Songs lamenting a Greek crisis

Greeks turned secretly melancholic in the mid-1970s, when they started singing about their existential crisis, some forty years before confronting it.

A penetrating morning cold/αγιάζι engulfed Greek music in 1973, with a male chorus intoning on a cantus firmus: “Πάρε το δρόμο το στενό,/στενό και δε σε βγάζει,/το μονοπάτι σκοτεινό,/ το δέρνει αγιάζι.”  When the mourning chorus stops, it is followed by a bouzouki solo playing (without any acknowledgement) the Vassilis Tsitsanis bouzouki solo from the opening credits of the movie Stella (1955).

This stark song was just a premonition.  Lamenting the bankruptcy of national tradition and personal integrity became a common theme in popular music following the fall of the junta in 1974. It came to haunt several pieces but found its most powerful expression in certain songs explicitly devoted to it, such as the following ones (in chronological order, with names of singer, lyricist, and composer):

“Λένγκω (Ελλάδα)” (1975): Χάρις Αλεξίου – Γιάννης Μαρκόπουλος http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4vpiVFRDkY

“Μάνα μου Ελλάς” (1983): Νίκος Δημητράτος – Nίκος Γκάτσος & Σταύρος Ξαρχάκος http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4oLCjZEzKNU

“Αχ Ελλάδα” (1984): Μ. Ρασούλης – Βάσω Αλαγιάννη & Μανώλης Ρασούλης http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzsCGhvKOYw

“Ελένη” (1986): Ρίτα Αντωνοπούλου – Μπάμπης Τσικληρόπουλος & Θ. Μικρούτσικος  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_c9vTSyXE8

“Κωλοέλληνες” (1989): Διονύσης Σαββόπουλος http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbz5TRzEEKg

“Καλημέρα Ελλάδα” (2006): Goin’ Through http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeHeVaJEmmM

The theme of collective and individual degeneration had not appeared in the music of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Greeks were feeling increasingly empowered and optimistic. In 1964 they were singing “Της δικαιοσύνης ήλιε νοητέ” from Odysseas Elytis’ Άξιον Εστί and in 1966 “Αυτές οι καρδιές δε βολεύονται παρά μόνο στο δίκιo” from Yannis Ritsos’ Ρωμιοσύνη. They were envisioning a new, post-Cold War Greece where the people and the land, history and justice, the nation and the government would become one. Some ten years later, Mikis Theodorakis was still setting the poetry of Ritsos to music and exhorting people: “Τη Ρωμιοσύνη μην την κλαις” (1974). Yet by that time the anti-junta struggle for freedom and democracy had turned more into an ethnocentric quest for national homogeneity and continuity. This development was especially pronounced in the trajectory of Dionysis Savvopoulos who in 1965 was singing “όλη η Ελλάδα ατέλειωτη παράγκα” and about “Τα πουλιά της δυστυχίαςwhichζουν σε χώρα συμφορά” but before long he was invoking the Balkans (Μπάλλος, 1971) and Pontos (Μαύρη θάλασσα, 1972) with irridentist nostalgia.

The genre of the lament for Greece emerged full-fledged with the song “Λένγκω (Ελλάδα)”, released in 1975. Markopoulos, its composer, had been a leading figure during the junta in the turn of cultural resistance from political radicalism to national conservativism. His song cycle Ιθαγένεια (1972) was an unabashed celebration of Greek anteriority and superiority. Yet a few years later he wrote a wrenching lament for the fading dream of freedom. “Λένγκω” launched a twenty-year period when, in the midst of ideological triumphalism and material prosperity, a few songs anticipated and mourned the coming decline of the country (though not necessarily Hellenism).   This period started right after the junta and closed after the end of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, an even greater moment of national triumphalism. Once the era of decline and crisis began in the mid-2000s, the lament lost its cogency because the fears it expressed were coming true. There was no reason any more for music to warn the Greeks since what it used to anticipate had become their daily reality.  In fact, composer after composer admitted publicly their artistic exhaustion.

The laments over the national collapse share four thematic features:

  1. Greece is a heartless, cruel mother who tortures and devours her children. The desperate children appeal to her directly but she does not listen. No song specifies what Mother Greece stands for – the nation? the state? the ruling class? The assumption is that the audience knows and does not need to be told. This allows listeners to blame this unbearable force for all their misfortunes.
  2. The children are not named either but presumably they are those Greeks who are not included in the idea of Mother Greece, and certainly every Greek listener. They complain to their domineering mother, begging for more understanding and warmth but to no avail. Out of their frustration sometimes they are tempted to leave the country but they never find the strength to do it because they love her too much.
  3. There was a golden Greek era that has been long gone – an age of innocence, youth, natural beauty, art, glory and above all heroism (extending from antiquity to the War of Independence in 1821 and the resistance during the Axis occupation in the 1940s). Today the children of Greece survive on faded memories, squandered dreams, and unfulfilled promises.
  4. Who is to blame for this dead end? In part, it is the possessive and sadistic mother. In part it is the immature and irresponsible children. Above all, though, it is the fact that both keep falling victim to robbers and rapists who play games with them while serving dark interests. Both mother and children are unworthy of their glorious history and magnificent homeland, which they sell to foreign traders who too remain unnamed.

This deeply melancholic “family romance” of Greek modernity, which I have discussed at great length with my “other self,” Pantelis Polychronidis, while playing its entire repertoire, represents the basic narrative of the laments that became popular in the second half of the 1970s, while the country was celebrating its political and economic independence. Since that time, people of all classes and ages continue to identify with them and sing them everywhere, turning them into peans or epitaphs to a cherished “national loneliness.”

Interestingly, though, these laments end up being soothing rather than threatening, and do not function as protest songs.  Their music is utterly conventional:  whether they draw on demotic or pop, tsifteteli, or hip hop idioms, they never experiment in any musical manner and form. They denounce the exhaustion of Greek culture by drawing on its own exhausted cultural means, thus implicitly and nostalgically arguing for its continued vitality.

October 1, 2014

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