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An Extraordinary Musician

One cold day in January 18, 1915, a son was born to a poor couple in Trikala who was named Vasilis Tsitsanis. He was one of 14 children, ten having died. His father, a shoemaker, died when Vasilis was 11. This boy began composing songs at age 13, and self taught himself the bouzouki, mandolin, and violin. Working at minor jobs in the village, he made enough money to buy a ticket to travel to Athens with only his bouzouki, a suitcase full of musical notes, and some old clothes. To please his mother, he attended the University of Athens, studying law but found it confining and pressuring. Almost penniless, he realized that, no matter what, music was a strong motivation within him. Lyrics and tunes came easily inside his head. Broke and hungry, he found work in a night club where he was given the opportunity to play and sing a couple of his songs. It wasn’t long before a singer, Dimitri Perdikopoulos, took notice, went up to him, and asked him where he had heard the songs he played. Vasilis told him they were his creations. Very impressed, he asked him to come to a recording studio where it was arranged that he record the songs he sang and play at the night club. That first recording was ‘H Arhontisa.’ It was aired on the radio and became an instant hit. Then, he was asked to record another song he’d written. Another big hit! Feeling more confident, he took out the pile of songs he’d written since childhood. But, in 1938 the Greek army drafted him, and he served as radio operator. At night, he’d jump a wire fence off the camp to play the bouzouki in local taverns. His time served, he returned to Athens where dictator Ioannis Metaxas had banned all Rebetika music. But even harder times followed. War!

During WWII, under the axis occupation, the Germans shut down all recording studios. Hoping to create a spot where music could soothe the troubled soul, he went to Thessaloniki where he opened a tavern named Ouzeri Tsitsani. There he introduced more songs that became successes and even classics. One after another, he revised and arranged each piece until he thought them good enough to be played publically.

The tavern gained popularity and at 23 years of age, his fame grew throughout Greece. In those very trying times, the entire country was cheered by his down-to-earth music, and people happily sang his songs. He returned to Athens in 1946 where ‘Sinefiazmeni Kiriaki – Overcast Sunday’ enjoyed amazing popularity, matching the mood of the Greek citizen. His imaginative lyrics brought a certain degree of normalcy. He was called a master musician of Laiko music that attracted many singers anxious to record one of his compositions; Marika Ninou who became his lead singer for a long while, Haris Alexiou, Grigoris Bithikotsis, Poli Panou, Stelios Kazandtsidis, and others. Despite the fame and attention, this awesome musician remained modest, was known for his sense of humor, and was tolerant of the intolerant. His philosophical opinions of people’s character are reflected in many of his lyrics. He inaugurated a new era in the musical world that has lasted throughout the decades.

Altogether, he wrote more than 500 songs. Unlike the United States that hands out awards like M&M’s, Greece doesn’t award medals or Golden Records to the talented. If it did, no doubt, Vasilis would have collected a bundle. When owners of theaters and societies in New York tried to arrange that he come to America where he’d be welcomed and lauded as a special celebrity, he was denied entrance due to his political affiliations.

He was married to Zoi Samara, a very devoted, loving wife. They had two children; Victoria and Kosta. Tragedy hit him at age 69 when Vasilis suffered a heart attack. His daughter, Victoria, made arrangements to have him transported immediately to London where she believed he’d receive more advanced, specialized treatment. But, although much care was administered, he died. It is an extraordinary fact that he died on the day of his birth, January 18th in 1984. And, his wife, Zoi, having lost the love of her life, died in the same year. Vasili gave to the world a treasury of songs that I doubt will ever fade. New music comes along, new styles and singers are heard, but the sweet melodies and sentimental lyrics that flowed from the indelible ink of that very gited musician can never fade. Ya sou, Vasili!

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