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Saturday, June 18, 2005


Early morning sounds from Dinaz's balcony: the whirr and honking of traffic whizzing by on busy Syngrou Avenue, the grinding of machinery at the site of the new museum just up the street, street dogs barking, church bells chiming ding-dong-ding-dong, - the peeling of the bells represents a special evening calling the pious to the church. (On Greek Easter Good Friday you'llhear the steady monotonous bong-bong-bong of the funeral bells chiming all day long. For weddings and baptisms it's a more joyous ringing.)

\for me, a lazy morning, rising early to drink my coffee in the sushine on the balncy surrounded by the blooming hibiscus and other plants. Yesterday I had a day at the beach. Epame thalassa meta i filoi mou Christina kai Daniella. We went to our favorite Alimou Beach which has undergone some great improvements since the Olympics. A private beach: 5 or 3 euro admission depending on age group and on week days the chairs and umbrellas are free. All the amenities provided. The white sand is grainy and small pebbles and the water a lovely clear aqua. We sunned there all afternoon and I intend to return next week now I know how to get there on the new tram line.

When I got back to Dinaz's a group of us gathered to go to a free music show last night. These days in the various plateias (Plazas) there are open-air concerts and last night was an excellent rembetika concert at Thisseion.

We set off walking up Dionysious Arepagitou pedestrian mall to the Plateia. It's a lovely stroll with the acropolis all lit up in a golden light, musicians busking along the way: an Iranian man playing an instrument like a zither, a bouzouki player, a Russian with an operatic tenor singing the Volga Boat Song.

Music and dance have played an important part of Greek life since ancient times. Greeks love to sing and dance whether at a nightclub, a kefenion or at a concert like last night. The singing and dancing is usually acompanied by clapping. It's a wonderful thing to be at a concert or in a taverna and hear everyone burst into song especially if it's a rembetika tune, specifically if it's a composition by Mikis Theordorakis.

Musican insruments of ancient Greek included the lyre, lute, pikeis (pipes), kroupes (a percussion instrument) kithara ( a stringed instrument), aulos ( wind instrument) barbitos ( similar to a violincello) and the magadio (like a harp). There's an excellent music museum in Plaka where you can see copies of these as well as more recent instruments and listen to the audios of their sounds. The bouzouki is an instrument you'll hear everwhere in Greece and is used to play the traditional rembetika music. The word rembetika may come from the Turkish rembet which means "outlaw". This traditional music, a kind of Greek Blues, emerged in the 1870's from the low-life caafes (tekedes - hashish dens) in urban areas especially around ports. It became popularized in Greece by the refugees from Asia Minor.

The songs which emerged from the takedes had themes concerning hashish, prison life, gambling and knife fights. Music from the more sophisticated Middle Eastern music cafes
amenedes had themes centered around erotic love. These two types of music were blended by the refugees, from which came a subculture of rebels called manges who wore showy clothes - fedora hat, suit jacket draped over shoulders, flower in lapel, fingernail of little fingers grown long (for scooping cocain or perhaps to indicate they didn't toil at hard labour.) Most lived in extreme poverty and hung out in the tekedes smoking hashish from big narjilas (hookahs), singing and dancing. (Hashish was illegal but laws were not enforced until late in the '30's.) It was in a tekes in Pireaus (Athen's port) where one of the greatest rembetis, Markos Vamvakares was discovered in the 1930's.

After the censhorship laws and cleanup of hash dens, the music continued clandestinly, but the language changed and the recorded rembetika tunes became known as laiko tragoudi - disassciating it from it's "illegal" roots. A number of composers emerged at this time including Apostolos Kaldaras, Yiannis Papaiouanou, Georgos Mitsakis and Manolis Hiotes. And one of the greatest female rembetika singers, Sotira Bellou.

Rembeitka became popular again in the '50's and '60's but was less authentic although two outstanding composers were Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis. The best of Theodorakis work is the musix which he set to the poetry of Seferis, Elytes and Iannis Ritsos. (Last time I was in Greece Suzaki and I went to a concert at the Herodian where they were playing a tribute to Ritsos and Mistotakis was in the audience and came on stage to play one of his compositions. The audience adores him and the whole theatre began to sing and clap along with him. A thrilling moment!)

During the junta years in the '70's many rembtika clubs were closed down but revived in the '80's. The rembetika and laika performed last night was excellent: four bouzoukias, a keyboard, accordian and two soloists (male and female) The woman was especially magnificent with her throaty tremolo sining the "soul music" of Greece right from the depths of her heart.
The show lasted four hours, non-stop performance. By the end of the evening several men in the audience couldn't resist the urge to dance : the graceful dipping, swooping zeimbekikos
with it's whirling improvisations and the "Zorba dance", or sirtaki: a more stylized dance for two or three men or women linked arms on shoulders.

(Note: The folk dances of today derive from ritual dances of the past which were performed in Greek temples. Many are performed in a ciruclar formation because in ancient days dancers formed a circle in order to protect themselves from evil influences.)

There's more free shows coming up and next time I'll take my tape recorder along! I did get some good photos last night but wished I had taken along my little hand-held tape recorder as I'm sure it would have picked up the sounds clearly. The music was unforgettable!

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