Greek Blues by Nikos Ioannis
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
It is Sunday afternoon in April, another late winter day in Calgary, Alberta, as sporadic snowfall lights on the sprawling residential landscape. A few blocks from the university in the northwest quarter of the city, one home opens its doors to lovers of Greek culture, ancient and contemporary. A neighbor walks down the road, on her way to the event, to show a bewildered downtown urbanite the way in a dizzying maze of suburbia. Host Karen Gummo greets at the door, a member-at-large of TALES, The Alberta League for the Encouragement of Storytelling.
The house concert event features Jennie Frost, selected in August 2012 by Storytellers of Canada / Conteurs du Canada as an Elder in Canadian storytelling, a prestigious recognition awarded only once a year. She then recorded for the STORYSAVE Project, which honors and preserves the oral storytelling traditions of Canada. Aboriginal, Irish and Canadian heritages are among the many recognized by Story Save storytellers. Frost, a classics scholar, published her first book, The Courtship of Hippodameia in 2005. Frost has performed stories for festivals, concerts, conferences, libraries and over one hundred schools in eight provinces and one territory since 1996. A 2-CD set of her work Pygmalion and Other Greek Myths was for sale at the event, along with her book.
The event did not begin with storytelling, however, but a taksim, a term and practice borrowed from other Middle-Eastern cultures meaning the improvisatory opening to a song in Greek music. Calgary Greek music band, Rembetika Hipsters were present to provide dynamic energy to the overall muse and meaning of story in the Greek tradition. Having toured much of Canada and Greece, the Rembetika Hipsters have released three successful CDs. The band continues to receive great recognition in Greece, especially for a video recording of their tenth anniversary concert in Calgary, where they played with a nine-piece ensemble. After performing the first song, bouzouki player and vocalist Nick Diochnos told one of his own personal stories, set during his Greek wedding in Athens, where he bought his first bouzouki with extra wedding money.
Rhythm guitarist and singer Allen Baekeland of the Rembetika Hipsters gave historical background and taught the meaning of the Greek band name. In the wake of the most significant and traumatic period in Modern Greek history, the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), the Rembetika culture formed. The war, known as The Catastrophe by Greeks, led to the forced expulsion, or “population exchange treaty” of all Greek communities in Turkey, including the notable city of Smyrna. Over one million Greeks in Turkey were forced into exile. As a result, one in five people in Greece were refugees.
With their Turkish-influenced culture, vagrant impoverishment, drug use and outlaw mentality, refugee youth became what in Greek is known as Manges, loosely translated as hipsters. While very popular in the 1920s and 30s, the Rembetika music, likened to American blues, was banned by government authorities. Nick explained that there are two connotations to the word, either it is used between buddies to denote camaraderie, or between parent and child as a means of castigation. Throughout many songs played during the course of the event, Nick would exclaim, “Hey Mange...Opa!”
With a repertoire of over a hundred songs, the Rembetika Hipsters played a diverse selection, not only of Rembetika songs, but also of Greek folk and popular songs. Two songs were especially poignant for their performance, as well as the stories that accompany. Firstly, they sung Sto Perigiali To Krifo, with music by legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in collaboration with Greek poet, and Nobel laureate, Giorgos Seferis. The work of Theodorakis, spanning from orchestral suites to popular tunes, has also been integral to the revitalization of Rembetika music into post-WWII popularity. Secondly, Ta Pedia Tou Pirea was sung in memory of Melina Mercouri, a Greek actress, singer and political activist, who sung the ode to the beauty of the Greek port town of Pireus in the film, Never on Sunday. The Rembetika Hipsters commented that the port town’s charm is actually a bit more of the rough than the diamond.
Jennie Frost captivated a silent crowd of about twenty keen listeners with stories from the ancient sagas of the Greek pantheon. Storytelling alternated with the music throughout the afternoon. Frost introduced her storytelling modus operandi with a short prefatory anecdote regarding her break from conventional academic interpretations. She gives ancient stories a refreshing new life. During her lively orations, she holds an elegantly crafted wooden cane, in homage to Indigenous traditions of the talking-stick. An elephant sculpture melts into an Ankh-shaped handle, in which are tied innumerable paper-crafted memorabilia from all of the communities she has visited to enlighten through the living tradition of oral storytelling.
With detail enough to craft the most intricate narrative, Frost weaves in and out of character dialogue and illustrates setting with the lithe energy of the overseeing deities she so magically conveys. One of her most memorably enchanting stories drew from Zeus, in relationship with his children, Hermes and Apollo. The visceral imagination of ancient Greek life, as in the story of Apollo’s maturation into his role as the god of music, knowledge and poetry evokes the divine majesty of creative human faculties. Hermes, who ultimately gifts Apollo his lyre in the story, becomes messenger of the gods, evincing respect for the underlying interconnectedness of all great worldly and divine phenomena into a harmonious narrative of familial interrelationships.
Frost told many stories, drawing not only from classical Greece. Her final story revealed a welcome gift for diverse cultural expression. Before reciting a quaint Chinese tale about a half-wit boy named Noodle, who eventually outsmarted the gentry of an ancient city through a spirited affinity to poetic meter, Frost proclaimed to all her enthusiasm for epic storytelling sessions. For Frost, a five-hour long telling passes with sparkling enthusiasm. Nonetheless, Frost finished telling her last line on time to close the three-hour event, leaving all with a smile.
The Calgary cityscape glowed from the picture window behind the musicians and storyteller. The love of storytelling is a common root of social cohesion, yet the traditional arts of oral storytelling are too often ignored with similar cultural dissolution as seen in the disappearance of global language diversity. Storytelling, in the traditional and artistic forms of oration, is not simply a nostalgic reversion to childhood.
The lyrics of Giorgos Seferis speak with god-like insight and metaphoric clarity. Impermanent love, the hasty fool’s rush to consummate young lust, is the subject of his poem Denial, better known as the song, Sto Perigiali To Krifo, sung by the Rembetika Hipsters. In a society dependent on non-renewable life sources, is the consumer resource paradigm of a young nation as Canada not also likened to a parable of the impermanent lust of young love? As Seferis writes in Denial:
On the secret seashore white like a pigeon we thirsted at noon;
but the water was brackish.
On the golden sand
we wrote her name; but the sea-breeze blew and the writing vanished.
With what spirit, what heart, what desire and passion we lived our life: a mistake! So we changed our life...
[English translation by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard]
Oral storytelling roots people to an inner renewal of life, as innately creative, and in continuity with the most fundamental and longest standing traditions of humanity.
Nikos Ioannis is a Greek writer of Romaniote heritage