshadow, who is trying to kill me,” began to appear in my grade three prose. This notwithstanding, it was Greek music that captured my soul from the outset and I still have my grade one drawing of seagulls, executed with blue crayon upon butcher’s paper. Underneath, I have written the caption in shaky, unsteady infantile script: «Ντάρι νταρι, ντάρι ντάρι, στο γυαλό πετούν οι γλάροι.» Looking back I marvel at the fact that I got the words right, for along with old Papaioannou and Tsitsanis records, I have inherited from my father the propensity to muck up song lyrics. I remember being scolded in grade three by a Greek school teacher hardly able to keep a straight face for singing my particular version of the great Manos Loizos’ potent song «Καλημέρα Ήλιε» as: «Θα κατουρήσουμε τον Ήλιο, σίγουρα ναι.»I still think it is more anarchic than the original and to this day, I do not know the proper lyrics.
When I was eight, my parents determined that I should have a musical education and I set about the task of being taught to play the violin. The difficulty of this endeavour was compounded by the fact that I did not have an ear for music but nonetheless, through shoulder aching hours of practice and a few excruciating Australian Music Examination Board exams, I became somewhat proficient in the playing of classical music. This notwithstanding, at every class concert, I would break out into a pentozali, or a kalamatiano painstakingly acquired by heart from a rare book of Greek music in western notation procured by my father, a) because it was the only music that I really spoke to me, b) because the fast rhythms would play havoc with young boys’ ability to sit quietly in one corner and invariably cause classroom mayhem and c) because I harboured a considered and profound dislike for my violin teacher. Needless to say after two seasons of impromptu Greek subversive music, the playing of Greek music at class concerts was banned, my attempts at performing Hellenic music also being heavily circumscribed.
Chinese traditional music was the next genre I chose to explore, purely as the instrument I was chosen to play, the erhu, or Mongolian fiddle is as subtle, lithe and lissome and I am clumsy and obvious. Chinese music shares much in its fundamentals with Epirot and Ancient Greek musical theory, based as it is on the pentatonic scale. Further, its reedy tone lends itself much better to the playing of Greek island music than the violin and the number of times I would incorporate the theme from «ή μηχανικός θα γίνω ή στην άμμο θα απομείνω,» into my impromptu solos, notably at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, is considerable.
I had stopped playing music for about a decade when I was approached by Neos Kosmos former editor Argyris Argyropoulos to turn my mind to some Rebetika. While I was at university, my uncle had bought me a cd by “Apodimi Compania,” which I felt was breath-takingly heavenly, only because I felt I could identify with it –all the songs that is, except: Από κάτω από τις ντομάτες, my father being particularly possessive of his tomato vines, under which certainly no hanky panky was allowed.. Since that time, star violin player Hector Cosmas and Argyropoulos were my idols and I very nearly mastered about half of the songs on the playlist. Week after week I would be drawn to the Retreat and then the Bendigo Hotel to be enraptured by their virtuoso performance and I can declare that the first time I met Argyris, I was weak at the knees.
My first attempts to “jam” with Rebetiki were of marginal success. Meeting at Argyris’ home, we would play a song or two, devour his exquisitely cooked mezedes, drain him of a year’s supply of home made tsipouro and then submit to a coerced exploration of modern culture, youtube being the preferred medium, coupled with a lecture on the traditional way to fertilise lemon trees after heavy drinking. When I would wake up the next day, head sore but body cleansed, I could not remember what I had learned to play the night before.
Nonetheless, in Rebetiki, comprised of Argyris Argyropoulos, its spiritual leader, the irrepressible Takis Dimitriu, the inexhaustible Achilleas Yiangoullis and the devastatingly brilliant and omnipresent Tony Iliou, I found a group of artists totally devoted not to re-hashing old songs (for it truly is the case with some other “rebetika” groups that you will invariably know which song they are playing at any given time that you arrive at their gig because they play the same songs in the same order week after week), but exploring the genre, immersing themselves in the lives of the great rembetes, seeking reasons and motivations for their work, preserving their techniques and then using them as a jumping off point for the development of their own. A conversation with the members of Rebetiki can involve anything from a diatribe into why four stringed bouzoukis are an abomination (Argyropoulos), a side-splittingly amusing but probably apocryphal anecdote about the life of Zambetas; he is said to have commented about an aspiring singer’s talent: «Από φωνή, [insert Greek coarse word for female genitalia], από [insert Greek coarse word for female genitalia] όμως, φωνάρα" (unattributed), a running commentary on current events and the Greek community (Iliou and Dimitriu), anecdotes about the performances of famous Greek musicians and compulsorily, a Borat impersonation.
The manner in which Rebetiki chooses their repertoire is also unique. Before Argyris relocated to Greece, Tony Iliou would suggest songs to him, and he would reply, in Little Britain-like fashion: “Argyris says….no.” We would end up playing not what the audience necessarily wanted to hear, but songs that best captured the mood of the performers. For Rebetiki does not play for its listeners. It plays at them and engages in a dialectic with them. This is after all, the music of give and take, There is no room for mindless receptivity here.
My own insufficiency has been doing the opposite of augmenting Rebetiki’s performance at the Pontian Community in Brunswick on Friday nights, for the past year. I do this purely for selfish reasons. Pontian goat, baked in the oven is to die for
(so maybe Koutsaliotis is right. Did not George Crabbe say: “Feed the musician and he is out of tune?”) and there is no greater release from a week of worldly worry than to pick up the violin and lose oneself in a sea of competently performed and culturally significant music. All the rembetika have their stories and so do those who play them. These stories will unfold and unravel as steel inevitably unwinds itself from the cat-gut around which it as been wound, dissolving under the acid of the musicians fingertips, or the bile cooking in one’s insides. Stories revealed and shared in the context of performing are revelations of one’s soul and cannot be treated with anything other than hushed reverence. Then Sotiris Traianopoulos, clarinet player extra-ordinnaire will pass around his flask of tsipouro, having taken Argyris place as lifter and purveyor of spirits, and the mundaneness of reality will fly from us like well, a flitty, flying thing. In the womb of music creation, anything is possible. One night, I brought along my erhu along. After paying for about fifteen minutes, one of the pontians in the audience approached me remarking: «Παίζεις πολύ καλά.»
«Ευχαριστώ,» I replied.
«Και μιλάς καλά ελληνικά,» he continued.
«Και πάλι ευχαριστώ.»
«Πώς γίνεται εσύ, ένας Κινέζος να μιλάς τόσο καλά Ελληνικά;» he enquired. Look at him incredulously, I responded: «Ε, με λίγη προσπάθεια, όλα γίνονται.»
I have been on a road trip with Rebetiki, though I daresay that I joined the bandwagon too late, when the propensity for risqué-ity has seen better days. It is surprising how important food and drink becomes to you after you turn thirty and its desire renders you staid and too content to seek other adventures. Nonetheless, I can say that I have purported to be seen to play with what are arguably the greatest musical artists ever to have passed through the Greek community, through their own tolerance and condescension. Throughout the time we have spent together, we have taken in many sights, sounds and smells though not all of them have lived up to our sensory expectations. For the modern Greek aesthetic is sometimes more akin to a γιαπί and the working a cement mixer than, let’s say, the expressionist architectural icons of Mendelsohn. Yet there the boys are week after week, embarking once more upon their exploration of musical labyrinths of infinite paths. And there am I,, week after week, deluding myself that I too can be a musician. It is then that the song: «Από το βράδυ ως το πρωί, με πρέζα είμαι στη ζωή,» rings true, for music is our opium, opening perceptions for the boys and clouding mine. Until next week then, musicians duet better.