An­drew Katzen­stein

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - An­drew Katzen­stein

Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Old­est Sur­viv­ing Folk Mu­sic by Christo­pher C. King Kit­sos Harisiadis: Lament in a Deep Style, 1929–1931 an al­bum pro­duced by Christo­pher King with Vas­silis Ge­organos While You Live, Shine a doc­u­men­tary film di­rected by Paul Duane

Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Old­est Sur­viv­ing Folk Mu­sic by Christo­pher C. King. Nor­ton, 304 pp., $29.95

Kit­sos Harisiadis:

Lament in a Deep Style, 1929–1931 an al­bum pro­duced by Christo­pher King with Vas­silis Ge­organos.

Third Man Records, $15.00

While You Live, Shine a doc­u­men­tary film di­rected by Paul Duane

In 2009, the Amer­i­can record col­lec­tor and au­dio en­gi­neer Christo­pher King bought a stack of 78 rpm discs while on va­ca­tion in Istanbul. A self-de­scribed ob­ses­sive for whom “the rare musk of shel­lac” is “the sec­ond most arous­ing smell in the world,” he waited im­pa­tiently to play his pur­chases. Their con­tents were mys­te­ri­ous: the la­bels were writ­ten in Greek, and King knew enough of the lan­guage to re­al­ize that they “made no lin­guis­tic sense.” He re­turned home ten days later. “Decades of lis­ten­ing to un­var­nished pre­war mu­sic—Delta blues by Char­lie Pat­ton and fid­dle records by the Carter Brothers and Son,” he writes in Lament from Epirus, had not pre­pared him for what he heard when he dropped the nee­dle:

In­sis­tent dron­ing voices and in­stru­ments merged, clash­ing against each other. One vo­cal threaded its way be­tween in­stru­ments while an­other voice mir­rored the lead singer an oc­tave be­low. The mu­sic reached a crescendo, crashed, and re­peated . . . it sounded like a mas­sive cof­fee can of an­gry bees had been shaken and re­leased in front of me.

The mu­sic deeply af­fected King. He felt as if he “had been taken apart and re­ar­ranged,” but the sen­sa­tion was “plea­sur­able—a nec­es­sary cathar­sis.” It was love at first lis­ten.

King learned that the records were made in the 1920s and 1930s by mu­si­cians from Epirus, an area strad­dling north­west­ern Greece and south­ern Al­ba­nia. Ea­ger for more, he con­tacted Elias and Vasilis Barou­nis, Athe­nian brothers who owned an im­pres­sive col­lec­tion of Greek folk 78s and spar­ingly sold some to him for a few hun­dred dol­lars apiece. Af­ter Vasilis died in 2011, Elias sold their en­tire ar­chive of Epirotic record­ings to King— “some­thing un­prece­dented among record col­lec­tors”—giv­ing him the “stag­ger­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity as a care­taker of this re­gion’s an­cient mu­si­cal legacy on the 78 rpm disc.”

Elias couldn’t have cho­sen a more lov­ing or pas­sion­ate cus­to­dian. Born and raised in Vir­ginia, King has re­mas­tered thou­sands of songs from their orig­i­nal 78s, in­clud­ing works of Delta blues, Ca­jun, gospel, and Sa­cred Harp mu­sic. His un­ortho­dox meth­ods for cap­tur­ing sound from these old records yield bril­liant re­sults. The mu­sic critic Amanda Petru­sich ob­served that in King’s home stu­dio,

the turntable...was lit­tered with oddly sized bits—match­sticks, tongue de­pres­sors, lit­tle plas­tic ice-cream spoons—that he used to weigh down the tone arm based on as­sump­tions he’d made or things he’d learned re­gard­ing cer­tain stu­dios or record­ing ses­sions. He ac­com­mo­dated for fac­tors like am­bi­ent hu­mid­ity, or a tilt in the floor­boards, or a dis­trac­tion on the part of the orig­i­nal en­gi­neer.1

Over the past seven years, King has re­leased six al­bums—nearly ten hours—of songs from his col­lec­tion of ru­ral Greek and south­ern Al­ba­nian 78s. In Lament from Epirus, he re­counts his odyssey, as he calls it, into the re­gion’s mu­sic, its his­tory, and the se­crets he thinks it con­tains. King be­lieves that he has found in Epirotic mu­sic the old­est folk tra­di­tion in Europe, one that be­gan in pre-Homeric cul­tures, hasn’t changed sig­nif­i­cantly in hun­dreds of years, and re­veals the ori­gins and ul­ti­mate mean­ing of hu­manly or­ga­nized sound. This en­gag­ing, well-re­searched, and pe­cu­liar book is not only a work of mu­sic crit­i­cism or a philo­soph­i­cal ru­mi­na­tion on the mean­ing of mu­sic—it’s also a trav­el­ogue in which the writer goes na­tive.

