I was attending in 2005 a concert of Eleni Vitali in Heraklion, Crete. I already knew that she had had hard times some years before. My heart was moved by her singing; she has a great talent and a voice full of expression which comes from the heart and reaches you directly, with sadness, power, humor and joy. I felt then that Eleni won a victory, a glorious victory.
I think that Eleni Vitali is the most autobiographical creator in Greek music. As solitary a woman as she is, her unusual course in her art and career was connected tightly with her family, and more importantly, in her art as a writer and singer. She delivers her most inner, existential chords, even the darkest, in a way that people can identify with and love.
Eleni was born into music. It was 1954 in Athens when Eleni Lavida met the world for the first time. Her father Takis was a gifted santur player and a composer who had given music for the most important singers of the time. Her mother Loucy Karageorgiou used to sing in festive events in the evenings, and in the mornings she cleaned houses. They were of gypsy origin, with the tradition of music full of sadness and joy; they never experienced racism, according to Eleni.
Every morning Takis used to turn the radio on so that his child would listen to Um Kultum, and as she grew up a little, the Beatles also became an integral part of her musical diet.
Eleni was in the beginning of her teens as she begun to sing: ” …so because I didn’t like school so much and loved the music, and thought that we didn’t have enough money since my mother cleaned houses and we were in need, I wanted to sing and it was not difficult since both of my parents were related to music.” So, naturally, at 13 Eleni was traveling with her family around Greece standing on popular “palkos” (stage) at festivals and events, showing her great talent, gaining experience and a rich repertoire.
We are in the second half of the 1960, and Athens is a musical melting pot. On one side is the popular (laika) song, and on the other is the folk music with its traditional instruments as played in small clubs and coffee shops, attended by locals and provincials who flooded the Capital. Not only that these styles co-existed, but they surely influenced each other. Eleni music has been influenced from then up to the present, I think, by this combination of Laika, Gypsy, folk and Smyrni music, “charging the batteries with pain and joy.” (Melina Kana)
At the end of her teens it was clear to Eleni that singing is her life’s profession. Takis had to abandon his dream for his daughter to be a doctor, seeing her talents on the stage, making revenue, always being cared for and protected by Loucy, her mother, from the business’ sharks and insidious ways.
In 1973, as she was 19, she signed her first recording contract, changed her name from Lavida to Vitali, and appeared for the first time on a record (of Sotiria Bellou).
One of the songs entered into the timeless category. “Ai, my carnation” (Άι, γαρούφαλλό μου). It is appropriate that we have a pause in our story here to say few words about the song. The song was referring to Nikos Belogiannis, “the man with the carnation”, a communist who was executed after the Greek Civil War. This fact was hidden from the censorship in the time of the dictatorship in 1973, and to futher fool them, Argiris Kounadis appeared as the only composer to hide the fact that it is a Spanish Civil War song.
Here is Eleni Vitali in 2011:
Gradually, Eleni located herself as one of the important singers, cooperated with the most distinguished personalities in the music business, recorded albums and appeared on stages. In 1975 she married the musician Vangelis Ksidis and in 1976 she gave birth to their son Nikos. “It is very difficult to be a good mother. I wish I could do more… However, we grew as a family…”
In the end of 1989, Eleni surprised her admirers with an album with her own music and lyrics. “The Opposite Balcony” (Tο απέναντι μπαλκόνι ). These songs are purely autobiographical, and were written over a period of many years. The verses are “full of truth, strength, honesty”, mostly darkly colored, songs that touch the very essence of the existence of a fragile soul. They put “the knife to the bone” directly.
In the song “Ark”, (Η κιβωτός) dealing with her own existence she says to the creator of the world “I am part of your machine and my son is the spare part”. “It was not anger”, she says, “I felt my son growing inside me and I said in verse exactly what I felt”. “Small was my world,made to fit my insignificant standards, how could ever misery give birth a miracle?” She wrote in another song (” I sung”) and in “It’s getting dark”( Νυχτώνει ) she said:
It is getting dark
and me on a sofa, to travel
with a cigarette and coffee to look for you
you that I lost , you father
you that I lost, you mother
you that I lost, my outlandish Greece
you that I lost, you Eleni….
