Saturday, June 30, 2012


Euterpe, fourth of the Ennead, was never the muse of song. Indeed, if you ask the Boetians of old, there never was an Ennead of Muses, for on Mount Helicon, they worshipped a triad in which Aoide, daughter of Mnemosyne or Memory, was the archetypal chanteuse extraordinaire. The relationship between song and memory is a profound one. According to Hesiod's Theogony, kings and poets receive their powers of authoritative speech from their possession of Mnemosyne and their special relationship with the Muses and the fact that memory is held to be a Titaness and thus primordial and much more ancient than the Olympian dwelling deities. And of course all this elaborate cosmology derives from the obvious - songs and memory share a symbiotic relationship. Memories inspire songs. Songs encapsulate memories and are in turn remembered, passed down the generations, though in the case of Homer, it is the lyrics that are still remembered, though the tune is long gone.

Here in the monotheistic climes of the Antipodes, we abjure triune deities or their enneadic collectives. In their stead, if there is anyone worthy of the status of the muse of song, then undoubtedly that singular person must be the elevated Anthea Sidiropoulos, who occupies as she does, the intermediate space between arts chthonic and arts celestial. By popular acclaim, a goddess of the Greek Australian stave, (and all about her know that this is so for she is possession of a truly Olympian stature, a profile that would be the envy of Aphrodite herself and foliage so impossibly long and split end free that it rivals the locks of Solomon's lover in the Song of Songs, regardless of how much it resembles a flock of goats bounding down Mount Gilead) Anthea is much more of a chantepleure than a chanteuse and this because she has the uncanny ability to cry as she sings. The challenge for the listener is to divine whence the tears derive, from the heart, from the soul or both. The resulting synthesis of passion expressed from her lips, and of understanding or movement of the soul on the part of the listener, is a sublime musical moment, profound it all of its tonalities.

Immediately experiencing Anthea Sidiropoulos when in song, is to be baptised by the igneous extrusion of magma erupting from deep within her soul. And herein lies the paradox. For igneous extrusions, once given coherent form from magma, either solidify under the surface, causing batholiths of pain and pathos, or they break free from the surface, run free for a while and, exposed to the air and all around them, harden and solidify into something finite and impenetrable. Anthea's musical performances on the other hand, retain their fluid magma form, their warmth, their ability to flow wherever their words propel them and though they may harden in the memory of the listeners, they flow inexorably on, never diminishing in depth of feeling. As Anthea herself commented in the aftermath of a recent performance, "bled a little too deep that night." If there is ever any proof of her divinity then, it is this. In her divine condescension, she sheds tears of blood for her audience, inviting all into a communion of chromatic absolution.

Further proof of her divinity can be found in her omnipresence. Scratch the surface of the Greek-Australian musical scene and it will not be long before you are granted a revelation of the emanations of her talent. Unlike other colleagues who distance themselves from the Greek community, believing that such associations could damage their career in the 'mainstream,' or others who view the Greek community as a quarry solely to be mined for lucre, Anthea Sidiropoulos is that rare thing: an accomplished musician, extremely highly regarded in both the mainstream and Greek musical circles, able to move seamlessly between both traditions, making valuable contributions to each of them, while all the time, never letting go of her core ideals, always engaging in community activism, stoking the dying embers of a society that must care for all its members. Further, and again this is where she stands apart and exalted from many of those who ply her craft, she is just as at ease with members of her own generation, or children, who she delights with the way she plays for them, rather than playing at them, or even members of older generations. At one of her more recent performances, the Boite -style night at the Thornbury Theatre, she was asked by her mother why she was sitting on the stage, rather than on a chair, along with the accompanying musicians. The ensuing Mother-daughter repartee read like a Greek-Australian sit-com, with the young girl trying to assert her own view of how to do things, in juxtaposition with directives from older and more authoritative voices. Yet this is part of Anthea's appeal: She is, when all said and done unashamedly, unabashedly, no holds barred, no beg your pardons, Anthea. There is no dissimulation, no ego, and no creation of art to conceal the artist. And this, the total honesty in which she stands before you and creates order amidst the chaos of psychic noise that assaults modern day life, is stark and confronting.