The first thing one no­tices about Epirotic mu­sic from the 1920s and 1930s is that it’s raw. This isn’t just a re­sult of the grainy qual­ity of the record­ing. The singing is full-throated and

1Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Ob­ses­sive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records (Scrib­ner, 2014), p. 39. pas­sion­ate; the in­stru­ments keen like wolves or flut­ter and swoop like hum­ming­birds. The in­sis­tent strum­ming and drum­ming, the pedal notes, the dron­ing of strings and ac­com­pa­ny­ing voices churn with a primeval en­ergy. As­pects of the mu­sic sug­gest blue­grass, or free jazz, or the Vel­vet Un­der­ground, or the Car­natic mu­sic of south­ern In­dia. But some­thing sounds a bit off: the in­stru­ments aren’t quite in tune and aren’t play­ing quite the same melody, or the me­ter in a song in­tended for danc­ing is a fast 7/8 or 9/8 that no one, it seems, could pos­si­bly keep up with.

Af­ter this ini­tial im­pres­sion, though, as­pects of the mu­sic be­come clear. Many Epirotic dance songs have sim­ple melodies, which al­low for em­bel­lish­ment and im­pro­vi­sa­tion. Lead parts are typ­i­cally played by vi­o­lin and klar­ino (a type of clar­inet), ac­com­pa­nied by laouto (a stringed in­stru­ment sim­i­lar to the oud) and defi (frame drum). Klar­ino and vi­o­lin play­ers in par­tic­u­lar dis­play vir­tu­os­ity with quick runs of scales, trills, and large in­ter­val­lic jumps, es­pe­cially of the mi­nor sev­enths that give the style one of its most dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics. Even when dou­bling a melody with the vi­o­lin, the klar­ino lithely adds flour­ishes and fil­i­grees around its part­ner.

King writes that the vo­cab­u­lary and tim­bre of the mu­sic mimic the re­gion’s cragged land­scape and its fauna: “Phrases im­i­tate sounds found in na­ture: the singing of a nightin­gale, the bab­bling of a brook, the bay­ing and bark­ing of an­i­mals, and the surge of a storm.” To achieve this mimetic ef­fect, vi­o­lin and klar­ino play­ers use scoops and bends that elide dis­tinc­tions be­tween pitches, al­most im­per­cep­ti­ble grace notes in the up­per reg­is­ters, and heavy vi­brato.

In songs that in­clude one or two singers, klar­ino and vi­o­lin of­fer coun­ter­melodies be­hind the vo­cal­ists, and in­stru­men­tal im­pro­vi­sa­tions al­ter­nate with sung verses. Songs with more than two singers use iso-polyphony, in which some voices state or re­spond to a melody while the rest re­main on fixed tones. Iso-polyphony has a hyp­notic ef­fect: the mov­ing parts play off against the static ones, which gives the mu­sic a ten­sion that al­ways tends to­ward the key­note but only rarely re­solves. Singers in iso-polyphony use no vi­brato and chan­nel sound through their nasal pas­sages, cre­at­ing a buzzi­ness when har­monies are close and a pow­er­ful, limpid tone when the voices col­lapse into uni­son.

King em­pha­sizes two types of Epirotic songs: the skaros and the mirologi. Both are played in free rhythm and fea­ture im­pro­vised so­los from klar­ino and vi­o­lin. The skaros takes its name from a word re­fer­ring to the prac­tice of graz­ing sheep at night, when they are thought to have bet­ter ap­petites. It is be­lieved that the skaros, vari­ants of which ex­ist through­out the Balkans, be­gan as tunes played by shep­herds on the flute to con­vey spe­cific in­struc­tions to their flocks, and some still use mu­sic to com­mu­ni­cate with them. Lis­ten­ers “who are at­ten­tive to the skaros are drawn into a calm, trance­like state,” King writes.

