Those They Left Behind: Tasos Halkias, “Five Days Married” and the Epirotic Resilience

Posted by on November 15, 2013

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Sat in a crescent on the dusty ground, the Halkias brothers – Tasos on clarinet, Kyriakos on violin and Fotios on lute – stare directly, resolutely into the camera. Behind them stands a congregation of men holding hands, smartly-dressed and grave-faced. On the far left a gentleman smiles alone, stepping forward with his hand on his hip as though he’s about to burst into a jig. On the right stands what appears to be a soldier. The grainy photograph, taken in 1938, could be said to represent Epirus, the northern Greek mountain area, its people, and its music in microcosm. Only three years after it was taken, Tasos Halkias’ home was destroyed in the Second World War, killing his wife and children. The catastrophe roused Halkias to return to military action, not as a member of the Hellenic Army for whom he had been wounded a year earlier, but as a member of  the ELAS guerilla group who would help keep Italy and Germany at bay in their bid for occupation and ultimately spark the Greek Civil War. His story is as gripping as it is tragic, but then the same could be said for many Epirotes of the era – close-knit, steadfast and fiercely independent, this was not the first time their community had been forced to stand up for themselves, nor would it be the last.

During the decades of unrest leading up to WWII and throughout the Greek Civil War that followed, many Greeks had no choice but to cross the world and take their music with them. By the time the Ottoman Empire crumbled and slowly dissolved at the beginning of the twentieth century, thousands of Greeks were already settled in America having left their increasingly unstable homeland searching for work and wealth. Initial settlements were concentrated in New Orleans, where the first wave of immigrants became prosperous enough to enable the establishment of the first Greek Orthodox church in the country. As the nineteenth century progressed and the Ottoman Empire failed to keep up, the influx began to increase, swelling the numbers from 15,000 to upwards of 350,000 by the early part of the twentieth century. New York, Illinois, California and Massachusetts welcomed especially large quantities, the vast majority of whom were men prepared to work in the mills, on the railroads and down the mines. Millions of dollars were sent back to Greece every year, eventually enabling families to make the trip across to join the pioneers, by which time they were being accompanied by huge numbers of Turks, Armenians, Georgians and other Ottoman nationalities, prompting President Coolidge to sign the Immigration Act of 1924 in a bid to “preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” By now the immigrants from the Ottoman Empire were able to set up their own businesses, creating homes away from home in major cities across the country and firmly establishing their respective communities. Greek food, textiles, newspapers and music had all begun to seep into American life, but something precious had been left behind.

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Ian Nagoski‘s To What Strange Place compilation for Tompkins Square shone a welcome new light on the music of the Ottomans last year. It was a thrilling set of CDs that revealed as much about America as it did the immigrants, providing a fascinating glimpse into the lives and creative impulses of a sometimes desperate, homesick people. Even still, by the time this music had been recorded it was already making concessions for its new homeland and was not always representative of the Greek tradition in its original, pure state. A great number of the songs on To What Strange Place deal with the struggle immigrants had leaving their homeland behind, despite what they’d suffered. Marika Papagika summed up the paradox perfectly with her song “Galata Manes” (“The more I pull away from the fire, the more it burns in me”), whereas others such as Achilleas Poulos’s “Nedem Geldem Amerika’ya” despaired at their situation in America without concession. “I wandered over here,” he wails, “now I regret it a thousand times over… I wish I had never gone.”

Quite often, and detrimentally so, Greek folk music is classified as rebetiko, an urban folk form popularized in the 1960s and ’70s by laiki mousiki artists such as Giorgos Zampetas and Sotiria Bellou – basically pop singers working with traditional forms. Rebetiko, although relatively flexible in terms of structure and rhythm, is perhaps comparable to the American blues, both in its gritty subject matter – which tends to deal with oppression and its subsequent woes – and the manner in which it has been misused as a kind of musical dragnet in which to collect a whole swathe of disparate traditional musics. Just as a “Blues” compilation may generally include rural and urban blues, gospel music, early jazz and work songs, a western collection of “Rebetika” might be composed of urban and rural folk forms, roguish kleftika from the mountains, relatively recent éntekhno, and Italianate kantadhes from the Ionian Islands. Classically, rebetiko is an urban creation, posited to have emerged from the desperation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century coastal cities being downtrodden and torn apart by the final flailing of the Ottoman Empire.

