Those who haven’t seen Alkistis Protopsalti (Άλκηστις Πρωτοψάλτη) walking down to the audience have missed out on one of the most thrilling events in music shows. We had experienced it several times in the last twelve years since she had visited Israel.
I can’t think of any other Greek singer who feels more at home on stage. From the mid 1980s, Alkistis’ career is really a series of music shows, putting her albums aside. Her shows have been carefully design down to the last detail (“a setup of a fairytale”, as she puts it) and she always initiates unique, new, and imaginative special features. She performed on music stages, in music clubs and with symphony orchestras inside and outside of Greece, from China to Cuba.
One can see the kind of temperament Alkistis has from back in her childhood. She was born in Alexandria in the mid 1950s as Alkistis Sevasti Atikiuzel; the Ancient Greek first name was given to her by her mother, and the daughter loved it “mainly because of her radical decision to go against family tradition”.
Alkistis describes a happy childhood in Alexandria*, strict but affectionate parents who had to face a naughty girl who, when hearing the word “don’t”, did just the opposite. But they adored their daughter and, as she writes, she took advantage of this… She remembers the visits to the movies with her father, movies of adventures, history and science fiction, which she also likes today.
This life saw a traumatic change as her parents decided in the beginning of the 1960s to leave for Greece due to political events in Egypt. Alikistis remembers from this uprooting her parents’ distress and the custom officer who broke her doll’s head while searching for valuables. She never played with dolls again. She would play football with the boys, a tomboy.
In her teens she did athletics – 100 and 400 meters runs, and later volleyball. “Athletics was in my blood.” But she faced tragedy again when her father died suddenly.
The uprooting,“a drilling in the soul” and her father’s death matured her early, but “you always find the strength and hope to regroup your forces.” And this strength goes together with the ability to dare, as life deserves nothing without taking risks, she would say 45 years later.
Alkistis considered a professional career in athletics but a friend of her urged her to sing instead. She liked the idea and in 1974 effectively started a career, despite her mother’s “tempestuous objections”. She would still win over audiences in the coming decades, but not in sports…
From the outset, even in her teens, she worked with great names. The first was the composer Dimos Moutsis (Δήμος Μούτσης), who also baptized the name Protopsalti, which means ‘the first’, the leading cantor of the church’s choir. In September that year she went up on stage for the first time in Thessaloniki with Moutsis. She had a tremendous stage fright that caused her voice to vanish… until the first song… Her interpretations of the songs were not affected at all.
Let’s retell some great performances of Alkistis, as much as YouTube videos allow…
Ilias Andriopoulos concert at Odeon of Herodes Atticus 1994
We begin our tour with a concert. Alkistis Protopsalti had cooperated with the composer Ilias Andriopoulos (Ηλίας Ανδριόπουλος) for a few years in the beginning of her career. In 1994 his music to poems (by Elytis, Bourboulis, Elefteriou) was performed at the Herodes Atticus old amphitheatre in Athens (Ωδείο Ηρώδου του Αττικού) with the ERT symphony orchestra, choir and Protopsalti as solo vocalist.
It was one of the great experiences to everyone involved. ”For me it was one of the most beautiful nights of my career… we played with the symphony orchestra of ERT with Kontogeorgiou choir, under the direction of Andreas Pilarinos, in a packed Odeon with five and a half thousand people and a natural scene you will never forget, beneath the Acropolis and a full moon…”
In the video here Alkistis sings “Do Not Cry” (Μην κλαις) from the song cycle “Popular Suburbs”(Λαϊκά προάστια) to the lyrics of Mihalis Bourboulis (Μιχάλης Μπουρμπούλης). These songs are about the hard lives of the working class, songs of dark realism that “still leave the window open for the new, for hope”. The original version was given by Andriopoulos to Sotiria Bellou who brought to the lyrical music her rough, earthy voice and her Rembetika heritage** (this version became very popular).
After I had read a little about Andriopoulos’ music, I think that Alkistis’ interpretation highlights to us that these ordinary people do not belong only to their popular neighborhoods; they are part of the great history of their nation, rooted in old landscapes. As Andriopoulos wrote: ”She seemed as standing upright on a railing of a ship which is crossing the Aegean, to sing like an ancient minstrel with her divine voice, with her face raised against the winds and breezes, verses from Homer … “(press the bottom for English captions, you can enlarge the fonts by editing).
With Dimitra Galani at “Vox” Club 2005
In March 2005 me and my wife flew to Athens for 36 hours, just to attend Alkistis Protopsalti and Dimitra Galani at the Vox Club. It was a night that we will remember forever. “Tonight let’s become both of us a voice, a love, hearts that kindle up on the stage” they sang in the opening number, and from that moment on it was just that; the spirit and friendship between the two, their enjoyment and their great art electrified the audience in an unforgettable feast.
