Friday, November 25, 2005

Theodorakis Heaven

Chris Papaleonardos writes:

I've not been participating in the blog playlist thing (though I think it's a great idea), because I'm in a period in my life that I'm listening almost entirely to Greek music. This past summer was the first time I'd been to Greece in three years, and part of what that meant was that I bought all those CDs that had come out in the last three years and that I wasn't able to get over here.

As my friends all know, my greatest musical love is the music of
Mikis Theodorakis, who is also a personal hero. Theodorakis is best known in the United States for his film scores (Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek, Costa-Gavras’ Z and State of Siege, Lumet’s Serpico being the best-known over here), but in Greece he is known for re-shaping and creating the sound of contemporary Greek music and launching a cultural revolution that married music to poetry, and joined pop music to a broad, youth-oriented progressive political movement in the 1960s. During the years of the colonel’s dictatorship (1967-1974) he launched the anti-junta resistance movement, was arrested, imprisoned and exiled, and then traveled the world giving over 1,000 concerts to raise awareness and money for the anti-junta struggle, becoming a worldwide symbol of freedom and resistance, not just for Greeks but for all oppressed peoples. He is easily the most important musical figure of modern Greece, and probably the most important Greek cultural figure of the 20th century.

And since this summer I've been in Theodorakis heaven. While in Greece I attended two concerts honoring his 80th year of life (there's been a series of them across the country), both featuring my favorite vocalist,
Maria Farantouri. I feel that I could die tomorrow and have been fortunate to have her voice -- mostly singing Mikis' music -- as the ever-present soundtrack to my life.

I had already entered a "Mikis phase" last spring, when I began systematically ripping all of his music to my computer and then to my iPod. Armed with a catalogue of his works -- over 500 in all, including around 80 song cycles (pop songs), 5 operas, 6 symphonies, dozens of pieces of chamber music, a dozen oratorios/cantatas, dozens of film scores, choral pieces, liturgical music, songs & music for the stage... I've got 15 gigs worth of his stuff on my iPod already, and I'm still ripping... In the last 3 years, EMI (which published most of his pop cds) began a reissue series, digital remasters. I bought 30 of those; there are still a few more I believe to come out next year. I also picked up 4-5 cds by Farantouri (the last 3-4 years she has been unusually productive, issuing 2-3 cds a year)...

In addition, I've been reading Theodorakis's autobiography (of sorts); a couple of years ago, one of the radio stations in Athens had a weekly hour-long program that ran for 18 months, where Mikis sat with a journalist and told the story of his life. (The Greek parliament announced a few months ago that it planned to underwrite/sponsor the release of a 50-cd set that included all of this oral history). The journalist had this 50-hr discussion transcribed, and a slightly edited version was published last year in two humongous volumes, over 1300 pages total, so I spent the last month consuming that. Absolutely fascinating, it's more than just his autobiography, but a history of modern Greece (since Mikis played a central role both politically and culturally for 50 years), and while I've read everything ever written about the man and his music, his interviews, his 5-volume literary autobiography, you name it, I'm learning a lot more details about everything (and lots of interesting tidbits, i.e., in the 1970s, he was invited to Venezuela by the MAS -- a leftwing party -- to give a campaign concert; the following week the rightwing party brought Carlos Santana as a counterweight to perform on their behalf...).

So I've been in a huge Theodorakis phase musically, listening to all the new stuff I got, reading the books, etc. I'll eventually put that on a back burner and listen to some other stuff, I'm sure, but right now I'm just consumed by the Greek stuff...

But there are a few discs in that mix that I'd like to single out, that I‘ve been playing non-stop for the last few months.

The first is by Maria Farantouri, and is a recording of a live concert she gave at the Athens Palace of Music a couple of years ago, it's called Passions of the Moon -- [A Night] Dedicated to F. G. Lorca. Lorca has always captured the imagination of Greek musicians and poets, and in this concert Maria sang Lorca's "Blood Wedding" (music by Manos Hadjidakis ["Never On Sunday"]), the Canciones Populares (music by Lorca himself!) and Lorca's "Romancero Gitano", set to music by Theodorakis. Maria's take on the Canciones Populares – songs which are made up of lyrics that Lorca copied from folk musicians he encountered and then set to music himself -- is wonderful, full of life and vitality. But the true majesty is this newly-available rendition of Mikis' "Romancero Gitano", a song cycle she has recorded twice before, once with John Williams on guitar ("Songs of Freedom", 1973), and once with Theodorakis' band (a full- band treatment). In this version, the songs have been arranged for a symphony orchestra, full choir, and classical guitarist [I had a crappy bootleg from a concert in '88 that was shown on Greek tv that contained this version, but it had never been performed since or recorded -- until now]. And it's just beautiful! I can't find the words to express how much this version lifts me to the heavens -- the new rhythms, the new instruments, the richer, lusher sound, the choir, but above all Farantouri's vocal performance. Farantouri’s voice has deepened considerably in the 30 years since she first recorded this work, [Go
here to listen to some snippets in RealAudio format, as well as a snippet from the two prior recordings of Mikis’ Romancero Gitano].

