In Exotic Lands with Vasilis Tsitsanis

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This is possibly my favorite Greek photo. A similar one had already appeared at the head of a post in this blog*. Vasilis Tsitsanis (Βασίλης Τσιτσάνης, 1915-1984)) is the man who is sitting in a typical way, a little bent, carelessly dressed with crossed legs and the bouzouki in his hands, probably going to sing in his strange voice. He was the most beloved, and perhaps the most important songwriter and musician.

I remember that his songs caught me slowly and not always by the first rendition  that came to my ears. Sometimes I was looking for other singers of certain songs, and I couldn’t define exactly in what way his songs spoke to me as a non-Greek, but ultimately I liked them so much, as others have in our country.

Surely, for the Greeks there is also the Greek Spirit of his songs. “The anthem of the soul” is his “Cloudy Sunday”(Συννεφιασμένη Κυριακή) which is a kind of unofficial National Anthem.

It was not only his beloved songs and his beloved modest but charismatic character that earned him his place in history. It was most of all his part in the development of Greek music; he was the link between the old Rebetika and the Greek modern popular song (Laika)  from the beginnig of his career at the second part of the 1930s  as he was in his early 20s. Many have written about Tsitsanis revolution in the Rebetiko song. He took this music from the margins where  they had set it the antisocial elements and oriental style,to incorporate it into the new social realities of postwar Greece.He cleared the Rebetiko song of any vulgar and low, threw the slang and idioms, cut through the many twists in the music and Turkish motifs, enriched its themes with social elements and made it embracing the passions and the longings of the Greek soul. He sang the sorrows of the slums, the workers’ houses, the factories, sore loves, the taverns – with lyrics and motifs that gave them a subtle gentleness and a melancholy mood.” (Dinos Chirstianopoulos -Ντίνος Χριστιανόπουλος)

“He was an innovator and renovator” said Nikos Ordoulidis. By this way he took the Rebetiko from the lower classes of society and even from its margins to become  a popular music of  all social classes, the music of all Greek people.

These lines of Chirstianopoulos were written in 1961, as Tsitsanis’ career and creative powers were still great. It was his privilege to hear in his lifetime statements and to read articles that praised him and his work. The composer Manos Hatzidakis said that he believed that Tsitsanis was “a reincarnation of a Bach, a Beethoven, and a Mozart. This artist, not knowing put pentagram or a note, creates masterpieces!” And a famous conductor had responded to a piece that Tsitsanis had presented to him “This, my boy Tsitsanis, is a concerto!”

I don’t know how much we, who are not Greek, understand fully these statements. I will try to discuss it a little later when we talk about songs. It is a fact that Tsitsanis’ music is still the subject of articles, research and PhDs, and not only in Greece.

We dedicate this post to Tsitsanis’ “oriental” or “exotic” songs, about “Arabia”. (We already wrote about the connection between Greek music and eastern music **). These songs are a small part of Tsitsanis’ output – someone calculated it as 3% of his hundreds of songs (I have seen estimates of between 500 to 600), but few of them are very popular and are being sung, performed and recorded up today.

Tsitsanis did to the oriental Rebetiko song what he did to Rebetika in General. He was not fond of those rebetika songs in the Smyrna style, those with the oriental music and orchestration that were popular in the 1930s. He didn’t see them as part of his musical world and he emphasized this once and again. He introduced a new oriental style, dropping out first of all the oud, the santur and the mandola, and replacing them with bouzouki and guitar, using western musical scales. It is the tempo of the music itself, the rich orchestration and the imagination of its creator and his lyrics that leads to the orient, a world of fairytales, of women’s eroticism…

Let’s hear four of these songs…



The Witch of Arab Land  (Η μάγισσα της Αραπιάς)


In this song from 1939 Tsitsanis takes a suffering lover and with the Greek tempo of Hasapiko travels to Arabian landscape to meet a witch that will take the spells out of him. It was sung in 1939 by Stratos Paiomtzis and is one of Giorgos Dalaras’ favorites.