Whether she is singing rebetika, traditional, music, Greek hits from the sixties or seventies, rock, pop, funk and blues, or delving into her own original work, she is uniquely able to personalise her music, enveloping it in interpretations of her own, interlaced and interspersed with raw snippets of emotion and insight gleaned from her own considerable life experiences, including near-death experiences and a family history of social activism and campaigning for a more equitable and humane society. What emerges is not only a well worn favourite, or a note-worthy and successfully new arrangement, but a confession, a smile and an embrace of infinite scope and intimacy.

One of her songs, in which she touchingly pays homage to the first generation migrants is well on its way of becoming a Greek Australian classic. Its stirring refrain: «Με μάθατε να ζω, και γι' αυτό σας ευχαριστώ,» could be an ideology of an entire generation and uniquely, it is song in bilingual fashion, artfully displaying the intermingling and interdependence of the two cultural traditions as they exist in Australia. When it is sung, one can observe members of the audience mouthing the words, a remarkable achievement for a community that is only just beginning to realize that its own artists often exceed in capability and certainly in versatility, their compatriots in the homeland

Anthea's most recent Thornbury Theatre performance, an intimate gathering of hardcore fans, in which her talent was ably augmented by the talented musical stylings of musical stalwarts Iakovos Papadopoulos and longtime Anthea - collaborator Achilles Yiangoullis, was notable in that it coincided with the earthquake that shook Melbourne. Yet in the atmospheric basement theatre, with the strains of Marinella and other classics that are seldom sung or heard any more, playfully teasing their ear drums, no one even noticed, for the earth cannot move mortals in the way that only a goddess knows how.

It was Hesiod who confided that: "Happy is the man who the Muses love: sweet speech flows from his mouth." If the Diatribe this week appears mellifluous, it is only because it basks in the afterglow of a performance of a most macrifluvious expondent of the Muses' art. It is in her commitment to us and to her own message, that we are invariably privileged.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 June 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012


“Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals”. – John Steinbeck.

“Constantly searching/ in these underground rooms/ to find you/ to reach you/ to tell you something...” – Antigone Kefala.

“So this is the Antipodes Writers Festival,” the effervescent journalist, media personality and author Angela Pippos exclaimed in the vestibule of the Wheeler Centre, as the strong tones of Coraly Dimitriadis’ unique poetry performance resounded through the doors, losing none of their intensity in the process. “So where are all your berets?”

An apt remark if there ever was one. For if there was one thing that emerged from the recent Antipodes Writers Festival, is that the gamut of Australian writers of Greek descent is so diverse, their topics, styles, languages of choice, message and values so unique that it would be difficult, nay futile to seek to find common threads through all of them. From its commencement, a scintillating conversation between the much lauded and yet touchingly humble and very human Christos Tsiolkas and the sagacious and personable Professor Nick Papastergiadis on aspects of literature as they pertain to multiculturalism, broader Australian society and our relationship with Greece, to its conclusion, a homage and critical look at the works of some of our most important and long-standing poetic voices, those of Antigone Kefala, Nikos Nomikos and Dina Amanatidou, the Festival gave voice to a surprisingly remarkable array of talent, in fields unsuspect.

The brainchild of academics and literati Konstandina Dounis and Helen Nickas, the Antipodes Writers Festival, held under the auspices of the Greek Community’s Antipodes Festival truly gives lie to the oft cited cliché that our community is not capable of showcasing anything more elevated than the bouzouki and the souvlaki. Here, two passionate academics who are closely integrated within the Greek community share their passion for Greek and Greek-related letters by conceiving on a grand project – to bring together all those for whom writing is a way of life, provide them with the opportunity to share or discuss their work and that of other writers and, together with the large public that attended the weekend festival, seek variously to define, redefine or cast aside categorisations as to where and to whom they belong.

