Saturday, March 07, 2020


“Yiota, who?” people in the crowd were asking themselves.
Γιώτα Νέγρα,” (the Negro) one of the Antipodes presenters, announced on stage.
I was viewing Giota Negka’s keynote Antipodes concert from the balcony of the Greek Centre. It was a thoroughly enjoyable performance, reinforcing her already established reputation as a talented entertainer.

Looking down at the crowd, however, save for a few pockets of fans revelling in the broad gamut of musical genres encompassed by the performance, it was evident that Yiota was not able to carry the crowd with her, to the extent that other performers have in the past. I wondered out aloud, why this was so.

“That’s because the oldies are stuck in a time warp, and they only want to see the “big names” from yesteryear, while the younger generations are only familiar with the skyladiko trash that is churned out of the community radio stations. The Australian Greeks have a total disconnect with the musical scene in Greece. They suffer from bad taste,”  a member of the audience opined. It was an opinion I heard over and over again on the Saturday night, one that has also, in part, has been reflected in various community media.

“We need to get those Pontians, the Cretans and Manassis Dance Group to stop doing their own impromptu street performances,” another attendee observed. “They hold up the foot traffic and they divert attention away from the main act. People get attracted by the music and they hang around there, instead of proceeding to the main stage. There need to be rules about this.”

As far as I know, the proportion of younger generation Greek-Australians who obtain their musical education from our community radio stations is infinitely slight. Yet it is also true that “entexna,” the genre of music that encapsulates an intellectual, socially aspirational form of modern Greek music that is de rigeur among the Greek enlightened or progressive classed back in the homeland, fails to tug at the heart-strings of the apodemic crowds. Are we possessed of bad taste after all?

Far from it. Entexna, and modern Greek music is largely irrelevant to the Greek-Australian experience and apart from aesthetic appreciation by those so inclined, lacks topographical context. Instead, when seeking to negotiate with their cultural discourse, younger Greek-Australians generally have as their starting point, traditional demotic music, exploring its various regional variations and permutations, the instruments used to create them, the intricacy of the dance steps employed to accompany them and of course the form of costume worn to convey the full aesthetic effect. Over the years I have accompanied a good number of musical pilgrims on their journey to folkloric self-discovery, marvelling at the dominance of our demotic past in articulating our modern identity discourse. Is it in fact an attempt to enshrine a culture long gone in a time warp? Is our whole existence as a socio-cultural entity an anachronism?

Absolutely not. The youth of today, the Cretans, the Pontians, the Manassis dancers, George Kyriakidis and his Floriniote brass band, blowing a gale of festive Macedonian music down Lonsdale Street, and so many others who devote their spare time to rediscovering and reinterpreting the customs of our ancestors are taking as their focus, the most logical of starting points: the time when we, the migrant Greeks, branched off from mainstream Greek culture, by virtue of our arrival in Australia. Since then, we have evolved culturally in parallel, the trauma of our own urbanisation in pre-multi-cultural Australia made bearable by the preserved memory of our rural roots. It is those rural roots, the attitudes that they engender, the perspectives that they foster and the cultural legacies they create, that shape and give meaning to the music of our people. They are the key factors that have mitigated against total cultural assimilation with the mainstream until now. They are our lived and remembered family history. Significantly, they create authenticity.

Most of us and most of our ancestors did not live through the parallel modern Greek urbanisation and political upheavals that engendered contemporary Greek music. We neither share the outlook nor the experiences that give rise to their expression. Where those musical forms clumsily ape western forms we have already been exposed to by virtue of our sojourn within the Anglosphere, we dismiss them for the inauthentic, cringeworthy imitations that they are. Where these arise out naturally of the social context of a constantly transforming Helladic polity, we can readily appreciate them, but seldom do we feel them in our hearts. They is not our music. They are not our voice. We have nothing to say to them.

