Greece's songs of love and loss
In Greece, a new generation is revisiting its folk music tradition to find new ways of expressing its current troubles.
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There is perhaps no word that features more heavily in the lyrics of a century or so of Greek song than ksenitia (Ξενιτιά). Ksenitia lacks a proper definition in Greek, let alone an accurate English translation. Dictionaries define it as a “foreign land”, where someone becomes a foreigner. But this stops short of the almost metaphysical meaning that the word holds in the Greek psyche. Hithaerto, a Welsh word also untranslatable in English, is the closest term I’ve come across. But unlike hithaerto, the ksenitemenos are estranged, not only from the land they now live in but also from themselves. They are overcome by a profound longing for home, a home that might not exist any more.
Nostalgia doesn’t begin to cover the feeling of loss and alienation that this word is meant to convey. It is inadequate to describe the predicament of a people who twice in the last century and once in the current one saw large chunks of the population leave for greener pastures, seeking work in the mines of Belgium, the restaurant kitchens of Germany and the US, and the factories of Australia.
The suffering of modern Greece during the deep economic crisis cannot be taken lightly but compared to even its recent history, the country is in a better place today. More than 200,000 people have left the country in the last five years; they are luckier than the ksenitemenos of the past. Unlike their modern counterparts, the protagonists of the century-old folk songs who left their village, aged 16, for a faraway place that they would never understand, are dead. They will only come alive when they return to their homeland and to the chorio, the village of their birth.
One of the best-known examples of songs dealing with ksenitia and immigration is titled “Yianni mou”. My namesake is a boy whose handkerchief is stained by the tears brought to his eyes by ksenitia, “the desolate foreign lands”. Originating in the mountains of Epirus, the tune is played traditionally on the clarino and the violin, sung in a polyphonic style by a chorus of men and women, lamenting Yiannis’s suffering. This patch of land in the western Balkans, sitting in the mainland right across from Corfu, which was never considered part of the region, is old, mountainous, rugged and with a deep sense of history looming over it. Much like the Balkan peninsula, it is an area in which death was never in short supply.
Since at least the Neolithic era, the idea of communion with the supernatural always centred around death in Epirus. Its presence is heavy, from Dodone, the most ancient oracle in Greece and second in fame only to Delphi, to Acheron, the mythical river and entrance to the underworld, where the newly dead would be ferried across by the boatman Charon.
This preoccupation is evident in the music of central Greece. As you move north in the Balkans, it transforms to gypsy folk tunes, brass bands and often delirious rhythms that carry a bitter-sweet element evoking a hard-to-place longing. Composers such as the Bosnian Goran Bregovitch have made this world famous. The American artists Beirut westernised them to reach wider, younger audiences.
In those songs, too, death (or the fact that it hasn’t arrived yet) is central, even if its name remains unspoken. Epirotika is more explicit: one of the best-known parts of this music is the lament. The old ladies in the chorio, dressed entirely in black, would sing these songs during the procession to the graveyard and again after the coffin was excavated a few years later.
The bones of the deceased would be boiled and whitened, then placed in an ossuary. In recent years, the rediscovery of the music of Alexis Zoubas, an Epirotic violinist who recorded the traditional music of his homeland in Detroit in the early 20th century, garnered a lot of attention for this ancient traditional mourning rite. Zoubas’s violin, which has received write-ups in the New York Times and the Paris Review, evokes that old feeling of ksenitia in the heart of the listener.
The discovery came at a pivotal time for Greece, even if the echo is still faint in the collective subconscious. There is a movement forming for the rediscovery of the themes and language of these tunes. Some are even being reworked by musicians and bands who until a few years ago would have choked at the suggestion. The revival wave is slowly standing on its own two feet, a form of shared catharsis, revisiting the past to discover new ways of expressing the country’s current troubles. They look and feel strangely familiar. There are specific reasons for this: after two decades of economic growth and cultural Westernisation, the identity of Greek music production had been reduced to a simple aping of whatever was happening in the UK or the US. English-speaking indie bands were the only game in town in the 2000s, growing like mushrooms in the shadow of identikit pop.
Initially, literature, poetry and cinema failed to express the anguish of the Greek crisis. It wasn’t denial – it was shock. The suitability of traditional sounds for these contemporary themes became apparent only after five years. About 7,000 people attended a late-September concert by Villagers of Ioannina City, a stoner rock band reimagining classic rebetiko and Epirotiko tunes. They went on to play in Berlin and London shortly after. Brass Soundcolours from Florina are bringing back the big brass sound and the Dionysian rhythms that characterise central and northern Greece. Artists who have for years remained on the margins are now in the spotlight. What changed?
The first thing one must acknowledge is that the Balkans, historically the powder keg of Europe, are once again becoming unstable. Migration out of Balkan countries by locals and migration through them by Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans and others towards northern Europe are rekindling old tensions. The hold of authoritarian regimes such as that of Macedonia is slipping. Albanian nationalism is on the rise. Ethnic tensions are returning to the forefront and Greece – the guarantor of European power in the area for these past few decades – is in no shape to deal with it. The threats of kicking Greece out of Schengen over the current refugee crisis might be recent but Balkan countries have long felt increasingly isolated. Ksenitia has overtaken countries abandoned by their young people.
The need for rediscovery has manifested itself. Rebetiko, the southern cousin of Epirotika, is also becoming more visible. Its themes of drugs, poverty and heartache are again relevant. It feels like one can be ksenitemenos even in one’s own country.
One of the reasons why the foundations of Balkan cultures have been developed around communal activity and are always tied to a village rather than an area or a country is that, for large chunks of their history, these countries have existed either under weak governments or as puppet states. Death, hunger and disease had to be dealt with at a local level. To this day, when second-generation Greek migrants are talking about visiting the old homestead in one of Greece’s villages, they use the word chorio.
The big factors propelling this need for a rediscovery of traditional song are pain and isolation. The people who leave are educated and often distanced from the traditions (although there is a current of rediscovery in communities abroad, too). It’s the people left behind that are alienated, strangers in their own country. As the crises of a new century are unfolding, the themes remain constant. The refugees are arriving in Athens from Asia but this time they are Syrians, not Greeks. Albanians, half of whose country is in northern Epirus, are taking the road to the north. And death, in the form of boats capsizing and taking hundreds of people down with them every week, is closing in on the Balkans. This music – its themes and its metaphysics – is perhaps the most relevant and honest cultural response one could hope for.