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Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος
(Greek Linguistics)

2011-01-09

Markos Vamvakaris: Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο

Rebetiko music was a fusion of styles, and the fusion can be seen in progress through the '30s. The antecedents of rebetiko are murky, but the most visible antecedent is Smyrneika, the music of Anatolian cafés, which came with the Anatolian refugees to Greece in the '20s, and was taken up as the emblem of the dispossessed in the underworld.

A tidy narrative, but there are more currents in Rebetiko than that. Markos Vamvakaris, who is deservedly termed the patriarch of rebetiko, promoted a Piraeus Sound that was at some distance from Smyrneika. He shared a musical vocabulary with them, and recorded a few tracks with Smyrneika singers; but the Piraeus Sound was more rhythmical, more upbeat, more Western. He only infrequently uses the Maqam Saba—the bluest of modes in rebetiko music, so blue it even has a blue IV note.

(That's nothing; the Arabo-Persian original even has a blue VIII note. Yes, you read right. But I digress.)

The refugees from Anatolia recorded plenty of Amanes—the slow, chromatic laments that were emblematic of Smyrneika, and which I've looked at before, in the context of Muslim Cretan music. Vamvakaris on the other hand recorded just one amanes, and made a point of binding it with Peiraeus rather than Anatolia: Πειραιώτικος Μανές, The Peiraeus Amanes.

But Markos' path took him westward rather than eastward—not without some heavy shoving by the censors of the Greek government. By 1937, his style had matured into what is recognisably the classical style of rebetiko; it had foregone much of the raw impact of early recordings, but it had gained in musicianship and smoothness.

Not that Vamvakaris in 1937 was completely consistent; some songs are too trivially cantabile, some are powerful riffs reminiscent of his earlier music. One song in particular though, Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο, "You're dark and cute", is incoherent in a way surprising for Vamvakaris, early or late.

The song starts out with the Classic Peiraeus sound. A two beats to the bar, jaunty riff on the accordion followed by the bouzouki. The riff is in the Peiraiotikos Dromos scale—a variant of the Maqam Hijaz, and Vamvakaris' favourite: it too, after all, is named for Peiraeus:


But in the introduction to the song, the exotic intervals of the Peiraiotikos are defused:

The flattened II and sharpened IV are glossed over as passing notes; the riff is solidly anchored on the major triad. The riff wears its tonality on its sleeve.

Then Markos starts singing (0:22). And what he starts singing has nothing to do with the riff:

Where the riff was straightforwardly tonic-anchored, all I and III and V, the song is lost far from the tonic: V at best, and more VII and II. That doesn't translate to a simple Dominant chord, which wouldn't be a problem in Western music: the band is still on the tonic, and these are Hijaz VII and II, not Major key. With a tonic of A, the voice gravitates to B♭ and G♯: it teases the listener, with a leading tone a semitone below the tonic, and another leading tone above, outright dodging the tonic in bar 18. So while the riff has defanged the Peiraiotikos' exotic notes, the voice has let the exotic notes take over, and has undermined the scale's tonic.

Where the riff has jaunty sixteenth notes, the voice drags in slow quarter notes—even more so in later verses. Where the riff hops up and down the triad, the voice moseys up and down the scale, a third each bar, adrift. Where the riff has a tonic triad note twice a bar, the voice holds off landing back on the tonic until the very final bar in the phrase. And that's in the first verse: with each subsequent verse (0:33), the voice adds a bar to the eight-bar phrase (bar 29):

—so where the riff was foursquare to the bar, the voice ends up on the tonic one bar too late, in a nine-bar phrase that sounds like it forgot to keep count. And the riffs and verse keep alternating through the song, establishing and dismantling and establishing once more two different kinds of musical order.

It took me a little while to work out what on earth Markos was doing, until I realised that what the voice is doing—slow-moving, metrically free, stepping by thirds, untethered from the tonic—was the antithesis of the Peiraeus sound. In Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο, Markos is singing an amanes.

It's unsurprising for an amanes to dodge the tonic like that, or to ignore metre; that's what an amanes does. What is startling about Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο is that Markos is singing an amanes with a hasapiko introduction, to a hasapiko beat, in a hasapiko tempo, with a hasapiko sensibility, and against a hasapiko tonality. He is singing an amanes in the context of the Peiraeus Sound, which utterly clashes with the amanes. I may not be excused the anachronism, but Markos is here committing a mashup.

And the incongruity of the combination makes it startling, it isolates what was commonplace within its native context. The tonic-dodging and metrical freedom become a statement, rather than a convention; a dialectic rather than a recitation. I don't know what made Markos experiment this way, and it's not a path he went further on, either. But it foregrounds, as nothing else Markos did, how hybrid rebetiko music is; how the one Peiraiotikos Dromos could have two quite different interpretations, before they were blended in the Peiraeus Sound.

I haven't mentioned the lyrics, btw, because by this stage, the lyrics aren't particularly notable—Markos is done singing in praise of getting stoned and beating girlfriends up. But, in case you're interested:

Είσαι μελαχροινό και νόστιμο

Είσαι μικρό μελαχρινό τσαχπίνικο τα δυο σου μαύρα μάτια

Όποιον θα δούνε μόρτικα μελαχρινό τον κάνουνε κομμάτια

Είσαι παραπονιάρικο μελαχροινό κανένα δεν κοιτάζεις

Κι όλοι με σένα τα’χουνε μελαχροινό γιατί δεν τους πειράζεις

—Γεια σου Μάρκο

Τα τρυφερά χειλάκια σου μελαχροινό και τ’άσπρο σου χεράκι

Όλα αυτά μικρούλα μου μελαχροινό λυώνουν κι έχω μεράκι

—Να ζήσουν τα μελαχροινά!

Περνάς και δε με χαιρετάς μελαχροινό γιατί δε με γνωρίζεις

Και ντρέπομαι να σου το ειπώ μελαχροινό γιατί έμαθα πως βρίζεις

You're dark and cute

You're petite, dark, flirty; your two brown eyes

make whoever they look on saucily—oh dark one—fall to pieces.

You're a grumbler—oh dark one—you don't look at anyone

And everyone's annoyed at you—oh dark one—because you won't tease them.

—Go Markos!

Your tender lips—oh dark one—and your white hand

All these make me melt—my little dark one—and I'm lovesick.

—Long live dark chicks!

You go by and don't say hello—oh dark one—because you don't know me

And I'm too shy to tell you—oh dark one—because I've found out that you curse.

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