Such an enterprise is not an easy one for the term “Greek writers” is a loaded one, carrying with it a great deal of historical and other baggage. Nonetheless, it became apparent during the course of the Festival, that there are a multitude of groupings around which writers belonging to our community coalesce, while refusing to be restricted by the broad terms of reference of such groupings. Greek language writers, especially poets, primarily belong to the first generation (though in the case of the irrepressible George Zangalis, his work and activism for the rights of workers is an example of harnessing the strengths of Hellenism in order to effect social change) and in a session chaired by the luminescent Associate Professor Vrasidas Karalis, Helen Nickas and Konstandina Dounis, accomplished translators of Greek-Australia literature in their own right, discussed with the diatribist, the need to preserve and translate the canon of Greek language Australian literature, in order for it to become a reference point to the coming generations, who as it became apparent from subsequent discussions were largely not cognizant of and unaffected by writings in the Greek language, which they find inaccessible.

English speaking writers were viewed closely within the Festival and their motivation and viewpoints were truly fascinating. Some are still grappling with their Greek heritage as an unshakeable burden. In this regard, angry younger generation writers (and Professor Vrasidas Karalis did point out the symbolic truism that “killing one’s parents” is an act of emancipation), would have done well to heed Christos Tsiolkas poignant observation that upon maturer consideration, there is much to be gained from the simple dignity, decency and positivity that can be found among members of the first generation.

Others have been able to look past perceived generation gaps and incorporate aspects of their Greek identity into their fight for social justice (Jeanne Vithoulkas), as a broad brushstroke on a canvas replete with a multitude of global influences (Luka Haralambous and Angela Kosti) or as the foundation and backdrop for the acquisition of diverse literary inspirations that lead to the creating of truly polished and accomplished verse (Tina Giannoukos). Indeed, in Jeanne Vithoulkas and Tina Giannoukos, their functional bilingualism gives rise to a nuanced and sensitivity of thought which is breathtaking. In the case of the ingenious Angela Pippos, such an identity can even be used to augment and provide a workable and successful point of reference for a most unlikely and ostensibly unHellenic pursuit – being a devotee of the AFL.

Writers on the fringe of Hellenism also provided thought provoking viewpoints. The magnificent Arnold Zable with his jewel encrusted prose and acclaimed John Charalambous each in their own way, provided an insight into how aspects of multi-faceted Hellenism can appear to the ostensibly ‘uninitiated’ and how these can provide inspiration and motivation for the production of considered and moving writing. Both Charalambous and Helen Arthurson, author of a children’s book raised a motif that is very dear to my heart – the concept of a garden or the natural world and how, in Charalambous’ eyes, this acts both as a way of providing continuity with a long lost way of life in Cyprus but also as a way of asserting control over an unfamiliar society, at least on a family level. Arthurson’s perspective is also unique. Growing up in urban Richmond, her longing for wide, open, natural spaces was requited upon a family trip to Greece. This love of the natural environment has caused her to write a children’s book where the natural world and conservation are key themes.

Proving that Hellenism is a concept that defies boundaries and borders, the peripatetic multi-talented Victoria Haralambidou, main protagonist of the internationally acclaimed “Brides,” born in Saint Petersburg and now residing in Sydney, along with Helena Spyrou, discussing the works of the late Anna Kannava and Tess Lyssiotis, provided a unique insight into how concepts of migration and the working class can be translated into quality film scripts.

For me, the best and most fulfilling part of the Festival was being able to ply writers with questions, seek advice and revel in their company. To listen to the pneumatic Tom Petsinis read out a highly evocative depiction of a liturgy from an unpublished work was a unique privilege, matched only by the opportunity to bounce ideas off him during the interval. To bask in the enigmatic warmth of the seraphic Michael Michael’s prose-poems is to be transported into a world of pure and unadulterated light while to listen to Kostas Nikolopoulos probe George Megalogenis into providing a deep and comprehensible analysis of Australian politics is to drink cool water in a mountain stream and understand, albeit for a moment, all the secrets of the world.

