Saturday, February 16, 2019


It was an impromptu festive gathering of friends with musical pretentions that turned into an inebriated parody of virtuosity. One after the other, we proceeded to infuse with spirit of the alcoholic kind, and subsequently murder, the entire corpus of the rembetiko genre, each of us maintaining that only we knew the authentic tempo of each piece, either cajoling the others to keep up, or pleading with them to slow down, thus ensuring a Ginastera dissonance, but without the rhythmic drive.
Purporting to accompany my esteemed colleagues, Colonel Klink-like on the violin with a profusion of scratchings and screechings for some time, and having just overly deconstructed Skarvelis’ immortal «Τι σου λέει η μάνα σου για μένα;» into randomly banging cluster chords of no particular coherency, I lapsed into Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A minor, to a tsifteteli beat.
“What the hell is that?” a bespectacled, middle aged male asked me, in Greek-accented English.
“Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in Asia Minor,” I shot back.
“Never heard of it,” he snorted, picking his enormously large proboscis, as he did so. His nostrils were particularly cavernous, disclosing a multitude of protruding foliage that vibrated like nervous antennae, as he spoke.
“The problem with you ομογενείς, is that you are musically illiterate,” the man observed. “There is a whole world of music out there and all you do is rehash rembetika and folk music. Your horizons are as narrow as your social development. In Greece, it is not like this. You don’t even have an appreciation of classical music here.”
“Which classical composers do you rejoice in?” I enquired, in Greek, hoping to head off a diatribe against the Greek-Australian community by one its manifestly newer members.
“None that you would know,” the man squinted, an almost impossible feat, given that his eyes were so narrowly placed together that when he did affect a squint, they seemed to disappear against the sides of his prodigious olfactory appendage, creating an interesting, if somewhat disconcerting Roswellian effect.
“Try me,” I offered.
The man paused for a while, playing with the hairs on the sizeable mole on his neck. This protuberance, a compound melanocytic nevus, lifted and twisted ever so slightly as he twirled the hairs around into a tightly wound rope. Then, lifting his hands to pontificate, he released them, causing them to swirl and return to their original position.
“Well, I much enjoy Bach’s Handel,” he finally opined, in English.
I’m glad you like Bach,” I affirmed. “I myself find Offenbach completely hyperbolic and insufferable. Especially his iconoclastic and irreverent treatment of our hallowed ancient mythical ancestors.”
“Who is this Offenbach?” the man frowned.
“It’s what you get when you leave a Bach cantata out of the fridge overnight,” I informed him.
“I like Mahler as well,” the man removed his glasses and began to clean them on his shirt, lifting it from the confines of his corduroy pants as he did so, exposing a hirsute, overhanging sternum. “I’m sure you haven’t heard of him. He was a German composer, the finest of his generation.”
“Ah Mahler,” I assumed the air of a connoisseur. “A morbid, tormented neurotic Austro-Bohemian bloke. Distorted, shifting tempos. Made unpardonable interpretations of supposed real life in Ancient Greece, during his conducting of Gluck’s Iphigenia. I have a dim recollection of an aged aunt possessed of musical opinions dragging me along to a performance of his Fourth Symphony in Athens at the age of fifteen. Completely underaged, you understand. Practices of this nature are barely legal.”
The man, having replaced his glasses upon his nose, regarded me with upper lip raised to the level of a sneer:
“We have so many Greeks excelling in classical music that you people know absolutely nothing about. Herbert von Karajan. Maria Callas. You wouldn’t have heard Maria Callas’ Aria of the Queen of the Night from ‘The Magic Flute.’ It makes the hairs of my arm stand on end.” He extended his flashy arm by way of corroboration. It was pale and shaved smooth.
“You know,” he continued, “I went to see ‘The Magic Flute’ here in Melbourne a few years ago. They interpolated a scene where Papageno is actually drinking Australian beer. Afterwards, I ran into Matt Preston, you know, the celebrity chef. He was actually there, wearing his cravat. I told him that this kind of irreverence for the arts would never take place in Greece. It seems to have augmented a special kind of philistinism in Greek-Australians, when combined with their own peasant culture.”
“Probably,” I agreed. “For one thing, they don’t drink that much Australian beer in Greece, do they? Although, I have always thought that the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ would benefit greatly of a beer scene.”
