Markos Vamvakaris: A Pilgrim on Ancient Byzantine Roads

by Bill Benzon

These songs of mine have to be played. They mustn’t be lost, they have to be out there….They’re Byzantine and their ‘roads’, their tunes are ancient.
–Markos Vamvakaris

ScreenHunter_2162 Aug. 22 10.52To read this book, this as-told-to autobiography of Markos Vamvakaris, is to confront how strange is this thing we call writing, the child of this strange thing in which we live, called civilization. It is not that Markos, as he came to be known, is uncivilized. It is not that. Living at the time and place that he did, Greece during the early and middle twentieth century, he couldn’t avoid it, this civilization.

But he could resist it. And that he did, with wine, women, and song. Hashish too, more than the wine, and the bouzouki, along with the song and more than the women. Civilization didn’t win, neither did Markos. But I wouldn’t call it a draw either. It was a dance.

* * * * *

I knew almost nothing about rebetiko – Greek urban folk music with Asian influence – when I began reading this book, this circle dance between Markos the road warrior, Angeliki Vellou-Keil, scholar and scribe who published the material in Greek in 1972, and Noonie Minogue, who translated and edited this English edition (2015). Yet the story herein set forth, Markos Vamvakaris: The Man and the Bouzouki, that story is a familiar one: poverty, social marginalization, drugs, rubbing shoulder with criminals, womanizing, dedication to craft, and the transformation of a nation’s musical culture. Rebetiko has been likened to the blues, and the stories of major blues musicians have all those elements. It is a story of resistance, survival, and transformation.

Markos Vamvakaris was born in 1905 on the island of Syra in the Cyclades in the South Aegean Sea. That puts it on one of the major crossroads of world travel and trade for three millennia, between mainland Greece to the West and Turkey to the East. Its largest city, Ermopouli, was the major Greek port in the second half of the 19th Century, and a center for commerce and industry. Many different peoples have lived in and passed through Syra, as they do today in these days of destruction and despair in the Middle East. The dance of snivilization, as James Joyce called it, power and domination, freedom and music, pomp and circumcision, the bouzouki vs. bullets. Markos snubbed the law and the songs won. For awhile.

* * * * *

His father was an unskilled laborer, a coal hauler, who played the bagpipes. His mother “made jokes, sang nicely, and was full of life” (2). As a boy Markos liked to dance to the organ grinders, and he was good too. When his father took to weaving baskets and hampers, Markos would help haul the reeds, 50 pounds per load and not yet 10 years old. Then with his mother in the cotton factory packaging thread and threading looms. And then odd jobs with his uncle, more hauling. All day, vegetables, hauling. Next, the cloth mill. More child than man.

Then a break, selling newspapers in Ermoupoli, a port town. And you know what happens in ports, don’t you? People from all walks of life meet and conduct their business. Markos met them all. Now he’s in the fruit business, delivering it, selling it. Then back to the newspaper business, and when he was done for the day, he’d read papers and magzines. Education.

In 1917 he left Syros for Piraeus, a port near Athens on the mainland. He began hauling coal and smoking hashish. Then hauling whatever, as long as it was heavy; Markos was big and strong. In the early 1920s he went to work in a slaughterhouse and worked one job or another until he was 35. How’d you like to dilate a carcas? Put a hole through the skin in a leg, insert a bellows and pump until the hide separated from the muscle. You get the picture. Markos was on intimate terms with physical labor.

* * * * *

And he was on intimate terms with physical joy as well. For that’s what music is. Joy in the flesh. Not only music of course, but yes, music, really. Markos in his own words (as translated into English, p. 94):

In Tabouria I was broken in to the hard life of the Piraeus docker, I fell in love, got married for the first time and got hooked on hashish. But the most important thing by far was that I went crazy over this instrument, the bouzouki. Just before my stint in the army late in 1924 I happened to hear barba Nikos from Aivali playing his bouzouki. I loved it so much I made a vow, if I didn’t learn bouzouki I’d chop my hand off with a meat cleaver, the bone chopper they us in the shop. I considered my oath sacred and binding. It’s such a great thing, such a great instrument this bouzouki. I said to myself, and that was the beginning of misery for my family, my father and mother. I stopped working altogether after that. I had a job as a skinner in the Piraeus slaughterhouse but I didn’t work. No. My work as only bouzouki and hashish. From then on this instrument held me in chains.

For the longest time he played music on the side. Slaughterhouse by day, bouzouki and hashish the rest of the time. For awhile he had a sympathetic boss: “Markos, you play bouzouki, we’ll do the work” (75). He was, after all, a “proper wild beast” of a musician. When he played the hash dens he got paid in drugs. And then there were the cliff-side caves, climb down, go in, get stoned.

It wasn’t until the 1934-35 that he began playing for money, enough so he could make a living. He’d begun recording for Columbia a year or two before that. Columbia, and other American companies, wanted to record rebetiko for expatriate Greeks in America. He was good at it: “There were people who spent ten hours just to record one song. I’d get it done in one or two takes” (130). The way of the beast.

* * * * *

Frankly, I don’t understand his relations with women. And I don’t mean in any deep metaphysical sense, as though women were anymore problematic than (us) men. He had two wives, I think; and how many other other women, mistresses and more casual? I wouldn’t expect a thorough telling of all, as it’s none of my business, but when he does tell, it’s hard to keep them straight.

Let me give you some pointers:

Page 53: Zingoala the tigress, he eventually marries her, but not on page 53.

Page 58: Irini, prostitute, who gave him money and clothes. “Even after my marriage, newlywed and all, we used to go with the floozies. There were so many everywhere at that time in Vourla.” This was before the tigress.

