Giannis (Yannis) Papaioannou (Γιάννης Παπαϊωάννου 1913-1972) was a beloved man, “Uncle Giannis” (Μπάρμπα Γιάννης). He had navigated in world that is full of potholes with a big heart, flawless behavior and love for people; it helped him to solve conflicts between colleagues in the music scene, and many people, like Stelios Kazantzidis, received his strong support at the beginning of their careers. Manolis Chiotis said: “Giannis Papaioannou is a great personality of popular music, a mountain, but the best kid on earth.”
He belongs to the rebeticans, but he had his own style. One can feel a serenade in many of his songs. “He managed to fuse the style of the serenade with the one of the merry songs from the islands and with the sharpness of ‘rebetiko’, to write memorable songs.” He was the first rebetican who included backing vocals in his songs. He followed Markos Vamvakaris in resisting too many “embellishments” in bouzouki playing and was consistently against commercialization of the music, refusing to place his music into easily digestible molds, and consciously avoided getting comfortable by making cheap hits.
Giannis Papaioannou was born in Kio, Asia Minor (Turkey today). His Father Panagiotis was working on boats and had a good income. His mother Chrisi came from a wealthy family and was strong enough to overcome the father’s wasteful manners, gathering the money and bought properties.
One day his father was caught smuggling explosives to the Armenians. By the time he was released from the Turkish jail the conditions there had affected his health and he soon passed away, when Giannis was eight years old.”I remember him just like a dream”.
In grandma hug
“Then the destruction of Asia Minor in 1922 with my mother and my grandmother left for Greece. And this horror I remember as a dream…images that never left the mind! People were yelling for help and the sea was full of blood, chests, clothes and other things. We were financially independent, we had great fortune in Kio, but when we left, we took a pillowcase, images, photos and documents from Turkey… All believed that times would change and that they would come back…”
And after that came the Piraeus’ years as refugees. First in quarantine; hungry and miserable, despised by the locals who even stole belongings, and then in a shack, in the neighborhood of Tzitzifies. Giannis, still a child, went to work to feed himself, his mother and grandmother.
He was working various jobs; fishing and carpentering, in a trucks’ garage (also driving them) and often in construction. He was a strong boy but the earnings were low and the food was limited. At 14 (1927) he was working on the fishing boat of Andreas Zeppos about whom he wrote the famous song*. Their friendship continued for many years.
With Andreas Zeppos
Giannis had passion for music and sports. He played harmonica from childhood and in his teens played football as a goalkeeper. He was good in football as in all jobs, but one day was seirously injured during a game and had to stay in bed for a long time. After he got well his teammates came to call him back, but his grandma wouldn’t let them and drove them out. The young Giannis then made a deal with her: a mandolin in exchange for stopping to play football. And so he got his first instrument. From then on all his passion was in music. Later he swapped the mandolin with a guitar.
He began to sing with friends in the neighborhood taverns and at the same time, still under 20 years old, started building a contruction business with a friend. They did well and had money.
A major change in his life was about to happen. He wrote in his autobiography: “listen how I got the bouzouki and how I became Papaioannou: One afternoon I was sitting to eat in my working clothes in a restaurant in Tzitzifies and I heard a record that had been made in America (1932). On one of its sides there was a solo bouzouki in a minor tune. As soon as I heard it I got mad! It was “The minor of the opium (hashish) den” (Το μινόρε του τεκε) written and played by Ioannis Halkias (Ιωάννης Χαλκιάς). Mad! … it was unique… nobody ever wrote such a thing again…”
The bouzouki “flared up my mind; no matter how much I listened it was not enough.” He began studying its secrets and he could now afford to buy one. His mother harshly rejected and despised the instrument, telling him that she would not see him nor the bouzouki…he had to hide the instrument in a friend’s home; there, secretly he was improving his skills…
He got professional, playing in groups and with Markos Vamvakaris. In 1935 he recorded his first song “A Girl from Faliro” (Φαληριώτισσα):”Firstly, I sang it with friends on the streets. Many people heard it there. It was the greatest serenade at that time in Tzitzifies and Faliro.” Eventually he recorded it at the “Odeon” record company (with Domtris Sofroniou). “When they called me to the recording session I was still in my working clothes…”
Lyrics are by Vangelis Griparis. Here sings Nikos Androulakis. Links to the original versions are at the end of this post. Click “Subtitles & CC” on YouTube video for translation.
“Because of ‘A Girl from Faliro’ the place where I played became a popular spot of pilgrimage… It was something new, a revolution that had not existed before and touched the people deeply. When I went to get the percentages of my first song I went nuts because it was so much money, for a record at that time.”
