As Sotiria Bellou (Σωτηρια Μπελλου) was singing the voice was telling all her story. Her metallic rough timbre is not trying to flatter or to charm; her singing is an assertive speech of a fighter and still sensitive, full of emotion, poetic and generous.
She had come from a family of good economic level and became a great rebetissa (rebetika woman-singer). She fought against the Nazis and for the leftists in the Civil War; a strong, honest, and direct woman who always said what she thought even in a defiant way and got the respect for this; “hot blooded” who didn’t hide her fondness for gambling and for a good drink. While she was never “out” as a lesbian, she didn’t pretend to be anything other* in times that people were not use to speak too much in public about it. Her appearance is well remembered, with slicked-back hair, dark glasses and simple shirts and skirts.
She was admired by artists, critics and very much by the public but never honored by the establishment during her lifetime. “Only after her death she was acknowledged as one of the most original voices of rebetiko that Greece has ever produced“**. There was a state funeral and few years ago a stamp was issued with her image.
“Open it open it” (Άνοιξε άνοιξε) . Music by Giannis Papaioannou, Lyrics by Haralambos Vasiladis. English subtitles:
Sotiria’s conflict with the “straight path” had begun as early as at childhood. Sotiria was born in 1921 in a town that in old days was called Halia and in nowdays Drosia, in Halkida.
She had not known shortage in her childhood as her father owned a grocery store. She shows her singing instincts from an early age, but her rebellious and hot blooded character caused her to be beaten regularly, especially by her conservative mother who was wishing her to avoid detouring off the “adequate” path of a family that belongs to their status. Her father, a peaceable man wanted to please her and liked her singing but didn’t show it.
“One day my father took me to the cinema to see the movie “The refugee” in which the leading lady was Sofia Vembo (Σοφία Βέμπο). I loved her. All the day I was imitating her and singing her songs in front of a large mirror we had at home. My mother was beating me and was saying:”What are these antics? Do you think that you are destined to be a singer? “But Sotiria knew what she wanted and she demanded it-a guitar.
She said to her father: “… you will get me a guitar or I won’t come again to work at the store!” and he did, hoping to avoid her wondering here and there…
Sotiria married very young (17 years old) against the wishes of her parents; her marriage was an immediate disaster: Her husband was a drunkard and beat her even when his shirt was not ironed as he wanted. A few months after their marriage she learned from someone that he had a girlfriend. The idea of infidelity seethed her with anger.
“I went to the cafe that was the haunt of Vangelis and found him sitting there and drinking with his friends …I put some vitriol in a cup of coffee for not suspecting me and approached him … I said “How are you Vangelis?’ and I threw the vitriol at him. He was lucky because he was wearing his sunglasses. Then I went to a client of ours who was a lawyer and asked him to accompany me to the police station where I surrendered”. She had been sentenced to three years imprisonment. Eventually she served only four months. She returned to her family but everybody in Chalkida and the newspapers were talking about the incident. This was too much for her family to confront with, and after discussions, accusations and beatings she decided to live for Athens. Sotiria got there in October 28th t 1940, on a train full of soldiers; it was the day that the Greece-Italy war begun.
Occupation and Civil War
After a while it was as if Sotiria had vanished; there was not a trace of her anymore for her family. Sotiria knew that she had left home to become “not just a singer, but a great one”, but few months later the Occupation started. Sotiria had to make a living by various jobs like a hawker selling pasteli (traditional sweet), house maid, luggage carrier and other jobs. She joined the Greek resistance, captured by the Germans, tortured and then put into prison. During the civil conflict after the occupation she fought with the leftists, first in the events of December 1944 in Athens and then in the Civil War which started in 1946; she was again arrested and imprisoned in “Kit Kat”,an underground cabaret in Athens.
All that time she was singing, when she had the opportunity (or initiated it…) in small taverns, songs of Sofia Vembo and Europeans, not rebetika. In 1945 Vasilies Tsitsanis heard her for the first time and was so excited that he immediately wrote a song for her. In 1947 she and Tsitsanis went on stage. She became a rebetissa and started to get fame; she would cooperate in the years to come with leading names like Vamvakaris, Papaioannou, Mitsakis and others.
In 1948, during the Civil War Sotiria was working at “Fat Jimmy’s” alongside with Tsitsanis and others. One evening, a group of Chites (Χίτες- nationalist, royalist and anticommunist organization) entered the club. They were holding against her the fact that she was an active leftist fighter in December 44 events. One of them approached the stage and demanded that she sing “The eagle’s son” (“Του αϊτού ο γιος”), a song written in honor of the King of Greece. Sotiria of course refused. Immediately, the rest of the group approached the stage and all of them gave Sotiria a terrible beating. The only thing that she had never overcame for the rest of her life was that not even two from the men sitting on the stage stood up to defend her, to respond to that provocation.
The grievance of the exile (Like an outcast I am wondering )Το παράπονο του ξενιτεμένου ( Σαν απόκληρος γυρίζω ),by Vasilis Tsitsanis. English caps.
