Local song taking the safe way

A recently released double live CD by Antonis Remmos, which is proving to be one of the popular singer’s best sellers, includes eight songs by old-school Greek singer-songwriter Giorgos Zambetas. Another double live release by Yiannis Kotsiras includes one CD full of older popular (laika) tracks, some of them neglected, like Manolis Angelopoulos’s «Mavra Matia Sou.» Moreover, two recent live albums by Giorgos Dalaras, one documenting performances at the capital’s Zygos Club, the other concerts at Athens Concert Hall with Marinella, are both loaded with older laika numbers. Which poses questions regarding the reasons behind the style’s rediscovery. Laiko song offers security for singers and can be relied on to be emotionally charged for Greek listeners. Seasoned performer Dimitra Galani’s career was revived a decade ago on the strength of a golden-oldie repertoire, for three consecutive seasons, at the Harama venue. Less established newer acts have gained fame, too, by culling older numbers for their sets. Eleni Tsaligopoulou is a good example. Based on this activity, future historical researchers might tend to believe that today was the 1950s and 1960s, and that older songwriters, most of them deceased, like Akis Panou and Apostolos Kaldaras, were enjoying major exposure on television. At Greek clubs and concert venues, the repertories may be drawing heavily on old-school Greek music, but TV has fabricated its own reality of tacky pop-laika. Behind all this, many listeners protest that there is no contemporary laiko song today, or worthy vocalists to deliver. Reasons can be found in the country’s social fabric. The impetus generated by various components, including ideological, is less potent, but this does not necessarily mean that laiko is non-existent today. Greece is a country heavily based on popular culture. As is also the case in Latin America, a deep tradition runs through Greek music which is nurturing newer output. The continuing emergence of young artists who are well-acquainted with old-school ways should not be overlooked. This is more common where tradition remains potent, be it on a domestic or social level. Yet, direct comparisons with the golden age of the 1950s should be avoided as social conditions have changed and are influencing the results. Social exclusion, a major source behind older Greek song, is no longer prevalent. The problems and woes expressed through songs have changed, while outside influences, good and bad, have also led to change. The laiko form’s reduced presence is a natural development. But, contrary to a supposed reality reflected by television, the form has not been eradicated. Laiko has never ceased absorbing outside influences. Let’s not forget that Stelios Kazantzidis, the country’s definitive old-school singer, also sang in Turkish. The prolific Vassilis Tsitsanis had accused his colleague Kaldaras of drawing heavily from the East, yet his own work carried influences from both East and West. Manolis Hiotis penned splendid songs in mambo fashion, which was provocative for hard-core traditionalists, while numerous critics accused the bouzouki virtuoso of destroying the instrument when he added a fourth string. This was not destruction but the creation of an alternative. Complaints of a lack of worthwhile new singers have surfaced regularly every decade, perhaps because the laiko song form has been heavily associated with the overriding voice of Kazantzidis. The pain expressed by his delivery was fueled by the period’s social conditions, or the massive emigration of Greeks to faraway lands, or severe poverty, aspects that are no longer relevant today. The current era can boast producing good singing voices such as that of Manolis Lidakis, one of the contemporary scene’s longer serving acts, Gerasimos Andreatos, who has been heavily influenced by Kazantzidis, Dimitris Bassis, Yiannis Kotsiras, and a newcomer, Yiannis Panayiotopoulos. All find themselves amid a scene in which fewer risks are being taken. Either as a result of fear or the demands made, songwriters are providing varieties of laiko sub-categories for the one album – ie zeibekiko, hasapiko – which cater to various tastes. It would be hypocritical for hardcore traditionalists to talk about a lack of purity today amid rapid evolution and the coexistence of various styles in songwriting. The problem with most young singers today is not their vocal abilities but the songwriting standards. Bassis, for example, is endowed with a good voice for popular Greek song, but is backed by a poor repertoire. Which is not to say that the past was not imperfect. Grigoris Bithikotsis, a humble working-class boy when he first emerged, has admitted to not comprehending lyrics to songs he sang by the Nobel Prize-winning poet Odysseas Elytis. But Bithikotsis eventually learned, because he respected. Nowadays, giants of the stature of Bithikotsis no longer exist, or they have withdrawn. On the other hand, depending on the needs, songwriters do not think twice about penning varied material for various tastes that could sound like the work of Manolis Rassoulis and Nikos Xydakis one day and Notis Sfakianakis the next. These are the consequences when a society demands hit material from artists and not unique, inspired work. It is true to say that producing individual work poses problems regarding the material’s prospective exposure. Most media, including commercial radio, whose preferences and playlists are rigidly categorized, would deprive unique work of decent airplay. Songwriters with truly artistic aspirations would be better off tossing such thoughts away. To avoid obstacles, both obscure and more established artists are side-stepping the prospect of engaging in stimulating songwriting for stereotyped output instead.

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