“…we are gathered and create songs like in the old times!” exclaimed with excitement Giorgos Dalaras while he was in the studio with Christos Nikolopoulos and Lefteris Papadopulos,working on their album “Don’t talk, Greece is in danger” (Μη μιλάς, κινδυνεύει η Ελλάς).
The year was 1989 and Dalaras was about 40, at his 20th year of career and Nikolopoulos was 42 with more than 25 years of professional music behind him. The future would smile to both till today.
Indeed, Christos Nikolopoulos (Χρήστος Νικολόπουλος), a composer and a bouzouki virtuoso is one of the last creators, some people would say giants of the “golden era” of the popular song (Laika) that are still composing and playing. He is responsible for composing about 1800-1900 songs and much more participations in recordings as a bouzouki player.
His exceptional musical talent that originated beautiful melodies and a hard, continuous work had put him at the first line of popularity. But there is something more than that; his modest and calm character, which put aside selfishness for respect to the era, to the lyrics writers and to the performer. So we find him inventing music for the last 45 years or more, a music that is basically of course his inner self, but also absorbed the style and the circumstances of the time; surely many of his song will remain popular for many years to come.
And as to the lyrics, “I had a special sensitivity to quality verse. Although I am a composer I’ve always believed in the equivalence of the lyrics with the melody” Excellent lyrics open the boundaries of the composer imagination. So quality writers and poets are always part to his songs and together they become a good wine.
But what has been striking me as a non-professional music lover is his genius ability to adapt his songs to a single performer’s voice and style, to fit them no less than perfectly, and so he did with so many singers! You can’t imagine his songs in other original versions.
There are seven songs in this post that tells just that; songs of various eras, lyric writers and performers…
As many artists, Nikolopoulos’ life affirms that “in scarcity resides the significance”* He was born in 1947 in a village in North Greece, to a poor and warm family. “The old brick house and the traditional oven in the yard, were the most warm and safe arms of his carefree childhood and a secure base for his subsequent evolution”. He tells: “One of my cousins had an accordion and I asked him to teach me to play a bit. The first music piece I learned to play was “The waves of the Danube “. One day I saw in my house a bouzouki. I asked my mother who owns it and she told me that my brother Giorgos had bought it. He was also a devotee but he had not taken the whole idea so seriously. So I started playing. At first I had reactions from my father, because these instruments at that time were not of good reputation. Then I started playing fast. I went to music school in Alexandria (Greece). I learned to read notes and after five months I could play pieces prima vista!!”** But he felt that he would learn better the secrets of the bouzouki by being an auto-deducted. For helping the family he begun to play professionally at 14 years of age in all kind of events throughout the region.”All the musicians were taking as fee 20 drachmas and I was paid only 5, because I was young at age and convenient person, although I was doing all the work and was singing also. With this money I had also to support economically my unemployed brother…My interaction with the Pondic Greeks, folk musicians and traditional shapes helped me gain experience and evolve significantly”.
Nikolopoulos understood that the key for the future lies in Athens so “in 1963, at the age of 16 I took the bus and with the wish of my father as my only supply I arrived in Athens”. There, working hard, again for a small salary (that could be a meal) he was gradually became known for his playing, cooperated as a bouzouki player with many of the era’s significant names, first in taverns and clubs and later in recording studios. Giorgos Zabetas named him in one of his dedications as “son”.“It was great luck for me to play with Zabetas”. He had played also with the bouzouki virtuoso Manolis Chiotis “Working with him was like getting my Master”. He composed and recorded with a friend some songs for themselves and in 1968 he introduced to the singer Marinella the music of his first four “official” songs (as he put it) including the famous “Bats and spiders” (Νυχτερίδες κι αράχνες). She informed her ex-husband Stelios Kazantzidis about the songs and this one became his first great hit.***
“I exist” (Υπάρχω) 1975
This is one of the most influential songs in Greek music history. The Greek Song is all about putting on the table all feelings and distresses, a way of healing the soul, but this song is unusual in the directness of the words and music expressing the feelings of a man after a separation from his woman.
A record company that Nikolopoulos had offered the music in 1975 had not responded. Even Stelios Kazantzidis denied it at first as they worked on an album at the end of that year. “When I played the song to Kazantzidis he didn’t like it. He said: “why to sing this slow rock tune?” It took him some time to realize that it was a laika song and when we asked Pythagoras to write the lyrics and heard the result he was thrilled” Also Nikolopolos was in ecstasy:”This was one of the rare times I saw that everything was perfectly matched to each other , and my feeling that great success comes”
All Greece sung it and despite its very “Greek” nature it became popular abroad too. “The resonance of “I exist” was shocking as if it was a new popular revolution. It became a slogan; shops, taverns, cafes and a company producing beverages were named with the title of the song; it created a unique and unsurpassed myth”
“The moments that Stelios sang “I exist” were amazing and spectacular and I was happy when Stelios excited told me: “bravo eh kid, you were right, this song is something else!”
