Agony Shorthand

Friday, October 31, 2003

When I’m out trawling the globe for vicarious glimpses into past indigenous music scenes, I tend to find myself most excited by either 1960s-70s Africa, or by just about anything from that central/eastern part of Europe marked by Gypsies, Greeks and Slavs. I am still very much a voyeur and am discovering this stuff piecemeal, mostly by way of my man on the ground in Belgium and his amazing CD-R-making capabilities. He was kind enough to introduce me to the term “Rembetika” and the music therein – essentially, Rembetica originated years ago in the country’s hashish dens, and is associated with a certain kind of down-n-out, drug-taking creature of the night. It is truly “the music of the Greek underground”, but it has been so well-received in its home country that it’s now seen by many as the official music of Greece. It is often (but not exclusively) marked by much wailing, crying and gnashing of teeth, which can try the patience at times but does certainly have its rewards.

“Rembetika – Songs of the Greek Underground” is full of original 78s from the pre- and intra-WWII years, including 5 big ones from Rembetica master MARKOS VAMVAKARIS, whose “Markos Vamvakaris - Bouzouki Pioneer 1932-1940” collection is a blast – seriously, it has subtle shades of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART (before his birth!) and floor-pounding American delta blues, filtered through poverty and drugs and played on the mystical-sounding bouzouki. Beyond Vamvakaris, though, are all the other heavyweights of the time, contributing Mediterranean marvels with translated titles like “The Pain of the Junkie” and “Young Dope Smokers”. At times the discs have the acoustic feel of background music heard at Zorba The Greek’s suburban gyros taverna, complete with women shouting “Opa!" in the background, but there are also times of transcendent, bizarre otherworldliness. Listeners will likely flip over IOANNIS HALKIAS' instrumental “Minore tu Teke”, which ought to be the theme music for a film focused on gangsters and flim-flam men on the take in 1930s Athens. It’s beautiful and menacing at the same time. Likewise, ANESTIS DELIAS' “To Haremi sto Hamam” is just drop-dead amazing, almost like an ethnic take on PERE UBU that just happened to pre-date them by some 40-odd years. (Nothing like a wide-eyed rock critic to compare music he doesn’t understand to music he does). Some of these guys sound like they gargled with gravel, and when spun on an uncleanable, crackling, hissing old-tyme 78rpm platter, the effect is not unlike looking at one of those sped-up 1920s newsreels where everyone looks completely out of reach and beyond time. This 2-disc set is another winner from our German friends at Trikont, and it probably the single place to go if you’re looking for a new subculture to plunder.