Wartime singer to get her due

The songs of Sofia Vembo, who emerged in the early 1930s to quickly become Greece’s foremost singing star, have become firmly associated with the annual October 28 national holiday, «Ochi Day,» marking Greek resistance to invading Italian forces in 1940 during World War II. There is little if any alternative listening option for this remarkably gifted vocalist’s sophisticated work, which in its time helped support the morale of embattled Greek soldiers while also offering entertainment, mainly in the country’s main cities. Her popularity during World War II established Vembo as the «national singer of Greece.» Quite appropriately, officials of this summer’s Hellenic Festival events in Athens have opted to abandon Vembo’s war-related dimension. Two evenings featuring the singer’s enchanting European ballroom-type work, have been lined up for Saturday and Sunday at the Herod Atticus Theater, a venue Vembo never performed at during her 45-year career. The seasoned contemporary singers Haris Alexiou and Dimitra Galani will front the Popular Instrumental Ensemble and the Orchestra of Colors. Giorgos Loukos, the Hellenic Festival’s artistic director, was inspired to include the Vembo tribute on the agenda with the intention of highlighting her artistic contribution to Greek music, a fact that has remained overshadowed by her lasting link to the nation at war on the Albanian front. The two weekend shows will also provide younger listeners with the opportunity to become acquainted with this emblematic singer from a more artistic perspective. A singer without formal training, Vembo was able to intuitively absorb Western styles and transform them into a uniquely Greek brand of her own. Her innovative approach served as a lesson for aspiring younger vocalists to sing with sincerity and shun impression-minded vocal acrobatics. Vembo, who was born in 1910 in Kallipoli, Thrace and died in Athens in 1978, lived a troubled life in a war-ravaged country. «As a Greek from abroad with a 37-year continual absence from the homeland, I understand very well the importance of Greek songs for people living abroad. Wherever I traveled as artistic director of the Lyon Opera I met second- and third-generation Greeks who did not speak Greek but knew [Greek] songs, like those of Vembo, often by heart,» Loukos told a recent news conference as part of the lead-up to the Vembo tribute. Its repertoire was culled by the popular lyricist Lina Nikolakopoulou, who has divided the tribute into two parts, Vembo’s pre- and postwar periods. At the aforementioned news conference, Galani recalled Vembo’s impact on her family’s life during childhood. On Sundays, Galani remembered, older relatives would gather and sing hits by Vembo. Alexiou, the tribute’s other singer, noted at the news conference that it takes courage to sing Vembo’s songs. In another development at the news conference, Nikolakopoulou, Galani and Alexiou noted that the Hellenic Festival needed to foster and support what they described as the healthier side of Greek music.

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