When talking about Greek soul music at the first half of the 20th Century, many will rightly focus on Rebetika, the music that had developed in the poverty of the slums and their hashish dens, which were overcrowded by refugees from the Turkish-Greek war of 1922.
However, there was another music genre at the time, actually European, which was popular with the higher economic classes, and at its best it was no less of a genuine reflection of the artist’s soul. A prominent artist in this genre of music is Cleon Triandafillou, known by his stage name Attik.
He was born in 1885 in Egypt to a very rich cotton producer and merchant. The family migrated to Athens and around that time his father died. His mother had a great passion for arts, literature and music. She used to conduct “music hours” in which she and her children played the piano, and she would not hesitate to hire a whole train to Paris for her family and the servants, so as not to miss Caruso in the opera.
Cleon’s sensitivity and appeal to sounds was revealed at an early age. He liked the droning hum of flies and “to watch [them] on the windows. How they fell in love, how they go two by two and how one fly speaks to another”.
Cleon studied music in Paris and very quickly became a sought-after young musician, lyricist and performer in Paris and over Europe,America and Japan. A serious illness of his sister, and the deterioration in the family’s business hampered his international success and brought him back to Athens. Here he developed further his composing and lyrics’ writing abilities.
He was married three times and he loved each of his wives very much. His first, Mari-Eleni died just a few months after they had lost their baby son. His second great love Marika left him for another man after four years, leaving him in heartbreak that would be translated into poetry and music. The third was Shura, a lovely Russian dancer whom he fell in love with during his visit to Russia in 1917. His painful experience of past marriages introduced some hesitation on his part, and they only married nine years later.
Cleon’s (or Attik’s) rich artistic qualities reached their peak in 1930 as he established the “Mantra”, a group of artists that gathered around his leadership and performed at the beginning in an outdoor yard in Athens. He starred in multiple roles as pianist, composer, lyricist, singer, actor, mime, and speaker. He improvised on the piano, whistled and exchanged humorous banter with the enjoying audience.
Nena Venetzanou sings a song of Attik:
One evening, Marika, his ex-wife and her second husband attended the show. The audience who picked up on the fact of her presence there implored Attic insistently and rhythmically to sing one of his favourites, the song “I Saw Eyes” that he had once dedicated, in the old days, to his beloved Marika.
Cleon-Attik, still embittered by that sight, stood near the piano and then left the stage; he returned after a short time with a new song, an answer that reflected his emotional anguish:
You ask me to tell you
my first tune
my obstinacies of the past
you ask, “I Saw Eyes”
you tear me to pieces
In an old wound
that is still bleeding
do not turn over the knife
since everyone knows
what pain it would bring to me…
At this cheer of yours
It would not be right of me
instead of another liquor
to drink such poison
with such a song….
As it turned out, Cleon would see another painful romantic event expressed in a song. As the years passed Shura, his wife, felt neglected by his preoccupation with the theater, his songs and the audience, and so at some point she surrendered to the love of another man, Theodoros Anglos. Cleon was severely hurt when he learned of this love. One day he incidentally saw them sitting in a cafe, and leaving on the table, as they were going off, a bunch of jasmine flowers that Anglos had previously offered her. As soon as they left he approached the table and took the flowers. Sorrowful as he was, he wrote the song about the one drachma jasmines that children sell. Ultimately he forgave her.
In rendezvous wilderness
in poor cafes
One drachma jasmines
that the children sell to us
learn so many secrets
that when separate any couple
clutch the bosom hastily,
not to fall suddenly
at the hand of the indiscreet
One drachma jasmines,
tell to the jaunty couples,
that none of their love affairs
live for many moons.
Cupid’s love has only one ugliness
with which he quip them all,
that for a new acquaintance
One drachma jasmines
forgotten on the table.
Cleon was lovingly devoted to his mother, without limits. “When she was moody he went to the piano, sang to her and she began to smile and change the atmosphere,” recalls her niece, and when she died in 1940 his creative mood suddenly fell on nothingness… and later there was the German occupation and its depressing troubles. This had further damaged his fragile soul, and his humor couldn’t save him this time. One day, on the 29th of August 1944, he drove his bicycle and incidentally stumbled unto a German soldier. That cruel man began mercilessly beating the helpless Cleon-Attik. He returned home bleeding. It was the last straw in his exhausted heart. That night he increased his dose of sleeping pills, and never woke up again.
‘Although they are from the other side of Greek Music’, said the notable Rebetikan Yannis Papaioannou, ‘Attik and Gounaris have a ‘watermelon field’ heart just like ours’.
Haris Alexiou sings: “You asked me to tell you”
In 1960 the song “One drachma jasmines” became a soundtrack and title of a movie (With a different plot). Here is the song which was interpreted by Orestis Makris and Jenny Vanou:
Notes: Cleon wife Marika’s second husband was Stamatis Mercouri; their daughter was the famous actress and singer Melina Mercouri. This post is based on several sources. The most important one are from a book “A story – A song” by Iraklis Efstratiadis and the other is http://trans.kathimerini.gr/4dcgi/_w_articles_qsite2_1_02/09/2008_246579 Thanks Nata for the research and translations