The word mirologi typ­i­cally refers to vo­cal laments; there are ver­sions of them in Homer and on an­cient epi­taphs. In some parts of ru­ral Greece, women sing mirolo­gia be­side the graves of fam­ily mem­bers ev­ery day for years, un­til the bones of the de­ceased are ex­humed and put in the vil­lage os­suary. Epirus is the only place where mirolo­gia are per­formed in­stru­men­tally, and mu­si­cians pre­serve the lugubri­ous mood of the sung ver­sions found else­where in Greece:

For the world is a tree, and we are its fruit,

And [Charon], who is the vin­tager, gath­ers its fruit.

The sec­ond-most-moun­tain­ous re­gion in Europe, Epirus has harsh weather and lit­tle arable land. As one Epirote told King, “Life has al­ways been hard in the moun­tains, ev­ery­thing has al­ways been un­cer­tain.” An­cient Greeks be­lieved the en­trance to Hades was here: the Acheron River that Odysseus— and later Dante—crossed to reach the un­der­world flows, in re­al­ity, west from Epirus’s moun­tains to­ward the Io­nian Sea. Pil­grims hop­ing to sum­mon the ghosts of de­parted loved ones vis­ited the Nekro­man­teion, a tem­ple lo­cated in a cave near the Acheron. For days, and for a con­sid­er­able fee, they un­der­went pu­rifi­ca­tory rit­u­als, in­clud­ing the con­sump­tion of pork, oys­ters, and a type of bean that in­duced hal­lu­ci­na­tions. When the sup­pli­cant was ready, he slaugh­tered a sheep and was led to a cen­tral cham­ber, which spir­its could en­ter from the beyond. Priests hid­den in a sec­ond cham­ber im­per­son­ated the de­ceased, barked to sug­gest the pres­ence of Cer­berus, and ma­nip­u­lated

pul­leys that sent up ob­jects to daz­zle the im­pres­sion­able pil­grim.

The dif­fi­culty of life in Epirus has been com­pounded by mil­i­tary fail­ures and for­eign in­va­sions. Ro­mans, Byzan­tines, Serbs, and Vene­tians all con­trolled it at var­i­ous times, and Ot­toman rule lasted from 1430 un­til 1913. While me­mories of the Ot­tomans are sour, they granted Epirus a de­gree of in­de­pen­dence and ac­cess to for­eign mar­kets; dur­ing this time, the re­gion was en­riched by trade, cul­tural ex­change, and con­tri­bu­tions from émi­grés who sent money back home. Lord By­ron cel­e­brated Epirus’s strik­ing land­scapes in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and in­spired other English­men, in­clud­ing Ed­ward Lear, to visit. One con­tem­po­rary vis­i­tor called Ioan­nina, Epirus’s largest city, “the Manch­ester and Paris” of north­ern Greece. Though the pop­u­la­tion has de­creased pre­cip­i­tously since World War II, as res­i­dents moved to cities within Greece or to the US, Canada, Aus­tralia, and Ger­many, Epirotes re­tain close ties to their home­land. Many re­turn each year to see fam­ily and to par­tic­i­pate in sum­mer fes­ti­vals called pan­e­gyria. The num­ber of res­i­dents in a vil­lage dur­ing these fes­ti­vals can in­crease from a few dozen to thou­sands. When King heard that mod­ern Epirus had a vi­brant mu­si­cal cul­ture in which the same songs and styles as those on old record­ings con­tin­ued to be played, he “dis­be­lieved that this mu­sic could still ex­ist in the world un­changed.” All that re­mained of other mu­si­cal tra­di­tions he loved were slowly de­cay­ing 78s, not a liv­ing cul­ture. The mu­sic of the Mis­sis­sippi Delta drifted to Chicago and Mem­phis, where it went elec­tric; hill­billy mu­sic was eclipsed by coun­try and west­ern; Ukrainian fid­dle mu­sic dis­ap­peared, in both Ukraine and Amer­ica, within two gen­er­a­tions of the first wave of em­i­gra­tion to the US. So when a friend in­vited King to Epirus, he en­thu­si­as­ti­cally took the chance to visit the “land and mu­sic that time for­got.”

At the be­gin­ning of his voy­age, King, like the sup­pli­cants who went to the Nekro­man­teion, hoped to con­tact the dead—in par­tic­u­lar Kit­sos Harisiadis and Alexis Zoum­bas, two mu­si­cians from Epirus who recorded about ninety years ago. He was de­ter­mined to find out more about their lives from their de­scen­dants and other Epirotes who had known them. But he soon found that Epirus’s cul­ture “em­braces life and death equally,” and that the present con­tained a vi­tal­ity he was sure had van­ished.

