Catalan musician Josep Tero’s relationship to Greece was defined by two significant incidents. The first was his arrest and 12-hour incarceration during the dictatorship in 1973 for photographing the security police’s headquarters on Bouboulinas Street in Athens, known as the “abattoir” for the brutal interrogations that took place within its walls. The next was 20 years later, when he was ejected from Mount Athos because he was Catalonian.
The first incident tied him indelibly to Greece and had a profound impact on his career as an artist; the second influenced the relationship between Catalonia and the autonomous religious community. It prompted the artist to initiate a process that resulted in a formal apology from the regional government of Catalonia for damages caused by marauders in the 14th century to Athos. It was the first and only time that Catalonia granted war damages to another country.
“Being persona non grata at Mount Athos made me ashamed for the Catalan people, the only people in the entire world who were not welcome there,” Tero told Kathimerini in a recent interview.
“I was impressed by how strongly the barbarity displayed by the Catalan Company mercenaries – hired by [Byzantine Emperor] Andronicus II Palaeologus in 1302 – after the death of their leader, Roger de Flor, remained imprinted in the community’s lore for seven centuries,” admits the Catalan artist, 13 years after relations between the two sides were restored.
Kathimerini met with Tero at the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation (MIET) in the northern port city of Thessaloniki, where we found him immersed in the Hellenic Literary and Historical Society’s (ELIA) archives of Jewish history scholar Albertos Nar, looking for Sephardic songs for a new album that is expected to come out in the next few months.
“I was expelled from the monastery when a monk realized that I was Catalonian during a discussion conducted in French. I had to spend the night outdoors. I have never spoken to anyone in Greece about that humiliating visit to Mount Athos. The thought that ate away at me was what we could do as a people to make amends,” says Tero.
His first initiative was to take the issue up with the Greek Ministry of Culture; nothing came of it.
“Ten years later, when my friend and poet Carles Duarte was appointed general secretary of the Generalitat [the government of Catalonia], we worked on the idea of funding the restoration of a Mount Athos monument. Duarte forwarded the proposal to President [Jordi] Pujol, it was explained to the public and it was then approved by the Parliament of Catalonia,” explains Tero. The 240,000 euros in funding that was approved was used to restore a 16th century building at Vatopedi Monastery – Andronicus II Palaeologus’s favorite – representing a gesture of reconciliation and moral restitution.
Today the building is home to the monastery’s reliquary, holding valuable heirlooms dating from the 10th to the 16th century, and there is an engraved plaque marking the historic initiative.
“The country’s apology may have come 700 years too late, but it would have weighed on my soul if it hadn’t come at all. I went to Mount Athos to gain a deeper understanding of Byzantine music and the subconscious influence it has had on my work. It is music that gives you a soaring feeling. Another reason was that I wanted to explore the relationship between Byzantine and Romantic art,” says Tero.
Tero’s connection to Greece, however, ran deeper than that. Hailing from Empuries – founded by Greek colonists from Phocaea as Emporion in 575 BC – in the province of Girona, he had always been curious about his Greek roots.
“My mother’s maiden name, which came from the word ‘anthrax,’ the monuments, stones and people made me firmly believe that my country was not defined by the narrow boundaries in which I grew up, but extended further than that,” he says.
Tero made his first visit to Greece at the age of 21, toward the end of the 1967-74 dictatorship, traveling to Athens from Turkey via the island of Samos, with a guitar and a backpack.
“It was very busy at the port. I grabbed my guitar and started playing Mikis Theodorakis to the crowd, which dispersed all of a sudden. That’s when I felt the climate of fear. I left for Athens. I dropped my things off at my hotel and immediately went to the building on Bouboulinas Street. I started photographing it from every angle. I wanted to find out what kind of mechanism the regime had discovered to cover up the screams from the political prisoners being tortured, about which I had read so much,” Tero recounts. “I was arrested. I made up a story for the interrogators, telling them that I had become interested in the building’s architecture as I waited for some friends to take me on a tour of the city. They let me go. I walked to Omonia Square but they followed me. We went back to the jail. They released me late that afternoon. I went to the Archaeological Museum. By chance, I bumped into a group of five Catalonian women. I didn’t know any of them, but I hugged one. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Tero has visited Greece every year since 1973. Every one of his 11 albums contains some Greek element. He has written music for poems by Yiannis Ritsos and C.P. Cavafy and has an album, “Kavafis en Concert,” where singer Maria Farantouri reads the Alexandrian poet. He has worked with other Greek artists including Manolis Rasoulis, Lavrentis Maheritsas and Christos Tsiamoulis, has given concerts in Greece and is now working on a project with archaeologist-musician Dimitris Sfakianakis as well as his next album. This will comprise songs that make reference to the persecution of the Catalans in the 12th century in France and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many of whom went on to settle in Thessaloniki.
“I am looking through Greek archives for Sephardic songs, new words in Ladino and other information I haven’t seen anywhere else. My songs will be a new, modern variation on compositions I have been working on for the past six years,” says Tero.
The album will be released under the auspices of the Jewish Community of Girona and will also be based on texts by the historian and poet Manuel Forcano, who has written extensively on the persecution of the Catalans, but also on Greece.
Tero says that the Catalonians’ interest in Greek culture and history has always run deep and continued unabated in modern times.
“It started with the Noucentisme movement, which emerged as an response to the madness of Art Nouveau and its main proponent, Gaudi. Many Catalans turned to the Greek civilization, through Empuries, as part of this return to the principles of classicism and the aesthetics of balance. The divide between Art Nouveau and Classicism is still around today, but belief in the Greek spirit remains unabated. And I am among its fans.”