Here are Dimitra and Alkistis. In this (untranslated) video Dimitra first sings her “Made of Paper” (Τα χάρτινα) and Alkistis follows with “Gasoline Station” (Βενζινάδικο). This is the Greek version by Lina Nikolakopoulou of a Gypsy folk song that was arranged by the Serbian musician Goran Bergovic for the movie “The time of the Gypsies”. Alkistis saw the movie at the end of the 1980s and loved the music “at first sight”, and so a collaboration was born with Goran who, as he says, had already been influenced at the time by Greek music. He says: “Serbian and Greek music… were written to accompany the drink. From my first meeting with Greek musicians, when I first sang with Alkistis Protopsalti, I felt that my music was at home in Greece.” The collaboration produced an album and (what else…) very successful live shows.
Watch these two energetic artists, Dimitra and Alkistis – and the audience, among which we had a privilege to be that evening….
The Fairytales of a Voice (Τα παραμύθια μιας φωνής)-2002
Another song from Bergovic-Nikolakopoulou – “If there is a God” (Θεός αν είναι). This time Alkistis was telling her musical fairytales in the Athens Music Hall with the Prague Symphony Orchestra, along with her contemporary band and a choir conducted by Francesic Preisler. In this concert she sung for the first time in other languages (English, Spanish, and Corsican) and went on to perform it also in London and Moscow. Another winning bet by Alkistis… The translation here is not by us.
Alkistis, Lina and Stamatis
We had already written about the encounter of musician Stamatis Kraounakis and the poet Lina Nikolakopoulou.*** They had collaborated with Alkistis in the important 1985 album ”I walk around and bear arms” (Κυκλοφορώ κι οπλοφορώ) and a year later triggered a revolution in live Greek music when they created “Avenue” (Λεωφόρος), which Alkistis performed with Eleftheria Arvanitaki and Costas Gatonis. It was the first real Greek music show with a setting, costumes, direction, and a series of songs that were selected for these specific voices and that intertwined with each other to become one unity…
It was the beginning of many performances that both writers left their marks with. Alkistis and Kraounakis have a true friendship, but with Lina it was even more than that. “The way in which she expressed emotions was an arrow which pierced my heart and soul”. Their personal relations were a strong friendship, love and admiration, with conflicting natures that caused many disagreements but that always gave birth to a good synthesis (Alkistis describes herself as “nervous and irritable”, but she doesn’t hold grudges… “like little kids”). Here is a choice fruit of this triangular cooperation – ”The Salvation of the Soul” (Η σωτηρία της ψυχής)
Alkistis speaks about being on stage and the audience
“In each of my appearance I feel the same anguish, intensity and the same emotion like when I was at the beginning of my career… the feeling of the first night… the one that comes upon my body when the curtain is about to open… I feel like melting the feelings of the songs and explaining them from the beginning … I open the eyes of my heart and soul and I let the music fill every cell of my existence… This sweet agony, palpitation, the slight trembling of legs, I think it is the most beautiful symptom that a singer can have… this contact, the conversation from the scene with the audience in the stalls and the balcony is the most important thing in the life of a singer!”
“The most powerful moment during a performance or a concert is the explosive silence from the audience. I’ve likened it to a church, where you can hear the slightest sound of breathing and the moment of its introduction is like the light coming through the stained glass.”
“From 1974 until today, even though it’s been so long, I state that I am hopelessly in love with music, I am glad that I am growing through it and rejoice that in this long journey of life I have had great fellow travellers; of course I mean the people [audience] because even if you perform in the best theatre, with the best acoustics and the best machines, if there is no audience below you are a nothing …”
So we finish with a song that Alkistis always closes her performances with: “Applause” – Clapping (Το χειροκρότημα), a song that was written by Dimitra Galani and Lina during Alkistis’ first collaboration with Dimitra in 1986. Usually after the song before this last one she asks the audience “Have we finished?” and the audience roar in one voice “No!”. It is a custom in Greece that at the moment she sings the word “applause” the people of the audience start clapping their hands…
One more song “The third Wreath” (Τρίτο στεφάνι)
The story on Youtube Page (captions)
*More on Alkistis’ childhood in our post https://greeksongstories.wordpress.com/2011/10/05/a-city-of-heaven-and-earth/
And the song “Alexandria” http://youtu.be/JqNlJoG1sk8
**Sotiria Bellou version http://youtu.be/lZS139s3-Ik
*** About Lina and Stamatis: https://greeksongstories.wordpress.com/2013/01/05/tania-lina-and-stamatis/
More Alkistis’ live videos:
Alkistis’ official site http://www.alkistisprotopsalti.com/
Research: Anastasia Thanella
Editing: Shahaf Ifhar and Dan Matz
Thanks to Katerina Siapanda
Do not Cry
Do not cry and do not be sadden that it is getting dark
we who have been living in poverty
the rain of the world does not bother us
we who live alone
The houses are low
as deserted barracks
our summers are short
and the winters are endless
Do not cry and do not be afraid of the darkness,
we who have been living in poverty
the heartlessness of the world does not scare us,
Sunday will come to us too