Letter from Thessaloniki

Mikis Theodorakis, born in 1925, may be Greece’s best-known living composer mainly because he created the soundtrack to the film version of Nikos Kazantzakis’s «Zorba the Greek,» directed by Michael Cacoyiannis. Yet, in my opinion, Manos Hadjidakis, also born in 1925 but in the Thracian city of Xanthi, remains Greece’s best post-war composer. Hadjidakis deserves this honor not just because he introduced the world to the sound of the bouzouki or composed the lively score for the 1960 film «Never on Sunday,» directed by Jules Dassin. Hadjidakis won an Academy award for the song «Ta Paidia Tou Peiraia» (The Lads of Piraeus), which became a huge worldwide hit. Hadjidakis earned this honor because he had the superb ability to interpret a song in the tradition (not the style, the tradition) of the earthiest strains of Greek folk and popular music. However, both Hadjidakis and Theodorakis adopted and adapted traditional rebetika rhythms and instrumentation to create some very highly developed modern compositions and popular songs. We Greeks were truly blessed to have had such celebrated composers in modern times. It so happened that I had the privilege to be acquainted with Manos Hadjidakis for more than 30 years. In 1975, just after the political strife and the military junta’s reign in Greece, he was assigned the directorship of the state radio service. At the same time I was the program director of state-run ERT television. We collaborated a lot.  Later, I succeeded in convincing him to make several special radio programs, which he presented himself, for Antenna Radio, a station I directed in the 1980s in Thessaloniki. These unforgettable programs included some of his legendary comments of dissent with his subtle yet sarcastic humor. And all that music as well. For our radio in Thessaloniki or in Tetarto, a magazine he edited at the time, he commented a lot on the political situation in Greece during the first PASOK period in the mid-1980s.  «Everything ‘evil’ and ‘committed by the government’ we have committed in the same way. Even in a worse manner,» he wrote, comparing PASOK to New Democracy. «The secret service, the security police, informers and countless lies. Only we colored them with blue nationalism and blue-and-white chauvinism, and they with green demagogic socialism. We for the ‘nation,’ they for the ‘people.’ What’s the difference?… We are lacking ideology. We are lacking in objectives. We lack substance. In particular we lack modern thinking… The New Democracy party needs to become ‘new’ again… if we don’t want to end up being picturesque and ineffective like a group of royalist retired officers. If we don’t want to constitute a past.» And that was some 20 years ago! So what has changed since then? Yet appearances deceive. By speaking as «we,» Hadjidakis seemed to give away a political identity that was certainly not easy to identify. «I am a democrat, an upper-class humanitarian and a right-wing revisionist,» he used to say about himself. «I have been arbitrarily placed on the right… I was never anti-communist… There’s a leftist in me, but leftism doesn’t have me.» Being a close friend of Constantine Karamanlis during the latter’s tenures as both prime minister and president, Hadjidakis never ceased to defend the rights of minorities. There was lots of criticism every Sunday in our radio station. Alas, when after some years I tried to retrieve the tapes, the person at the radio archive responded: «Oh, those! We have erased them and used the material for some sport programs.» Fortunately there is actually a well-equipped Manos Hadjidakis website with lots of information and quotes. It is there that one can read to what an extent minorities of every kind had his respect and support. Eighteen years ago he wrote: «Nowadays, a sound young person is called an anarchist with the same unscrupulousness as in the past, when such a person was called a leftist.» Well, couldn’t the same thing have been written only a week ago? According to his website, he said this just a week before his death in June 1994 to journalists writing for the Sunday editions of Eleftherotypia and Kathimerini. In this last bit of contact with the public, he said: «My demeanor is that of an upper-class individual. My culture is that of a poet. Idiosyncratically I am a commoner.» And when he was asked about the time he claimed to be «left of the right,» he answered: «Yes, because the left should include all concerned human beings. Any man who doesn’t compromise is a leftist.»