Perhaps the younger generations that engage with the Greek musical tradition could be accused of an obsession with authenticity. Yet when one is part of a community that must locate the raison d’ etre of its existence thousands of kilometres away from the land that engendered its ontopathology, the search for its elusive fundamental elements assumes paramount significance. And we must not forget that it is those generations, not the older ones, the Demosthenis Manassis’s, the Nikos Papaefthimiou’s, the Joseph Tsombanopoulos’s , and so many others of our community who transformed what was a souvlaki and bouzouki fiesta, into a true Carnival, in the process, recreating a melisma of customs that had become extinct in this country, giving rise to an enduring Greek Australian tradition. Inspired by them, younger members of the community have reintroduced such instruments as the bagpipes and the kemenche into our mainstream community musical discourse, perpetuating a process of reinterpretation and adaptation of our musical heritage that began with Apodimi Compania’s exploration of Rebetika in the eighties. Were it not for them, the bout of Apokreatic functions that now dot the community calendar at this time, would not exist. These then are our game-changers.

Thanks to those ingenious and ever-resourceful younger generations, at the Antipodes Festival, elements of the Greek culture have been combined and juxtaposed against Maori, Aboriginal, Georgian, Armenian, Assyrian, Italian and so many other traditions in a way that older generations could have never conceived. The moving interpretation of our lost Asia Minor heritage by the Pan-Macedonian Association dance group evidences an emerging generation of Greek-Australians that is capable, again in ways that the older generations were not, to critically appraise and interpret concepts of cultural genocide, include hitherto ignored elements into our identity narrative, and relate these to a broader global discourse.

When Manassis grabs his bagpipes, and this year at least, having given the Epirote Folklore Tent a sabbatical, as I search for new and relevant ways to display all that it connotes in our own paroikia, I wear a goat hair cape, don a goat skull mask, and cattle-bell bedecked daughters in tow, skip, dance and bellow down Lonsdale Street, following the peregrinations of a Thracian hessian camel, and any number of masked, sword carrying dancers, all the time startling the populace with our Dionysiac yawps, we are not aping antiquated Thracian customs. In engaging with the irrational, such an important part of our identity, we are instead creating new experiences, fostering new memories and fashioning new precedents and pathways for future expression.

Similarly, when, in previous years Nikos Papaefthimiou roves down Lonsdale Street in a Datsun purveying watermelons and performing mock marriages, or the Street is blocked because the youthful Pontians and the Cretans are belting out folk tunes, drawing and ever absorbing the crowd in their maelstrom of dance and song, they are being far from obstructive. Passers-by are invariably attracted to them because of their energy, their youthfulness, their enthusiasm and most of all, their authenticity. These are not mindless minions, mechanically shuffling their feet to a number of predetermined steps by some demented dance teacher of yesteryear. Instead, having studied, absorbed and assumed the relevance the traditions of old, they present to a delighted populace, an exuberant, living form of music, which them becomes its own tradition grounded in the social context of our community. This is a key formula in the perpetuation of our hypostasis into the future, one we must embrace and encourage at all costs, not curtail.

Far from detracting from the “main act” the younger, “native” generations who are largely responsible for the cultural component of the Antipodes Festival, ARE the main event and it is the expectation that a concert by an artist from Greece while form the highlight of the two day celebration of Melbourne’s Greek community that is misplaced. Of course, we welcome, value and enjoy the contributions made by our overseas guests. We embrace them and enclose them within our collective bosoms. We do so in the knowledge, however, that we, the Greeks of Melbourne, and especially our latter generations have developed our own musical traditions, our own musicians and our own musical discourse that is complex, noteworthy its it its own right and equal to its Helladic counterparts. The nature of its mosaic is exemplified by the proliferation of various stages at the Festival, each presenting different performances but always acting in concert. It is a truly awesome phenomenon.

Yiota Negka was brilliant last weekend. The manner in which she was able to effortlessly glide between genres was astounding and as a quality performer, she deserved a more enthusiastic reception. Sifis Tsourdalakis, the Australian born Cretan performer who has challenged the way Cretan music is perceived both here and in Crete was also brilliant. The youthful members of our community, those responsible for making our Festival, the multi-faceted, multi-discursive manifestation of Greek cultural identity that it is today are also brilliant and they deserve our heartfelt appreciation, attention and a good deal more respect.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 7 March 2020