Rebetiko’s ubiquitousness is understandable. It was the first Greek folk form to make its way across the Atlantic and into the cultural hotbed of America, with commercial examples being recorded in New York as early on as 1919. Salacious lyrics were more permissible in America than they were back at home, and familiar-sounding instruments like guitars and bouzoukis became popular accompaniments. Rebetiko didn’t develop into a serious commercial force in Greece until the population exchange with Turkey in 1923 when incoming Anatolian composers such as Spyros Peristeris and Panagiotis Toundas seized its potential and brought it into the public conscience, albeit in a watered-down state so as not to disagree with the authorities. It was not until the Greek military junta was lifted at the start of the 1970s that Greek artists could truly get a grip on rebetiko and they did so in style, creating the so-called “Rebetiko Revival” and introducing it to a whole new generation of fans in the process.

This is where Five Days Married & Other Laments comes in. Compiled by Long Gone Sound‘s Christopher King (Aimer et PerdreDon’t Trust Your NeighboursPeople Take Warning!) from a selection of 78s he found mouldering in Istanbul, and featuring extensive liner notes with Robert Crumb artwork, Five Days shows off a little-known Greece in which farmers, fighters, remote villagers and those too poor to take the boats get their chance to shine. These songs were recorded between 1928 and 1958, a period of time in which the number of Greeks able to move to America was seriously limited by the Immigration Act, even if they’d had the means with which to do so. Expansion’s loss was music’s gain, though, and traditional forms continued to flourish in the mountains, hamlets, cafés and bars of a country cut off from the outside world; their stark, unaffected purity remains to this day and is presented by King in glorious fashion.

…Epirotic folk music captures the unfathomable clash of emotions that arises when simultaneously celebrating life and mourning death. The Epirotes, it seems, were unrivaled in their ability to come together in such times, using dances as a way of moving on and cleansing souls.

This is the music of the Epirotes – northern Greek border folk who shared a rocky relationship with their equally remote neighbours in Albania and as autonomous a community as was possible during Ottoman rule. The landscape, dominated by the mighty Pindus mountain range and the abyssal Vikos Gorge, was neither desirable as arable land nor particularly approachable by enforcers of the law, so life continued as naturally as could be and the cultures of two countries were allowed to mingle and bloom. King’s notes to Five Days prove invaluable in helping unravel a selection of songs that is as gnarled and knotted as the history that forms their backdrop, and he posits the Epirotic sense of invulnerability and resistance as the kernel from which this unique music was allowed to grow. Finding no positive evidence of overtly Christian or Islamic influence in the way these songs are structured and performed, despite both religions existing in Epirus at the time, King suggests isolation itself as being the most important contributing factor to the style. The Epirotes lived this way for centuries until the Balkan wars tore the region apart and it changed hands between Albania, Greece, France and Mussolini’s Italy in the decades running up to WWII. Epirotic guerillas were instrumental in sending the Germans back across the border into Albania to end their occupation of Greece, and they also played a major part in sparking the Greek Civil War from 1946-49 – the National Republican Greek League (EDES) started in Athens but chose Epirus as a base, meaning much of the fiercest fighting took place in the Pindus and involved naturally rebellious locals: men apart till the end, never happier than when left alone.

Tasos Halkias and his family are by far the best-known musicians on Five Days. Their recording career began in earnest almost a decade after the incidents described in the opening paragraph. After several years playing voluntary radio slots in Epirus’ capital Ioannina, the brothers travelled to Athens and met with a producer who set in motion a chain of events that would eventually see Tasos travel the world with his music. In the early 1960s he was in America playing Epirotic music in Boston, Washington and Philadelphia – cities that had maintained healthy Greek populations for the better part of half a century but had more than likely become accustomed to rebetiko.

