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Music

Major Sophia Vembo

November 17, 2019
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

I wanted to prepare an article about the heroic singer, Sophia Vembo before ‘OXI’ day; well known Greek singer and actress from before and after October 28, 1940. But, finding accurate information about her was not easy. Her real name was Efi. She was born February 10, 1910 in Gallipoli, Turkey (Kalipoli, when it was ruled by Greeks) and where she and her parents and her brothers, Yiorgos and Andrea, and sister Aliki lived until the great catastrophe. In 1933, the family went to Volos.

At a young age, she moved to Thessaloniki where she began singing, making her debut at the Kentrikon Theatre. There, she introduced a new song, Beautiful Gypsy. She had a special way of controlling her rich contralto voice that brought theater goers to their feet with enthusiastic applause. It was the start of her fame. She then accepted a role in the theatre that brought her to the attention of audiences far and wide singing I Tambakiera (The cigarette holder) That sent her skyrocketing to stardom. Her style of singing was, in the beginning, known as Archon Rebetiko but was later changed to romantic. Sophia signed up with Colombia Records with whom she remained for over 30 years. She overcame poverty, sexism, exile, and war, becoming the country’s voice of victory during WWII and after those hard times. Love songs were placed in the background when Greece was invaded by the Italian fascists. Her one of a kind sultry voice inspired the soldiers and citizens of Greece, especially, when war darkened Greece’s blue skies. Then, her songs became nationalistic, singing songs humiliating Mussolini so badly that he placed a price on her head. One of them was titled, Vazei o Ntoutze Th Stoli Tou (Dutsche wears his uniform) in which she tells him he’s a feathered jerk. Another soul-stirring song that she helped write the lyrics to with Mimis Traiforos, the talented lyricist and writer,  (1913-1998),  was the song Paidia, tis Ellados Paidia (Children of Greece), that created a tremendous uplift to the people of Greece from north to south. The original lyrics written by Souyoul was a love song for a girl named Zehra. But, Traiforos and Sophia changed the lyrics to timelier and more patriotic meaning. Suddenly, the song brought tears to every mother whose son was in uniform, touching the hearts of those who heard it on the radio.

Sophia donated 2000 gold pounds of her own fortune towards the war effort and was made honorary major of the Greek Navy. Today, with better recognition of women’s efforts and talents, she would have received many more awards and gold records.

In 1942, in Alexandria, Egypt, she married Traiforos, her long-time lover who wrote many of her songs. Together, they entertained Greek troops in Egypt where a government in exile had been set up while Greece was occupied. Sophia’s temper flared up often during their marriage but, mainly they couldn’t live apart. One Sunday, while visiting New York, he appeared as guest on a popular Greek program. On the air, he openly confessed to his host and audience that he adored Sophia and that they were as one and inseparable that nothing could ever tear them apart though he once had the reputation as notorious womanizer.

Young actor and author, Andreas Mamais, her young fan of many years, wrote a biography about her life starting from the catastrophe to the end of her life. They became close friends until her demise. After the war, in 1949, she opened a theater in the Metaxourgeio neighborhood of Athens, calling it the Vembo Theater where some of Traiforos’ 100 musicals and comedies were played, plays he’d written during the three years in Egypt.

During the years of the military junta, (1967–1974), from her apartment balcony in the center of Athens, she noticed two university students in big trouble, being hunted by armed police. One of them she noticed was wounded. She ordered them both to be brought up to her apartment where she protected them from the police and nursed one to health. Her vibrancy and bravery earned her the respect and admiration of everyone in Greece and beyond. She died on March 11, 1978 and is buried in Athens’ First Cemetery. There have been many courageous Greek women in that time period, but surely her stirringly-sung songs and courage ranks her among Greece’s heroic women.

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