NEW YORK – Every time the Hellenic world passes through a crisis there is endless blame and recrimination, and sometimes there is serious discussion about why Greeks keep bringing themselves to the brink. Sociologists and psychologists have insights to offer, but a PhD in social psychology like Rena Tsapelas can gently raise a hand and say “just listen.”
Tsapelas is a third generation Greek-American singer. Some might say that if one’s mother is Aphrodite Daniel, one of the New York metropolitan areas’ most popular performers, whose father was the legendary Greek band leader Mike Daniels, it is automatic. But nothing is automatic.
Tsapelas owes some of her ability to charm and inflame an audience to inheritance, but it is also due to hard work and personal passion – and perhaps a touch of rebetika addiction.
Rebetika. The Greek blues. And although that genre has a distinctive Near Eastern flavor, having sprouted from a blend of the music of the refugees from Smyrna and musical seeds planted in mainland Greece, its emotional roots must run deep in Hellenic history.
But there is a deeply individual dimension, too. Drug addiction, shattered dreams, unrequited love – Tsapelas’ professional training enables her to enlighten people by talking them – but her genes and soul pull in another direction: she would rather sing.
The doctor is “real in” as Lucy’s stand in the Peanuts cartoon would show – every Wednesday for rebetika nights at Mar’s in Astoria, where Tsapelas is accompanied by guitarist Kostas Baltazanis and bouzouki player Christos Papadopoulos, who also sings.
Tsapelas discovered rebetika – or rebetika found her – when she was 16. She loves the dramatic and tragic lyrics, although she wonders where the ability to sing about pain, struggle and darkness – the essence of the genre – comes from. Her voice and soul express it, nevertheless.
The music and lyrics can be shattering. Tsapelas said she is often surprised how much her listeners like the darkest music. “I would think they’d like the happier songs,” but somehow she resists the temptation to psychoanalyze them on the spot.
She likes the older songs, especially those that border on the smyrneika, the songs the city of Smyrna before it was destroyed.
She adores the more oriental elements, the trills and melismas – “I still work on them. They are difficult” – but she loves rebetika because it is authentically Greek, “unlike a lot of contemporary Greek music.”
Asked if she had an instructor, she told TNH “No. The best way is to just try to listen to as many of the old recordings as you can and try to emulate them as much as possible.”
She is inspired by the great singers like Rita Ambatzi, Roza Eskenazi and Marika Ninou and rebetika were part of her repertoire from the beginning of the performing career that began around 2005, but there weren’t always venues available that featured them.
“I was talking to Christo about performing rebetika for a year… It was our dream to do it authentically, with the right instruments and songs without mixing in the other stuff that is not appropriate,” she said, “Then Kosta found Mar’s – the place fits, the look, the atmosphere.”
It is Mar’s proprietor Evangelos Roumeliotes’ favorite kind of Greek music.
She is also very happy to be able to share with the younger generation’s music that goes beyond the standard things they hear at weddings and clubs.
As a child, Tsapelas was exposed to all of Greece’s music.
Her grandfather Mike Daniel arrived in America with his bride Helen from Morfi in northern Greece around 1956 and quickly established himself as an accordionist and singer performing seven days a week at the nightclubs on Eighth Avenue in New York’s original Greek town. He eventually he branched off with his own band.
Her father, George Tsapelas, who has roots in Chios, also sings – his mother had a fine voice too – and as a music lover he became involved with tours and promotions when he was married to her mother, Aphrodite, before she left the banking world to become a late-blooming musician herself.
“I always loved music,” Tsapelas told TNH. “As a little girl I would go to my grandfather’s rehearsals and the tours of singers like Haris Alexiou, but I was always very shy to sing publicly.”
After she earned her bachelors in psychology and economics at NYU she found the courage to overcome her stage fright and soon she was singing at weddings.
She chuckles at the irony of the intense night life she has developed since transcending her introversion.
“For me it is not work – singing is not work for me, but rebetika feels least like work to me.”
Tsapelas is getting ready for the first ever “AHEPA Zorba Cruise” of Orlando chapter 161 that sails for the Caribbean on February 7. Most of the proceeds will be donated to the rebuilding of St. Nicholas at Ground Zero. “They want a mix of younger and older people. I will sing with the band Odyssey and there will be a DJ,” she said.