Another cd I’ve been listening to a lot is from EMI’s Theodorakis remasters series (Vol. 19, “Ballades”) featuring Petros Pandis and Margarita Zorbala. Set to the poems of Manolis Anagnostakis, who died earlier this year, this has always been one of my favorite Theodorakis albums. Written and first released in the mid-1970s, the songs exude an air of melancholy, solitude and nostalgia for youth, which perfectly matches the mood of Anagnostakis’ poems. On this album, one of Theodorakis’ most lyrical, he eschews the traditional Greek instruments like the bouzouki in favor of oboes and cellos and other classical instruments. This remastered version of the record brings out all the delicateness and richness of the voices and instrumental arrangements. This album represented Margarita Zorbala’s recording debut; the daughter of Greek communists who fled to the Soviet Union after the Greek Civil War (1944-49), Mikis discovered her while touring the USSR and was captivated by her rich, tremolo voice. I was fortunate to be at the 1976 outdoor concert in Athens where she gave her first public performance, and still remember the nervous 16-year old beautiful girl who opened her mouth and floored the audience with her deep, lush quivering voice. The motif of one of these songs – Dromoi Palioi [“Old Roads”] – became the theme to Sidney Lumet’s Serpico; this is one of the most widely-covered songs of Theodorakis’ post-junta oeuvre. I have about 20 different recordings of it, and it is absolutely stunning in its beauty. [Click
here to hear 3 RealAudio snippets]

During the 1960s, as he led a musical-cultural-political revolution in Greece, Theodorakis wrote a few hundred pop songs which today are considered classics. There is barely a Greek alive over the age of 35 who can’t sing or hum or recognize over a hundred of his pop songs (I read once that, in the months preceding the colonels’ coup d’etat, Theodorakis albums and singles accounted for over 90% of all records sold in Greece). But the pop song as a form was a departure for Theodorakis from where his career had been heading prior to 1960. In the 1950s, Mikis was an accomplished classical composer, well-known in Europe, where Boosey-Hawkes published his classical scores and he had won numerous awards for his classical compositions. On Mikis Theodorakis Sung By Christophoros Stamboglis some of his best known pop songs from the 1960s and ‘70s are interpreted by Christophoros Stamboglis, a bass opera singer, accompanied on the piano by Tassos Karakatsanis. The sparse arrangement showcases Stamboglis’ lyrical voice; the result is that the beauty of Theodorakis’ wondrous melodies is revealed as never before, the songs taking on new life with his nuanced interpretations. I’ve never been a huge fan of the operatic voice, but thanks to this and other operatic recordings of Theodorakis’s music, I’ve begun to develop an appreciation for what Mikis calls “lyrical singers”. [Click
here to listen to snippets of 3 songs from this cd]

Theodorakis is truly a universal artist. The proof is the many recordings of his music by non-Greek singers, often singing the songs translated into their native languages. Edith Piaf, Lizbeth Liest, Gisela Mai, The Beatles (!), Maria del Mar Bonet, Milva, Jocelyn B. Smith are just some of the non-Greek vocalists who have recorded songs or albums by Theodorakis. During the junta years, on one of his tours of Scandinavia, Theodorakis discovered a tall, beautiful blond with a gorgeous voice singing his songs. He took her under his wing, and she became one of the most famous singers of Scandinavia.
Arja Saijonmaa is a Finnish singer who sings in Swedish. Theodorakis has called her “my blond Farantouri”, and she has been at his side since they met in 1970, accompanying him on many international tours. She sang Mikis’s song “Kaimos” [translated into Swedish as “Frehet” (“Freedom”)] at the funeral of Olaf Palme, and is apeace activist and UN ambassador to the world, affiliated with the UNHCR. For years I had heard of her, but had never heard her. I searched the web in vein, looking for someplace that sold her albums of Theodorakis’ songs. Finally last summer, I found an online site in Norway that sold mp3s of hers, and I purchased the 19 songs that made up her double album Mikis & Arja, a 1996 recording of a concert she gave with Mikis. I have listened to these songs almost daily since July. Her voice just amazes me, and her renditions of his songs often surpass those of their original Greek interpreters. It’s a pity that she is not better known outside Scandinavia. [Go here to hear excerpts of 4 songs from this album – two of them sung as duets with Mikis – him singing in Greek, she in Swedish].