In being able to gather and showcase a diverse group of writers in such a sophisticated way, abjuring labels and celebrating difference, shows how our community truly has come of age. This is in no small part due to the dedication of the organising committee, Helen Nickas, Konstandina Dounis, Nick Trakakis, Dimitris Troaditis, cultural activist par excellence Dina Gerolymou and the indefatigable Penny Kyprianou. She, as well as Robert Henlein knows that: “There is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized or even cured. The only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private and where food can be poked in to him with a stick.” Και του χρόνου.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 23 June 2012

Saturday, June 16, 2012


If, as in the manner of the ‘Wogboy’ writer Christos Tsiolkas ever wished to capitalise upon the success of his incisive and deeply disquieting masterpiece “The Slap,” by creating a sequel set in Greece, then he can look no further than the sordid and infantile world of Greek politics and media, where he can find a plot already woven for him.

Imagine, if you will, a group of politicians representing a broad spectrum of political ideologies invited to a televised discussion. Very soon, however, they begin to hurl abuse at each other, causing one of them to throw a jug of water on his colleague and then slap and throw a punch at another one. It is for Christos Tsiolkas and his genius to determine the extent of consequences of such a slap yet it is for all of us to divine the inner meaning of such an unexpected event.

One of the characters that could grace the pages of such a sequel could be a man surnamed Kasidiaris, meaning someone who has lost his hair through alopecia. His surname in this instance could denote someone whose conscience, ethics and political beliefs are as sparse and lacking as hair on a shiny bald pate. Kasidiaris, as the entire Hellenic world now knows, is however, not a figment of a writer’s imagination. Instead, he is an elected member of Greek parliament, the so called bastion of democracy, representing the extremist far right Golden Dawn party. The politically mature and abounding in critical thought Greek citizens have seen fit to elect to parliament a person who denies the Holocaust, has been implicated in the attempted robbery and murder of an Athenian academic in 2007 and who, when teased and verbally abused by a particularly articulate parliamentary colleague on national television, responds by throwing slaps and punches, as he did, on Ant1 television recently. Q and A, eat your heart out.

Enter into our little drama a massive and garrulous Greek politician who was once a journalist, renown for her outspokenness and almost tear-jerkingly beautiful mastery of the Greek language, Liana Kanelli, elected representative of the Communist party of Greece. Yet Liana, the eloquent harbinger of a new left, glosses silently over the impassioned speeches she gave in the seventies, in support of centre-right Greek prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis. Instead, she does what she does best: subjects the brutish simian Kasidiaris to five minutes of unstoppable abuse, calling him a fascist and a Nazi, then, taking obvious pleasure in watching his blood boil, allowing the abuse to reach a crescendo, she hurls a copy of the Communist Party’s rag “Rizospastis” in his face. Now the provocation has done its work. Kasidiaris will respond with violence and Kanelli, who should have known better and displayed some basic courtesy to allow a discussion to take place on a civilized level, has obtained what she set out to achieve by her premeditated attacks: to see a rise in her popularity and be proclaimed a martyr to democracy, a victim of the fascist hordes, and through her concerted effort to subject all and sundry to irrational and unceasing abuse, a protector of free speech. Graciously, the great martyr refuses to seek to press charges, magnanimously declaring for the camera, that Kasidiaris is beneath her dignity.