King be­gan col­lect­ing records in the mid-1970s when, at age fif­teen, he came across a box of pris­tine gospel 78 rpm discs in an aban­doned share­crop­per’s cabin on his grand­fa­ther’s prop­erty, an event he re­counts with al­most re­li­gious awe. In his book he of­fers few other de­tails about his per­sonal life, per­haps be­cause so much of it has in­volved the mu­sic he’s re­mas­tered—work for which he’s won a Grammy and been nom­i­nated for five oth­ers. Af­ter col­lege he was briefly a jan­i­tor and an un­der­taker—a job well suited to his mor­bid dis­po­si­tion—and un­til his va­ca­tion to Istanbul he had spent only a few weeks out­side Vir­ginia, in­clud­ing a three-day stint in a phi­los­o­phy Ph.D. pro­gram at Fran­cis­can Univer­sity in Steubenville, Ohio. He de­picts him­self as a proud out­cast and Lud­dite who’s most com­fort­able at home, sur­rounded by his records.

Salty and self-dep­re­cat­ing, he is a lively and in­for­ma­tive guide to Epirus. We watch him trans­form from a “shel­tered, mis­an­thropic record col­lec­tor” into a mod­ern Greek vil­lager as he falls in love with the ways, rit­u­als, and cui­sine of Epirus. He is es­pe­cially en­am­ored of tsipouro, a grape brandy known as raki else­where in Greece, which, he says, “tastes like the heav­enly flu­ids pro­duced by two angels fuck­ing.”

He learns how to dis­till it and ar­gues, un­con­vinc­ingly, for its psy­chotropic qual­i­ties.

King takes us to im­por­tant sites in Epirus and through its his­tory, but he’s most lively when de­scrib­ing the sum­mer fes­ti­vals. Pan­e­gyria last all night, with lots of food, liquor, mu­sic, and danc­ing. The band sets up in the cen­ter of a vil­lage square, sur­rounded by the vil­lagers, who, arms linked, dance with in­tri­cate foot­work in con­cen­tric cir­cles around the mu­si­cians. King beau­ti­fully evokes his first pan­e­gyria, in the town of Vitsa:

We took in the whole works—the gears and the springs of the cel­e­bra­tion: the cas­cad­ing clar­inets echo­ing from the vil­lage cen­ter like snake charm­ers’ hyp­notic flutes, the dis­ori­ent­ing smoke ris­ing from the sou­vlaki pits, the hun­dreds of peo­ple or­bit­ing the mu­si­cians, the un­hinged aura of ev­ery­thing.

That night he blacked out, wak­ing the next morn­ing to find him­self cov­ered in blood and his glasses in three pieces. Mirac­u­lously, he had “no hang­over. I was just at a loss as to where my skin had gone.” His wounds be­come a badge of honor, and he later refers to him­self as “a Vit­sa­nian by adop­tion.” Mean­while, he hunts for facts about Kit­sos Harisiadis and Alexis Zoum­bas. Harisiadis, a klar­ino player, lived in Epirus his en­tire life and made only twenty-four record­ings, all be­tween 1929 and 1931. Four­teen of these tracks are in­cluded on King’s lat­est re­lease, Lament in a Deep Style. Harisiadis’s tone is sweeter than many other klar­in­ists’, but most strik­ing is his fleet, ef­fort­less vir­tu­os­ity. Although mu­sic in Epirus is passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, tech­nique is not, and ev­ery mu­si­cian de­vel­ops an idio­syn­cratic way of play­ing. Harisiadis, for ex­am­ple, would give lessons while sit­ting on one side of a gorge with his stu­dent on the other side: un­able see the mas­ter’s fin­gers move, the stu­dent had to fig­ure out how to im­i­tate the sounds he heard.

Harisiadis, King dis­cov­ers from those who knew him, had a rep­u­ta­tion for saint­li­ness: he “had only one de­sire: to heal peo­ple through his mu­sic.” He is said to have played for hours ev­ery day to la­bor­ers at the mar­ble mill in Kli­ma­tia, his home vil­lage. The few

record­ings we have of Harisiadis re­veal a mu­si­cian who com­bined in­tel­lec­tual rigor, tech­ni­cal adept­ness, and emo­tional earnest­ness in ways that are of­ten, and sur­pris­ingly, rem­i­nis­cent of John Coltrane. Harisiadis’s im­pro­vi­sa­tions show an ad­ven­tur­ous­ness that many other Epirotic mu­si­cians lacked: he used non­tra­di­tional scales and su­per­im­posed har­monies over the struc­tures of songs to cre­ate a more col­or­ful, di­verse sound.

