“Minos Had Put Me on the Gramophone”


Minos Matsas (1903-1970) was a lyricist. He wrote hundreds of songs, under his name and number of pseudonyms, few of them famous, with one having become a cultural icon.

But Matsas’ significant contribution to the music comes from the other side of the scene. As a charismatic director of the «Odeon-Parlophone» record company, and later the founder of  his own companies which became leading labels in the industry, he had an outstanding intuition for new artists and new musical trends, even at times when Greek society was unwilling to receive them; he signed those artists and made history in Greek music.

A collision of styles


In 1933, in his post at “Odeon” he discovered a creator that came from the streets, Markos Vamvakaris, with a new kind of music-the rebetika. Minos’ son, Makis, tells:”Vamvakaris appears in the office of my father, wearing a cap and a long coat as my Minos, and says: “Boss, I have some songs to play to you.” And doing so takes out the baglama from his coat pocket leaving next to him a larger instrument,that was then almost unknown in the music, a bouzouki….he starts playing his songs. My father hears something new, something that calls his attention, he likes it, he sees a truth that is in front of him, the directness, and  schedules  Markos a recording session for six weeks later 

The recording session was preceded by a recording of Nikos Hatziapostolou, a composer and a conductor of Greek operetta “who at the time was by far more commercial and most remarkable in the stock of art.”

After Hatziapostolou finishes his recording and gathers his musical scores, Vamvakaris comes with a guitarist and they begin to rehearse their songs. Once the conductor hears the first notes and the hoarse voice of Markos, visibly annoyed he askes Minos what these is about. Minos replies that this is a new kind of music that will surely impress, and Hatziapostolou demands angrily to throw them out of the building. Minos answers calmly:”My Maestro, as I do not intervene in your score, I ask you too –please stay out of my job!” .Those were the last words they exchanged; since then Hatziapostolou stopped collaborating with Matsas and his company”

A short biography 1903-1939

Minos Matsas was born in the town of Preveza in northwest Greece to a wealthy Jewish family of the Romaniotes, one of the oldest Jewish communities who had been living in Greece for more than 2000 years. His path to music began in his native town’s band, playing the clarinet. From a young age he had an aspiration to be a doctor, but as he enrolled to medical school at 19 he found that he could not stand the anatomy lessons, so he changed to law, while also starting to work at the Rural Bank to cover his expenses. From 1926 until 1928 he served in the army as a clarinet player in a military band.
25ce259c25ce259125ce25a425ce25a325ce259125ce25a3After Minos was released in 1928 he gradually tried his powers in lyrics writing, creating his first composed song, and he got the director job in «Odeon-Parlophone» record company.

Vamvakaris was not the only Rebetika talent that Matsas put on the discography. During the 1930s they wereseveral others, the most known to us being Vassilis Tsitsanis and Giannis Papaioannou.

Tsitsanis was hired by Matsas firstly as a Bouzouki player.  “One day, with much hesitation and modesty, he said to my father that he writes songs and that he wanted to play for him to hear his opinion. Indeed, listening to the songs, my father got excited and very soon recorded him… “(Makis Matsas).

So with his outstanding ability to “smell” a talented artist, songs and musical styles, as well as his stubbornness and persistence, he put rebetika on the musical map in the 1930s, releasing one hit after the other on the 78 rpm records of the era.

Surely one of his “secrets” was that he knew and lived music from inside. He wrote lyrics and sometimes music. Here is a very popular song from 1938-1939  with his lyrics (using here  the pseudonym Pipitsa Ikonomou Πιπίτσα Οικονόμου who was a family friend…). “Antonis the boatman” was inspired by a Spanish song and movie and composed by Spiros Peristeris.

(English subtitles on this and other videos)

The 1940s and the “Minore”

The war years and the occupation years were horrible for the ancient Romaniotes  community (and of course for all the Jewish people), as most of them were deported to concentration camps and were murdered, and so a special tradition (Which is different from the Sephardic tradition) received a severe blow to where it hardly exists today. Minos had to find a shelter to save his life, and it was in his friend Giannis Papaioannou’s home.

