Monday, 26 November 2007

Να ζήσης, Στελάρα

I’ve never been able to make up my mind about Stelios ‘Stelaras’ Kazantzidis (1931-2001). He is undoubtedly the most talented and loved singer in Greek popular music – having sung, as well as his own compositions, the songs of Tsitsanis, Papaioannou, Mitsakis, Kaldaras, Theodorakis, Loizos, Pythagoras, Panou and so on – but sometimes I find him lachrymose, morbid, self-pitying, sentimental, humourless and depressing and I wonder what the popularity of all these songs protesting injustice, bitterness, pain, mental torture, suffering, poverty, ruination and death, songs with titles such as Everything is Black; I Wish I Were Dead; If Only I Had My Health; and Catastrophes and Disasters, say about the well-being or otherwise of Greek popular culture and psychology.

This emphasis on fatalism, suffering and yearning for death is eastern – Iranian, Turkish and Arabic – and indeed Kazantzidis has refugee roots in Asia Minor and Pontos.

But more important than his Anatolian roots – and the hardships of his working class, war-time Athenian childhood – Kazantzidis’ father was a resistance fighter tortured to death by the Nazis – I believe what explains Kazantzidis’ style and substance is the severe depressive illness he suffered from throughout his life, but which is rarely mentioned in the hagiographies.

Kazantzidis was always an intense, introspective and isolated figure, but in 1965 he had his heart not so much broken as torn to shreds by the singer Marinella, who left him just one year into their marriage, an event that aggravated Kazantzidis’ already-existing persecution complex which fancied that record companies and colleagues were exploiting and cheating him.

Kazantzidis withdrew from a society he believed sick and a world he thought treacherous and when he returned, 12 years later, he seemed distracted, not in touch with reality, paranoid, a haunted man with a hunted look, though his voice was in tact and he seemed to find relief in the act of singing and in the lamentive nature of the songs he sang.

Today is Stelios’ name day, and, in honour of the man and the celebration, above is a clip of Stelara singing (in 1977) I Return from the Night – most poignant.

Another Stelios worth mentioning is Stelios Vamvakaris, son of legendary rembetis Markos Vamvakaris, and a talented musician in his own right.

The second clip is of Stelios playing his father’s Markos the Government Minister, and the contrast between the mournful, suicidal Kazantzidis and the witty, pragmatic, ironical and cynical Markos couldn’t be more pronounced. Two different ways of looking at the world, two different ways of being Greek.

Anyway, chronia polla to all Stelios’, Stélles, Styliànes, Stylianakia and Stelares.


Hermes said...

Good post. You are right about Stelios Kazatzidis. I could never really take a shine to him. My parents hated him. Not because he was a bad singer but he reminded them of when they left their island in their teens. The memories were bitter and his morose songs did not help. Also, I think because they came from an island where cantades, a mostly joyful sing song music form reminiscent of Italian serenades, were a part of life juxtaposed poorly with the Oriental influences of Stelios's music. Nevertheless, he had a great voice.

There is this interesting website on Vamvakaris I found recently. It focuses more on the music. And it also has the tablature to my favourite Markos song, To Koroido. It is menacing, brooding but witty.

john akritas said...

It is that eastern element in Kazantzidis which is problematic, but I've come across Greeks, ten times smarter and with much better taste than me, who absolutely adore Stelios. Apparently, Stelios – like quite a few Greek singers, such as Haris Alexiou, Dalaras and Glykeria – is quite big in Israel, and Kazantzidis did do some songs in Turkish too – in Turkey, that kind of fatalistic popular music is called 'Arabesque'. Anyway, it's not difficult to see how skilladika – which is the dominant form of Greek popular music today – came out of Kazantzidis; which is a pity, a pity that the dominant form didn't come from Vamvakaris or the continuation of the harsher, less sentimental rembetika tradition. Still, there are some Kazantzidis songs which are wonderful – like the one on the clip above – and it's hard to dismiss him altogether.
Good Markos site, by the way. I don't think I know To Koroido – it's on none of the CDs I've got – so I'll have to track it down.

Hermes said...

Rounder Records, which is an excellent American label that collects folk music, brought out a complilation of early Rembetika; specifically, original Pireotika Rembetika. The first song is To Koriodo which they have listed as The Sucker. You can listen to a sample here:

They also compiled this Vamvakaris record:

Listening to this I suppose much Greek music took the Asia Minor route rather than the sparser Pireus style. I think the Asia Minor style appealed more to the masses. It was more elaborate, dance orientated and feminine.