A son pays homage to his famous father

Trying to establish a musical career from the shadow of paternal or maternal brilliance in the field has often proved too demanding for many aspiring artists. Failure could be the result of hopeful offspring wishing to carry along the same line but lacking real talent. Or, the next generation could well be blessed with enough talent but insufficient composure to stand firm against seemingly inevitable comparison. In Greek music, the name Vamvakaris carries tons of weight, and Stelios Vamvakaris, son of the legendary rembetika songwriter Markos Vamvakaris, has had to carry his father’s legacy since emerging as a musician himself, without any apparent qualms. On Friday, Stelios Vamvakaris pays homage to his father, widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in modern Greek music, at a concert in Thessaloniki organized to commemorate Markos Vamvakaris’s 100th birth anniversary. He passed away in 1972 at the age of 66. Stelios Vamvakaris, now 57, has quietly gone about releasing worthy work, at a steady rate, since making his debut as a recording artist in 1977. Friday’s performance, at the Municipal Gerden Theater in Thessaloniki, dubbed «Stelios Vamvakaris Plays For Markos,» should feature material by both father and son. In the early days of rembetika, the 1920s and 1930s, the style was still raw-sounding, notorious and marginalized, mostly because of drug-related lyrics. Vamvarakis crafted one song after another in these adverse, even outlawed, conditions and remained inspired and prolific as the style gradually evolved into a more polished genre. Markos Vamvakaris – or just «Markos,» as he is commonly called – built a seemingly infinite song catalogue that proved tremendously influential for ensuing composers. Influence, revival This country’s most innovative post-war songwriters – including Manos Hadjidakis, Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Loizos, Stavros Xarchakos and Christos Leontis – have all credited Markos as being a big influence on their work. Yet, Markos remained a humble giant until the very end. One of his colleagues, who happened to bump into the rembetika great at a record company executive’s office in Athens back in the 1960s, recalls witnessing Markos being humbled as «too old fashioned.» Apparently, Markos was told, in a condescending tone, to have another crack for fresher material. He had gone into the executive’s office hoping to sell some songs for a bit of cash. That was before this country’s first major rembetika revival, during the military dictatorship, when anti-establishment figures began sympathizing with the previously outlawed musical form and helped popularize it. Around this time, Markos, as well as other peers, received considerable – and belated – acknowledgement for their contribution to modern Greek music. Stelios Vamvakaris, who, as a youngster, liked to accompany his father to the various haunts where he would perform, began learning bouzouki at the age of seven. He turned professional five years later. By the age of 17, the younger Vamvakaris began performing alongside his father. Around this time, he also began writing his own material. Besides his father, Stelios Vamvakaris began playing with other leading acts, among them Yiannis Papaioannou, Vassilis Tsitsanis and Stratos Payioumtzis. As a songwriter, Stelios Vamvakaris did not simply approach rembetika as a stagnant form of the past. In search of variation and freshness, he branched out and also worked with figures beyond the rembetika guild. Local rock pioneer Pavlos Sidiropoulos, Cretan music legend Nikos Xylouris and enduring star George Dalaras all scored major hits with material written by Stelios Vamvakaris. Blues connection Stretching it all even further, Stelios Vamvakaris was one of the first musicians to explore the common roots of rembetika and American blues, which, despite the geographic distance, emerged simultaneously and under similar conditions. The musical investigation led to a collaboration with blues giant John Lee Hooker, as well as Louisiana Red. Just over a year ago, Stelios Vamvakaris, a frequent performer abroad, played at the World Got The Blues Festival in London, on a bill that included Taj Mahal and Cesaria Evora. Friday’s performance will include readings from «Aghios Mangas» (Cactus Press), a recent book by Manos Tsilimidis based on Stelios Vamvakaris’s recollections of his father and the rembetika era.