This post is dedicated to the memory of my beloved wife Anat who, by starting to collect Greek albums, had founded the love to Greek music in our home.
It was a springy afternoon in Athens ten years ago (2004). I and my wife stayed in the hotel’s room…a soft wind was blowing in and the shadows outside began to lengthen. The room had been equipped with a very uncomfortable bed but there was a disc player! So we put one of the discs that we had bought that day, and we heard something that was surprisingly new to us, new tempo and sound,vivacious and exciting…
We were new to Greek music and we didn’t know the creator of the song,Markos Vamvakaris (1905-1972), the “founder” of the bouzouki and the “Patriarch of Rebetiko”. “We all, we are but branches of a tree. Markos is that tree” said the composer Mikis Theodorakis.
I think that Markos’ story tells well how this music had grown up from the bottom to become a big and flourishing tree. From poor people in the margins who were hardly made a living and were smoking hashish and singing to forget, that were in odds with the law but persons with dignity and kindness.
Markos Vamvakaris(Μάρκος Βαμβακάρης) was born at the island of Syros in 1905. At those days Syros was the heart of Aegean Sea; the island of ship and factory owners, of actors and famous poets. He was the first of the six children of a very poor family. His father, who hadn’t a stable job, was playing the bagpipe in ceremonies. His mother was beautiful and joyful, joking, singing beautifully, full of life.
“We are Catholics, “Fragkosirianoi” (Catholics from Syros). Skali and the top of the island are inhabited by Catholics and the places near the sea by Orthodox.
Skali was a place with alleys and stoned houses, which had no yard. But we could go at other places….in Portaria we were wallowing in the dirt, at the big square of Ermoupoli we were playing football, in Pigi we could find cold water and in Skini we were swimming. Along the path we were picking figs and grapes, playing with boats made of cardboard and cans, chasing away the birds with reeds and picking insects lying on the thyme and enclosed them in matchboxes. In Syros there is the best sage and many fig trees but also carobs, pomegranate, almond and chaste trees down in the river.
During Halloween I with a tambour and my father with a bagpipe were playing music for the people to dance and we manage to gather up to 50 drachmas. When I was young I liked to stick my ear on a laterna (music box) and hear the music. One day the owner saw me dancing and from that moment he left me carrying his laterna and dancing for the people that were excited and threw in return money into our tambourine.”
Markos went to school for first time in as he was four, but he had to stop it three years later, as his father joined the army and he had to take part in the family’s livelihood.
He was helping his uncle to carry faggots of pistachio, worked with his mother in a textile factory and then at the local newspaper, at Zoula’s, sleeping during the night in a room with many other children or older persons…”After two months there I came in touch with persons of the underworld and the germ of punk life started to influence me. I realized that I couldn’t resist and sooner or later I would be embraced by the tentacles of this reckless life. So I had to escape looking for a job that would give me more money“. He worked in the central market, in shipping and tickets agencies, in taverns and joints. His son Stelios Vamvakaris says: “A small child was my father passing every day through all stages of life, seeing its beauty and ugliness, studying the society and learned to take care of himself”
“During the World War my uncle did smuggling of sugar and cigarette paper and our family was helping him. They captured my mother and put us all in jail for 15 days. In 1917 my father came back from the army. After a while during a foolish game (let a rock to roll on the roof of a house) and because I was afraid that I had killed someone I got into a ship as stowaway and sailed Piraeus”
After almost 20 years Markos returned as a famous musician to his home-island. He played with his co-musicians in a tavern on the beach.”While I was playing bouzouki and singing I was looking down. I was unable to look towards the audience because I was losing control. Once I lifted my head for a moment and I saw a beautiful girl with black eyes. I didn’t look again to the audience but I was thinking of her all night… When we came back to the mainland I wrote the song “Fragkosiriani”-(Φραγκοσυριανή -A Catholic girl from Syros). It is one of his classic songs about a sweet beautiful girl and a beloved island….
Stelios Vamvakaris sings in this version, with Giorgos Dalaras. (English subtitles)
The twelve years old boy stayed at his aunt’s house and soon came in touch with charcoal workers in the port and became one of them. At that time hashish smoking had begun to spread “I start smoking too. After a year my whole family came to live in Piraeus and my father worked with me.” After four years as charcoal he worked in the customs.
“Piraeus…neighborhood of the pickpockets, of criminals, drug addicts, crooks … my friends those days….the trains from one side of the port, the boats from the other and in the middle the brothels, bars, and joints. My parents were watching surprisingly my way of living…Someday policemen stormed into an opium den and for the first time I was confronted with fingerprints, court and jail and not because I did some offence or a crime but because happened to be there. Since then arrests were frequent.”
