Various performers

Gipsy Music of Macedonia & Neighbouring Countries

Topic TSCD914

Various performers

Instrumental Folk Music From Greece

Topic TSCD915

These two CDs contain music recorded in the field by Wolf Dietrich, respectively between 1970 and 1988, and between l977 and 1993.  The disc of gypsy music is instrumentally much less varied, which certainly does not mean that it is less interesting or exciting.

The 'Greek' CD divides more or less equally between music from the islands and that of the mainland, and there are obvious and striking differences between them.  Historically, mainland Greece, like the rest of the Balkans, was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, and its instrumental folk music leaned heavily towards reed instruments for melodic purposes, with the shawm being largely supplanted by the clarinet in recent times.  The island communities, except near the Turkish coast, were under the influence of Italy, meaning in political terms the Republic of Venice until its extinction, and except in Crete the violin, accompanied by the lute, or often - again as a result of Italian influence - the guitar, is the dominant melody instrument.  Three exuberant fiddle-guitar duets from the Ionian island of Zakynthos, on the west coast of Greece, are included, and on these the Italian influence is very evident in the use of major and minor triads, and of harmonies in thirds.

A similar Italian influence is discernible in the opening tracks by Manoúsis Karpodínis (violin) and Stavros Goúfas (lute) from Naxos in the Cyclades.  These musicians are unusual in being amateurs who play primarily for their own pleasure, although they pick up a little supplementary income performing for weddings and other festive occasions.  They are also notable - Karpodínis in particular - for the brilliance, verve and technical command of their playing.  The violin performances are rounded out with two dance tunes from Lesbos, which represent a rare survival of the music of the Smyrnaic Greek minority who were forcibly expelled to Greece during the war of 1922/3.  Smyrnaic Greeks in Piraeus and Athens played an important role in the development of rembétika; the music heard here, played on violin, sandoúri (dulcimer) and guitar, has a sensual languorousness that speaks of long coffee-house afternoons, without the desperate search for pleasure in drink and drugs that so often characterises the alienated, newly urbanised mángas who favoured rembétika.

The three-stringed lyra is regarded by Cretans, with some justification, as their "national" instrument.  There are wonderful recordings extant of Cretan violin music: hear, for instance, titles made between 1920 and 1955 by Stratos Kalogeridis (leader of the Heraklion Philharmonic when not playing folk music!), Nikolaos Charhalis, Giorgis Mavros and Kostas Naftis.  (These are all to be found on the last of 10 discs in the essential - and remarkably cheap - box set Oi Protomastores (Aerakis SA-540).) Nevertheless, there has been a long-running war between Cretan proponents of the violin and the lyra, with the former instrument being banned by local radio at times.  The lyra seems to be invariably accompanied by the lute or, as on the titles here, recorded in a café in Khaniá, by a pair of them.  The lutes' function is to play a simplified version of the melody in heterophony with the lyra, which obviously has a much more restricted range than the violin, and little of that instrument's capacity for long, singing lines.  The sound of the lyra ensemble is altogether more dissonant, motivic, and driving - in a non-Greek word, it is funky.

Mainland Greek music, besides being dominated by reed instruments (although not to the exclusion of the fiddle), is also largely the province of professional gypsy musicians, who contract to play for a fixed fee plus a per-item payment.  The market for the services of these bands seems to be a fiercely competitive one, and musicians who wish to retain their market share need to develop exceptional technique, the stamina to last through the three days of a wedding celebration, and an intuitive sense of the actual and imminent moods of their audience.  Thus at the start of a wedding party, fiery, ecstatic dance tunes are played, but the bands must know exactly when to play a slow, reflective synkathistós (a tune "for sitting").  Dietrich quotes a policeman: "A good professional musician knows exactly how to manipulate his audience by choosing the right music.  Only if beginners are playing the music, we - the police - have a look later in the evening to make sure that everything goes all right."

Even the slow, rhapsodic music often has a dark penumbra, though; a dreamy mirolói, ultimately derived from shepherds' repertoire for transverse flute, is intended for seated listening; but its title means "mourning" or "wailing", and is a reminder that the pastoral life is only romantic to someone who has never tended sheep.  This is uniformly intense, emotional music, whether the emotion is joy, sorrow, or nationalism, as on Delvinò kè tsamourjá. Despite the CD's title, there are some vocal interludes and this is one of them, a song supporting Greek claims to two Albanian villages, performed by a solo vocalist accompanied by clarinet, violin, lute and drum.  Leaving the politics aside, this is an especially fascinating performance, in that it adapts to instrumental resources the vocal polyphony heard in both northern Epirus (as here) and southern Albania.  This style consists of a melodic lead, accompanied by a riff that oscillates through a fourth, and a drone bass; for more of it, compare Songs From The City Of Roses (Globestyle CDORBD 091), recorded by Laver Bariu's ensemble from Përmet, Albania.

The 'Greek' CD closes with two tracks in contrasting style to the rest, played by a Macedonian brass band.  These bands have been providing the music for festivities in parts of Greece for many years, but Dietrich says that "no music scholar in Greece writes a word about it," and the New Grove article notes only that brass bands have often replaced the bagpipe in Macedonia.  The little band heard here is led by Grigóris Tsiotíkas on what the notes imply is a valve trombone; the band also features obsolete keyed trumpets, largely, it appears, because Tsiotíkas' uncle Vasílis brought such a kornétta home with him after retiring from the Italian Army.  Their music is very successful, a joyous, rowdy heterophony that probably requires a great deal more discipline than the sound of it would lead one to suppose.  There is also a good deal of determination apparent in the playing of such old-fashioned instruments, given the difficulty of repairing them!