Page 76: “At that time I loved a gypsy girl. A beauty, but they’re filthy women.” She was married with four children. Called her the “Sultry Spaniard.”

Page 87: “I hadn’t had any children so far and that was my wife’s fault.” But his bouzouki above all else. Musicians! What beasts! At this time Markos and his wife were being supported by his father.

Page 132: “But my wife, the bitch was having orgies with that wretched friend of mine I told you about, who took advantage of me being out all night for my work.”

I could go on like this, finding bits and pieces, stitching them together, and eventually figuring out what happened. I think. I’m also wondering what kind of raw material our scribe, Angelika Vellou Keil, and our editor and translator, Noonie Minogue, had to work from. In Markos we have an intelligent man who’s read a lot and lived more, who’s not really broken to the discipline of the written word – but then, dear reader, are you? Have you ever tried to make sense of your life, your whole life, one thing after another, in tidy chronological order?

I’m thinking that Markos was talking from deep within himself, from within a place where emotional resonance overrides chronology, even where one person dissolves into another, and events interpenetrate in promiscuous polymorphic perversity. That is a virtue of this story, this life of Markos the beast, to bring us into the lair of the lizard within.

Zingoala, that tigress he met when he was working as a stevedore, is haunting him on pages 161 and after. On page 176 he meets Vangelio, and marries her on page 178, in 1942. She was his wife at the time he told his story, and they had children.

Then there’s Yorgia (181) and Rita (194). Ten years with Rita, and still married to Vangelio. His kids: “All three of them are great kids. I just pray to God and the Holy Virgin about the women they’re going to marry” (225). The oldest is a sailor; the other two are musicians, one follows the loads of laika, like his dad, the other’s “going for the big guns. He’s going to be a pianist” (224). And maybe he’ll even be invited to play the bouzouki in Vienna with “the big maestros, the big names.” Such are the ambitions of this proud father, this Markos Vamvakaris, that his son should conquer the concert halls of the people who occupied his country during the Second World War. Bygones.

* * * * *

You get the idea. A life richly lived, but not neat and tidy. Does anyone live such a life, neat and tidy, no matter how much they may try? Markos lived through two world wars, and the desert between them. He served in the military in the first one and managed to survive the German occupation during the second one. All the time trying to preserve his dignity as a man, as a mangas. From the appendix by Angeliki Vellou-Keil (278-79):

From amongst the workers emerges a group that perhaps is made up from the most intelligent, most seeking, most irrepressible and maybe most stubborn; include here those individuals with special abilities already developed within traditional styles who refuse to give up these practices. This group in the cities create a style of life that represents an opposition and resistance to the bourgeois way of life. In the history of Greece the manghes were such a group, and maybe before them the koutsavakidhes (with their fashions, worry-beads, canes, and a ‘special walk’). This is not exclusively a Greek phenomenon. […] The mangas, choosing the beautiful things, rejects any compulsive chasing after money. Work is necessary for his own individual independence and sustenance for his family – an obligation he accepts.

And, yes, Markos Vamvakaris accepted the obligation and supported his family.

I’m reminded of a scene in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, set in 14th century Japan. A rural peasant woman is told that one of the characters, a monk, has a charter from the Emperor. “The Emperor,” she asks, “who’s that?” And there’s Terence Malick’s very different The Thin Red Line, about a campaign in the Battle of Guadalcanal in World War Two. Malick is at pains to show us both the animal life on the island and the life of aborigines native to the island. For them the war’s just a noisy and somewhat dangerous part of the weather. It’s there, they have to deal with it, but it is not intrinsic to their lives. Sooner or later these foreigners go.

And so it is with Markos, the mangas. The world of the bourgeoisie is not his world. He’d deliver groceries to them, slaughter their meat, sell them newspapers, even serve in the army while they’re fighting over who’s going to run Europe. But they’re not his people. They’re furniture, weather, the socio-cultural landscape in which he traveled his ‘roads,’ the dhromoi or scales and modes, on which the music is based.

It is on those roads that he was able to build a reasonably prosperous middle age. Not wealth, but he could support his family, and he became well-known and respected for his music. A man of existential substance, but also a haunted man.

* * * * *

In his own words (p. 1):

I am driven to tell the story of my life. I want to see it written and to read it from the beginning to end as if it were someone else’s. […] The kind lady who’s acting as my scribe says the first Christians used to confess their sings aloud and then everybody forgave them. That’s how they got if off their chests. But now the world’s a rotten place and I know plenty of people will think I should be ashamed to own up to the things I’m about to tell you. But I’ll find the courage and take no notice of those people. […] The wrongs I’ve suffered and the wrongs I’ve committed are the same.

Think about it. In the fullness of youth he was driven to make music. Now in the fullness of life he’s driven to tell his life’s story. Think about that. What does it mean to be driven? It’s a real question, but you need not answer it now.

And so, in the late 1960s he began to write down his life. That’s when Angeliki Vellou-Keil met him (xxv):

It gave him particular pleasure that we were from America and that in the few days we had in Greece we’d found time to come and see him. He fondly remembered his glory days when he was the great ‘Markos’ and the whole of America wanted to see him. ‘And yet they didn’t let me go and earn money with my bouzouki because my name had a black mark on it from the times when I used to get busted for smoking hashish.

He feared that censorship would keep his story from being pubished in Greece but hoped it could be published in America. And now it has been.

I learnt all these things bit by bit from the old guys in the tekedhes, because I had a great passion and my life was all bouzouki. Like I said, I sacrificed everything for the bouzouki. It took me over – but it also took me up in the world, way up.
–Markos Vamvakaris