After the war recordings resumed, and Minos Matsas was signed on one of the most beautiful songs in Greek music, a song which is sung in many events with audiences devotionally joining in. This is very much a beloved song in our country as well. The song “The minor of the dawn (Το μινόρε της αυγής)” was also composed by S.Peristeris. Margarita Zorbala and Melina Kana:

The “minor” is the minor scale in music. The song is partly rooted in a melody from 1909 Smyrna which is called “Smyrna Minor”, (το σμυρνέικο μινόρε), a melody which was the base to many Turkish long love songs. The first verse of the song is based on a patinada (serenade) of Smyrna, which was a slow tune that youngsters used to sing outside the homes of their girlfriends. These songs were mostly sung in the early morning hours, after feasting, accompanied by violin and lute and they usually begun with “Wake up little darling listen to the minor of dawn”. The tunes and the words wondered throughout the years and and during the 1940s, developed into the song as we know it today.**

An audio of a Smyrna minor of 1909:

And this is the original version (1947) sung by Apostolos Chatzichristos,,Markos Vamvakaris and Giannis Stamoulis as was incorporated in 1959 in a short “cinimatetic” film by Kostas Ferris (the creator of the famous movie “Rembetiko”.)


The businessman

Kazantzidis_Marinella_1963 (1)444

Apart from the careers of the three great rebetika creators mentioned above, Minos Matsas had also launched those of Apostolos Kaldaras, Mairi Linda, Rosa Eskenazi, Panos Gavalas, Stratos Dionisiou  and Georgos Zambetas (the headline of this post is his quotation), to name just a few.

Giannis Papaioannou said on Minos: “Minos was human above all … he was a good character, an affable and clever man….he had a very good scent in finding new quality artists… If he was not there the popular song wouldn’t exist…”

But as it came to business he was a very tough man.  He usually signed his artists on a long term contract, paid them a small lump sum per song, and as success came he would not share with them the profit. When artists complained or wanted to leave, he demanded they adhere to the contract. (He was not much different in this from most of the other companies)

In 1960 he founded the company “Minos and son” which had a big share of the market. Minos already had a sever health problems and part of the management burden was on his son Makis.

Stelios Kazantzidis was the first major singer who clashed with this status quo, going to court and changing companies in a desperate effort to improve his terms.

In 1967 when he was still under contract with “Minos” he tried to found his own company, and released a few records. But “Minos” did not stay aside, and after some litigation he returned to work with “Minos”.  His hard feelings had not changed though: “They exploited me… we never had good cooperation,” he said in 1975 (after Minos’ death), as he decided to quit recording for this very reason (he returned to record after 12 years).

Minos Matsas was 67 at his death in 1970.

Two more songs

The first is The tough (Ο ζόρικος ) from 1947. If one finds the lyrics and the singing earthy and rough, listening to the tunes of the bouzouki leads us, I think, to the fields of Bach…

The second is “You are my man” (Είσαι εσύ ο άνθρωπός μου ) of 1950, music by Spiros Peristeri. Here we have a modern version (2009), arranged by the composer Minos Matsas, Minos’ grandson, for the TV series “The island” (Το νησί),based on Victoria Hislop’s famous book. It is sung by Adriana Babali. (for those who can’t watch the video there is an audio with the lyrics)

You are my man

the hidden passion

if I’ll lose you I will die

I will vanish from the world

You are my man

My heart’s joy

If you leave me believe me,

Disaster will drown me

You are my man

The heart that I love

The candle of my life

Which if will be burned out I will be lost


**according to the cited article Apostolos Chatzichristos, had a big part, or maybe the most part in composing the music even if he is not officially registered.

(about Kazantzidis)
Translation and research: Nata Ostria
Editing by Shahaf Ifhar
Special thanks to Katerina Siapanda

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