CULTURE

Biography looks at Sophia Vembo, the voice of Greece

It was the spring of 1950. Athens had just acquired a new theater, the Vembo, which was to open with the revue «Vira oi ankyres» (Heave Ho!). Among the new songs that the company manager, Sophia Vembo, was going to sing was «I tabakiera» (The Cigarette Case, by Giorgos Yiannakopoulos), which had verses that Iosif Ritsiardis, the composer, was having trouble putting to melody. Vembo wanted the song badly. She sat down next to him at the piano, and together, they cut and pasted together the legendary tune, and in doing so, gave birth to the type of song known as archontorebetiko. When she sang it at the premiere before an audience unfamiliar with such songs, she brought the house down. As with the story of «I tabakiera,» so, moment by moment, the life of the great singer unfolds, and part of modern Greek history with it, in the 325 pages of her biography, «Sophia Vembo – I foni tis Elladas» (Sophia Vembo – The Voice of Greece, Kedros publications). The book was written by actor-musician Andreas Mamais, who met Vembo when still a child, going on to win her confidence and remain closely connected with her until her death. Mamais has written an interesting book, vividly depicting the epoch and his subject’s character. While he has approached his subject from the standpoint of love, he never strays into hagiography. From Thrace to Volos Her early life as a member of the Bembou family (the origin of Vembo) in Kallipolis in Thrace, their move to Volos (her father was from Tsaritsani in Thessaly), her unexpected introduction to singing, her immediate rise to distinction, the meeting and turbulent (to the last) relationship with the incurable womanizer Traiforos, the only man in her life, her equally stormy and foul-mouthed response, her dramatic and singing careers, the war years, the endless journey to Greek communities abroad, and the events of November 17, 1973 are all equably and knowledgeably narrated, providing the reader with a basic book about the great singer, a chronicle of an era and, to emphasize the point again, an interesting read in itself. Among all the stories doing the rounds in those days was the one about King Paul giving a cigarette case to Vembo, with whom he was in love. This supposedly inspired her to commission the song of the same name. Many at the time asked Vembo if the tale was true – to the extent that George Papandreou teased her every time he saw her. «All’s well and good, Sophia, but you haven’t said a word about the cigarette case!» he would say. This became a proverbial expression in politics, and in society as a whole: «She didn’t say a word about the cigarette case.»