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Opa! Crank Up the Zorba in Greece for Tourists, Radio, Films

Perhaps Greece’s greatest composer (Manos Hatzidakis fans would say not), Mikis Theodorakis is most remembered for the dance tune Zorba the Greek, which evokes images of Anthony Quinn teaching Alan Bates the syrtaki on a Cretan beach at the end of the film, giving millions of tourists an image of Greece.

Theodorakis didn’t consider the music – which should have won an Academy Award in the same year (1965) that Quinn’s bravura performance should have won him an Oscar that was given to Rex Harrison for My Fair Lady – among his best, but it’s still unforgettable.

It has inspired flash mobs around the world, the infectious ode to joy bringing people onto the streets to dance in unison, happy to be above ground as Zorba would have said, knowing that life is trouble – only death is not trouble.

Theodorakis added more Hollywood movies, with the music from ‘Serpico’ and the eerie fast ride of the theme from ‘Z’, based on the book by Vassilis Vassilikos, who died in April, 2023 at 90, the film made by Costa-Gavras and causing a sensation in 1969.

You can hear Zorba a lot in Greece, at restaurants and tavernas, but not so much anymore on the radio, but get ready for it this year if a bill passes that would require more than 45% of all music heard on local radio or in public spaces to be Greek, said Culture Minister Lina Mendoni.

“In a globalized environment, English-language music has almost been imposed,” she said. “The spread of Greek-language music is limited. Statistics show that Greek music amounts to 30 percent of what is heard; 70 percent is foreign music. We … have a duty, under the constitution, to protect art,” she said, reported The Guardian’s Helena Smith.

The measure sets a quota of 45 percent Greek music played in hotel lobbies, casinos, and other public spots – but it doesn’t stipulate what the songs would be and you can’t legislate taste, so it will probably be the so-called ‘Dog Music’ popular in night clubs, not classics.

Mendoni is right to also want to protect the making a living of current performers playing Greek music who were desperate during the COVID-19 pandemic that saw them unable to play and getting little state aid, but those who do state-funded concerts sometimes have to wait months to get paid.

Alas, the measure will mean tourists and Greeks, and others in hotel lobbies, casinos, and public spots won’t be hearing music like Theodorakis’’ Mauthausen Trilogy’, called the most beautiful music ever written about the Holocaust, as contradictory as that sounds.

Nor will you hear ;Sun of Justice; from his version of ‘Axion Esti’, written by Nobel Prize winner Odysseas Elytis that brings patriotic fervor and crushing nostalgia at the same time because the music that will be played will be pop stuff.

The measure is aimed at ensuring  “the diffusion of the Greek language,” and would stipulate that 70 percent of music in films that get Greek funding be Greek, even if it’s not in context with the film’s premise.

That could pose a problem for director Yorgos Lanthimos, a leader of the Weird Wave movement whose films make the Twilight Zone look less like the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.

What Greek music would he put to ‘The Lobster’, in which guests are forced to find a romantic partner in 45 days or they will be transformed into the animal of their choice and sent off into the woods, which seems like a good place to bury this far-out premise.

Now that he’s uber-cool and a darling of those who like the absurd and comic book violence he’s turned away from Greek films, but Greeks still making Greek films in Greece, or international directors who’ve been attracted there would have to fulfill the music bill’s requirements.

Greek hotel owners aren’t keen on the idea though, because they said they don’t want to keep playing Zorba or other Greek tunes, their federation warning “enterprises would prefer to remove music from common areas altogether.”

Kyriaki Malama, a film and theater director before being elected for the main opposition SYRIZA Leftists, for whom she is shadow culture minister, told the paper that the measure was “drafted with great sloppiness by a government that sees everything through the prism of business,” taking a shot at it.

“That film-makers should be forced to include Greek-language songs in movies or risk forfeiting government grants – for that is what this law implies – is absurd. Like so much that this government does, it takes us back to dark epochs,” she said.

One such Dark Epoch was SYRIZA’s ruinous 4 ½ year reign in power before it fell out of favor faster than a meteor heading for Earth and if they had their way the only films shot in Greece would be black-and-white paeans to Stalin, Lenin, and Mao Tse-tung.

When tourists land at the Athens international airport, wouldn’t it be better for them to hear Greek music, not ‘Sweet Revenge’ by Ryuichi Sakamoto, ‘The Look of Love’ by Dusty Springfield, ‘That’s My Desire’ by James Brown, and ‘Le Soleil de ma Vie’ which are some of the songs on its playlist? Of the 31 songs on Spotify’s list for the airport, none are Greek.

So cue Zorba and let’s dance.


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