jump to navigation

Maria Farantouri > The ‘high priestess’ sings to remember January 10, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Music Life Greek.

Maria Farantouri arrives late for the interview, because of holiday traffic and rehearsals with the choir accompanying her at the Byzantine music conference next week; she does not stop apologizing.

This apology, lacking in pretense and ceremony, suffices to convey something about the unconventional woman who enters the room with a heavy gait, the same woman who immediately fills it with her dramatic presence and deep contralto voice. As our lively conversation continues two hours after the time allotted for the interview, it becomes clear why Greek writers, poets and intellectuals, both older than she and of her generation, consider her the ultimate national symbol and hear in her music the warm and painful memories of Greece.

Farantouri is renowned worldwide, and especially in Europe, and her name is indivisibly linked with the music of Mikis Theodorakis, perhaps also to his stormy image, hair flying about and hands waving forcefully while conducting an orchestra.

Farantouri, once a slim girl with long black hair and now a large woman, but always with a rare and almost operatic voice, can often be seen in photos listening attentively to the maestro. In Israel, she will be remembered mainly for a number of appearances in the 1970s, and above all for her mesmerizing performance of Theodorakis’ song cycle “Mauthausen,” to the words of playwright and poet Yakovos Kabanellis. The best known of these is “The Song of Songs,” which opens with the words, “how beautiful my love is in the everyday dress she is wearing.” Farantouri who has perfect pitch and whose voice is as sure and exact today as it was when she started out, does not need an orchestra to remind her of the song. She shuts her eyes and her hand move about all the while. Her rich voice alternately glides and rises, the words reverberate powerfully in the room and then she opens her eyes, smiles and says: “That’s it, that’s how it was.”

The high priestess > Farantouri was a young girl from the poor Athens suburb of Nea Ionia where many immigrants from Turkey resided, from the 1920s wave of immigration in which some million and a half Greeks were effectively exiled from Turkey. Her parents were born in Greece, her father on the island of Cepalonia where, she says, he grew up on Italian songs, but chose to live in this suburb. Throughout her childhood, she listened to rembetiko (urban blues) music or the heavy and distressful music of Stelios Kazantzidis from neighbors’ radios.

Farantouri, who was born in 1946, has been singing for as long as she can remember. She joined the Association of Friends of Greek Music at a young age and appeared with them in various places in Greece. Her mother always went with her, worried about the health and well-being of the slim girl who was afflicted with polio at a young age and had a slight limp.

During one of her performances, in 1963, Theodorakis was in attendance. He had just returned to Greece after being abroad and was mainly involved in classical music. “Already then he had begun his great life’s work, centering on reviving the great modern Greek poetry with music,” she says. “That was his dream; already at the age of 11 or 12, he had written music for poems. He chose all the great poets but also the ‘little’ ones, that is, those who had not been awarded the Nobel Prize but who were wonderful poets,” she says.

“What Mikis Theodorakis did was of the highest artistic and cultural importance, but also of political importance. He wanted to recreate the Greek spiritual identity that had been trapped for 400 years under the Turkish occupation and only at the end of the 19th century gained its independence, and this was followed by the Nazi occupation and then the civil war. We were exhausted, sapped of strength, so much was missing from our cultural and spiritual infrastructure. Education and creativity were lacking. We didn’t have music schools. People like Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis, who was a great talent but not a political one, laid the base for new music, but there was a huge lack.”

“And then,” she continues, “Mikis , who was greatly influenced by the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca, especially ‘Blood Wedding,’ and many other influences, but who mainly had a vision that burned in his bones, began to write music for poets Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis, and many others. You cannot believe how much people needed all of this.”

Farantouri gets excited remembering the period during which she became friendly with Theodorakis. “I remember Mikis’ voice when he turned to me, as if it was today. We were with the association on a tour in some small town in the North. En route, we saw the people who were drunk from hunger and they came to hear music.”

