The Wild, Healing Music of Epiros

NEW YORK – Epiros. Surely the age-old war between passion and reason which so often consumes the Greek world began there, stoked by its fierce beauty.
Home of the Vikos gorge, the world’s deepest, and the oracle of Dodona, Hellenism’s most ancient, the greatest poets can only take snapshots of Epiros’ soul – Lord Byron sang of the Souliotes in Child Harold.
Words fail. They cannot capture Epiros’ essence or express its wisdom – only music can reveal its magic.
Amanda Petrusich, an American music journalist and author was hypnotized by the music and was powerfully drawn to that continent – the literal meaning of Epiros. The New York Times Magazine published her story on September 24.
Four minutes of “Epirotiko Mirologi’ recorded by violinist Alexis Zoumbas on Sept. 20, 1926, served to mesmerize her.
“The performance…instrumental and largely improvised against the low anchoring drone of some unnamed accompanist dragging a bow across a double bass,” is “one of the most devastating bits of music I’ve ever encountered.”
The mirologi “is a pentatonic lament that, for millenniums, has been sung beside fresh graves in Epirus, a historically contentious chunk of land on the Greek-Albanian border.”
Petrusich was also fascinated by Zoumbas and his frenzied playing. By then, he was a naturalized citizen performing solo and in ensembles on several dozen 78 rpm records, so “Who or what knocked him so askew? In 1941, his wife, at least one of his daughters and two of his grandchildren would be killed in Axis air raids, but that was still 15 years off,” she asked herself.
She learned about Zoumbas from record producer Christopher King, whom she met “while I was writing a book about people who obsessively collect rare recordings…King had been hunting down and buying the best copies of Zoumbas’s work from collectors and dealers all over the world.”
And so it happens that sophisticates sometimes knock on the doors of our parents’ and grandparents’ humble villages in pursuit of treasures ignored by the young – and middle aged – whose ears are stopped up with iPhone headphones.
They can now load Zoumbas onto their phones, however. In January 2014 King gathered 12 of his songs into a new release, “Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928.”
Had Petrusich asked most Greek-Americans, she might not have gained insight into the songs Zoumbas recorded in New York City and Camden, NJ.
But in the liner notes, King suggests the musician “became overwhelmed by what the Greeks call xenitia: a sense of catastrophic loss characterized by a frenzied yearning for home,” Petrusich wrote.
Even the least assimilated and most passionate Hellenes born outside of Greece cannot feel the anguish of their forebears who were either excruciatingly impatient to once again breathe the air of the village of their birth or terrified they were doomed to die without seeing it again.
At best, most immigrants’ descendants feel a powerful yearning for their next vacation there, but those emotions do not produce heart-rending art.
King understood, because he has journeyed to Epirus and has spoken to xenitia’s children, who conveyed to him their pain.
“King’s carefully restored recordings make that yearning all the more vivid — back at home, I listened to them constantly — but some of the details were still missing,” for Petrusich, so she dreamed and undertook her own musical odyssey.
Her goal was to experience the “panegyria, multiday, music-intensive events in which they mourn their losses and celebrate what remains.”
As Greek-Americans do know, Panegyria are festivals celebrating the patron saint of beloved churches.
“There is speculation that the panegyria have pagan roots, that the priests simply assimilated them. Regardless, panegyria have always aimed to treat xenitia with a hefty dose of parea, a company of friends. Panegyria are a way for the village to pay homage not just to its saints but also to its missing (those who left home to work, those who are otherwise exiled) and then to exult in the remaining togetherness, however fleeting it might be,” she wrote.
King always went to Vitsa, a midsize village high in the Pindos Mountains, for the panegyri of the Dormition of Mary, which is held from August 14-16.
That is how he gets closest to the music of Epirus, “to the wild and careening songs that made me feel as if I were communing with some unknown and unknowable part of myself. Hearing it there was the only way to begin to solve the mysteries it contained,” Petrusich reported.
It is an idyllic Vitsa that in 1812 inspired Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” He called a neighboring village a “small but favour’d spot of holy ground,” with its “rainbow tints” and “magic charms.”
Happily, Petrusich reports that “Little has changed since. Stray dogs trot between buildings, sniffing out newcomers. The air smells healthful and clean, like a garden tomato that has just been sliced in half. Vitsa’s four kalderimia — steep, cobblestoned mule trails — intersect at the village square, where a platanus tree offers benevolent shade.”
Panegyria begin with mirologi, which are always improvised, although Petrusich notes that “there are still musical markers that unite the form. Most traditional Epirotic bands are made up of clarinet, violin, laouto (an oud-like instrument with eight paired strings) and defi (a small, chimed drum). The clarinetist plays and repeats a handful of pivotal phrases, following a pentatonic scale, like many Indian ragas, and can deploy embellishments, motifs and moods unique to the region. The melody is flustered, like a bird that has accidentally flown through the kitchen window and is frantic to get back out. A mirologi can sometimes be disorienting, but when it’s performed well, it untangles things inside you.”
She quoted George Charisis, a 30-year-old photographer and filmmaker, who told her mirologi are songs for people who, simply, “are not here.”
“A mirologi isn’t always played with the same sort of desperation evinced by Zoumbas,” Petrusich relates. Grigoris Kapsalis, an 85-year-old clarinetist, played a version that “was smoother, gentler and less panicked but still imbued with a kind of unspeakable hunger.”