Centre left, enter the distinguished Rena Dourou, the shrill representative of the left alliance SYRIZA who also subjects the primate Kasidiaris to a tirade of abuse, denying him the right of reply. Incensed at him being a fascist and a Nazi, while glossing over the deeds of the members of her party who have incited the recent rampages in Athens, where buildings were destroyed and people killed, she continues to goad and provoke him until her, not unexpectedly lashes out in the manner already foreseen: He throws a jug of water at her. Here too then is another martyr of democracy and free speech baptised, in the conflict of the arena. For was it not the great Proximo who said: “Thrust this into another man's flesh (the abuse sic.), and they will applaud and love you for that. You may even begin to love them.”?

Enter right the bored, pudgy face of the self-satisfied Greek law professor and member of the centre-right New Democracy party, the honourable Mr Prokopis Pavlopoulos, instigator of some of the most undemocratic electoral laws in Greek history, who sits idly by, watching the shrill banshees of the left ‘defend’ the dignity of their political causes against an uneducated, inarticulate brute, with a disinterested and detached look on his face reminiscent to that of Gaius Semprnius Gracchus, passing the time at the Colosseum, watching the combats of gladiators. He lifts not a finger to attempt to restore some semblance of rationality and personability to a television program that exposes Greek politicians for what exactly they are: a bunch of self-serving careerists and populists, who, divorced from any sense of political courage or purpose, exploit but do not believe in the threadbare and unrealistic ideologies they so prostitute to the masses, in the sake of inflating their own egos, and in the quest for public exposure. This is theatre of the absurd at its very best and the unflappable Pavlopoulos underperforms his role to perfection.

One man however is rejoicing more than all others in this breakdown of civility. The king of daytime Greek television, Giorgos Papadakis, who while going through the motions of trying to keep the baying parties at bay, finally gives in to his thirst for ratings and lets them loose on each other. Giorgos also has a parting shot for his guest Liana Kanelli. He allows her to persist in shrieking and swearing, believing that the show has concluded, while the cameras continue to roll, sending swelling ratings inexorably up and up until they explode in an orgasm of crass television.

Before we join the drama by lamenting the behaviour of the ‘heirs’ of Pericles, let us remember that prior to the modern era, Athens (as opposed to the rest of Greece which had various monarchical or restrictive governments) was only ever a functional democracy for some fifty years and we, possessed more of Alcibiades’ who would subvert that system are not its heirs. Instead, we are the heirs of all those who, smug in our own illusory perception of our past as having been descended in unbroken continuity from an imaginary golden period of perfection and rationality that is a western construct that never existed, refuse to seek for anything outside their own self interest, or immediate benefit and will not or cannot learn from and emulate such political structures and practices that are necessary to the proper running of a modern state.

How and when the Greek people will emerge from their perverse penchant for ogling, conflict and abuse and demand serious and committed politicians as their representatives is a question that cannot be answered. In the meantime, it is suggested that until such time as Vladimir Putin descends into the Balkans at the head of his hordes and puts a stop to this madness, that Greek elections be determined through mud-wrestling qualifiers and slap-happy politicians assaulting each other. Let them wallow in the swill in which they belong.


First published in NKEE on Saturday, 16 June 2012

Saturday, June 09, 2012


"Australia of impatient departures and pleasant arrivals. Fifty years later, who are the dinky di Australians, and are the migrants? Who are the New Australians? And what are the Aborigines who didn't count, back then?"

Academic, man of Greek letters and radio programmer extraordinaire Christos Fifis' second published collection of poems: "Where is the place for a village?" turns explorer and grazier John Batman's statement of 1835, upon viewing the future site of Melbourne: "This is will be the place for a village," into a quest for soul-searching and an invitation to enter into a dialectical discourse about identity. Statements such as "The drums beat ceaselessly: The earthen men, belong to the soil on which they dance, for they will enter the soil, in their earth..." as well as "My Greece... has no borders, it is beyond the map....Now that I am departing for Athens, I know I am going to another foreign land, but my old voice calls from deep inside me. I can no longer stay," provide bittersweet truths about the migration experience. The paradigm shifts ancillary to relocating to another country and culture often remain imperceptible when one is concerned with the difficult task of acculturation and resettlement and are only identified years or decades later, when, the realisation comes that the basic values and underlying ideologies of the host country and the country of origin, have changed. Then, a whole identity shift is made: "Our new country is our children, who we brought up during the war, privation and longing."