Zoum­bas, a vi­o­lin­ist, left Epirus in the 1910s for Amer­ica, play­ing in Greek and Turk­ish clubs on the “Feta Cir­cuit” of émi­gré com­mu­ni­ties in New York, Philadel­phia, and Gary, In­di­ana. He recorded ex­ten­sively in New York and Chicago in the 1920s but made al­most no record­ings af­ter 1929. His tone has a deep, woody res­o­nance and mourn­ful yearn­ing that, for King, ex­em­pli­fies the no­tion of xeni­tia, a long­ing for the dead and de­parted or a home­sick­ness felt by emi­grants. The ex­pa­tri­ate vi­o­lin­ist would have been fa­mil­iar with xeni­tia: he re­turned to Greece only once, strug­gled to make a liv­ing in Amer­ica, and died pen­ni­less in Detroit in 1946. King writes, “The first time I played a record­ing of...‘Lament from Epirus,’” a mirologi by Zoum­bas from which his book takes its ti­tle,

a dark vast­ness opened .... I felt as if I was wit­ness­ing an ag­o­niz­ing cru­ci­fix­ion but was un­sure of the vic­tim. Was it my­self, hu­man­ity, Zoum­bas?... [The mu­sic] opened up in me long­ing, re­mem­brance, and re­gret. It was some el­e­vated state of hav­ing the blues with which I had no prior ex­pe­ri­ence.2

Through­out his life, King has been par­tic­u­larly fix­ated on mu­sic from iso­lated com­mu­ni­ties that de­vel­oped unique id­ioms, tech­niques, and tim­bres. “If there’s any one con­tin­u­ous thread through any­thing that I have,” he has said, “it’s deeply, deeply ru­ral and back­woodsy. It’s al­most like it turns its back to the city.” He prizes mu­sic that dis­plays an “emo­tional in­ten­sity” and re­flects “an in­ex­tri­ca­ble bond be­tween the soil and peo­ple”—“the in­ter­con­nec­tions be­tween a place, its peo­ple, and its mu­sic.” Yet the very discs he loves from the 1920s and 1930s also led to the dis­in­te­gra­tion of the mu­sic they cap­tured—a kind of orig­i­nal sin that at once pre­served and de­stroyed un­tainted folk tra­di­tions:

When mass com­mer­cial record­ing be­gan, al­most ev­ery eth­nic and ru­ral mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion com­menced an ac­cel­er­ated process of ho­mog­e­niza­tion, a sad ur­gency to­ward bland uni­for­mity . . . . Re­gional styles, reper­toires, and, per­haps most cru­cially, in­ter­ac­tive and con­tex­tual func­tions went from be­ing a cen­tral com­po­nent of a cul­ture’s mu­sic to a quaint, an­ti­quated no­tion . . . . Ev­ery­one wanted to sound like those heard on the most re­cent tech­nolo­gies: disc and ra­dio.

Since, in King’s telling, au­then­tic mu­sic dis­ap­peared as the phono­graph and ra­dio spread, he dis­misses all mu­sic made af­ter 1941 as “garbage.” His dis­dain ex­tends to prac­ti­cally ev­ery as­pect of mod­ern life. Lament from Epirus con­tains jabs at, among other things, smart­phones, Ober­lin grad­u­ates and Brook­lynites, con­tem­po­rary pop mu­sic, the Amer­i­can mid­dle class, West­ern funeral rites, hash­tags, sub­ur­ban­ites who drink sin­gle-malt scotch, Amer­i­can ur­ban cul­ture, all of hu­man­ity, and the polka craze of the 1930s (an es­pe­cially easy hit job). His aver­sion to a so­ci­ety he views as ve­nal and men­da­cious is as in­tense as his sen­si­tiv­ity to the au­ral qual­i­ties of 78s. He told Amanda Petru­sich, “It seems like I only en­ter into an abysmal de­pres­sion ev­ery year and a half or so, and it’s usu­ally be­cause of hav­ing to go to Whole Foods.” King seeks in 78s the au­then­tic­ity he finds lack­ing in mod­ern cul­ture, and for him au­then­tic­ity al­most al­ways means suf­fer­ing: “I pre­pare for death ev­ery day. I’m ob­sessed with it.” In Epirus, King found a cul­ture au­then­tic enough for him. It has largely re­sisted the temp­ta­tions of con­sumerism and sur­vived the twen­ti­eth cen­tury rel­a­tively un­touched by glob­al­iza­tion. Its peo­ple and mu­sic ex­press a strong aware­ness of death, a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion of life, and a deep con­nec­tion to their land. While You Live, Shine, a forth­com­ing doc­u­men­tary that fol­lows King from Vir­ginia (“hell”) to the vil­lage of Vitsa and has mar­velous footage of its pan­e­gyria, shows him at peace, hap­pily turn­ing meat on a spit