'Gypsy music' in practice has come to mean 'music played by gypsies for their neighbours', and there has been remarkably little research on the gypsies' own music other than in Hungary.  (There is a double CD of Gypsy Folk Songs From Hungary on Hungaroton HCD 18028-29, collected by Rudolf Víg; not easy listening, it is nevertheless a remarkable experience.) The music on the Topic CD was recorded in widely dispersed locations in southeastern Europe: there are Greek recordings from Thrace and the Peleponnesus as well as Macedonia, and titles are also heard from the Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo in former Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Anatolian Turkey.  What they have in common - with one exception, to be discussed later - is that they are played by gypsies using one or more shawms and drums.  Despite their music being an important accompaniment to festivities and parades, the musicians themselves, as gypsies, are at the foot of the social scale (which no doubt leads to the usual racist contradictions: as a slight digression, I was at once amused and repelled by a story in the notes to a CD on Buda 92560-2 by Taraf de Soporul de Cimpie, a Rumanian string band.  They are held in the usual low esteem for ethnic reasons, but many of their non-gypsy neighbours wanted the band leader to be mayor of Soporul de Cimpie "because he's great at organising wedding parties.")

Shawm and drum music could never be described as pretty, but the shrill, piercing sound of the shawm, and the pounding double headed drum, are popular through much of the Islamic and formerly Islamic world, and in China and Nepal, on the borders of the religion's influence.  The usual lineup consists of two shawms (zurna or zurla), one playing a drone, the other a melody line that consists of "two or three basic musical motifs which are chained by the musicians to sometimes endless repetitions - as long as the audience wants to listen or to dance," to quote Dietrich.  The drum (tapan or davul) is beaten with a heavy beater at one end, while a lighter stick plays rhythmic fill-ins on the other.  There are variants to this pattern - some tracks feature only one shawm, and some two drummers; on two titles, the reed instruments are a pair of the much shorter karamouza, and if the zurna is piercing, this instrument is armour-piercing! The karamouza tracks were recorded in the same camp in 1975 and 1985, but nothing seemed to have changed, either musically or socially.  The music also remained a completely gripping, transfixing experience.

This, in fact, is common to all the CD's 14 tracks, whether they last less than two minutes, or like the final Nöbet, or suite of popular Macedonian melodies, 17' 05" - a staggering display of circular breathing, incidentally.  As with the clarinet music on the other disc, this music is designed to bypass the cortex, and alter moods by direct attack on the brainstem.  Its audiences stress its imperative qualities, the way it demands that even the most grumpy wedding guest get up, dance, and forget the hardships of daily life.

I'm not qualified to discuss the music in any detail, but it will be obvious to any listener that, beyond the instrumental similarities, there are considerable differences between repertoires, most obviously in terms of rhythm.  There are a number of different time signature heard, from the simple 2/4 of the hasápiko (butcher's dance) to the asymmetric, additive rhythms (eg 9/8, divided 2+2+2+3) commonly called Bulgarian, but not restricted to that country.  There is also a rich variety of drumming patterns within the time signatures.  A good example of this variety occurs in the two numbers played by Bektas and Hasan Hakikât from Turkey; the first is a Cherkess (Circassian) tune, with sparse, emphatic beats, the other from the culture of the nomadic Yörük, with continuous and very complex drum phrases.

As with the clarinet ensembles, the musicians are almost invariably strictly professional, paid on a per number basis, and operating in a highly competitive environment.  (Small boys are made into musicians the hard way; circular breathing is taught with soapy water, a straw, and frequent smacks around the head if the bubbles stop.) Mastery of the music of minority groups within an area - as the Hakikât brothers have mastered the music of the Yörük and Cherkess - is one way of getting an edge on other musicians, and the Rumanian gypsies heard on two titles have similarly become specialists in the music of the Crimean Tartars, a band of whom went to Dobrogea in 1854, to fight in a war between Russia and Turkey, and stayed on.  In an area of Europe characterised by the presence of minority groups, and often by bitter feelings between groups, it's appropriate that the one non-gypsy musician on the disc should be a living testimony to the disruptions of this century.  Hristóforos Hristoforídis was born in Matsoúkas in northeastern Turkey in 1904, was expelled in 1922/3 to the Greek homeland, and was recorded in Greek Macedonia in 1977.  The Pontic lyra, tuned in fourths, survived the forced migration, and is quite well documented, but before 1922 the zournâs in Pontos was of course a gypsy instrument, and so was not regarded by the Greek refugees as a fit instrument for them to play.  Fortunately Hristoforídis, despite not being a gypsy, wanted to preserve the tradition; when recorded, he was probably the last surviving player of Pontic shawm music.

It will be gathered that these are two important and very enjoyable CDs.  Now for the complaint.  The notes appear to have received no attention whatever from either proof readers or editors.  Presumably they were submitted on computer disc, and input straight into a desktop publishing program.  Hence the 'gipsy music' of TSCD914's title; in the notes to that disc, the references are also to 'gipsies' throughout, except in a couple of places where they become 'gispies'!  No doubt this also explains 'und' for 'and' here and there.  The lack of editorial attention has let through expressions like 'on the opposite' for 'on the contrary', 'this music wishes to represent a piece of classical Ottoman music', and 'dancers who miss to stopping their movements in time are objects to mockery.'  This is emphatically not a criticism of Wolf Dietrich, whose English is infinitely better than my German; it emphatically is a criticism of Topic.  Nevertheless, the notes, despite their fractured English, are very informative, and the music is wonderful.  Extreme kudos to Topic for issuing it; extreme whatever the opposite is - soduk? - for doing it in such a sloppy manner.

Chris Smith - 29.5.97

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