I would have liked to have seen a good deal more of Christos Fifis' countless students, those who have had the benefit of his knowledge and who have been the main recipients of his passion for Greek letters over the many years of his contribution to the Greek community, at the launch of his collection. For apart from, like many of his counterparts, expressing the heart-wrenching predicament of being torn between two countries, Christos Fifis' poems do something infinitely more valuable. They transport us back in time, to a dim period in our community history, which has all but been forgotten. Our founding myths tend to grant Olympian status to the migrants of the 50s and 60s who arrived here by boat. Those migrants were only dimly aware of the doings of the Titans who arrived before them in the 20s and 30s, and whose history is even more fascinating. Through his poems describing the migrants of that forgotten era, and especially when he depicts them in their declining years, Christos Fifis not only brings them back to life but also provides a noteworthy parallel between them and their younger counterparts, who, it is suggested, are undergoing the same decline, with the same concerns as their predecessors today. In the poem: "When affluence becomes a double-edged sword," a denizen of one of the long gone city cafes, Barba Stathis muses: "I think of you youngsters, of whom we are so proud. Where we began, where we have gotten to. The lawyers, the doctors, the successful business men. Who we are, where we are going. Our community often loses you, and is diminished. Always remember us, old Alfros added. With you, our community expands. Through you, we live." This is a most poignant lament of the mass rejection of the organised Greek community by latter generations and especially those 'professionals,' who earlier generations believe are equipped with the skills to propel and further the interests of that community.

In "Now the Community is affluent," Christos Fifis emphasises this mass desertion by juxtaposing it with past arguments and debates centred around making the Greek community more inclusive. Considering the situation today, this grants the poem an ironic tone that guarantees its success: "Now the youngsters want action. To express our opinion and be heard. To enter the Committees, to re-establish the Communities, to democratize the Archdiocese, to rejuvenate our organisations...To suggest to the President of the community, to demand that they send great musicians from Greece for the Glendi, tsiftetelia and American songs for the value and honour our local poets and the musicians of the second generation."

The inference is clear. Somehow, affluence has presided over, or caused the erosion of the close knit Greek community, along with its values. For Chistos Fifis' poems reveal another aspect of the migrant experience that these days is also in danger of being forgotten: their progressive spirit and fight for social justice. As the poet reveals in: "Gathering for Peace," the protagonists of such endeavours were always few but extremely influential and their ideals transcended the everyday humdrum existential quest for sustenance and material security. Those idealistic youths with the noble ideals are now hidden behind the creases in the care-worn faces and the grey hair of their older avatars. Nonetheless, these stalwarts of change still have much to say and contribute to any modern social debate - arguably much more than their progeny, nurtured in the stultifying materialism of the affluence that was a byproduct of their forebears' energy and exuberance. Fifis' elephantine memory restores some of the more important social activists from the forgetfulness of the communal Lethe. In particular, in the "Southern Argonaut," which describes the poet's friendship with Nikos Ninolakis, an important Greek literary figure, Christos Fifis paints a picture of a politically aware generation, scarred by war, so anxious to avoid it, possessed of thought critical enough to see through unquestioning adherence to any cause presented by means of propaganda and engaging in informed debate on the topics of the day. All this Christos Fifis sets in the mythical Colchis of the Argonauts, a land now wrapped in the mists of time and lost to the consciousness of most Greeks. Presciently, Fifis wraps Ninolakis in that mist, stating that he only crosses from it into clarity when he is read by his ever diminishing (owing to the decline in Greek literacy) readers. It is also a condition he has predetermined for himself.