The sailor (A boat from Piraeus ) (Ο ναύτης–Ένα καράβι απ’ τον Περαία) by Giorgos Mitsakis. English caps:
With airplanes and ships-Zebekiko (Ζεϊμπέκικο -Μ’ αεροπλάνα και βαπόρια)
So Sotiria was established as a leading rebetika singer, but as the interest in this genre diminished in the 1950s she found herself again struggling to make a living. The public regained interest in rebetika in the 1960s but I would say that the most significant co-operations in the years to come are with other genres’ musicians like Savvopoulos, Andriopoulos and Lagios***.
With Dionysis Savvopoulos(Διονύσης Σαββόπουλος) she found a common language. He is an important rock writer and singer, a leftist in his ideology who was challenging the regime of the Hounta. In 1972 he released the first version of his Zeibekiko; many would say that this is his finest song.
As usual with Savvopoulos the lyrics are open to various interpretations. We feel that it is the song of the outcasts, the refugees that were torn off their lands and the people that their freedom, their human spirit, their love are suppressed by dictators. Both have to find a shelter in the underground,metaphorically and physically. There they can shout with a loud voice their distress and grievance…but as the spirit of man arises with a “tremendous voice” maybe then will appear a wise man, endowed with humanity who understands that the essence and the truth is placed not on the surface but underneath, a man who manages to stand for what he believes, and than, as their paths will meet, the outcasts and the suppressed will be released from the underground to be free in body and soul.
The song is performed by two voices. In the first version (1972) Savvopoulos had sung both and in the version of 1975 with Sotiria, she sung the first and Savvopoulos sung part of the second. I feel that the first voice is what the speaker “says” and the second is what he thinks and feels deep inside.
The song is preceded by few words which describes Savvopoulos way to the song and Sotiria…the fear and the agony from electric shocks in the military hospital at the Hounta’s time… “Half dead” in the music club that time…rock scene (means also as “harsh moments”)… photograph with Bellou….
Savvopoulos says:”When we hear Bellou singing, we are overwhelmed with joy, because we feel through her voice that she loves us the way we are…When we went to the studio in order to record the song I was feeling so good by listening to her singing it and I was thinking that at last I created a folk (laiko) song. Bellou said to me joking after the recording that she could interpret pop music as well…”
(English caps. The lines in brackets are the second voice)
Popular Suburb (Λαϊκά προάστια)
This songs’ cycle (released 1980) was created by the composer Ilias Andriopoulos (Ηλίας Ανδριόπουλος) and the poet Michalis Bourboulis (Μιχάλης Μπουρμπούλης). It describes the hard lives of the working class’ people, “it is referring to the marginal districts of our country, where the state does not ensure, where there are accumulated problems and the children breathe polluted air..”, says Andriopoulos. The choice of Sotiria who came from the rebetika, and who had lived these environments seems natural but, as Andriopoulos describes, the work with Sotiria was difficult artistically as he had to respect her unique voice, and she, who had used to sing rebetika for years had to adapt his artistic requirements. Her difficult character didn’t help, but they managed.
The album slowly gained popularity, and it is considered classic. Both the composer and the lyricist state that Bellou’s interpretation, with the authority of her voice contributed greatly to the strength of those songs.
Sotiria performed the album’s song in her 1994 concert at Pallas Theater as she had sung for the last time. Andriopoulos was directing: “It was the epilogue. Upon then began the adventures of health, until she silenced forever (27/08/1997)”
The song Vathis Square (πλατεία Βάθης). Andriopoulos conducts.English caps.
Sotiria’s niece Georgia recalls: “She was a fighter, a good person, very sensitive and generous. When she was yelling or had a sharp language she did it to defend herself and usually with people close to her or that she was feeling comfortable with. She had a passion for gambling (dice). Even when she was at the hospital she escaped the building during the night and was going to play dice to forget. She had dices hidden everywhere in the house in various places and wrapped in papers…
She was a hard worker; she helped a lot of people and musicians at their beginnig without others to know…She didn’t owe anything to anyone”
Sotiria never negotiated her financial terms,” I was getting paid with the money they wanted to give me” and she had wasted it, so in her last years she was penniless (“even to get bread”, she wrote from hospital), she lost her voice in a surgery, was alone and ignored…
“I don’t know if I am the “queen” of the Greek folk song, as people call me, but I’m definitely a singer who interprets for 33 years the classic rebetiko song as faithfully as possible. I was singing with the same fervor for the poor and the rich and people respected me for this. They were coming to see me because they liked my songs”
***Perastikos ki amilitos”-Passing and silent”(1983) composed by Dimitris Lagios at
Part of the post is based on this video:
Andriopoulos comments are based on the video of Bellou in Sweeden:
“Eimai aetos horis ftera” I am a wingless eagle (Hatzidakis-Papaiannopoulou)
Many thanks to Anastasia Tanela for research and videos transcriptions
and many thanks also to Katerina Siapanda for ideas and explanations