“Figaro, Figaro, Figaro,” the man proceeded to sing, in cracked falsetto. Tannu-Tuvan throat singers are trained from birth to compel their epiglottis to produce two notes simultaneously. This man was producing the whole pentatonic scale concurrently from the undulations of his nasal cavity and the effect was breathtaking.
“I think the libretto you are quoting is from the ‘Barber of Seville’,” I ventured.
“It’s Figaro,” he insisted, indignantly. “The Marriage of Figaro’ is about Figaro. What on earth are you talking about. This is one of the most famous operas of all time. What would you know?”
“Not much,” I admitted, “but I’m pretty sure that Rossini based the ‘Barber of Seville’, whence the libretto comes on the first of Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays, while Mozart based ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ on the second.”
“What about the Russians?” the man sighed. “Since you people are too Middle Eastern and backward to embrace, let alone appreciate western music, you could conceivably introduce your community to the Russians. Dark, disturbed and Asiatic. A bridge between cultures. A great starting point on your path towards civilization.”
“Not a bad idea,” I mused. “Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ could plausibly be used as the soundtrack to a videotaped record of a Greek brotherhood’s Annual General Meeting.”
The man was swiping his fingers upon his mobile phone. “What do you think of…,” he leaned closer to read the screen.. “Rimsky-Korsakoff.”
“While I have an open mind and understand that consenting adults do indulge in such activities from time to time,” I riposted, “I find these practices generally distasteful and completely unarousing.”
“You, like all of your compatriots, are ignorant and cannot appreciate good music,” the man interrupted, visibly frustrated, wiping his bald pate furiously, orienting the few remaining strands of hair clinging desultorily upon his head, towards the South Magnetic Pole. “Look at all the famous composers: Xenakis, Kalomoiris, Mantzaros…”
“Phoebos,” I added.
“Phoebos,” I replied. “The man who has written every single song produced in Greece worth listening to, since the year 2000. No other mortal can claim to have achieved a complete monopoly over the entire cultural content of a civilisation. That masterpiece he wrote for Despina Vandi, «Υποφέρω,» the one he won an award for, from Sir Richard Branson, still makes me weak at the knees. My only regret is that it is so brilliant that it completely overshadows the tonal complexity of the next song on the eponymous album: «Σταμάτα να μου κολλάς.» Furthermore, Phoebos, unlike other lesser Greeks with pretensions towards composition, is able to transcend ethnic boundaries and make meaningful contacts with other civilisations. Take his greatest global success, the divine «Γεια» which he wrote for Despina Vandi. It went multi-platinum in the Greek market, and then broke into the international music scene. It was included in the playlists of celebrated DJs and clubs worldwide, even reaching the No1 spots in the US and UK Dance Charts. No wonder he is named after Phoebos Apollo, the God of Music. These things aren’t coincidental, you know. The only person who can come close, in terms of international influence, is Yianni, and this, only because he gives Emmanuel Macron relationship advice.”
«Γύφτοι, καράβλαχοι, χωριάτες,» the gentleman spluttered as he extricated himself from his chair and staggered towards the drinks table. By way of coda to our conversation, I began to play Mozart’s Turkish March from the ‘Ruins of Athens,’ in the style of a hasaposerviko, a gesture of goodwill that my erstwhile interlocutor, now whining about the dearth of decent bourbon, failed to acknowledge.
Yet, despite giving me the cold shoulder, the man had not only planted but had also germinated an idea in my head. Approaching a veteran rembeti with reverence and awe, a man who would only ever deign to address me when asking: “Have you actually tuned that violin?” I waited patiently for him to conclude his conversation with a particularly nubile admirer of his art. Then, I timidly suggested: “Why don’t we start a Greek community classical orchestra?”
His eyebrows arched immediately in complete shock. Looking me up and down coldly, searing my insides with dry ice, he unwound my contention like a presumptuous viola string placed in error, or by unforgiveable design, upon a violin: “Are you serious? We spent our entire years in high school and university as music nerds. Now we are finally doing something that makes people think we are cool and you want to throw it all away? Who do you think you are? Yehudi Tsabasin?”
Thus having been sent to Coventry, by my musical Fonz, I packed my violin away, neglecting for the first time in my life, to unscrew the nut of my bow or to dust down my fingerboard and proceeded, with much shame into the exile of the drinks table, where my dialogist was waiting, a can of Jim Beam firmly ensconced within his pudgy grasp, there, in his intoxicated embrace, to misremember song lyrics, from the Aliki Vougiouklaki films of old.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 16 February 2019