One of my most enduring memories of my time as a student at university, is walking some twenty minutes up a hill to get to the tram stop in the morning, and then walking down the hill at night. Back then, ipods had not yet been invented and I eschewed the use of a Walkman or Discman, as I felt that these served to disengage me from my environment and in particular, cause me to lose concentration when passing by a property that was patrolled by a pit bull terrier. In 1997, that particularly pernicious terrier managed to squeeze out of a rotting fence paling and chase me down the street and I was only able to elude it by jumping a particularly high fence into someone else's front yard, at considerable threat of damage to my chances of posterity. Yet I digress.
In order to pass the time on my daily walks, I would recite the great poet Yiannis Ritsos' collection of poems "Kapnismeno Tsoukali," the sounds of its famous musical arrangement by Christos Leontis echoing in my mind. I would march down the hill in the evening, in time to the music, reciting the words "closer, even closer, sodden kilometres gather around them," and in the morning, for a change, set off up the hill, reciting the renowned from Ritsos' 'Romiosyni': "life marches up the hill bearing flags and drums," to the tune of Mikis Theodorakis' arrangement. Having exhausted these collections, I would go through Ritsos' 'Epitaphios' and the 'Lianotragouda,' before launching into Odysseas Elytis' 'Axion Estin,' Mikis Theodorakis' soul stirring music urging me on. Later on, the repertoire was increased to included Nikos Gatsos' arrangements of Nikos Kavvadias' poems but it was always Ritsos' poetry that readily came, and still comes to the tip of my tongue and I attribute my memorisation of the corpus of his collections solely to the fact that were have been set to music by some of Greece's foremost composers in a manner that has the capacity to complement, highlight and augment the meaning of the poems, in a profoundly soul-stirring way.
Putting the best of our poetry to music is a Greek tradition that goes back at least as far as Homer, whose epics were sung rather than merely recited. From Homer, it is but a short distance to Romanos the Melodist, who in Hellenistic fashion, ingeniously synthesized the Greek and Semitic poetic and musical traditions, introducing remarkable additions to the Orthodox liturgy, which, in effect, is a litany of sung poetry. From Romanos, a Syrian, we can go to the great epic poems of the Byzantium and the Late Middle Ages, the epic of the Half-Breed Border Guard (Digenis Akritas), the Cretan epic Erotokritos, and from there to our demotic epics, none of which were recited, but rather, sung and on occasion, even danced to, to discern that for the Greek people, poetry is inextricably linked to music.
Such a contention renders itself easily to validation when one considers that unlike most people of the world, we value our poetry so highly, that we demand that the best of it be set to music, in accordance of our traditional conception of the symbiosis of the two genres. The Greek national anthem, is a case in point, being penned by our "national poet," Dionysios Solomos and then set to music by Nikos Mantzaros. Mantzaros also tried his hand at other poems of Solomos, such as "Blondie," (Ξανθόυλα), and it is interesting how the best known poems of our great poets, those of Elytis, Seferis and Ritsos are so well known, simply because they have been set to music that has captured the imagination of the populace, and at times of turmoil, such as during the dark and inane years of the Junta, provided hope, inspiration and courage, by highlighting the verses that convey those messages and so much more besides. It is for this reason, that the musical arrangements of Ritsos' poems by Theodorakis were banned by the inept Colonels. These, in their musical form, constitute dynamite for the soul.
It is unknown whether as a result of the Greek financial crisis, we will see a new generation of Greek musicians seeking recourse and refuge in Greek poets in order to provide the beleaguered people of the country with some much needed motivation and consolation as they struggle to survive through these difficult times. We do know however, that the tradition of setting the best of our poets to music survives here in Australia, within our own community, the most recent evidence of this being Arthur Rorris' masterful adaptation of the poems of militant poet Nikiforos Vrettakos, as performed at the Trades Hall, as well as the adaptations of local poetical works by local and rather brave and inventive musicians such as Spiros Papoutsis and Iakovos Papadopoulos, Anthea Sidiropoulos, George Iliopoulos, Stelios Tsiolas, Achilles Yiangouli and many others.
Hot off the heels of this Hellenic pursuit, comes the launch of the CD, "In a Strange Land," the brainchild of academic and musician Pavlos Andronikos and Stephen Adam. Using as its inspiration, the question raised in Psalm 136: "how shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" the collection is a journey of emigration, transplantation and acculturation. Its sixteen songs feature a diverse range of accomplished local poets, whose writings deal with such diverse issues as the loss of a homeland through war and the utilization of physical elements as a bridge across the physical divide, in the case of Georgia Eracleous' "The Same Sun," the joy of relationships and human warmth, as in the song "For Yianni," and even the sorrow of losing an old way of live in the home country, as in the Nikos Ninolakis' "They've taken the Sun." Of particular note is Stelios Tsiolas' rock extravaganza "Day after Day," ostensibly a cry of protest against the exploitation of workers, but upon deeper analysis, a subtle and thoroughly subversive parody of the increasing bourgeoisification of the values of the Greek community.
From rock, to 70's Greek "New Wave," as exemplified by the stylings of the late Kostas Tsikaderis, to rebetika, classical and even native Australian elements, a diverse range of music is showcased in the CD "In a Strange Land." If, as I suspect, a musical arrangement of poetry can only ever be successful and become popular if, and if one could obtain absolution for the pun, it strikes a chord with the listener and brings out through the musical stave, the sentiments contains in verse that have the ability to move them and are relevant to them, then certainly "In a Strange Land," has not been found wanting. The gamut of musical forms and styles parallels the multi-faceted influences and concerns of a Greek community living and integrating within a broader, multifaceted and multicultural Australian society, enmeshed within a globalised world-culture. "In a Strange Land" therefore marks the first part of the journey, and a follow up CD is surely required, comprised of the works of members of the Greek community who were born in Australia, and thus did not undergo the physical and cultural journey of their ancestors, but who engage in the dialectic between the two worlds nonetheless. The CD's presentation is truly an accomplishment for our community, one that commands our total support, for songs cannot be enjoyed unless they are disseminated widely and promoted by us.
In keeping with this philosophy, the songs of "In a Strange Land," along with virtual sleeve notes, can be found and readily downloaded from the following web address: http://members.iinet.net.au/~andronikos/InAStrangeLand.html. The CD will be officially launched, by the Greek Australian Cultural League on Sunday and the songs will be performed by the recording artists, 25 November 2012 at 4:30pm at Panarcadian Association "O Kolokotronis", 570 Victoria Street, North Melbourne.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 November 2012