Nevertheless, Demetrios Dallas, a translator and editor, admitted the music was not every Greek’s cup of tea. “In Athens, when they play Zagori songs, ” he said (the Zagori are a grouping of Epirotic villages known for its wilder music) “people leave.”
Back in the village, however, there is a powerful attraction.
“Midway through a mirologi,” Petrusich writes, “villagers join hands, form a circle around the band and begin to move counterclockwise. At various points during the night, the circle might spiral into three or four concentric rings of dancers, but it will not break until daylight or late morning.”
The pleasant songs and dances that follow the miriologi “defang” the feeling of xenitia, which is not only the agony of forced or unforced exile. They can have a bittersweet quality “for example, at Greek weddings, when a bride ‘departs’ one family for another.”
While the mirologi have the power to ease pain, the more upbeat music of the panegyri has its own magic. Charisis said, “Here, we are other people…We are all together, we are all friends….Even the strangers are friends,” and Petrusich added that “Any misunderstandings or enmities that might have accrued during the previous year are released, neutralized.”
The villagers are happy to teach visitors to dance. Petrusich, who was embarrassed by her lack of skill, the next day, was told by Kapsalis that she had spirit – presumably “kefi.”
While the panegyri of Vitsa was still going on, Petrusich also visited Vitsovo. When she returned at 5 AM, she collapsed onto her bed, but the musicians outside were still playing. Three hours later she was woken up by King. “They’re getting ready,” he said, “for the final dance.”
In the village square she was greeted by an “older man in aviator sunglasses,” who shook her hand and bellowed “You understand? You see? No doctors needed! Happy!”
There is much in the history of the Epirotes that must be explained to their fellow Greeks.
Writer and film producer Nicholas Gage has his roots there. He told TNH, “Epiros is very mountainous and rocky, so they could not earn livings in their homeland and had to travel to distant places. They experienced the pain of separation from their women, children and parents. “That was the case in Epiros to a greater degree than in other parts of Greece he said, and “That is all reflected very powerfully in the music.”
But Epirotes, like the children of Cavafy’s Ithaka, forgive their homeland its poverty. The battles for control of the land between Greeks and Germans in WWII and Greeks and Greeks during the civil war were brutal – Epiros has long been a land worth fighting, killing and dying for.
The sounds, scents and traditions that shape an Epirotes soul are primeval. The latter are not pagan, they are simply what humans do, and it was only natural that they were incorporated into Christian practice.
Eleni, Gage’s book about his mother who was arrested, tortured and shot during the Greek civil because she would not turn over her children to the communists, begins with an ancient re-internment ritual.
Gage experienced the music as a child and as a returning adult. “The panegyri [Petrusich] describes happens in my village every July 19 and 20, the feast day of the Prophet Ilias,” and the music is “powerful, emotional music. The primary instrument is the clarinet…A lot of people when they first hear it don’t go for it at all, but if you allow yourself to listen to it, it is very stirring.”
He said “It is perfect for expressing loss, separation and loneliness and love, all the emotions that stir the heart deeply.”
Although Epiros has seen many invaders through the ages, Gage pointed out that its music has less foreign influenced than that of other Greek regions. Rebetika breathes the non-Greek cultures that shared Asia Minor, and the Greek islanders also dance to Italian beats.
Gage also said that although a large number of the musicians who perform the music have gypsy backgrounds, as Petrusich noted, “That’s because they are good musicians.” One recalls Hungarians dancing madly to Magyar strains played by brilliant gypsy violinists.
“They are not gypsy songs. They go back to pre-historic times in Epiros,” and he cited ancient Greek historians who wrote about the emotionally powerful funeral rites which persisted in Epiros into modern times,” he said.
Grigoris Maninakis, the founder of the Mikrokosmos Ensemble, told TNH “It is a music that grabs your soul.” The rhythms and melodies are very special and the use of the five-note pentatonic scale also makes the music distinct.
He emphasized that the lyrics are very personal – he calls them authentic, drawn from real-life situations – the musical analogy of the Zeibekiko dances. He finds the music especially “biomatiki – drawn from the experiences of daily life,” and emphasized that “the music comes from inside them: love, missing their homeland, the hardships of the people.”
He is also impressed as a musician by the Epirotes use of polyphony. Asked its roots, he said “maybe it is related to the gathering of the parea,” with each member expressing himself with melodies that are individual, yet harmonized with their friends’. “If you are not used to it, it might sound off key.”
The music has a powerful hold on Epirotes for whom xenitia was not so harsh a reality.
George Lolis, the President of the Society of Epirotes – Anagenesis, also spoke of Epiros being unable to hold onto its children.
“We were not liberated from the Ottoman Empire until 1913. Until then we went to the big cities, like Constantinople. They always had their villages on their mind, but they were able to visit often. After 1913, many went America,” where distance exacerbated the pain.
Lolis came to America from the little village of Triahi when he was 13 in 1958 with his mother and younger brother, three years after his father’s arrival. Given his youth, he did not have the classic xenitia experience, and his softer nostalgia includes memories of living near New York’s original Greek town on Manhattans West Side.
Lolis fondly recalls buying bazooka chewing from “Ethnikon” the grocery store of Nick Petakas from Sifnos, and the throngs of Greeks who filled the benches and boats of Central Park on weekends.
But even though he came as a young man, the music of Epiros, which he heard at weddings and community dances, still thrills him. He promised Anagenesis will soon share it with the rest of us.


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