Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music from Greece 1905-1956

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Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music from Greece 1905-1956
Dust to Digital

Kudos to Dust to Digital for its Greek Rhapsody, showcasing 42 instrumental tracks of relatively rare recordings of mostly plucked instruments from the decades in the first half of the twentieth century. Greek urban, rural and regional styles are represented and well described in the 152-page hard cover book that holds two compact discs on the inside of its covers. This is what I want in a collection of vintage recordings. The love of the music by compiler and annotator Tony Klein gives us surprises that discographers and afficionados long to discover and were never likely find them on our own. My first exposure to Greek melodies was certainly through Zorba's Dance (Sirtaki) from Mikis Theodorakis' soundtrack for the 1964 film Zorba the Greek. Greek Rhapsody will show you that it was a deep well from which Theodorakis drew.

It's fitting that anthologist Robert Atwan points out that the word anthology, "derives from the Greek antholegein, which literally means to gather (legein) flowers (anthos)." Its history goes back to the "founding father of all anthologies, Meleager of Gadara." Gadara is now an archaeological site in northwest Jordan, but the story is that it is where Meleager called his own anthology of short verse a "garland." A garland, it's a nice way to think about Greek Rhapsody. It really is a garland of instrumental music.

I wish every anthology took Dust to Digital's approach. Whether original recordings or the remastered vintage 78s we get here, an anthology is an opportunity to do and say something with and about the music that is too often skipped over. Gone are the days of LP cover art and liner notes and I'll miss them forever. But going too too are the compact disc liner notes pushed to the extremes of fine print. The option for now seems to be that we either get our music without context or with notes that grow into a beautiful 152-page book to hold the music as in this beauty of a set.

"Greek Rhapsody" by G. Gretsis & S. Stamos

Like the word anthology, rhapsody from the title also merits brief consideration. It derives from the classical Greek rhapsodos, meaning one who "stitches or strings songs together." So it is that Greek Rhapsody has sewn together "a collection of songs without words." It's quite a stitching with loads of track notes, photographs of musicians, instruments, lyrics, labels and miscellanea. I love drums, horns and fiddles but at the end of the day find myself a "picker," so this set is good to my ear. A number of tracks almost seem to anticipate bluegrass flatpicking by decades.

"Lemneiko-Zeibekiko" by George Deligeorge

I love the pan-Hellenic dance tune recorded in New York in 1928 that features "yodel whistling," bouzouki and castanets ("Lemneiko-Zeibekiko"). As immigrants move, so does their music, so quite a number of these tracks were recorded in studios in the United States. Some of the performers remain unknown and uncredited, such as the musician who recorded "Kazapiko," a rare pre-microgroove track of the Greek barrel piano known as a laterna, from 1913 Istanbul. This is at the tail end of the Ottoman empire and is as close to an aural time capsule as you will find.

Solo Laterna - artist unknown

Other tracks - like "Soultani Zeibekiko" a bouzouki and guitar duet - were recorded in the 1950s, showing the chronological reach of the collection. A tune like "Hasapiko Politiko Argo" ("Slow Butcher's Dance") features accordion and is indicative of the complex musical history of Greece, including influences from Turkish Rom and Romanian/Moldavian origins. Until 1820, when Greece broke from the Ottomans and proclaimed its nationhood, influences of the empire must have moved in all sorts of directions. "To Perasma" ("The Passage") is a bouzouki tune with that driving "Zorba" feel that I enjoy; it's like an up-tempo jam session, with a bit of show-off going on among the musicians.

"Boutzalio" by Spyros Peristeris

Sprightly is the word used to describe the mandolin style frequently on Greek Rhapsody and you'll hear it on "Beykos Hasapiko," with Spyros Peristeris playing. Peristeris also picks guitar on "Keflidiko Minor" and "Boutzalio," recordings made in 1935 New York with musical sensibilities that surpass ethnic characterization. Sure, the modes are there, but there is a virtuosity that makes these ninety-year old tracks feel contemporary. Like many of the tracks, I think of these as part of future movie scores. The time will come when T. Bone Burnett or someone like him is in need of the perfect music for a feature film and he will find it here.

"Syriana Hasapikos" by Frangiskos Zouridakis

"I Hira" is the sole vocal track, offering the "earliest known recording of a bouzouki." It's a rare recording and certainly makes the case for its inclusion on a collection of instrumental music.

A nice bonus are the descriptions, photographs and track references to eighteen of the instruments you'll hear on the recordings. A bouzouki is no surprise to find here and we expect it, but it's very cool to see the long-necked baglamas, harp guitar, and octave mandola featured. An essay on historical sound recordings and a section on their care are welcomed surprises. - Richard Dorsett

Greek Rhapsody is available via cdRoots

Further reading:
Longing For The Past- 78 RPM era in SE Asia
Grico Music in Southern Italy
The Raga Guide: A Survey of 74 Hindustani Ragas

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