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V/A - Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music From Greece 1905-1956

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Artist: V/A

Album: Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music From Greece 1905-1956

Label: Dust-to-Digital

Review date: Aug. 6, 2013




There are records that contain some decent songs, and then there are albums that set you on a journey through other times and places. While itís quite possible to enjoy the former, thereís nothing like spending some time with the latter, and thatís what Dust To Digital Records aspires to make. The labelís best efforts ó Victrola Favorites, Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You ó have martialed well-chosen tunes with the best possible sound, lucidly presented text, and rare images to take you through the worlds of respectively 78rpm record sleuthing and John Faheyís childhood.

Greek Rhapsody does it again; if the label, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary, needs to point at something to say ďthis is what Iíve done for you lately,Ē this set is it. It comprises 42 tracks of mainly instrumental Greek urban folk music spread across two CDs tucked into a 156-page hardcover book. The music is compiled and annotated by Tony Klein, an English musician and 78rpm record collector who lives in Sweden and specializes in Greek music. This is not his first compilation; in 2005 he released Mortika (Arko), an excellent survey of Greek rebetika music that was subsequently pressed as a double-LP boxed set by Canary Records. Rebetika is often compared to the blues, and there are points of similarity; both give vent to the performerís anguish as well as express their joy, and both are made by disadvantaged populations that had been shoved around by history. In the case of the Greeks, they were part of an underclass that had been created when all of the ethnic Greeks in Turkey were forcibly transferred to Greece as part of a population swap that also led to Muslims of Turkish lineage being sent to Turkey. Since some of the families involved had lived in one place for centuries, the experience of loss was profound, and their travails were compounded by moving to a country that was not that thrilled to receive them. So they worked hard at shitty jobs, got drunk and stoned in bars, and sang about it in songs that were retroactively dubbed rebetika.

The style was quite song-oriented, so much so that there has never been a CD compiling rebetika instrumentals before. But since folks who are partying in bars like to dance, there was a place for dance tunes, and that is whatís on Greek Rhapsody. The earliest was actually recorded in Istanbul in 1905, prior to the diaspora; ďVlachico SirtoĒ is a jaunty air for two mandolins and a guitar with a recurring fanfare that I could well imagine inspiring some spirited steps. No one knows who played on it, but nearly every other tune on the collection is not only credited but also analyzed and placed in context. Sometimes Klein provides a straightforward accounting of the musicians involved and the recording location, but he doesnít shrink from devoting 13 pages of writing and reproduced German prison documents to one track that was made in the GŲrlitz POW camp during WW I.

Klein also breaks down the instruments involved, from the familiar (guitar, mandolin, piano, accordion) to the surprising (Hawaiian guitar) to the extinct (the Laterna, a crank-operated mechanical piano that street entrepreneurs used to schlep around town in search of people willing to spare a few coins in order to hear a tune). He pays special attention to the bouzouki, a then-emergent lute whose acceptance by record company executives lagged behind its popularity with audiences and players. In a separate chapter, he discusses the proper care and recording of 78s, and argues that they are often recorded poorly by engineers who donít know what the instruments on them are supposed to sound like and compromise fidelity in their quest to wipe out as much surface noise as possible. Wormholes abound in this volume.

But itís still the music that keeps me coming back. Itís marvelously varied, both in style and tone. There are gypsy-style dances with shouted accompaniment, downbeat meditations that sound like slow-motion tangos, and taxims, which are structured improvisations that plainly show Turkish influences that made this music unacceptable to the Greek middle class. The guitarists and bouzouki players heard here were accustomed to playing for crowds in public establishments, so that they project each melody with a clarity that later generations would rely on amplification to achieve. With the help of Kleinís annotation, you can cast yourself a century into the past, or you could simply listen to this stuff as great collection of string band music. Either way, you win.

By Bill Meyer

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