There are a few special places I always try to visit when I am in Athens, where the food is good home cookin’ - Greek style and the people watching is sublime. If you go at a reasonable hour (late) the musicians show up – generally a bouzouki player and a guitar or kithara and singer. They set up at a table in the middle of the room, among the diners and fortified by cigarettes, raki or Greek coffee they play music that is divine. This week I was treated to two phenomenal experiences – the first was in a restaurant that has mediocre but over-priced food and sensational musical talent, playing in shifts. It is frequented by young 30 – 40 -something Greeks, who sing every song and dance every dance with joy and abandon. The finger picking of the bouzouki player makes Van Halen look like a hack (sorry Eddie). No Snoop Dogg or Beyonce for these folks – this is good honest rembitika or Greek jazz and old folk songs – full of soul and self-expression. No one in the place sits still or remains unmoved. Most sing along and dance in a group, but often the music will move a patron to dance alone – a soulful interpretation of what the music says to him. It is private, emotional but understood by all and really has no parallel in western music.
Music is never far away here in Greece. Whether it is the astonishingly talented street buskers (today I heard a nice chamber quartet knocking out some Schubert on a street corner) or the migrant refugees and their accordions and whistles, or the ancient old grandfathers and their antique hurdy gurdies – or even the tolling church bells (did you know they each have their own exclusive idnetifiable peal?) music is all around.
When I get brave, I’ll jump in or contribute my voice, for after so many years, I know a number of the folk songs – at least phonetically. I tried to do some bass lines on a kithara last night, but the rhythms are devilishly complicated for a western educated musician. And the harmonics are so absolutely right for their music, but so very wrong to my ear – so earnestly trained by well meaning but unimaginative nuns of the Notre Dame de L’Acadie music school. It becomes an exercise in mathematics for me, rather than musical expression – and after last night’s impromptu jam session with the homies, I was mentally and physically exhausted. As Miss Staples, my Grade 2 music teacher once said, “Nancy contributes to the choir by helpful listening.” So, I think I’ll stick with that, although – the absolutely delicious (er, I meant talented) bouzouki player DID invite me back for tomorrow night’s gig. I promised to teach them some Hank Williams tunes.