A Musical Time Machine in Astoria

NEW YORK – “It is difficult for the mind to imagine life in another era, but we can put our hearts in the driver’s seat and allow them to transport us to that time in Greece, when every day was a Sunday…”

And so documentary filmmaker and musician Athina Krikeli concluded her introduction to Those Were the Days, the musical and theatrical production that filled the Archdiocesan Hellenic Cultural Center to overflowing and revolved around the music of the period just after WW II and the liberation of Greece.

The evening’s many delights began with the sounds of daybreak in Athens from a documentary film of that period, the voices of roosters mingling with the rattle of the first trams of the day.

As the film ceased whispering memories to many of the guests, singers Yanna Katsageorgi and Alexandra Skendrou walked down the aisle singing the, Manos Hajidakis’ and Nikos Gatsos’ beautiful anthem “Athena,” bringing tears to some eyes.

Yanna and Alexandra were a nostalgic image in rouge et noir as they took the stage in vintage clothing bought in London that hinted of the many costume changes to come and brought to mind the photos and phonograph records of parents and grandparents.

The ladies were later joined by baritone Dimitri Bonaros and tenor Alkis Sarantinos for musical and theatrical presentations that were interspersed with the wonderful tango dancing of Angela Deisi and Anton Gazenbek.

The music and dancing reminded guests of the dramatic evolution that Greek music has undergone. Ironically as Greece has been drawn westward politically, its musicians pulled back from the fox trots and tangos that competed with folk music and rebetika until the 1960s.

But although the “entehna – art” songs of Hajidakis, Theodorakis and Xarhakos sent Greek music to spectacular heights by bringing it back to its Hellenic roots, they also reaped musicality and lyricism from the composers that were heard that night: Kostas Giannidis, Attik, Giannis Bellas, Takis Morakis, Nikos Gounaris, Michalis Souyioul, Giorgos Muzakis,Theophrastos Sakellarides, Christos Heropoulos, Thodoros Papadopoulos, and Kostas Kapnisis.

Since the onset of the Greek crisis, the people of Greece have turned back to their music as the songs remind them their country has overcome more serious challenges.

Krikeli said “Greece has always found a way to endure, to find a path away from hunger, fear and death.  Greece has sung and sings in every epoch – it sings its pain and its joy. Melody is a part of our lives and the memories they evoke are investments in our future.”

Katsageorgi called them party songs and love to “forget their troubles” and get happy. She was director of the production, and told TNH she paid close attention to the choices of songs and their order.

Through the costumes, lyrics and the orchestration of Areti Giovanou, the production had the feel of an integrated show, whose threads, Krikeli said, were “Songs of old loves, which we have transcended, but of which we cannot cease reminiscing, songs which fill us with sensations, with laughter and joy.”

Giovanou also sang and was the accompanist on piano. The show’s fine quality also reflected the work of sound man Thanasis Psaros and George Konstantinides on sound and light.

Skendrou and Katsageorgi sang lovely duets between them and with Bonaros and Sarantinos, but the melodramatic breakup songs – which engendered poignant and thrilling passages on Megan Gould’s Violin and Spiros Exaras’ guitar – set the tone.

Katsageorgi  presented the  “Skliri Kardia – Hard heart” with its poignant lyrics“yiati den me lipase, anesthiti kardia? – why don’t you pity me, heartless heart?”  Skliri kardia, yiati na s’agapiso…de sou axizi akoma kai na se misiso – heartless heart, why should I love  you…you don’t even deserve my hatred.”

Skendrou’s musical character cannot let go either: “Ela y’apopse k’avrio fige kai mi giriseis – come for tonight, and tomorrow you can leave and never come back,” she sings.

But men had more escape options in those days and soon Sarantinos appeared in tattered clothes clutching a liquor bottle to tell his tale of heartbreak and self-imposed exile: “Βira tis agkires – weigh anchor” composed by Mouzakis with lyrics by A. Angelopoulos.





Mes’ sti ftoxia kais tin aponia

Exo zisi ta pio omorfa mou hronia

Gi’afto anixe nafti ta pania,

Gia na figo ap’afton to dounia
Vira tis agkires gia xenous topous
Na doun ta matia mas allous anthropous.
S’alla limania, se xena meri
Mas paei prima makria t’ageri.
‘midst poverty and tears

I’ve passed youth’s beautiful years.

Lower your sails, captain, [and abandon fears]

So I can leave this place and these piers.

Weigh anchors for foreign lands!

Let my eyes see other faces.

To other ports in far-off places

We fare well; the wind takes us into its hands.

[Translated by C.S.]

Bonaros sang of his ancient loss and eternal hope with a song that began “Μonahos mou pali brethika kai yia mia stigma se skeftika – I found myself alone again and for a moment I thought of you,” and continued: “Enas filos irthe apopse ap’ ta palia, fortomenos me hiliades anamniseis; eihe griza ta skoura tou mallia kai mou eipe pos appose tha giriseis – an old friend came today, freighted with a thousand memories; his dark hair had turned gray, and he told me that tonight you are coming back to me.”

But, remarkably, they were not depressing. Audience members said there are many fascinating Greek songs – like Theodorakis’ “Mirtia – The Myrtle Tree” with devastating lyrics and the most upbeat music.

That might be the secret of their power over the Greek soul. The words sadden at first, but it is the melodies that linger, feeding hope.

The main program’s finale, however, was a truly “upbeat, upbeat song,” Souyioul’s “Bemba,” that brought all four singers to the stage, and which was followed by a “potpourri” segment where the performers invited the guests to sing along.

Earlier, Krikeli welcomed the guests, including the Greek diplomatic corps, and thanked the show’s benefactors, including Dr. George Tsioulias, Michael and Alice Halkias, Mike and Libby Angeliades, Dino Antonopoulos, Peter and Mary Kostakopoulos,  Fantis Imports and Evangelos Tsantali,  Zenon, Artopolis and Titan Foods and many others.

At the conclusion of the show Katsageorgi thanked everyone who helped make it possible and announced there will be more events in the future. She told TNH “the team wants to continue, and the sponsors are so happy they said ‘we will support whatever you do.’”

Krikeli said their aim is “to work to preserve with pride all those elements that fill us with memories of Greece, and a hunger for a better tomorrow.”





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