Greek Rhapsody enthralls

Dust-to-Digital drops essential collection of Greek 78s

Lovers of historically significant folk and world music, let us raise a cask of retsina in tribute to Tony Klein, the British musician and researcher responsible for Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music from Greece 1905-1956. Praise also goes to Dust-to-Digital, the curatorial label, which released this thoroughly researched and annotated, 152-page book and two CDs featuring 42 tracks of Greek instrumental music recorded during the first half of the 20th century.

Greek Rhapsody extends the work of a 2005 collaboration between Klein and collector Charles Howard, which produced Mortika: Rare Vintage Recordings from a Greek Underworld (Arko Records). Like its predecessor, Greek Rhapsody generally focuses on rebetika, but differs in exclusively presenting instrumental selections (with the exception of one vocal track).

Rebetika refers to certain textual and musical elements, as well as a pop-cultural movement, which began in the late 1960s, fueled by a fascination with Greek vernacular music that swept through Europe and America. Although rooted in ancient traditions, rebetika is primarily a modern, cosmopolitan style. Similar to American blues, Portuguese fado, and Argentine tango, the themes and characters in rebetika songs are drawn from urban life: illicit pleasure, criminal vice, romance, family, and community.

As a survey of Greek instrumental music in the modern era, Greek Rhapsody represents a unique and unprecedented undertaking. We hear the familiar bouzouki, hammered dulcimer, lyre, and clarinet, along with more exotic instruments, such as the Arabic oud and the laterna, a hand-cranked portable piano, which was regularly seen and heard at Greek festivals, family celebrations, and on the streets in the early 20th century. While purely instrumental songs are the exception in the rebetika repertoire, Greek Rhapsody proves the rule that says, in the hands of the finest practitioners, music is fully capable of evoking emotional depth and tracing symbolic narratives without a word being uttered.

Greek Rhapsody explores an array of styles and moods, including lilting rhapsodic interludes (the title track) and droning raga-like improvisations, such as "Raftaki," showcasing the incomparable oud playing of Agapios Tomboulis. Some songs come close to blues ("Pireotiko Taximi") and some, such as "Dertlidikos Horos," sway soulfully on the downbeat like an Anatolian samba. The latter selection also features the virtuosic guitar playing of Konstandinos Bezos, a musician, singer, actor, journalist, and cartoonist whose intriguing life story Klein briefly relates in the book's copious track descriptions.

Every track on Greek Rhapsody has been painstakingly extracted and processed from rare original 78 rpm albums, some of which are the only known existing copies. For the most part, these recordings were never intended for wide distribution, and few pressings were made. Half of the selections were recorded in mainland Greece, three in Istanbul between 1905 and 1913, and a quarter in the United States. One exceedingly rare recording, purportedly the first ever featuring the bouzouki, was made in a German World War I POW camp.

An essential reference for rebetika scholars and aficionados of Mediterranean folk culture, Greek Rhapsody: Instrumental Music from Greece 1905-1956 is an exquisite listening experience for anyone with ears for sublimely beautiful acoustic music.