Alexis Zoum­bas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926–1928, a col­lec­tion pro­duced by King, was re­leased in 2014.

and jok­ing with lo­cals in a hes­i­tant mix­ture of Greek and English. He tells the film’s di­rec­tor that he plans to move to Greece “as soon as I fuck­ing can”— be­fore it’s too late, pre­sum­ably.3

The first time King lis­tened to Epirotic mu­sic, he sus­pected that it con­tained “some­thing be­hind the sound—an un­known in­ten­tion­al­ity, a func­tion.” In the book’s fi­nal chap­ters, he spec­u­lates that hu­man mu­si­cal ex­pres­sion be­gan not as en­ter­tain­ment or rit­ual but as a tool, “in­tended to heal as if it con­tained within it­self po­tency, a spir­i­tual util­ity.” He be­lieves that though most mu­sic lost this an­cient func­tion, Epirus’s still pos­sesses it. In­deed, Epirotic mu­si­cians view them­selves as heal­ers, as Yian­nis Chal­doupis, a klar­ino player from Parakalamos, told King:

When I play in a vil­lage I feel more like a psy­chi­a­trist or a doc­tor than a mu­si­cian. I look around to see what the peo­ple need, what they need to hear for their souls. I look around to see what their pain is, what hurts them. Ev­ery vil­lage is dif­fer­ent and they have dif­fer­ent spir­i­tual and emo­tional needs.

In claim­ing that Epirotic mu­sic has pre­served its pre­his­toric func­tion, King stresses that it has “stead­fastly re­sisted as­sim­i­la­tion—it shunned out­side in­flu­ences and seemed to only ref­er­ence it­self.” There are, how­ever, rea­sons to think that Epirotic mu­sic is not as pure as he sug­gests. Demetris Dal­las, a Greek poet who has trans­lated song lyrics for King, has noted the in­flu­ence of mu­sic from Mace­do­nia and Istanbul, as well as Ital­ian opera, on songs that have been in the reper­tory for two hun­dred years. Even the Epirotic records King fell in love with, now al­most one hun­dred years old, re­flected in­stru­men­ta­tion that had only ex­isted since the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury, a few gen­er­a­tions af­ter the clar­inet was in­tro­duced to the re­gion by the Ot­tomans. Tellingly, King never sup­ports his claims about pu­rity with con­crete com­par­isons to mu­sic from the Balkans, Turkey, or even neigh­bor­ing ar­eas within Greece such as Thes­saly, whose folk mu­sic bears many sim­i­lar­i­ties to Epirus’s. This isn’t the only ma­jor change whose im­por­tance King down­plays. “At some point,” he writes, “the oc­cu­pa­tion of mak­ing mu­sic in Epirus was en­trusted to the Gyp­sies,” and to this day most mu­si­cians in Epirus are Roma. Roma first set­tled in Greece six hun­dred years ago, com­ing in larger num­bers at the be­gin­ning of the nine­teenth cen­tury. In Epirus as in other parts of Europe, Roma have been marginal­ized—un­til the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the only ca­reers Roma men could pur­sue were those of smithy, bas­ket weaver, cob­bler, and mu­si­cian—and viewed with sus­pi­cion by the Greek vil­lagers, who be­lieved that Roma pos­sessed su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers. They, in turn, kept

3The ti­tle of the doc­u­men­tary comes from the Seik­i­los epi­taph, a tomb­stone for a woman named Euterpe who died about two thousand years ago. The epi­taph con­tains mu­si­cal no­ta­tion for a mirologi that also ap­pears on it:

While you live, shine

Have no mourn­ing at all Life ex­ists a short while And Time de­mands its fee. their dis­tance from Greeks, liv­ing in sep­a­rate en­claves and speak­ing a dif­fer­ent lan­guage among them­selves.

