I often feel that music is a special way of communication between people. In contrast to words (including song lyrics), pure music streams between people without conveying conflict. It is therefore the ultimate and easiest bridge between people, societies and cultures.
The case of the connection of Greek music to the eastern and Arab music is especially interesting. The location of Greece in the Balkan is an important historic place to both East and West. It represents the cradle of western culture, but Muslims too left their traces here after ruling for hundreds of years.
Music is deeply imbedded in the Greek, who inhabit islands not far from the Orient. They have openness to different kinds of music and, being mariners, are also exposed to it. In the 1920s of course there was also a population exchange with Turkey. For these reasons (and maybe others that we did not mention), the Greek adapted influences of eastern and Arab music into their own, without losing their basic “Hellenic” identity and without giving up on the West.
In this sense Greek music is unique. And it is a bridge between the music of both East and West, allowing for travel in both directions.
Needless to say – I am not a scholar in this subject. What I would like is just to open a window by bringing four songs that are related to Arab music and to see also how the language of music is indeed the opposite to conflict (as in the case of Israelis and Arabs).
Misirlou- Egyptian girl
The time is the 1920s, years of changes in the status of the western woman. Women vote, smoke, read magazines that are especially issued for them; the fashion changes, dress is more uncovered and free… faces are made-up… dark colored lips… swimsuits… hats…
But there were women from the “other world” – the Muslim. Women who were “either from Turkey, or from what had been the wider Ottoman Empire, moving around with luxurious dresses, colorful shawls, their bracelets, their slippers, their veils… leaving the eyes just looking clear and not blurry…”. These “magical, exotic, beautiful” women caught the imagination of artists, writers and travelers, and through their paintings, writings and stories they reached the hearts of many people.
In that era’s Athens the “oriental attraction” atmosphere was more than just a romantic sentiment. The mass of Greek refugees from Asia Minor (Turkey) brought with them their culture and memories, and their homeland’s musical style. One of them, Mihalis Patrinos, introduced the song “Misirlou”, which is a love song to an Egyptian Muslim girl.
Who wrote the music to this song? It is in the mist. Was it a common work by members of Patrinos musical group, influenced by Asia Minor’s music? Maybe initially it had been written there, or in the wider Ottoman Empire? Or maybe the right claim is that it was written by an Egyptian musician who was living in Izmir (and was once a Jew…).
The song was performed first in the end of the 1920s in Greek style; then begun its international course, firstly by Greek immigrants who brought it to America where it was first recorded. One Greek American musician, Nick Roubanis, changed its sound in 1941 from “Greek” to “Oriental” (and registered the rights on his name) and from that time onwards the song found its way on the wings of the oriental romantic mood all over the world into Jazz bands, orchestras of the “swing” era, Rock groups, the “Beach Boys” Pop group, Jewish klezmer music in weddings, and of course many Greek singers.
It also appears of course in the belly-dance clubs in the Arab world, who see the music as their own; and there is a chance that this is just true!
“Tender hand” and a lullaby
We are still in the 1920s with a fascinating short story about a folk Bedouin tune from Syria that found its way to the South as well as to the North.
In the south it was met with the new Jewish immigrants who came to their old homeland from Eastern Europe. The newcomers were not indifferent to the culture of the local Arabs, especially in music. Their new music in the new land inclined in its style towards the oriental music, and a few Arab melodies received Hebrew lyrics. There was an intention to find cultural and social connections with the locals.
I think that one of the amazing results where Eastern Europe met the oriental east is in the song “Yad Anuga” (Tender Hand). It is a poem which had been written in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 1906 by the poet Zalman Shneor, and at the end of the 1920s got the Bedouin melody, which was sung by the Galilee’s Arabs. The arranger added the words “Oh mother” which were common in Arabian lyrics, (and in Greece too) but were not a part of the original poem.
This melody wandered also from Syria and Lebanon northbound, to the Greek community in Smyrni, Izmir. There it was a lullaby… Go to sleep my daughter and I will grant for you Alexandria sugar and Egyptian rice and Constantinople to rule for three years…
Savvina Giannatou sings, first in Hebrew (with English subtitles) and than in Greek.
Ftanei ftanei – “That’s enough”, was introduced by Charis Alexiou in 1982. Its music is Arab and is widespread in the eastern Mediterranean:
Melina Kana starts in Greek and Haig Yazdjian, an Armenian musician who was born in Syria, continues in Arabic. (Greek lyrics – Michalis Fakivos)
“Enta Omri” (you are my life), a song of the Egyptian singer, “The star of the east”, Umm Kulthum, shows how music crosses borders and spreads among people’s souls.
The song was written in 1964, had been sung and beloved all over the Arab world. It is considered one of the important milestones of this important singer; the full version of the piece lasts about 70 minutes.
I think that what is striking is that it became very popular in the 1960s in Israel, especially among the Jews originating in the East, and that is despite the Israeli–Arab conflict, which in 1967 turned into war, and despite Umm Kulthum’s harsh political position against Israel.
In the last twenty years the song was interpreted by top Israeli singers in Arabic, and this time the wave of popularity streamed in the other direction. Zahava Ben and Sarit Chadad’s interpretations are very popular among Palestinians (despite the conflict…) and in Arab countries.
The Greek singer Manolis Angelopoulos arranged the first part (in the 1970s, I think), using the introduction of “Enta Omri” to segue into a Greek song “Your Kisses are a Fire”, which became very popular in Greece. He was welcomed warmly in his Tel-Aviv concert in 1987. Here again is Melina Kana: (Lyrics: Lakis Tsolis)
I would like to bring the first version of Ftanei-ftanei by Charis Alexiou. I think it is a masterpiece!
Notes: The first recording of Misirlou at http://youtu.be/LW6qGy3RtwY Here about “Misirlou” including links to many versions: http://www.musicheaven.gr/html/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=3271 Thanks Nata for the research and translations, and to Katerina Siapanda.