By Grigoris Maninakis
Perhaps there is no better time to write an article about Vasilis Tsitsanis, the composer and lyricist of “Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki,” the song most Greeks refer to as the “National Anthem” of Greek music, than the centennial year of his birth. Yet, in attempting to write this article, I have a humbling, prevailing question, in my mind: could I pay him a tribute, worthy of his legacy and could I bring out interesting, non-routine, anecdotal facts about the man, that people do not already know? After all Tsitsanis, having composed more than 500 songs, is the most prolific and very likely, musically speaking, the most influential Greek composer of all time, a fact that has been acknowledged and frequently stated by everyone who wrote about him, no less so, by our two most respected world renowned Greek composers: Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis. Finally I have decided to put aside any fears and proceed with a somewhat different “Tsitsanis Story”.
A couple of years ago, a longtime friend and colleague, aware of my long term involvement with Greek music, and in particular with rebetika, called up and said that in his recent trip to Greece he bought Elias Petropoulos’ book, Rebetika Songs, which he graciously offered to me to browse through. The book, now in its 10th edition, while occasionally a subject of controversy, is a 700-page classic of its kind. It was first published in the late 1960s, and very likely it represents the most elaborate and thorough research write-up, on the history of rebetika, to date. It has nearly 500 pages of historical text about rebetika, including interviews and commentaries by other writers and researchers, followed by a real treasure of more than 200 pages of original, rare photos and hand written notes by most of the protagonists, ending with a 12-page index. It was on page 273 of the book, that I came across a section headed by the title: “S. Gauntlett: An interview with Tsitsanis.” This interview was first published, in the Spring and Summer of 1975, by the Hellenic Society of Melbourne, Australia
After reading through it, I had all the reasons I needed to proceed with writing this commentary about Tsitsanis.
While Tsitsanis has given a great many interviews through his life, there is something unique about this particular interview as he (Tsitsanis) insisted that he will only answer in writing, a set of written questions, as he was “frustrated and tired” of having his words twisted from his many verbal interviews. It is thus reasonable to assume that this unique interview brings out Tsitsanis’ precise views on the various questions.
According to Mr. S. Gauntlett, the interviewer, it took Tsitsanis six months to answer the questions, as they were given to him in March and he completed the answers them in September. Naturally, my intention is not to list every question and answer of this unique interview, but rather to selectively, bring out and highlight some of the least known aspects of his life, views and personality. As a case in point, it was quite interesting and rather surprising, reading his experiences and opinions about traditional folk songs, byzantine music and rebetika, as well as his non-critical opinion of the State’s censorship on some songs during the prewar years by the Metaxas dictatorship. Here are some of the questions and answers, interesting and telling in my opinion, translated from the Greek to the best of my ability:
Q: I know you were born and raised in Trikala (Thessaly). Could we conclude that you were significantly influenced by Greek folk (demotic) songs ?
A: I was neither influenced nor impressed by the Greek demotic songs. In fact, I could say that I rather disliked them and paid no attention to them.
Q: With what other traditional music styles you had contact with during that time?
Byzantine, Eastern, European, Rebetika?
A: I had no clue what Byzantine or (Middle) Eastern music was all about. I had a very strong dislike and distaste for “amanedes” (Middle Eastern song vocal improvisations). Of the rebetika I was listening to at the time I liked very-very few.
Q: When did you first come to Athens and how did you manage at the beginning?
A: I came at the beginning of 1937. (Tsitsanis was just 22 years old then). I left my home town after I had graduated from high school. Poor and hungry, I had with me 35 songs and several instrumental compositions. As it was impossible for me to continue my education (i.e.: University studies), due to lack of money, I was making the rounds at various tavernas along with a guitarist, entertaining customers and getting by collecting tips.
Q: Many of your best songs were written during the years of the Nazi occupation. It seems that the occupation played a major role in forming your artistic personality.
A: The occupation was for me an inexhaustible source of inspiration. It was the great bridge on which the Greek popular song stepped on and took off. It was the period when there were no differences and distinctions and everyone, rich and poor, arms together, were singing my songs. Even “Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki,” which I actually recorded in 1949, was an inspiration during and from the occupation.
Q: How did you manage with the censorship that was periodically imposed (on songs) in Greece?
A: During the Metaxas era, government censorship cut off all the hashish songs. (Hasiklidika).
For many ways I can say that this had a beneficial effect, as “amanedes” and “crying-like-musical notes” were all rejected. (He is referring here to the Asia Minor middle eastern heavily modal melodies.)
As a result of this practice our popular song was more “Hellenic-befitting” and in good taste.
Actually during the occupation the censorship was a non- issue or functional, for there were no recordings . The Germans and the Italians had occupied the premises of the record producing factory building and had destroyed all recording equipment. That is why the first song records came out at least 18 months after our liberation.
Q: As far as the way you create your songs do you first come up with the lyrics and the music next?
A: Usually, I first write the music and then I try to come up with the proper lyrics to fit the color and the climate created by the music. This type of song creation is the more difficult one.
Vasilis Tsitsanis, was born in Trikala, Thessaly on January 18, 1915 and passed away at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London on the day of his 69th birthday, January 18, 1984. There is no doubt his memory and his legacy will be eternal.
Grigoris Maninakis, a vocalist, is Professor of Engineering Technology at the State University of New York – Farmingdale.