The unprecedented success of the song would open the doors of record companies wide and so before the war he would record other well-known songs, such as “Whenever I have a Date With You” (Ραντεβού σαν περιμένω)”, “I Walk With a Grievance” (Βαδίζωμε παράπονο), and others.
With his mother
Then hard times of war and occupation came. In 1943 he opened his own place in Moschato and met with Evdokia Kambouri, to whom he got married in 1944 and had three children.
After the war the record companies reopened and in the second part of the 1940s Giannis Papaioannou wrote and recorded most of his finest songs. He now preferred to compose rather than to write lyrics.
“From the Port of Zea” (Απ΄ της Ζέας το λιμάνι-1946)
One of the first songs that he recorded after the war. The song describes a boat trip that begins and ends in the same port with two different names. The notable TV presenter Giorgos Papastefanou comments that despite the decades that have passed since its writing, the song remains ageless and charming, to remind us of the Greek spirit that has not changed throughout the hard events that had befallen the nation.
The singer in this version is Alexandra. Lyrics by Charalambos Vasileiadis (caps).
After the war he began recording songs with the singer Odisseas Moshonas. We tell the story of their collaboration in the second part of this post. Let us now present three other songs of 1948.
Turn Off the Light to Sleep (Σβήσε το φως να κοιμηθούμε)
“Turn Off the Light to Sleep,” one of my biggest successes, was written by my wife… One night I finished my work in the club and went home to bed. My wife started nagging. I told her: “let me in my troubles, and do not begin to murmur, at morning we will talk about it. Come on now, let’s not wake up the children, turn off the light and let’s sleep!” This is how it was written. It is a true story, it is a song of my wife that I sing every night in the club for her. The lyrics writer Charalambos Vasileiadis, the “bag” (Χαράλαμπος Βασιλειάδης, Τσάντας) shaped that story into a song. Vasileiadis was very educated and a very good lyrics writer but he sold his songs for five dimes or just gave them away… I know a lot of songs that he gave away to become big hits without his taking a penny. Yes, for free…”**
This version is by Thanasis Polykandriotis and Magda Pensou (caps)
“Be Brave, My Heart” (Κάνε κουράγιο καρδιά μου)
Foteini Velesioto (Φωτεινή Βελεσιώτου lyrics by Papaioannou, caps)
“Open It, Open It” (Άνοιξε άνοιξε)
We have already introduced this popular song in our blog. It is worth to recall Manos Hatzidakis’ famous lecture of 1949 on rebetika regarding this song. As to the characteristics of the rebetiko song generally Hatzidakis says: “in the melody, the lyrics and the dance there is neither outburst, nor fitfulness, nor tension. There’s no passion. There’s life in the broadest sense. Everything is given sparingly, unobtrusively, often with astonishing inner power. But isn’t this the principal, the grandest element that characterizes the Greek race? Moreover, isn’t the awesome grandeur of ancient tragedy and ancient monuments based on clarity, simplicity of form and, above all, an endless sostenuto (sustained way) that presupposes strength, conscience and substance?”
But “Open It” is something special, and an important song for this reason: “This year, Papaioannou conveys to us all this anguish but with a loud cry, the one and only in rebetiko songs and therefore so genuine.” (This was true for 1949, though I feel that after that year songs like Tsitsanis’ “I Was Born to be in Pain” (Γεννήθηκα για να πονώ) are also a loud cry, as Hatzidakis put it).
Here is Sotiria Bellou, who naturally dedicates this song to Manos Hatzidakis. Lyrics are by Charalambos Vasileiadis (caps):
In 1991 Manos Hatzidakis on the piano and the singer Fleri Dadonaki (Φλέρυ Νταντωνάκη) recorded this song along with other rebetika songs in a completely different way, which, I think, expresses his view as to the eternal and universal value of this music. So, it happened that in this post we have just made a magic trip of 60 years of rebetika, from the opium dens of 1932 to a delicate “bourgeois” melancholy of 1991…
The second part of this post is at:
*” Zeppos” https://youtu.be/9B7GcUPyOb0
**More on the “bag” in this post
A Girl from Faliro https://youtu.be/CoQUDyTLq-k
From the Port of Zea https://youtu.be/w569aQRWIvI
Switch Off the Lights and Let’s Sleep https://youtu.be/rTi1MOrHUlQ
Be Brave my Heart https://youtu.be/n99Gv7OVRY4
Detailed links in the second part of this post
Many thanks to my dear friend Katerina Siapanta for the songs’ translations.