A Voyage to the Island of Syros and the Glory of Vamvakaris

That the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) has exceeded every historical measure of achievement by a philanthropic institution in Greece is now generally recognized.

This is known even to the last Greek, in the most remote village of Greece, but also all over the world.

What is still surprising, because there is simply nothing comparable, it is the originality, one would say the unquenchable “thirst” for new ideas of the SNF leadership, the courage and boldness that drives them to implement and realize those ideas, opening up new paths leading to new and once inconceivable horizons.

On Wednesday, March 27, along with friends and staff of the SNF, very early in the morning, I boarded one of those comfortable high speed boats that “glide” to the Greek islands. We were bound for Syros, but we were not on a trivial excursion.

Rather, went to pay tribute to…rebetiko music. We were on a pilgrimage to the home of the father of rebetiko song, Markos Vamvakaris. It was an unforgettable experience for us, embraced by the sea, showered by rare knowledge and unforgettable musical moments.

The trip lasted about 3 hours and the weather was good at first. Halfway through the journey, the craft began to shake. Nothing serious – especially for someone like me who is not bothered by the sea.

I had never visited Syros before. Like most Greek islands, it is very beautiful.

After we drove into the center of the city, Ermoupolis, we sat down at tables by the waves. What could we eat but fish bathed with the aroma of the sea!

Then we went to the venue hosting DIALOGOS, the monthly SNF program, where, in the form of dialogue, a different topic is addressed each time.

It was a very nice place next to an old textile mill. Hundreds of people had gathered there.

On the speakers’ platform was an instrumentalist, Karolos Tsakirian, his daughter-in-law, instrumentalist Tanya-Beanou Tsakirian, and two professors from the University of Ioannina, the musicologist George Kokkonis and the musician Dimitris Mystakides.

The discussion was led by Anna-Kynthia Bousdoukou, managing director of iMEdD, an organization created with sponsorship from the SNF.

It was an unusual, joyous, encouraging, and pleasant experience for me and I will explain why:

It’s not just that I learned so much about rebetiko music.

It was not just that I learned that because of the political situation at that time (it was noted that Vamvakaris was not at all a leftist) the Metaxas dictatorship banned the rebetika Greek music to blossom in New York.

Rebetika thrived in the studios of Columbia Records and, of course, at various bouzouki night clubs on 8th Avenue – New York’s “Greek Town” before Astoria – such as “Ali Baba” and “Spilia”, which later moved to Astoria (to Broadway and 31 Streets).

And it was not that Tsakirian lived for 17 years in America, mostly in New York.

It was because I saw Greeks passionate about their work. With tremendous knowledge of their subject and speaking with scientific objectivity. With humility – not satisfied with their achievements but striving to reach ever greater heights. With real love for what they do. It was a revelation.

But that was not all. After about two hours of discussion with each other and with the audience – I also asked a question how America affected the growth and spread of rebetica – we went to the next room to listen to rebetika.

There, Dimitris Mystakidis and five of his students overwhelmed us with their artistry and musicianship. “Hold your applause for the next group,” said Mystakides.

And he was right. About 20 children from the island’s school “En Chordes & Organis” (The Great School of Marcus) entered the stage.

It was an unexpected yet unforgettable experience. Each of them was an exceptional instrumentalist.

Thank you, SNF, for this experience. And I am sure that every one of the hundreds who in one way or another participated also say thank you.


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