Dalaras knew Tsitsanis from childhood. As a son of a singer, Tsitsanis was a visitor in Giorgos’ home, and he remembers that Tsitanis was the only one that was referred to not by his first name but simply as “Tsitsanis.” Listening to the adults’ conversations revealed to the young Giorgos how much people loved and admired him and that he was a leader: “Tsitsanis did that… We have Tsitsanis on our side so don’t say a thing…”

Dalaras talks about the following version of the song: “Tsitsanis, as he had described himself, was anxious about the popular song. He did not want to live and die on the small stage of the taverns. It was something he was always saying to me during our conversations. I remember that once I told him: “I imagine the ‘Ungrateful’ and ‘The Witch’ with an introductions being played by a classical orchestra …they would sound like the small suites of Vivaldi”…

Dalaras did the song this way few times, and here is one of them. Dalaras cooperates with students of Volos’ Music School (Press on the button in YouTube for English subtitles, for this and the other videos. You can enlarge the fonts by editing)

And here is also a video of Tsitsanis and Dalaras in the same song.(untranslated)



Magic Nights ( Νύχτες μαγικές )


This popular song, along with other great ones (including “Cloudy Sunday”) was written by Tsitsanis in the 1940s in occupied Thessaloniki, a city that he loved so much. These songs were waiting for the end of the war to be recorded and then became popular. “In this city I prepared, in the occupation, the entire work. A work that came out of the dramatic pages of the era, a work that sprang from within my soul, a work that was in the best of my musical world,” he said.

The oriental atmosphere comes to life in the music and in the lyrics. The tempo is Bolero which Tstsanis “borrowed” from Latin music and adjusted it to Greek music in a way that allows it to be danced as a delicate, erotic “Tsifteteli”, which resembles belly dancing. (Tsitsanis was not the only one who used this tempo)

And the lyrics… maybe they are based on sailors’ stories from the ports of North Africa, but basically it is  an “oriental fantasy, complete with whiskey and guitars”  (Dorothy Lamour) “where the orient and the female eroticism are one”, a “man’s paradise” from the rich imagination of Vasilis Tsitsanis. Eirini Toubaki and Manolis Chatzimanolis sing:



Arab Flower (Αράπικο λουλούδι)

Let’s return a little to Manos Hatzidakis who had found in Tsitsanis a Bach, a Beethhoven and a Mozart. As of Bach he said it explicitly referring to the song “Archondissa” – Noble Lady which has, he said, a “melodic line [with] unimaginable strength and simplicity, approaching Bach”. One can find Beethoven in the first words of Apostolos Chatzichristos saying “ Vassilis Tsitsanis is the Greek shore, the Greek mountains, the sun, etc.”

For me Vasilis Tsitsanis is first of all Mozart. It is in his humanity, earthiness and nobility at the same time, no exaggeration, gentleness, some kind of completeness… and all these I had enthusiastically found about ten years ago in Eleftheria Arvanitaki’s version of “Arab flower”:

Eleftheria Arvanitaki – Arapiko loyloudi

The song, again in a slower “Bolero-oriental” tempo (as the next one) was first performed in 1947 by Stella Chaskil. (see link below). Here is a modern version by Eirini Toubaki with English subtitles:



Zaira  (Ζαΐρα)

Our last song is “Zaira”. It was composed in 1953 and was featured in a 1955 movie, “We caught the good (Πιασαμε την Καλη)” sung by Marika Ninou (1918-1957) with whom Tstitsanis had collborated often. Here is Marika (without translation):

Here is Charis Akexiou in a video from the 1980s (Lyrics Kwstas Virvos, English subtitles)



Old versions:

Magic Nights:  Iwanna Gewrgakopoulou

Arapiko louloudi –Stella Haskil




Research: Anastasia Thanella

Editing: Shahaf Ifhar

Special thanks to Katerina Siapanda

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