Included on the Mikis & Arja album are two instrumental suites that Mikis used to end his concerts with; one is the music from Zorba the Greek, the other the music from a Greek film, The Neighborhood of Angels. This last piece contains a selection known as Hartaetoi (“Kites”) that is the one piece of music guaranteed to lift my spirits whenever I’m down. Upon hearing it I cannot resist getting up, throwing my arms to the sky, and snapping my fingers, as my heart leaps out of my chest and is borne to the heavens like kites tossed on the winds, soaring ever higher. You can listen to it
here, and see if it has that kind of effect on you…

Anyway, that's what's been filling my ears and feeding my soul the last few months. One of these days when I get back to "western/american" music, I'll submit a regular playlist.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Weekly Playlist - 11/20/05 (better late than never)

Susan Martinez
Sierra Maestra, Son: Soul of a Nation (Riverboat/World Music Network)
Sierra Maestra, Dundunbanza! (World Circuit)

José Antonio "Maceo" Rodríguez died on November 6th, on tour in Copenhagen following a performance. He was 52 years old. His passing was barely noted in the press, but he was one of Cuba's greatest soneros and co-founder of Sierra Maestra, the group most responsible for reviving interest in Cuban sones from earlier in the century.

I sometimes use the phrase "fall in love" when I describe music, and this is one of those times. Rodriguez' voice and Sierra Maestra remain my first love of Cuban music, equaled by my admiration for tres player Eliades Ochoa, and all of them deeply inspired by the late, great Arsenio Rodriguez (no relation). I remember the exact moment I heard Sierra Maestra for the first time in October 1994—arriving in Berlin for the first WOMEX world music conference, a friend playing a pre-release of Dundunbanza! on the World Circuit label.

Impossible rhythms came from guitars, percussion, palmas, and brass, supporting each other seamlessly. I shook my head figuring how the instrumentation could be so distinct and so impossibly intertwined. The chorus could be trumpets, congas, or human voices; the rhythm came from guitars while the skins of drums had melody, and then a piano, carrying a polyrhythm, exploded in a glorious solo. But most of all, there was Rodriguez' voice. A great sonero, his voice soared over the instrumentation, sweet, playful, eloquent, strong.

I was immediately hooked and became consumed with exploring Cuban music. Sierra Maestra's most recent US tour was cancelled due to anti-Cuban policy by our federal government, as were appearances by also recently-departed Ibrahim Ferrer (including a trip to receive his Grammy Award and perform at the awards show). But great music won't be stopped by artificial borders; in fact, music is the greatest bridge across borders, even death. Rodriguez leaves us with brilliant recordings and his legacy will live on via the musicians he inspired and influenced around the world.

Matt Orel
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run: 30th Anniversary (Columbia).
Audio and video, though I haven't gotten through the entire video yet. Best line, toward the end of "Spirit in the Night": "Where'd my hat go?" Lori was laughing out loud at that one . . . heck, that hat should get a nomination for best supported actor.

Fred Wilhelms
Lost Country, Long Gone Thrill (Cool Grove Records,
I'm a sucker for honest music played really well, and this CD suits me just fine. Jim Colegrove is a veteran of 40+ years with bands like Bo Grumpus (they played the Café Wha? at the same time as the Castiles), and Great Speckled Bird. A lot of fun, and how can you beat "I lived fast, I lived hard, but it's too late to die young" as a lyric?

Danny Alexander
Various Artists, Masters of Horror (Immortal)
This Showtime horror series' producer, Mick Garris, says something close to my vulgar heart in the liner notes, that "horror is to cinema what rock'n'roll is to music," and the four episodes of the series shown so far and the 30 bands featured in this collection make strong cases for the ongoing vitality of both forms.

Stewart Francke
Bruce Springsteen,Born to Run: 30th Anniversary (Columbia)
Specifically, theHammersmith Odeon Concert DVD. Watching this grainy concert footage absolutely bowled me over emotionally. Not as a nostalgist; I didn't see Springsteen in concert until the '78 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour. And while I know every nook and cranny of the Born To Run album, I'd never seen the band with that much innocence, wild ambition, youthful camaraderie and just plain chops. As Bruce has straightened out his tempos and cut away at the complexity of his arranging, he's aimed straight at the heart of current age. Hell he's created the heart of the current age. But it's this period—coming out of the lanky jazz drumming of his first two records and the buoyant soul he found his identity in—that is his apex to me. The hardest rock here is probably “Born To Run” itself, and the band rolls far more than it rocks. Bruce in a snow cap, everyone else dressed as kids-just-turned-pimps; it's about the coolest thing I've ever seen. I was breathing in 1975, but hearing this music for the first time that fall helped bring me to life. My highlight is “Kitty's Back.”