Although the clarinet is not exclusive to the music of Epirus, it is the instrument with which it is most often identified. It is featured heavily across Five Days, likely in place of ancient and idiosyncratic pipes such as the floyera – or bone flute – and the karamusa. The nomadic lifestyles of farming Epirotes meant they crossed borders freely, coming into contact with isolated dialects and communities and taking samples from all. As King suggests, much of what is recorded from the era surveyed on Five Days drinks through roots planted right across the Pindus region – Roma people, Chams, Suliots and, most fascinating of all, Sarakatsani shepherds have all had an input at some stage through the ages, resulting in a truly unique music. In-depth and passionate about his subject matter, King’s words bring the music to life in a way that may have been impossible without them as a guide, and ensure these songs stake the place in history that they deserve. There are many stand-out moments, from Elias Litos and Lazaros Rouvas’ strange opening skaros, or shepherd’s song, that pitches thrumming eight-stringed lute against a crazed, bleating flute in an attempt to pacify rampant livestock, to the almost electronic-sounding fiddle wizardry that takes place on Manthos Halkias’ remarkable “Merko Moirologi.”

kitsosAll of these songs were recorded in Athens, far away from the mountainous landscape they were forged upon, and yet an authentic atmosphere still pervades through them. Despite the twentieth century dates marked down beside them, some may be centuries old, the progeny of the travellers and farmers. Albanian influence is evident in songs such as “Stis Deropolis Ton Kampo,” a song for the lovesick by an unidentified group, which scatters evocative Albanian phrases throughout its otherwise Epirotic structure, and Nikolas Halkias’ thumping jig, “Mperati Pogonisio,” that derives from the border-spanning area of Pogoni.

King suggests the overriding theme is one of chthonic festivity, and that Epirotic folk music captures the unfathomable clash of emotions that arises when simultaneously celebrating life and mourning death. The Epirotes, it seems, were unrivaled in their ability to come together in such times, using dances as a way of moving on and cleansing souls. The Halkias Brothers’ title track puts it plainly: “For five days only she was a married woman… On Friday evening she bathed, changed clothes and went away / Saturday dawn found her / by her husband’s grave.” Almost all the songs here either address death directly or allude to it in their mournful tone. Boys fall out of trees (the Halkias Brothers’ “Kyragiorgena”), young men are overcome by passion (“She’ll be the death of me…” goes Polyxeni & Kalliopi Litou’s disarmingly sweet “Mia Omorfi Yeitonopoula”) and ominous nightingales, associated in Greece with the grisly myth of Philomela and the tragedy of Aëdon and Itylus, hover above “Stis Derepolis Ton Kampo” and its worn out protagonist. And yet, as King put it to me in an email, it seems as though “practically any social event in northern Greece brought out the musicians,” including funerals. The precarious life-death balance is perhaps best encapsulated in Manthos Halkias’ take on the traditional “Samantakas,” which gradually evolves into a quickly-paced dance tune to reflect the growing desperation with which the Albanian warrior Osman Taka was reputed to have danced for his life when captured by the Turks in the 1880s, only to have been recaptured and executed soon after.

The respect for death and its inevitability seems almost to have been bred into the Epirotic people and, by the time most of the musicians on Five Days were able to record, its presence was never felt more keenly. King suggests it is likely that several of the artists on the compilation lost their lives at some stage between the years surveyed due to political unrest and – in Nikos Tzaras’ case – the fascist regime. Adolf Hitler’s armies tore through Epirus, razing villages to the ground and committing mass executions in Paramythia and Mousiotitsa. Alongside Sideris Andrianos’ laouto, Tzaras contributes one of the most affecting pieces of work on the album in the form of their 1934 “Kalokeraki” – or “Summer” – a heady dance in the tsamikos style that exudes a defiant kind of warmth and gaiety.

King has begun a series of introductory compilations for JSP Records that expand on familiar forms. The most recent, Beyond Rembetika, focusses largely on Epirus and features many of the same artists as Five Days Married. It has caused consternation amongst certain purists who argue its title is misleading, the fear being that it hints that there being only two types of music in Greece; rebetiko and that from Epirus. Their concerns are misplaced; although, as stated, there are other compilations available concentrating on Epirus, some of which feature the same songs and artists as King’s collections, although none of them are as easy to find, are as well-presented or  snappily annotated. King’s admirable aim is to open less well-known Greek music – after all, where is Tasos Halkias’ BBC documentary and exactly how many volumes have been dedicated to the provenance of the skaros? What Five Days in particular gives us is a passionate and attractive platform from which to launch our own journeys of discovery – something I have done, to which this essay should hopefully attest. Thanks to Chris King, the Halkias Brothers, Elias Litos, Nikos Tzaras and every other Epirotic musician on this terrific compilation are being allowed to keep up the good fight against the sometimes overwhelming tide of rebetiko, and they would surely find something worth celebrating in that.

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Five Days Married & Other Laments: Song and Dance from Northern Greece, 1928-1958 is available now from Angry Mom Records.