Here is an original black and white video, with English subtitles (press on cc on the YouTube video):
Two songs of the 1980s
My Jealousy (Ζήλεια μου)
One of Lyrics writer that Nikolopoulos cooperated with, was Manolis Rasoulis. Nikopolopoulos was attracted by Rasoulis’ innovations in the lyrics, and Rasoulis said about Nikolopoulos that “each of his songs has something of the architecture of “Agia Sophia” (the Byzantine church in Istanbul)… light comes from everywhere”.
“My Jealousy” (1982) is one of Haris Alexiou’s greatest hits. It has been always a regular part of her performances in the last 32 years. The audience is always enthusiastic as we can see in this video of a tv show. (English caps)
Don’t come back anymore (Μη γυρίζεις πια)
This song is from the album “Don’t talk, Greece is in danger” of December1989 that was mentioned in the opening of our post. The album became “One of the most commercially successful albums not only in Dalaras’ career, but also of the two creators Lefteris Papadopoulos and Christos Nikolopoulos, that surpassed in sales 300,000 copies in a particularly tense time for Greece with successive elections and terrorist attacks”. Dalaras had taken here lighter approach, a continuation to his former album “Latin” of 1987. Many of the album’s songs became hits.
Giorgos Dalaras and Christos Nikolopoulos (caps)
Two songs of the 90s
The good night kisses”(Της καληνύχτας τα φιλιά)
We are in 1991, just two years after Dalaras’ album and what a change in style! Nikolopoulos writes the music for Eleftheria Arvanitaki’s great hit “The good night kisses”.The song is included in her successful album “Meno ektos”(Μένω εκτός- I remain an outcast). How perfectly this song fits Eleftheria’s voice and singing! Lina Nikolakopoulou had written the lyrics.
“You made the mistake” (Έκανες το λάθος)
In 1996 the 29 years old singer Kostas Makedonas is recording an album “Let’s go cycling uphill ” (Πάμε για ορθοπεταλιές) to the music of Christos Nikolopoulos and Lyrics by Aris Davarakis, except this song, which Makedonas wrote the lyrics himself to a music that had already been composed, and even been recorded in earlier album. The song became a hit along with other songs of this album and the orchestral version is also well known, abroad too. Again, the voice and the music are one…
Kostas Makedonas with the Plucked String Orchestra, Municipality of Patras (English caps)
…And one song of the 2000s…”Good Night” (Καληνύχτα)
We are already in 2013 to find what looks as a surprise: Nikolopoulos is making an album with Vasilis Papakonstantinou, mainly a rock singer that I admire; I think he is great. He had begun his career, like many, singing popular song, but for the last 40 years he has his own rocky style. He prefers to call it free style. “I was always expressing myself freely, just as I felt at that moment of the specific recording. I simply let my soul traveling beyond the four walls of the studio, as I would like it to be heard from me”.
In this album,”Paper bonds” (Χάρτινα δεσμά) Nikolopoulos,as usual, is sensitive to the singer’s voice, even catching his ability for high tones; they have found the “golden way” between their personal styles. I love very much this song and I have a feeling that it will be a”classic” in time to come. ( Lyrics: Thodoris Grammenos, English caps)
“I believe I am blessed by God because he gave me more than I had expected. Success, calm character and what it takes to live very simply and deal with things that give me joy. I like people being affected by my music. This gives me courage and confirmation that I did it well. Besides, music unites people. Singing a song at a concert or in a tavern, creates a unity among people, putting aside any difficulties or differences.
I am grateful for what life gave me, including my family. On my phone I have a message that appears every time I put the code to open. It says “thank you life.”
We are concluding our post with “In the bouzoukia of angels”(Στων αγγέλων τα μπουζούκια,Bouzoukia-a bouzouki popular club) , lyrics by Manos Eleftheriou. Christos Nikolopoulos has a special affection to this song and to the story it tells ( which can be viewed as a metaphor): At night the dead musicians of the Greek Laika (and rebetika), who were in their lifetime bums, or were scorned by higher social classes, comes as angels to the bouzoukia to sing their unfathomably numerous songs of their soul and pain. Here lies the essence; the fake adornments are thrown away and the soul is dressed with simplicity and humanity…and this pure singing make the bouzoukia a sacred place, a place of greatness, no less than the Byzantine time…
The version here of this wonderful song is sung by Themis Adamantidis, Dimitris Basis, Dimitris Mitropanos,Stella Theofilou and Eirini Haridou.
*Loudovikos ton anogeion.
** It means to play from the notes without knowing the music before
Christos Nikolopoulos and some famous singers round the table singing songs of him from the 70s and the 80s
Many thanks to Anastasia Thanela for the research and Katerina Siapanta for explanations.
It was really hard this time!