Farantouri’s voice, which even then was deeper and lower than usual, caught his attention. “He came up to me after the performance. ‘Do you know that you were born to sing my music?’ he asked me. And I, without the slightest hesitation responded, ‘yes’. That was how I felt. I was not trying to be clever or something. I really sang all my life. I very much wanted to be a classical singer, but my parents didn’t have money so they agreed I could sing with the association, and when I heard his music, I knew I’d sing it.”

Theodorakis announced then that she would be the “high priestess” of his songs. Neither of them could imagine that the coming years would provide a heart-rending, but formative, stage for his songs.

The world in her suitcase > In the mid 1960s, Greece was bruised and torn as a result of the Nazi conquest and the civil war that broke out in its wake and ended only in 1949. More than 50,000 citizens had been killed and the country was in political and social upheaval and open to diplomatic intervention on the part of the great powers. The girl with the golden voice would from then on absorb the political exuberance of a distinguished composer, and intertwine her music with the tormented heartbeat of the society in which she was born and bred.

“People were thirsty for something spiritual, cultural,” she says. “They were hungry for three things in this order: freedom, bread and education. These hungry people were roaming around on the streets and Theodorakis wanted to recruit them to create a better Greece.”

The young singer appeared with the maestro in England and Italy and all over Greece. To this very day, it is impossible to separate her voice from Theodorakis’ stormy, unique music and from Elytis’ wonderful nationalistic poetry. Elytis’ poetry speaks to his love of the country and is infused with the imagery of red blood, blue seas and skies and white hilltop houses. Seferis’ lyrics bespeak pangs of longing for Greece and its scenery, and mask a bitter irony and a yearning for love.

When Farantouri was 20, the colonels in the Greek army executed a military coup aimed at “saving Greece from Communism.” A few months later, a dictatorship had taken over Greece, and the government declared a new series of laws. Those on the Left and those opposed to the regime were persecuted.

“Mikis wrote to me from his exile,” she says. “‘Take some musicians and whoever you can and flee quickly to France.’ There were already quite a few exiled artists and politicians there. I quickly packed up and left. One suitcase with my entire world. And we started to perform in Europe.”

Their performances transformed them into the symbol of freedom fighting against the dictatorship that was choking their country. Every word and every note resounded with dust, and most of their earnings were passed on to other exiles. The prestigious concert halls were filled to capacity; the Europeans liked Farantouri’s classical singing style.

“That was a great period,” she admits, “despite the difficulties.” During those years, while in Italy, she met the left-wing activist and poet Telemachus Hitiris, who later became a minister in the Socialist Greek government, and her political awareness sharpened. The two are married and have a son. “I was not born into politics,” she says. “Only for a short period, in 1989, I joined the parliament as a representative of the Socialist party. But I am a free person.”

Over the past few years, Farantouri has performed in small and varied ensembles. She sings world music, blues and songs from Bertolt Brecht plays, and has returned to her favorites, Lorca and Pablo Neruda, sings Ladino lullabies and even two of Ahuva Ozeri’s songs. About two years ago, she recorded a selection of Theodorakis and Hadjidakis’ songs to pianist Janis Vakarelis’ outstanding accompaniment, and performs live with orchestras. This March, she is due to appear in Germany with an international repertoire.

How does she see Greek music integrating into the new European entity? Farantouri is concerned. “It is good that we joined Europe,” she says. “From the cultural point of view, it also had advantages. But it is difficult to ignore the danger of assimilation in this global-industrial erosion.

“Greek culture is visceral, human, hot. It is a culture of singing in the streets and it doesn’t suit it to be stuck opposite a TV, opposite the superficial and shallow globalization. I am neither bitter nor nostalgic, and I don’t yearn for the past indiscriminately, but we must not give up uniqueness and quality. Theodorakis created music so that the Greeks would remember and I sing to remember. Real art has a memory. The beauty of the variety in Europe must be protected in small places, in unique voices. To remember, to remember. For the future.”

%d bloggers like this: