Not Pop, There’s Something in Real Greek Music to Save the Diaspora

NEW YORK- Before the current X-Factor there was Fame Story, both popular singing competition talent shows, especially for young Greeks all over the world. As satellite television brings these shows into our living room millions of Greeks of all ages faithfully follow on a weekly basis the suspense of who the winner will be. Hundreds of young men and women, many of them from our communities here in America, go through a sometimes-embarrassing audition process (embarrassing for some those talent-less made fun of by the judges) to gain a place in the finals and compete for the ultimate award, a record contract by a prestigious record company and a lot of money. Many in America remember Kalomira, the young girl from New York’s Long Island, winning first prize in one of the Fame Story shows, a few years back, becoming a true television celebrity, representing Greece in the Eurovision competition and becoming the idol for hundreds of thousands of young Greek Americans. I have a couple of stories to tell, some related to these shows and will then pose questions and maybe come up with some useful, even troubling, conclusions on trends that might relate to our desire to preserve our language and cultural heritage in the Diaspora. {33640}
A few years back, around March 25th, Greek Independence Day, a few TV reporters were going around Athens asking people in the street, mostly young men and women, a series of three questions, in the following sequence: Who wrote the lyrics of our National Anthem, who wrote the music for it and finally who won the latest Fame Story competition. You will be unhappy to know that the vast majority of those asked, did not know (very few did) that national poet Dionisios Solomos wrote the lyrics, no one knew the composer Nikolaos Mantzaros (some mentioned Mikis Theodorakis) and everyone knew that the winner of Fame Story was Perry, short for Periklis, a very likable young man from a Greek immigrant family in Germany. At some point, however, the reporters encountered and asked a 10-year-old boy of African descent, short curly hair and wide eyed, obviously the off spring of African immigrants. With great confidence and in perfect Greek he answered first two questions correctly while on the question about the Fame Story winner he answered an emphatic “Δεν ξερω,” – I don’t know. What does that tell you?
The second story concerns an observation on the current X-Factor 2010-11 competition. The talent of the young participants in this year’s show is in abundance. Everyone in the audience can easily tell that, although there will be only one final winner, all of these young very talented singers will have a successful singing career. The show, however, is odd and at times upsetting that the majority of the songs performed in the competition are not in Greek. One of the participants, exceptionally skilled, has been insisting, in consultation with his mentor, who according to game rules is also one of the judges, to select and perform high quality well-known classical Greek songs, drawing criticism from the other three judges. They praised his talent, with comments such as “Your song selections are too high quality,” or “We want to hear something different,” or “If you keep selecting these kinds of songs no record company would want to give you a contract,” and at times even criticizing his dress while performing. What a message to send to millions of young Greeks all over the world watching, the show. Quality songs in this era will not get you anywhere! The criticism has shaken the confidence of the young singer, to the point of making some critical statements about the “quality song selections” of his mentor and even dressing up in leather and selecting a completely out-of-character song the next time he performed, for which he was still criticized. The message sent to a captive audience of millions of young people watching the show every week is commercialism counts.
Then there’s the story about a proud young Greek American, who while driving in Astoria – New York’s Greektown – with his car windows rolled down, blasting the area with a commercial Greek pop or “skyladiko” (dog song) approaching the vulgar. “Here I am. Greek and proud. Listen and notice my music,” if you could call that noise music. This is not to criticize him. All he was doing was declaring his identity and Greek pride, in the best way he knows. The criticism is directed at the broadcasting media, our institutions and community organizations, as well as to all those of us, of the older generation, who did not have the foresight nor have taken the time to give him some truly worthy reasons to be proud of real Greek music, that of our world-renowned composers, the poetry of our Greek Nobel Laureates, our Rebetika and traditional songs and the history behind them, and even our current contemporary quality song composers and performers, whose work is consistently snubbed and hardly promoted by the commercialized media, who simultaneously and hypocritically whine that Greek music is declining and altered by globalization.
But something else. About three years back, with the gracious support of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation USA, we organized a number of concerts involving students from the elementary school level through high school, at a number of Greek American communities, from New York to Boston. The purpose was to give students the opportunity to learn, through music, about our language, history and cultural heritage. The songs presented were on the poetry of our world-renowned poets (Seferis, Elytis, Ritsos, Gatsos, Varnalis and others) set to music mostly by Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis. In close cooperation with the teachers we had prepared the students to participate in the singing, play an instrument, recite poetry and narrate about the life of the poets in both Greek and English. The audience consisted totally of other students and several parents. One such performance took place at a Brooklyn Greek American Charter school ,which accepts students of African American, Latino, and other ethnic backgrounds. Among others, we had arranged that one particular Elytis-Theodorakis’ song from Axion Esti, the very popular Ena To Helidoni, which was to be sung by a small choir of students along with myself and our Mikrokosmos band.
The choir included several African American students as well. One of them in particular, a smiling 10-year-old, standing in front of me on stage, was singing his heart out with gusto and energy, in perfect Greek. I am not sure whether you can understand what kind of emotions such an experience may stir. A 1979 Greek Nobel Laureate, set to music by a world-renowned Greek composer, being sung in a New York Charter school by a 10-year-old African American boy in perfect Greek. If that’s possible, can’t music be a catalyst for preserving and disseminating our language and cultural heritage to our young Greek Americans? To quote Haroula Alexiou one of the best and most loved Greek female singers of all time: “I firmly believe that the Greek song, through its poets and composers, made me love and better understand the history and the culture of my country.” Case closed?

Grigoris Maninakis is a Professor of Engineering Technology at SUNY Farmingdale. He has been active in Greek music since the early 70s as a founding member and singer/soloist of the Greek Popular Chorus of N.Y. established by Mikis Theodorakis. He has organized quality Greek music concerts all over the U.S. and occasionally in Greece. His column appears twice a month in The National Herald. For comments and suggestions email or visit: gkangm@­aol.com, www.gmaninakis.com