Saturday, June 13, 2015

Markos Vamvakaris the Patriarch of Rebetiko - Concert, London

The Markos Vamvakaris (the Patriarch of Rebetiko) Concert took place in London, on the 11 June. This concert was first presented at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus in Athens, under the light of the Parthenon, as part of the Hellenic Festival 2012, marking the 40th anniversary of Vamvakari’s death. Curated by Greece’s foremost lyricist, Lina Nikolakopoulou, who was struck by the enduring power of Marko’s work and how young people were discovering it anew, it brings together on stage a super group of Greek musicians and singers. Stelios, who played at the concert in London, welcomed the idea warmly, a direct and authentic connection to the source.


With the songs being often so geographically rooted, film footage was shot on the island of Syros, in order to share the sense of place that was so strong in Marko’s experience. Finally, when asked whether he would consider reading from the autobiography of Vamvakaris, Alex Kapranos, front man of rock band Franz Ferdinand (and whose father is Greek), jumped at the occasion as a way of connecting with his roots. Franz Ferdinand came to fame in Glasgow – like Piraeus a shipping town with a one-time rough reputation; when Kapranos discovered that his grandfather had been Vamvakari’s doctor, it was an added bonus.
Whatever title you give him – ‘pioneer’, ‘trailbrazer’, ‘patriarch’ or ‘Commander in Chief of bouzouki’ Markos Vamvakaris is a towering, craggy presence in the history of rebetiko music. It’s enough to refer to him by his sturdy apostolic first name. ‘Markos’, he mused, with a touchin mixture of pride and wonder, ‘it’s a big name…a street is named after me in Syros. The name evokes the heavyweight solidity of a man who toiled and sweated, the working man, by whom and for whom laiko song was created.'


Born in Syros in 1905, he started helping his father feed the family at an early age. They had no money for a mule, so ‘barefoot and in rags’ they carried heavy loads for basket weaving from the rivers up to the village of Upper Chore. At the age of fifteen he dropped a boulder through the roof of somebody’s house, and stowed away in a boat to Piraeus. By then he’d already worked as a factory hand, a mule driver, drummer boy, butcher’s boy, grocer’s boy, newspaper hawker and bootblack. One of his most famous songs has the title: ‘Markos, Jack of All Trades.’ Over the next five years in Piraeus he was a stevedore, loading coal on and off ships. He left the backbreaking work to become a skinner and slaughterer in the Piraeus abattoir. For a man who frequently said ‘flowers, letters and music are what I like – and add to that fine clothes’, it was bad luck to have spent so many years in the most strenuous and filthy jobs imaginable.


Ha was born though, with an aptitude for rhythm and rhyme, and an appetite for beauty. His inner ‘dervish’, as he called it, his ‘aristocratic streak’ was crying out for a different kind of life. It carried him off on what his despairing parents called ‘the downward path.’ This took him to the underworld of the piazza, the bordello, and the hashish dens (tekedhes). This was the world of manghia – an alternative moral universe, where exhausted workers sat in shacks or caves, side by side with jailbirds, thieves and murderers, talking in arcane slang and smoking their argiledhes – either in stoned, companionable silence or playing and singing on their stringed instruments.


Even as a boy, Markos had begun to soak up ‘maghia by the ladleful’ in Ermoupoli, the port of Syros. Now in Piraeus he lived and breathed this cultural underworld, but his sins were women and hashish, not killing or stealing. He was ‘the best kind of mangas’, tough but sensible, a man of gravity and few words; in other words ‘a dervish’. ‘What I mean by dervish’, he said, ‘is that I was a mangas who could hold his head up high. I didn’t stir up trouble. People respected me, and I respected them…We made our money by the sweat of our brows.’
More than anything else, Markos was a man with a genius for writing songs that Greeks of all ages still know and love and an overpowering passion for the bouzouki. Markos fell in love with the instrument when he heard an old convict, Nikos Aivaliotis play. It was a coup de foudre, and he learned to be a ‘wild beast’ on the instrument in just six months. What makes Markos a trailblazer is that he took the bouzouki out of the tekedhes and set up the first laiko band, playing at a small dive in Piraeus. And so began the golden years of the Piraeus-bouzouki strand of rebetiko music. The disreputable bouzouki was now all the rage.

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