In recent days many of our Greek Facebook friends have uploaded music and links about Domna Samiou, a singer, collector, TV and radio producer in the field of folk music, who had passed away on the 10th of March 2012 at 84.
I must admit that I was not aware of how important a figure she was. All that came into my mind was a very short video which was made in the 1970s and showed the great classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a woman singer and other musicians playing a famous Greek folk song….
The singer in this video is Domna Samiou. In all three aspects of her work with folk music she had made a thorough, detailed and deep job, always performed with a lot of passion. As a collector, she was traveling for decades in all the far corners of the country, searching mostly for the elderly, to save songs from their lips. She started this in the early 1960s on her summer leave from work in the radio, traveling with a tape that she had bought with her very last Drachmas. “Most demanding of all was to find the right people who knew folk songs and even more, to convince them to sing. Each time I would go for recordings in the countryside, I would find the right people (and I still do) by going and asking in cafes, in neighborhoods or in municipalities, since people who sing well or play an instrument well and do it with gusto, are well known in their area.” And then she would research the stories behind these songs and she would add them to her large sorted archive.
As a producer, she was making programs starting 1954 on Greek folk music in the department that was founded and managed by her former music teacher and researcher, the renowned Simon Karas, from whom she had learned a lot, including how to collect folk music. In the 1970s she produced a TV series of 20 episodes on folk music. “The idea was to venture into the countryside and to unearth what was there, that we in the cities did not know about. So we found musicians, we found singers and we found dancers. And we would capture the people in their natural surroundings, with their tasks and their jobs and their homes.”
There are bigger archives in the country than Domna’s collection. But what makes hers distinct is that she was not only an outstanding curator of folk music, she also sang it, giving it the added value of interpretation, thus raising the songs up from mere “museum items.” She does not mimic any traditional style or school, but whatever she sings becomes an established form and interpretation… She does not revive forgotten melodies, but causes those who hear her to experience something which is buried deep inside their souls”(1)
A famous folk song from the Islands, “Tzivaeri” on the suffering of Greek immigrants abroad:
Αh, now a foreign land watches him grow –my precious one
my life’s sweet-smelling blossom –silently and humbly.
Ah, I was the one who sent him there –my precious one
It was my own will- humbly I’m stepping on my land.
Ah,Damn you foreign lands-my precious one
you and your promises –silently and humbly.
Ah, that you take my lad away-my precious one
and lure him to be yours –humbly I’m stepping on my land
And to think that all this comes from a woman who, as a young girl, hated schooling…
She was born in 1928 in the refugees’ neighborhood of Kaisariani, Athens. Her parents were refugees from Asia Minor (Turkey); they ended up like most of the refugees in small ramshackle dump shacks in an overcrowded area with no streaming water, bad sanitation and unstable jobs that produced little money.
In this harsh and dense environment where people were mixed up with each other, Domna acquired a deep connection with people and their folk culture. From childhood she absorbed sounds and music. Sounds of neighbors from the neighboring shack, separated only by wooden planks, sounds of quarreling over water, sounds of some local characters like the watchman who at nights was hitting cobbles on the road with his hefty rounded wooden staff so as to frighten away thieves, the “town crier” who would be passing by the lanes, advertising the butcher with his voice, the drunk singing Vangelis, the grocer…
“Despite the sadness and pain they had over losing their possessions, their homes and their homeland, these people slowly found work here and did not lack in spirit. They would go to the taverns that sprang up around there, drink a little wine or ouzo and sing,” says Domna. “…They were hearty people. If there was a wedding for example, they would all help out. The men would wear table cloths around their waists and help out as waiters, laying tables in the yard.”
And there were the songs. Her father sang ably. As he came back from his work as a road sweeper he would sit her on his knees and “bounce me singing little nursery rhymes”. Sometimes he would sing with her church songs that as a girl she was not allowed to sing there. There was no entertainment in those days so she and her father and other children would go to the church on Sunday, enjoying music, or to attend social events like weddings and funerals, or home celebrations where relatives would gather and make merry, and she loved singing in night vigils (women prayers that would go on all night). Those were her music theaters…
There was a little café to drink wine or ouzo and there was a man there with an old gramophone who took requests playing the popular songs of the time, like this one:(Video with pictures of the time)
And “From my early childhood I would always be the first to pick up any new song or dance.”
The years went by and Domna finished elementary school. In 1941 the Occupation had come; there was no work and severe hunger, of which her father died. Mrs. Zannou who had three children had taken Domna to her home in the wealthy neighborhood of Kolonaki “so that I could eat a plate of food and not starve to death, and of course help out in the house.”
It was a turning point in her life. “Whilst I would work sweeping or dusting or laying the beds, I used to sing and chant the type of music I loved. I remember I used to dream that I was in the chancel chanting…” And her singing did not go unnoticed by her employer, who introduced her to the music teacher and researcher Simon Karas who headed his own school. Without hesitation Karas accepted Domna to his school and choir, but said that she had to give up her aversion to high schools… “So in the morning I would work, in the afternoon I would go to Karas and at night I would go to the night school. You can imagine what a life I had, but I do not regret any of that.”
Domna joined the Radio and was still singing in Karas’ choir, till the early 1960s.. Only in 1971, in the beginning of her 40s, she sang her first solo on stage. It was in a club to which she was invited by the anti-Junta* singer and composer Dionysis Savvopoulos. She was skeptic whether the young audience would accept folk music. After the first song there was quiet for a few seconds and then “the audience burst into applause and my heart settled back in its place”.
Domna kept her amazing career for decades, till old age. Folk songs, different from commercial songs, have prevailed over generations. It is because they were born out of a genuine need for expression instead of success. “Domna Samiou re-discovered memories and connected us with the roots which uphold our country and the world as well… she gave us the ears to listen to them, the lips to sing them and the soul in which to keep them; a priceless gem.”(2)
From a live show here is a song and dance from Peloponnese,”All the birds two by two”, she is accompanied by choir of “The Domna Samiou Greek Folk Music Association”, which she had founded in 1981.
(1) Periklis Korovesis , Magazine , Emeis sta Xena , 1984
* Junta-the military dictatorship in 1967-1974
(2) Τea Vasileiadou , Newspaper , Imerisia , 3 May 2002
There is a comprehensive official site of Domna Samiou with information in Greek and English. This post and the translation of the song is based on it.
The song “Hasapaki” sung by Andonis Dalgas.
Much thanks to Nata Ostria and Shahaf Ifhar for their help in this post.