Village festival singer talks about her life

Everyone in Sparta seems to know Ioanna Karentzou, a popular singer at festivals, wedding and christening parties around the town. She got into the business by chance. At the engagement party for a cousin who was a singer, someone put a microphone in her hand and she sang something her mother had taught her. Then came a moonlighting job – after her day job in a textile factory – at the nightclub where her cousin worked. Just 15 years old, she was already married with an infant daughter, Maria. Her daytime jobs raged from being a clerk in a garage to selling cheese pies, and even a stint as a taxi driver. As a singer, she has worked with famous names such as Manolis Angelopoulos, Pitsa Papadopoulou and Angelos Dionysiou, but her life has not been glamorous, although she has no complaints. «Life in the clubs is hard. The night has its own laws that you either follow or learn to make your own. If you let yourself be drawn into it, one day you wake up lost. But I had Maria, and we were both children, growing up together.» Originally from a village in the northern Pindus Mountains, Ioanna’s parents expected her to have a family, not go off and realize her dream of studying archaeology. «When I was little I dug up all the soil around the house and found helmets and spear-sheaths,» she explained. Ioanna ended up in Sparta quite by chance, for a season in a club. «I liked the town, its history fascinated me. When the season ended, I found work in another club, then met my present husband. We got married and had three children. He has been a good father to Maria, who was 11 when we married. He also encouraged me to go back to school – and I took my daughter with me, as she had dropped out.» Ioanna’s struggle has been worth it as she has just finished senior high and next year will be applying to university. We accompanied Ioanna to a village in eastern Laconia where the band was set up in a small square with a lovely fountain. «At these festivals (panegyri) the people are in good form as they are mostly locals who live far from the village. People come from Athens, but also from the USA and Canada for a month every summer and expect to see the village as it was when they left – the public space, roast meat served on greaseproof paper and eaten with your fingers.» «I used to sing in ‘folk’ clubs around Karaiskaki Square. At one of them, the singer Yiannakis Constantinou told me, ‘If you haven’t sung under a plane tree you can’t call yourself a singer.’ In a club you sing the same 10 songs all season. At village festivals, they make all kinds of requests. I struggled to get a wide repertoire so I could sing anywhere and with different bands, without rehearsing – folk and island songs as well as popular numbers.» «There are festivals right up until September 8,» said Panayiotis Batzakis, the band leader and violin player. The band is small, just consisting of Ioanna and Panayiotis, Sotiris Kotsos on the bouzouki and Stratos on guitar. A bag is placed at the foot of the stage to take the money offered by the dancers for requests. The next day the band shares out the takings after deducting costs. «At weddings we charge a specific fee,» explained Ioanna. «The euro has spoiled our business,» said Panayiotis. «People used to give us 1,000-5,000 drachmas and not think about it. Now 5 euros is considered chicken feed but 50 is far too much. In the old days the Greek Americans used to collect dollar notes and toss them into the air on the dance floor.» The band plays non-stop until the early hours before Ioanna finally waves goodbye to the stragglers. It will soon be dawn, and after drinking a coffee and splashing water on our faces, it is time to head down the winding road back to Sparta. This article first appeared in the August 13 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement.

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