In “A Winter Morning”, she describes a real event, as she left home after a fight with her husband:
(this video begins with a taximi of Haig Yazdjian and then in 1:50 the song begins)
Another song which was created that time and has been identified with Eleni, but was not written by her is “Maybe the moon is to blame” (Ίσως φταίνε τα φεγγάρια), with lyrics by Tasos Samartzis and music by Notis Mavroudis:
Three years later she released another album which was named “Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf”, and then she stopped her career. “The sedative abuse will gradually lead to isolation, loneliness and depression. … occasionally she will have some participation in colleagues’ albums.” And she had her closest, real friends to whom she had been used to provide humor laughter and joy, for supporting her. In a TV interview she spoke openly about these hard times.*
2000 was a crucial year for the 45 year-old Eleni. She had returned, with a live performance at a music hall, which became a very good and successful album. Her comeback was not without hesitations and setbacks. In the booklet of the album she wrote: “Since I am afraid of my voice, how can I sing?… Is it me who is hiding behind the pencil? I don’t want to say it again, I don’t want the responsibility,” and the traces of the crisis were apparent occasionally in her live performances.
But there was a reason that gave her strength. Again the family was involved in her career, but this time it was not her parents but her son Nikos, who is a gifted musician, songwriter and a singer. He was the instigator. He gave his best for his mother; they performed together, and later released an single (with five songs) of his songs, sung by her.
In 2008 she released at last a personal album “7 and be careful” (7 και να προσεχεις), which brought to us a different Eleni in a way which, I think, is a triumph of the spirit of this woman. Indeed there is a song in that album which is called “Madness” and is about what had happened to her friend, but is essentially about her own fear of madness. “Fear is a vortex from which you can’t get out. I don’t know what madness is…”
In this and other interviews of the time she said that the artist should have responsibility, he should be careful about wording. In her previous period she sung “a bit sarcastically, that people are trying to convince us that only the fact we were born ‘is a great privilege.’ Now I know it’s really a great privilege. Ι wouldn’t write again ‘take me out of here, because the angel that I hide in my chest would be a stool pigeon’. Every person is an angel!”
“My demon is my egoism… I have a demon inside me that makes me feel like the center of the world. When it subsides, I feel much better. How to fight this? You must be able to accept that you’re a small part of a huge chain in this life. Being famous must be a physical result not the goal.
I had earned a lot of money and all this chasing burnt my soul… there were so many people around me who were not friends of the heart…”
But, “all those who stood next to me, they love me and I love them… And they continued to stand by me… they always had a sweet smile and a ‘Eleni, watch yourself’ … How lucky I am!”
“As I am getting older I become a better friend of Eleni”, she concludes and says it all.
Here are two songs from this album “A small crack with light”:
and “moored ship”:
* In this TV interview: http://www.ert-archives.gr/V3/public/main/page-assetview.aspx?tid=0000020514&tsz=0&autostart=0 Links: I apologize for not connecting each quotation to its source; this is for not to make the post too academic. Interviews: http://trans.kathimerini.gr/4dcgi/_w_articles_qsite2_31_04/04/2008_227955 http://www.boxtv.gr/2011/12/14/%CE%B5%CE%BB%CE%AD%CE%BD%CE%B7-%CE%B2%CE%B9%CF%84%CE%AC%CE%BB%CE%B7-%CE%BC%CE%B5-%CE%AD%CF%80%CE%B9%CE%B1%CF%83%CE%B5-%CE%BA%CE%AC%CF%80%CE%BF%CF%84%CE%B5-%CE%BF-%CE%BD%CE%B5%CE%BF%CF%80%CE%BB%CE%BF/ Others: http://www.protagon.gr/?i=protagon.el.article&id=4379 http://www.ogdoo.gr/portal/index.php?option=ozo_content&perform=view&id=3497&Itemid=29 http://www.ogdoo.gr/portal/index.php?option=ozo_content&perform=view&id=1452&Itemid=40 http://www.mic.gr/Artist.asp?id=10263 Biography by “Hazahov” in Hebrew: http://www.goldenathensnights.com/biography.htm A song of Eleni at Thessaloniki Festival, 1974 in which you can hear the enthusiasm of the audience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sobt7TWYfEs Research and translations: Nata Ostria Editing: Shahaf Ifhar and Dan Matz Many Thanks to Katerina Siapanta