“Before going to serve my country in the army (1925) I had heard Nikos Aivaliotis playing bouzouki and I liked it so much, that I took a vow, that if I won’t learn to play bouzouki so well I will cut my hands with the butcher’s knife used for breaking bones. I considered my oath sacred and irretrievable. That caused a great suffering to my father and my mother. I was completely taken by that instrument. I cared for nothing else in the world. I learned to play in six months and was self-taught. For me the only school was the opium den. There I was listening to the other bouzouki players.
In the little society of the opium den ,with all these different types of marginal men … the only thing one wanted was just to smoke and come in touch with his illusions or listen something good….that’s why I would like to play bouzouki in there …because nobody was talking…they were just listening.
Even when I was called to serve my military service I didn’t quit my bad habits and I was just married… I was not disciplined, a frequent “visitor” of the guard room but they loved me because I was playing bouzouki.
Due to my bad habit with hashish and the fact that I was wandering from one opium den to another without working I was ashamed to look straight into my father’s eyes, which were showing all the pain for me …I was promising to him, that one day I will stand on my feet and with my bouzouki I will become great and with the money I will earn I will support again the family and he won’t have to work anymore. But he did not live long so to see me play bouzouki and listen to my songs on gramophone. He died at the age of 40 leaving orphans two more girls and a boy”.(1930)
Markos had begun to write songs in 1931. “I began to be distinguished from friends in my playing and people offered me a job. We made the famous “quartet of Piraeus”, with Delias, Batis and Pagioumtzis, that I had met in the dens. We were playing already 5 months and people from all over Athens were coming to see us.”(1932)
Stelios recalls: “The “newshounds” of the record companies had heard that there is a quartet of bouzouki players and people make a pilgrimage to see them. You should have booked a table 20 days before and for dancing you should get a colored piece of paper with a number on it.” In that year, Markos was for the first time on the gramophone.
“From time to time, between 1923 and 1935, I was working in the slaughter house and I was earning from 200 to 500 drachmas. But I preferred playing bouzouki. I was earning money and having fun with immoral women and every day I was stoned (the whole quartet was).
Then I opened my place using my own funds in “Aspra Homata” (white soils). My place was on a bay …you could play football or volleyball. It was full every night, but the police didn’t leave me in my peace…they were forcing me to close it” (1934).
Stelios: “There in the slums of Piraeus he was settling the dream of the day and from these people’s dreams Markos was creating his songs. All those poor people were listening to their sufferings and passions becoming a song; they were fooling themselves and continuing to live. Markos had passed a lot, came in contact with all sorts of people, cultivated his poetic language and sang about whatever around him seemed great to his eyes. For this reason people loved him, because he was healing the thorn they had in soul”
All the rebetes of the world, (Όλοι οι ρεμπέτες του ντουνιά) from a tribute concert to Markos Vamvakaris at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens (See appendix,English caps)
“After the tour in Syros (1935) I was playing at the bar of Vlahos, in Votanikos with my band. They came every night all sort of people….mangas …aristocrats …all the elite of Athens…. They all had a great time. One of these nights I wrote the song “Gadabout girl from Peraios”.(Αλανιάρα απ’ τον Πειραιά). Vlachos was a man with an iron fist. If there was a fight, he was trying to calm things and if someone was coming with the purpose to spoil the atmosphere in the shop, he would regret it.” Markos played there till the break of the war.
Here is the song, sung by Giannis Kotsiras, from the above-mentioned concert.(English caps)
We are back in 1922-1923…
“I was going often to spend my afternoons at my cousin’s house and there in the same yard was living the girl I loved, Zinguala (real name Eleni). We’d known each other no more than 10 days, when she called me “Fragkoskilo” -Dirty Catholic. But despite that insult it was love at first sight. We were seeing each other in secret from her parents for a year and then one night I run away with her. She was an Orthodox, a beautiful tall woman with black hair, which I was calling “lion”. I took her home and we got married. Although I was poor we were sweethearts. Even when I was working in the slaughterhouses she didn’t miss the food or clothing. When I started earning enough money with the bouzouki and bought her the best clothes and jewels, she looked elsewhere. She was cheating me with a friend, while I stayed up late or I was away because of my work. I was trying to advise her and live happily, but she was taking advantage of the love I had for her. I was very sad because all the mangas (dudes) of Piraeus knew me and we had the need of each other’s respect; I was feeling deeply ashamed. Every day I had quarrels with my brother Frangiskos, who wanted me to break up with her…until came the day of deliverance. We broke up. It took me a long time to get over with her. I was drinking, I didn’t care about anything and I had her always in my mind. But I had taken a vow not to reunite with her, even though I was running to meet her sometimes secretly, even after the breakup.”(Mid 1930s). Markos had no children with Zinguala and in 1942 he married Vangelio, the mother of his children. Markos wrote few songs for Zinguala and here is one of the most famous of them, “Dawn, at three o’clock” (Χαράματα η ώρα τρεις),sung by “Trifono” group. (English cps)
Ignorance and revival
After the Second World War, the public gradually lost interest in the music of the Patriarch of Rebetiko and it can be said that he was forgotten. For taking care of his family he was playing his bouzouki in small taverns and cafes, taking with him his son Stelios who was holding a small plate so that people will throw them some change. Other times they were working for as little as a meal… The music industry ignored him, he was considered behind the times.
