The definitive biography of a musical genius

As arguably the greatest singer-songwriter and musician in the history of popular Greek music, Vassilis Tsitsanis is a figure who has been thoroughly scrutinized. One would think this makes another weighty retrospective of his life somewhat redundant. However, Sotos Alexiou’s «The Renowned Tsitsanis» (in Greek) is a much more personal and detailed account than even the most fervent admirer of the Trikala-born bouzouki player could have hoped for. Packed with personal accounts from Tsitsanis himself as well as friends, colleagues and bystanders, the 477-page book, published by Kochlias, provides unique insights into the eventful life of a Greek musical genius from when he set off for Athens in 1935 as a 20-year-old law student until he had become an established star by 1957. In fact, one aspect that becomes apparent from the first few pages is that the years Tsitsanis spent struggling for the right to claim a spot on the stage and then working his magic to make it his own were witnessed and experienced by a supporting cast that would put a Hollywood epic to shame. Alexiou deserves credit for his painstaking work in bringing together an impressive amount of information, including photographs, posters, handwritten documents and images of cherished vinyl records, which provide the perfect visual accompaniment to the equally extensive number of testimonies that he has gathered. An added bonus is the inclusion of the lyrics to some 244 songs written by Tsitsanis. Whatever your opinion of the man, nobody can deny that he was prolific, recording 102 songs between 1935 and 1940. Between 1946 and 1960, he cut an incredible 294 tracks. The book is littered with anecdotes and tidbits about Tsitsanis’s life. These include the fascinating tale of how he was inspired to write his first big hit, «Archondissa» (Gentlewoman), in 1938, which, as experts told him at the time, would change the nature of popular Greek music by prompting a move away from the hashish-inspired rebetiko popular at the time. It is also testament to Tsitsanis’s devotion to his music that in a time of great upheaval – he fought on the Albanian front in WWII, and survived the Nazi occupation and the civil war – he seems to flit between Thessaloniki and Athens performing his songs with the air of a carefree troubadour. This aspect of his life is excellently conveyed by Alexiou. One criticism is that the dense detail supplied by Alexiou, who had a close friendship with Tsitsanis spanning three decades, is likely to be suffocating for the reader simply looking for an overview of Tsitsanis’s life. However, it would be churlish to take too much away from Alexiou, who has also written a book about Tsitsanis’s childhood. In the opinion of some, Tsitsanis is responsible for perhaps the finest song written in the history of popular Greek music, «Sinefiasmeni Kiriaki» (Cloudy Sunday), a song that Alexiou says all Greeks live and breathe. If you want to live and breathe Tsitsanis, then you can do far worse than spend 17.90 euros on «The Renowned Tsitsanis.»

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