The trans­mis­sion of Epirotic mu­sic from Greeks to Roma may have caused a ma­jor in­ter­rup­tion in the con­ti­nu­ity of its tra­di­tions, but King doesn’t ex­plore the im­pli­ca­tions this might have. How can we know that the ear­li­est Roma mu­si­cians in Epirus didn’t pro­foundly al­ter the styles and forms of lo­cal songs? It’s clear that mirolo­gia have an­cient roots, but how can we be sure of the con­nec­tion be­tween present-day Epirotic mu­sic and what ex­isted be­fore the Roma ar­rived?

Nor does King ad­dress what it would mean for a cul­tural her­itage to be car­ried by an eth­nic group that has been ex­cluded from that cul­ture. Although Roma now have more eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties than they had fifty years ago, prej­u­dice against them re­mains. King writes com­pas­sion­ately about the Roma’s plight, but he ul­ti­mately ro­man­ti­cizes it, ar­gu­ing that their cul­tural and eco­nomic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties have “driven [Roma mu­si­cians] to per­form in ex­tra­or­di­nary ways,” and that although most non-Roma mu­si­cians “have mas­tered the tech­nique...there is thin­ness in the emo­tional depth” of their play­ing.4 King doesn’t di­rectly ar­gue that au­then­tic ex­pres­sion can only come from mem­bers of sub­ju­gated groups, or that sub­ju­ga­tion is nec­es­sary for the pro­duc­tion of great art, but at times these seem im­plied by his aes­thetic phi­los­o­phy, which val­ues suf­fer­ing above all else.

Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor wrote of Epirus’s vil­lages in the early 1960s that “noth­ing sub­stan­tial had changed since the pilgrimage of Childe Harold and lit­tle enough since the reign of Pyrrhus” in the third cen­tury BCE. But oth­ers who vis­ited soon af­ter Fer­mor be­gan to no­tice al­ter­ations. The English travel writer Arthur Foss, who went to Epirus in 1972, met a group of lo­cal women play­ing cards and watch­ing a por­ta­ble TV near the ru­ins of Dodona, the an­cient or­a­cle of Zeus, and he quotes lo­cals say­ing, some­times glee­fully, that things had changed ir­re­vo­ca­bly. In the 1980s, the clar­inetist Per­i­cles Halkias, who em­i­grated to Amer­ica and be­longs to a dy­nasty that has pro­duced some of the finest Epirotic mu­si­cians, said, “I don’t want to go back to Greece, be­cause of the de­te­ri­o­ra­tion of the mu­sic. I can­not hear the things that I like to hear.” One can imag­ine an Epirote say­ing some­thing sim­i­lar two hun­dred years ago about the new­fan­gled clar­inet. Younger Greeks con­tinue to re­turn to their an­ces­tral vil­lages for the pan­e­gyria, and some have given new life to Epirus’s tra­di­tions by adapt­ing its sounds to rock and elec­tronic mu­sic. The line be­tween au­then­tic and in­au­then­tic can never be firmly drawn—King con­cedes that mod­ern Epirotic mu­sic is only “rel­a­tively pure” com­pared to that of a hun­dred years ago, though there’s lit­tle doubt that he would view any mu­si­cians who de­vi­ate from tra­di­tion as apos­tates. The ques­tion is whether, as the young grow older, they will keep the mu­sic at pan­e­gyria as it was in their youth or in­tro­duce in­no­va­tions, as their pre­de­ces­sors did. If they do, King will surely be there to com­plain.

4For more about the mu­sic played by Roma and the long his­tory of the ro­man­ti­ciza­tion of gypsy mu­si­cians, see Alan Ash­ton-Smith, Gypsy Mu­sic: The Balkans and Beyond (Reak­tion, 2017).

Mu­si­cians and dancers at a fes­ti­val in Gana­dio, a vil­lage in the re­gion of Epirus in north­west­ern Greece, 2000

A print by Ed­ward Lear show­ing Arta, a city in Epirus, and the sur­round­ing re­gion; from his book Jour­nals of a Land­scape Painter in Al­ba­nia, &c., 1851

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