In the beginning of 1960 Kostas Papadopoulos and Gregoris Bitikotsis reached Vamvakaris’ home as representatives of Tsitsanis, who was at that time the artistic director of Columbia record company. They went into the basement, which was his working space, and were shocked by his poverty. “Markos”, said Gregoris, “we’ll release your old and new songs on records”. Sometimes later they were gathered in the studio and the sound of “Your eyeslashes are shining”(Τα ματόκλαδά σου λάμπουν) came out to the world…Vamvakaris’ “second career” begun, a new period of songs, concerts and interest until his death on February 1972.
Here is this song, which opened our post, this time sung by Gregoris Bitikotsis:
Markos Vamvakaris was the most important rebetis. These people, in the place and the conditions they experienced, together with the freedom they took for themselves, experienced life and emotions in their sharpest colors. At the same time they succeeded to be a little outside watchers of this life, and with their talent to record it in songs…that’s why they are founders.
Here are few links for Vamvakaris songs:
Markos, jack of all tradeshttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJuJABJosoQ
I got engaged Young http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsd8Ky8oiSo
I am a vagrant http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4BYu3HtLb8
Last night in the dark http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2WkqHwsPt4Q
Make it Stavro make it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-3plk7TXkQ
The stoned http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hb-wSFtfVGQ
Black eyes, black eyebrows http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K37zwunBFhk
Bouzouki shindig of the World http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPTsIW47A98
Throw the cards, Gipsy woman http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PLq0ByoE4Hw&list=PLEN3xlbJed5qGG29CdOmlNi44cMzHMat0&feature=share&index=4
Your envious eyes http://youtu.be/ZRQbibWQYYs
Our friend Natasa tells about a tribute concert in the “Odeon Erodio Attiko” in Athens 22-23 June 2012:
“June 23, just before nightfall. My heart is pounding. I am approaching Herodion … it may seems strange but I had never watched a performance there. I am looking for the invitation, which a dear friend had left for me in the entrance .I freeze at the sight of a crowded theater with so great history behind it. Seeking for my seat I distinguished between public and many foreigners, tourists or people who live and work in our country .An evening dedicated to Markos. Vamvakaris, who expressed, as authentic as he could, the sorrows of people who suffered from poverty , social exclusion , despair and were looking to find a way to live their lives with dignity. With songs that sound the same pure, heartbreaking, breathtaking, like his troubled life and convey so much humanity and truth, that seem to comfort us in difficult hours we spend as a country and as people seeking their lost dignity and innocence. With the images on the screen you can wander in the alleys of Syros, see girls half hidden behind shutters, or waiting on their window for listening to a song from their beloved, feel the summer breeze or smell the jasmine. The interpretations are unique. Stelios Vamvakaris in the second half took away something from the lyrical nostalgia and gave a more dynamic sound of rebetiko. Ms. L. Nikolakopoulou at the end of the show made a pun (a play on words) for the possibility to leave behind Euro: “..We have a very strong currency “Marko”” (Markos-the name of Vamvakaris and mark, the German currency which in Greek is called Marko). The sweet taste, that the show leaves, is supported by the known “Halvadopita” of Syros and cool water, they handing out in the exit … I do not want to taste it immediately… I want to go home … sit at my balcony … close my eyes and relive the night …Thank you my friend “
I wish to all my Israeli friends to feel the same magic, when the show will be on there on May
The post is based on the books- “Autobiography of Markos Vamvakaris” by Ageliki-Vellou-Chail(Αγγελικη-Βελλου-Καιλ) and “Markos Vamvakaris “the saint magkas”, Stelios Vamvakaris about his father by Manos Tsilimidis(Μάρκος Βαμβακάρης, οάγιοςμάγκας Ο Στέλιος Βαμβακάρης για τον πατέρα του-Τσιλιμίδης Μάνος) and the documentary on Vamvakaris (most of the chapter on Zinguala is based on it). There are 7 parts, the first is in http://youtu.be/UXZL6cSSp0w
In our blog there are two posts that relates to Vamvakaris:
-About the “ignorance years” https://greeksongstories.wordpress.com/2011/09/page/3/
-About “Hashish songs” https://greeksongstories.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/the-magic-voyage-of-the-hashish-songs/
Many thanks to Anastasia Thanela and Katerina Siapanta