Christos Fifis approaches the loss of the Greek language in a novel way, interspersing his sorrow at its declining course, with reflections as to its inevitability and wonderment by older generations that should be so. Such reflections are not without humour, as when in the first poem of the collection, 'Little Johnny's' grandmother, incensed at her grandson's lack of fluency in Greek exclaims: "Learn some Greek my child so you can wish me "Gut Mornink." In "Barba Stathis' Lament," a grandfather's exhortation to his grandchildren to learn the language of Homer, Seferis, Ritsos and Elytis, a language that was not lost under centuries of repression, falls on deaf ears as the grandchildren retort: "You Greeks don't understand us. We are Australians, they tell me. And you grandfather, with fifty five years in Australia and lifed most of your life here. What are you? You should have been an Australian too, they tell me. What do you say to them now? What can you say?" The inference that to Barba Stathis or the poet, identity is not a matter of topography but of choice should not escape us.

Choice also features in those of his poems where he beatifies the pioneering members of the first generation. In "The oldies of Community legend," he asks the question: "Who, my dears, understands the saints, except for the faithful. And the faithful are always few." Whereas in "The Stylites had longing and passion," the poet brilliantly compares those solitary pioneers to the legendary Byzantine stylites of the Syrian desert: "Wrong! The stylites did not become saints because of their pillars. It was because they had longing, burning an passion." The juxtaposition of the qualities that underwrote their success against their loneliness and half-forgotten memory are a profound evocation of a possible future for the Greek community.

Christos Fifis' poetry is as simple and unaffected as the themes and motifs he employs are profound. Where he does lapse into lyricism, that lyricism is not gratuitous or contrived but an aid to the evocation of a wider Greek poetical tradition. The poet's masterful way of weaving parallel storylines through imaginary conversations between members of the community as a way of exploring themes give these greater immediacy and permit readers to identify with them readily. If ever there was a Greek- Australian book of poetry crying out for translation into English and further study, this would definitely be it. Though ten marks must be afforded to anyone can adequately translate the verse: «Η Δεκαοχτούρα στην Αυστραλία... δεν κράζει δεκαοχτώ...κλαίει «Εϊντίν..», for it is here that the heart of the poets' paradox resides.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 9 June 2012

Saturday, June 02, 2012


The last time I spoke to musician and rebetika aficionado Hector Cosmas was in connection with his visit to Australia in June last year, accompanying Agathonas, stalwart of the genre. Perusing my proposed diatribe “Agathonas and Co,” Hector noticed that I had described Agathonas voice and gravelly and his head as bulbous. “You don’t describe someone’s head as bulbous,” he explained to me, with a completely expressionless countenance, “unless you intend to insult. Further, his voice is anything but gravelly. Instead he sings sweetly in the upper register. Apart from that, I admire your dexterous use of personal pronouns and the attempt at humour.” Moments later the dead pan act was shattered and we were both enmeshed in throes of laughter while trying to emulate Agathonas singing sweetly in the upper register WITH a gravelly voice. A half hour after that, and he had transported all of us into worlds unseen and half forgotten by the unfathomable power he wielded over his instrument of choice, the violin. With Hector, music was not about performance or replication of notes. You could feel the sounds emanating from the vibration of the strings and travelling directly to those parts of your body most poised to evoke emotion. His was a musical communion that spoke directly to all who would partake of it and he shared it generously.

Hearing the news of Hector Cosmas’ sudden demise at the age of forty six back in March could only be successfully paralleled to a sharp kick in the guts, coupled with mystification as to the reason for its occurrence. For a mediocre violinist who abandoned the classical path in order to delve into rebetika, the example of an accomplished violinist who mastered classical music and used it as a springboard not only to master the dying technique of Smyrneika but to preside over a unprecedented revival of the genre here in the Antipodes (and unlike the brief and crass baraki culture flowering the late nineties, which foundered and fell upon the inexplicable westernization and to use the vernacular ‘pimping’ of modern Greek music) it has proved to be remarkably vibrant and enduring as a permanent movements within the Melbournian Greek music scene, such as it is until the present day,) and then to transport that passion back to a motherland from which his family had been detached for seventy years, is inspiring and immensely motivating.

