Nikos Oikonomides, Mariza Koch, and Gail Holst-Warhaft in October 2019. (Photo: Courtesy of Gail Holst-Warhaft)
For those of us who grew up immersed in nisiotika, the music of the Greek islands, with the first strains of the violin sending us leaping out of our seats to the dance floor for a traditional sousta, it might be easy to take the music for granted. There was never a celebration without nisiotika and if someone happened to neglect including a lengthy set of the traditional songs of the islands from their wedding playlist, for example, if heaven forbid, the songs were not played live, there would be complaints, probably for the rest of their lives, from relatives- “there was only one sousta and it was cut off!”
This particular form of Greek music which is for many Greeks, no matter where they happen to live, the soundtrack of their lives, is the focus of Nisiotika: Music, Dances, and Bittersweet Songs of the Aegean Islands by Gail Holst-Warhaft. This well-written and well-researched book is an impressive introduction to nisiotika and a treasure trove of information for anyone interested in musicology and particularly in the history of the study of nisiotika.
Holst-Warhaft’s personal connection to the music, especially through her dear friend, the renowned singer originally from Santorini, Mariza Koch, who introduced her to the “perfect guide on this adventure,” musician Nikos Oikonomides, adds a warmth to the text that makes the book even more fascinating to read, apart from the wonderful insights into the music and its study as well. Koch and Oikonomides were major sources for the book and Holst-Warhaft dedicated the book to them and “all the musicians who have created and preserved the splendid music of the Aegean islands.”
As noted in the book’s description, Nisiotika is a book about the living tradition of Greek island music. It is music to be danced to, and, as highlighted in the book, in traditional celebrations with live music, it is the dancers who call the tune. The songs tell of the sea and people whose lives are bound up with often dangerous sea trades, of love and of pretty girls, sometimes of historical events, but also of sadness and separation, of women who wait in fear for their husbands and sons to return from long voyages or faraway lands. Most of the songs are not very old and date probably no earlier than the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, although they borrow musical and poetic motifs from older forms of Greek folk song.
Holst-Warhaft is a poet, translator, musician, and Adjunct Professor in the Departments of Classics, Comparative Literature, and Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University. She left her native Australia in 1965 and moved to Greece. In the 1970s, she performed as a keyboard player with Greece’s leading composers, including Theodorakis and Dionysios Savvopoulos.
Among her many publications are Road to Rembetika, Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music, The Collected Poems of Nikos Kavadias, Dangerous Voices: Women’s Laments and Greek Literature, The Cue for Passion: Grief and its Political Uses, I Had Three Lives: Selected Poems of Mikis Theodorakis, and a collection of her own poems: Penelope’s Confession. She has published translations of Aeschylus and a number of Greece’s leading novelists and poets. Her poems and translations of Greek poetry have appeared in journals in the U.S., UK, and Australia. She was Poet Laureate of Tompkins County for 2011. Her Kavadias translations won an award from Columbia University in 2012. The Fall of Athens, a collection of poetry, essays and stories about Greece, was published in November 2015 by Fomite Press and includes letters from Mariza Koch.
The House with the Scorpions: Selected Poems and Song-Lyrics by Mikis Theodorakis, translated by Holst-Warhaft, was published on the late composer’s 95th birthday in 2020.
Holst-Warhaft’s books, including Nisiotika: Music, Dances, and Bittersweet Songs of the Aegean Islands, are available online.
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