Rounder Records Corp.
One Camp St.
Cambridge, MA 02140
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Henry Koretzky [HRK@PSULIAS.PSU.EDU]
The poor bouzouki has become one of the most misunderstood (and misspelled) stringed instruments in contemporary folk music. The use of the Irish bouzouki and similar instruments such as the cittern and octave mandolin by players in Celtic and American musical genres has probably created visions of guerrilla contra(dance) musicians looking for ammunition for their stringed weapons. These impressions may have overshadowed the bouzouki's use in traditional Greek music.
This Rounder collection of old recordings made by Markos Vamvakaris will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with the style called Rembetica. There are 23 tracks compiled here which were recorded in the mid- to late '30s by Vamvakaris, the offspring of a poor family on the Aegean island of Syros. This youthful musician used his prodigious self-taught skills on the bouzouki as a means to escape his (literally) dead end job at a slaughterhouse.
Most of the songs here feature Vamvakaris ornamenting the melody sung by one or more lead vocalists, and accompanied by some combination of guitar, baglamas, (identified here as a member of the bouzouki family), and percussion supplied by either spoons or a type of hand drum called a toumbeleki. The songs themselves, which the liner notes supplement with lyrics in both Greek and English, cover a wide range of subject matter, from songs of stolen love to patriotic anthems from the eve of World War II to earthy tales of shadowy hashish parlors. Some of the arrangements feature a male/female call-and-response pattern with the contrasting points-of-view of both genders frankly represented. (Think John Gray meets Anthony Quinn.)
Vamvakaris's instrumental virtuosity is evident throughout, not only in his more reined-in accompaniments, but in his showpieces as well. The instrumental "Arap" features his prowess over a tricky 9/4 meter, while his extended introduction to "Taxim- Zeimbekiko" displays his startling repertoire of slides and ornamentation. "Bouzouki Pioneer" is more than a chance for novice listeners to hear the bouzouki in its native context of predominantly vocal music. It's also an insightful introduction to the Greek Rembetica style (I wish the otherwise excellent liner notes would have added more information about this musical form), and a chance to hear the growth of one man's self-made musical talent.
Edited by Paula Gregorowicz