At the “Concert for Hector,” staged a few weeks ago in memory of the great man, at the Brunswick Town Hall, opposite from the Retreat Hotel, which for many years had become the centre of rebetika in Melbourne, friends, family and fans congregated, not so much, in the words of his sister Sophia to mourn, but rather to celebrate his multifaceted life and larger than life personality. As I stared at the three black and white photographs of Hector hanging above the stage, depicting him holding his violin lovingly, I felt the woodeness of the cliché of celebrating a life after it has departed, rather than mourning it, acutely. As a community, as people, we do little to celebrate our own lives and those of others while we are actually alive. There is no point in celebrating a life after it has gone. Instead, we should value all those things that make us and those around us special while we still can. If Hector became a brilliant musician, if he was able to touch the lives of all those around him and if, as has become lore in musical circles in Greece, he was able to become that rare thing, an accomplished, successful musician in Greece beloved by all and with no enemies or rivals, then that was a result not only of his own unsurpassable genius, his passionate love for his art and life but also, a consequence of the love and appreciation of all those whom he was able to move, enthuse and impassion. He was a bright and lonely star of comfort against a night sky of existence that is often dark and foreboding. While we are all privileged to have been able to celebrate Hector during his tragically brief lifetime, now that he is gone, I mourn not only his genius, not only for the pain of his young family in losing him but also for all those who go through life without celebrating anyone or anything. If there is anything to celebrate then in Hector’s passing, it is that he was celebrated, feted and appreciated, commensurate to his talent and the love he most generously shared.

This is a sentiment echoed by Costas Cosmas, Hector’s bereaved father. When I embraced him, fighting back my tears, he told me how happy he was to have been able to share so many remarkable moments with his son, playing sport, listening to music, running back home during performances to retrieve forgotten violin bows but most of all, sharing their lives together. He also painted a picture of a fiercely independent critical thinker. As a five year old boy, Hector accosted the reverend of his school when he asserted that love was only to be found within the Christian communion stating: “You are wrong. I know people who aren’t Christian and they have love. Love is everywhere.” This was a manifesto of principle that would guide him through his life. At the conclusion of the concert, Costas Cosmas remarked how he felt the immediacy of Hector’s love and guidance as he struggled to find the correct fingering on his baglama in order to accompany the other musicians paying tribute to him. Yet it was this love that caused him to play the correct notes, time and time again.

On stage, musicians that have over the years shared Hector’s passion and have performed with him, interpreted rebetika songs that particularly inspired Hector and struck a chord with him. For Argyris Argyropoulos, close friend and fellow musician, the agonizing poignancy was evident in the timbre of his voice as he intoned familiar lyrics that formed a touchstone of a shared existence in his honour. A heart-warming interpretation of Hector’s beloved Beatles followed by his cousins, ingeniously accompanied by Argyropoulos on the baglama was a fitting reminder of Hector’s role in furthering the cause of multifarious musical disciplines within multicultural Australia and subsequently, in monocultural Greece.

As the waxing of the organized Greek community is overshadowed by its waning, it is now difficult to relive or revive the exciting, heady days of the generation of university students who were inspired by modern Greek poetry, literature and music and formed a lively sub-culture that energized the margins of that community. In this, as in so much else, Hector Cosmas was a main protagonist. Talents will undoubtedly emerge in the future, but Hector and those who he inspired and who continue his tradition will most likely be the last of the Australian born members of our community who will engage that community with those talents rather than exclusively embrace the mainstream, simply because there is now limited interest or commitment in investing in structures within our community to provide support or even an audience for such luminaries. Yet for those who do persist and who will remain, the light that still shines from Hector despite his passing, will assuredly illuminate their way.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 2 June 2012