Clarinets play on at historic club

“Release» for many these days means heading out to the big flamboyant music clubs where the stage acts and bouzoukis are backed by choreographed dancers and, just for kicks, the shower of flowers runs wild. There used to be a time when the masses headed for the «klarina,» venues where the music, mostly traditional, was led by the clarinet. The majority of people frequenting such clubs were urban arrivals from the country’s regions in search of a better life. Outings in the big city were rare, but the «klarina» functioned as surrogate family away from home territory. Considerable time has elapsed and much has changed in terms of local entertainment trends. But the «klarina» clubs, if far fewer these days, continue to entertain their share of people who cherish Greek folk music. One such place is the historic Elatos club, now almost 86 years old. Despite the passage of time, little has changed there. The «university of music,» as regulars tend to call it, is still going strong, not far from Omonia at Lavriou Square (16, 3rd Septemvriou). In older days, this part of town was full of Greek folk music clubs; but now, less than a handful remain. Among the current lot of survivors, Elatos is the capital’s only venue that insists on traditional song. It was founded in 1918 by Loukas Kontoyiannis, who abandoned a previous job as a horsecart rider to open a traditional music club. Lavriou Square was the ideal location for it. A train from industrial Lavrion, south of Athens, used to return laborers to the city following work. Back then, the club operated from early in the day, serving traditional meat snacks such as kokoretsi and kontosouvli. «Once back from Lavrion, the workers would stop over, eat and be entertained at the same time before heading back home by nine. Originally, the state forbade ‘klarina’ in Athens,» recalled Nikos Kourtis, who nowadays runs the club as well as FM Records, one of Greece’s largest independent labels with a strong focus on traditional material. In the past, his father had also held on to the club’s reins. Not surprisingly, numerous greats have offered their services from the Elatos club’s stage, among them old legends such as Roza Eskenazi, Nikos Karakostas, and Dimitris Arapakis, as well as more recent acts including Vassilis Saleas, Makis Christodoulopoulos, and Giorgos Mangas. «My father worked there from the beginning of the 1950s as manager before eventually taking over. Kontoyiannis [the founder] passed on the baton to Costas Kourtis [the father], who in turn passed it on to Christos Bletsas, and then it was my turn,» said Nikos Kourtis of FM Records. «Naturally, I’d listened to a lot of traditional music as a child and that’s why FM Records is active in this field,» he added. Kontoyiannis, the venue’s founder, had launched the venue with the zourna (traditional wind instrument) as the club’s signature instrument until a license was granted permitting the clarinet. Over the decades, lots of wine, food, and music kept things flowing at Elatos, with the decade between 1960 and 1970 as the enterprise’s golden period. Reflecting the venue’s prominence during its heyday, old black-and-white Greek movies often credit the club for on-location filming. As at village festivals, the «klarina» clubs became infamous for outrageous behavior such as rewarding musicians with saliva-moistened bank notes stuck on their foreheads. These days, inserting money into a box on stage is the more common method of payment. «Youngsters don’t have the money for requests but they enjoy themselves by joining up with others for [round] dances,» said Nikos Kourtis. The sound of the bouzouki is non-existent at the «klarina.» Here, the clarinet is king, supported by guitar, percussion, and keyboards which, unfortunately, have replaced the violin. Among various others, Alekos Kitsakis from Epirus in northwestern Greece, where the clarinet rules, is this season’s leading act at Elatos. Entertainment begins with standards between 11 p.m. and 12.30 a.m. «Then, it’s time for the requests,» said Nikos Kourtis. Today’s customers tend to be people of strong musical conviction – individuals that don’t blow with the latest trends. On a larger scale, Greek folk music’s tradition has returned to the masses via the fashionable world music circuit. «But is there anything that’s more ‘ethnic’ than Greek folk music?» Kourtis asked. Despite time and, in certain cases, distance, some of the Elatos club’s older customers refuse to forget. Nikos Kourtis has plenty of stories to tell. One of these concerns a Greek-American, nowadays based in Las Vegas, who is no longer able to travel here as frequently as in the past. «On opening nights for the new [winter] season, he makes requests over the phone and then listens to them,» said Kourtis. «Next day, once the night’s over, the well-known money order, in dollars, arrives at Elatos…»