Alexis Zoumbas, ‘A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928’
Why is it that we need an act of violence to express the depth of expression another human is capable of, that our own ability to verbally convey the intense passion of certain musicians must be reduced or exaggerated to an act of violence undoing them from our auricular interest? Robert Johnson, Son House, Leadbelly, Exuma, Geechie Wiley, Skip James, Bukka White, Dock Boggs. Alexis Zoumbas.
Alexis Zoumbas was the Robert Johnson of Epirus. His fiddle pulled the sweet scent of Greek Tsipouro fumes and shepherd’s fields in through one f-hole and then out the other into the shit-filled streets and soot scented parlors of New York City’s Lower East Side circa 1926. Feared, famed, a killer of men, a conductor of spirits musically from one world to the next and back, shot through by love, forgotten and then found here again in 10 tracks folded into deluxe a tri-gate-fold vinyl thanks to Angry Mom Records.
LES legend has it that Zoumbas was the best fiddler Greece had produced and lost; killed his landlord, threw him in a deep dark well, left his homeland for the new world, wandered the 1920s streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan playing in prohibition peephole bars, behind partitions of shoeshine parlors, backs of barber shops and other saturated arranged gatherings, recorded 34 sides and was shot to death by his lover as he tried to board a boat back to his home land. You’d imagine he had a gold coin in his mouth as he died.
I have it on good authority that he did. It was a beautiful rose gold coin worn flat from worry, wear and loose leaf tobacco that bore the words: “The earth is insatiable. It will never be satisfied. Insatiable earth, how many people have you eaten? You will never let me go.” For a price, I held that coin once, and in a certain light, in a very dim darkening light, you can see the scared face of Alexis Zoumbas.
The contents of this exhaustively researched and lovingly curated collection seeks to dispel myth from reality, contextualize a reality that none of us presently is privy to, nor could ever substantiate, as it must. That is their job. We need their scholastic confines and reassurance that the world is orderly and not made of street tales and second hand slurred accountings. I mean, if musicologists were to accept the mythology of what the common street word was of that time, it would be like parents telling their children, “Well yes my dear, I did once see a monster under your bed. Terrible thing. I tried my best to oust him, but the space under your bed is so very vast, I didn’t even know where to begin. Good night my love, good night. Sleep tight.”
How could they? These keepers of the past, the ones who devote their lives to books, broadside and paper clippings, coffee stained accounts of forgotten aunts and uncles and offspring and what they knew of the real musician? They have to make it safe and contextualized, something catalogued alongside its peers, giants among giants, safely and orderly clicking off the hands of historical musical time until today.
But that is their job, they are the phonograph, the impartial device that brings us pristinely, as much as modern technology will allow, what is, what was. What was bricked over, but couldn’t be forgotten, what was exhumed. Alexis Zoumbas.
And I am telling you now, as one of a few first listeners in 2014 to the exhumed recordings of Alexis Zoumbas, as a first listener to this maddening sadness and recounting of loss, what the woman down the hall of your tenement would have correctly told you back then in 1926; that this man is a killer.
There is no way that someone could communicate such pathos, penitence, and tenebrous passion with a single violin without it being a result of a cover-up, a confession of these dark histories left in Ioannina and the expurgated recordings borne from the incessant canvassing of what was Manhattan of that time, in a hope to outpace the shadowing memories trailing behind and the inevitable slippery slope in front of us all. One drink leads always to another and a man thrown to his death in one country becomes quickly another, in whatever country you now cannot escape.
The piano, the guitar, the broken strands of chords that have served as protective barriers to hide the sins of our greatest musical myths (Son House, Robert Johnson, etc.) as if by a magical parlor trick, they do one thing with the hand while whispering in your ear the contrary. That what they are doing, the music coming from them is not natural, it is born from something we hope to never know, but can never resist the candle lure of.
But Zoumbas, no. A total unequivocal embrace. Every night in what is now your corner restaurant, an overpriced boutique of pens and clever calendars or perhaps still a word-of-mouth only peephole bar, he put the edge of his fiddle to his jugular, night after night, sawing his dusty bow back and forth across his adorned throat. Confessing deeds, lives taken, streets beaten, paths forever crossed or perhaps simply looking deeply into the audience and making a keening horse-hair gesture to tear streamed and fear filled drunken eyes of the next soul he would shove deep within the f-holes of his Devil’s Box not to return.
This collection of songs sounds like an empty shot glass being pushed across the dark of an empty early morning table. It feels like the gritty feel of compost made from the absent minded rubbing of the wood of a dirty bar. And it nags at your mind like a dream you can’t reconstruct. Intensely dark arpeggios that Carl Orff later conjured. Descending, hyperbolic glissandos that Warren Ellis unknowingly channels now. Rosin dusted string drones that Conrad and Cale would revive 40 years later in the very same streets. Start with the first track, “Epirotika Mirologi,” and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
These songs arch between Skaros and Mirologi, and tend to take deep plunging exertion into Mirologi. The first a musical plea used to for calming and herding. The latter to be sung over graves of the recently deceased for a period of 5 years until the bones were brought out of the ground and into the light again, washed in wine and placed in an ossuary.
The cathartic heave and hush of the majority of this music feels like that moment of calm and exhaustion that comes from deep grieving, the moment when it ends, and you feel joy and weakness, knowing full well the grieving is soon to return, a relief and readying for a second embrace of what is perhaps the most unavoidable human experiences. They guide through sorrow and seek to reconcile the remembrance with the absence. They are structured guidance songs, songs of imagined directions, filthy puddled paths, streets purposefully forgotten, omitted, bricked over. Dream streets, that the mind can’t let go of, canvassed mentally in effort to find a lost door, an overhang that almost allows dry passage, a corner where innocence was stolen.
For deeper treatments of this region and the music it gives us, please see Five Days Married & Other Laments, Song & Dance From Northern Greece, 1928- 1958. It is obsessed, like Zoumbas with this notion of Mirologi, of lamenting the death, the lost, the never-to-be-seen again. Zoumbas is deeply rooted in these tunes and this repertoire. The tracks found here in A Lament For Epirus, 1926-1928 are braided skaros, mirologi, and xenitia (the loss of people to another land), but it is the latter two that colors Zoumbas’ bow crimson more than any other concept.