Saturday, June 18, 2011


I had heard Agathonas before I ever knew who he was. Travelling in my father's car as a young child, my father would play Haris Alexiou's interpretations of rebetika songs. In one of these, where she would relate how she was fed up with life and was going to migrate to America, where she would dwell among the sky-scrapers and drink whisky, her crooning would be interrupted by a terribly masculine and world weary voice proclaiming: «Πάψε τα παλιογινάτια πεισματάρα μου.» Some more strains would follow and an enthusiastic Alexiou would riposte with: «Γεια σου Αγάθωνα, γεια σου πουλάκι μου.» So I had a voice and a name, though I was thoroughly convinced that Agathonas was Alexiou's pet budgerigar. A founding member of the seminal rebetiko group Rebetiko Synkrotima tis Thessalonikis, Agathonas Iakovidis is considered one of the finest proponents of the Rebetiko genre. A self-taught musician proficient in bouzouki, tsoura, mandola, mandolin, guitar and baglama, he is particularly noted for his vocal dexterity and prowess.
Quite apart from his immense musical prowess, Agathonas is significant in another respect. His physical appearance is inordinately arresting. Lean, with a prominent forehead, a rich, drooping moustache and locks of long, thick hair bounding down the sides of his otherwise bald pate, like goats romping down the sides of Mount Gilead, and of course a large aquiline nose, the sounding board whence dulcet sounds issue forth, as well as kindly and piercing, twinkling eyes facilitate a most unmistakeable countenance. Yet slap a beard on the said Agathonas and he could dabble as Greek community stalwart, activist and Karl Marx doppelganger, Christos Tsirkas' brother. I put this to the aforementioned Christos Tsirkas at the recent concert Agathonas gave at the Thornbury Theatre, during his Australian tour. He accepted the comparison without his composure being ruffled and contributed further that in his opinion, Agathonas exactly resembled doyen of academic rebetika studies and erstwhile lecturer in Modern Greek, Professor Stathis Gauntlett. Being already possessed of a similar moustache, Christos Tsirkas theorized, all Stathis Gauntlett would have to do, is grow his hair long in order to perfect the resemblance. Come to think of it, his voice is remarkeably reminiscent to that of Agathonas, both like rebetika and I have never seen then in the same room together. Musician Tony Iliou on the other hand observes that on two separate occasions whilst strolling along Circular Quay after Sunday lunch, sundry Melburnian person's have accosted Agathonas with the greeting: "Hi David," referring to David Crosby of legendary outfit Crosby, Stills and Nash fame. Hmmmm....
Agathonas tour of Australia is exciting not only because of his presence in his own right, or the fact that he brought in his train the amazingly talented, supple and jointless Maria Dikta whose wrist undulations and magical passes as she plays her hand-cymbals are as mesmerizing as her vocal range, but also because with him returned one of the great luminaries of the Australian rebetika scene, violinist Hector Cosmas.
I am unafraid to admit that as a failed violinist, I idolize Hector. In my first year of university, my uncle gifted me Apodimi Compania's CD entitled 'Melisma,' and featuring the Galiatsos brothers, along with Argyris Argyropoulos and the great Hector. I was spellbound, entranced and profoundly moved, all at the same time and set about attempting to master the spells he was casting over his instrument. Sixteen years later, I am still at it.
Hector and his associates can be credited with the creation of a vibrant Rebetiko scene here in Melbourne, centered around the legendary Retreat Hotel. Most importantly, their dedication and virtuosity have propelled Rebetika into the broader Australian musical world as a legitimate and enjoyable genre, open to all. The fact that non-Greek musicians, such as the breath-stoppingly skilled Politiki lyra player Paddy Montgomery are now well entrenched within this scene can in no small part be attributed to the trail blazing work of Hector and other pioneers of the art. Furthermore, Hector is significant, as he has been able to successfully transcend the antipodean divide and establish himself as a highly regarded virtuoso in the more competitive Greek rebetiko scene, where he accompanies the greats, Agathonas included.
What was most moving about Agathonas' performance at the Thornbury theatre, apart from the return from musical prodigality of Hector Cosmas, was the fact that it soon became obvious to all, and indeed to Agathonas, who commented on it, that our own local musicians accompanying our Greek guests are in no way inferior to those of Greece. Indeed, accordion-playing Robert De Niro look-alike George Kyriakidis and the luminous guitarist Tony Iliou, both ubiquitous in the Antipodean music scene, not only proved that they could keep up with Agathonas, but give him a run for his money as well.
The major surprise of the evening was the youthful Fotis Vergopoulos, a master of the bouzouki and possessed of a velveteen voice that slides smoothly and gracefully from his tongue and makes the ear-drum of the listener swoon. The crystal clear clarity of his voice, coupled with the rasping earthiness of that of Agathonas makes for a perfect combination. As an emerging artist, Fotis Vergopoulos, who if he didn't steal the show, made it infinitely more enjoyable, certainly is a man to watch.
What is truly amazing about Agathonas is his self-deprecating humility. After all, the concert was advertised as being about him and yet, he was ever-willing to take a backward step in order to showcase the talents of the Australian members of his team. One could see him mouth to Fotis: "You sing now," nod in encouragement at the musicians, smile at them after having completed a more tortuous section of a song and emerged unscathed and laugh on the few occasions when, owing to the fact that the members of the group had not ever played together, sections were not repeated or suddenly ended.
True rebetika are impromptu, no holds barred, no beg your pardons and totally uncontrived. Agathonas' restrained banter with the audience and the interplay with the members of his group was warm-hearted, genuine and unapologetically, essentially him. As a result, an enormous amount of goodwill was generated, proving that one does not need to book vast venues and arrive here with a multitudinous entourage in order to entertain us. All that is required is respect for the audience, a love of music and the rest will follow. Agathonas' performances in Australia, along with Maria Dikta and Hector Cosmas illustrate this principle perfectly, while also bringing to light Agathonas' uncannily inexhaustible supply of Chuck Norris jokes. What they also illustrate, is that while we hunger for performances by quality Greek artists, we should also, as a community, make a commitment to fostering the development of and supporting our own Greek-Australian artists. They are just as amazing.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 June 2011