Your Firework Eyes

By: | Post date: 2019-03-22 | Comments: 8 Comments
Posted in categories: Modern Greek, Music

Your Firework Eyes, Τα βεγγαλικά σου μάτια, is a 1995 song (Lyrics: Michalis Bourboulis, Music: Stamos Semsis), first sung by Giorgos Dalaras, and covered the following year by Dimitris Mitropanos.

It is a moving, fragile, beautiful song about the loss of love. And there are some interesting things about how it was put together, that make it so striking. Both lyrically, and musically.

Musically, it is a torch song; it is sorrowful, vulnerable, whispered almost. The more effective in that it’s been sung by two artists who aren’t normally whisperers, who can do steel behind their plaint, and transmute it into something more.

And musically, it goes around and around, obsessively, with the same tune over and over each stanza, sternly sinking down to the tonic in stages, in the relative major (so beloved of Greek song writing), in Phrygian mode, in resigned vi–vii–i. And with no chorus to relieve it. Something unusual for a zeibekiko. But then, this is a very unusual zeibekiko.

It’s astonishing to realise that this is a zeibekiko at all. The zeibekiko, the 9/4 mainstay of bouzouki pop, is realised as a stern, heavy-footed, confident swagger. It can be fatalistic; it certainly gets to be self-important. It doesn’t whisper. It doesn’t sound like this. And that’s the genius of the arrangement, which has been maintained in the covers: it’s a song that undermines its own genre.

I’ve written years ago of another such instance, Markos Vamvakaris’ Είσαι μελαχρινό και νόστιμο, whose notes are the notes of the free-flowing Levantine chromatic lament at the root of rebetiko—but whose ethos is of the jaunty, four-square Peiraeus Sound that followed it. Your Firework Eyes is another such instance of musical alchemy. It would be very easy to sing the notes of the song like an actual swaggering zeibekiko. Noone dares to. This somewhat out-of-tune karaoke recording is the closest I’ve been able to find:

It’s not just about the music, though. The lyrics are doing a lot of work here:

I lit all the lights. I put on a show.
When love dies, it knows no resurrection.

Your firework eyes shine like phosphorus,
like ships passing through the Bosphorus at night.

You switched off the lights and left, you became invisible.
Mist that the wind took away, in an automated town.

Your firework eyes are a bonfire
and loneliness drips like rain onto the floor.

I am trapped now in your perfume, in your name,
and in your eyes, yes, your cold firework eyes.

Your firework eyes shine like phosphorus,
like ships passing through the Bosphorus at night.

Disjointed images of loss, of sorrow, of cold. With a lot going on that’s culturally specific to Greek.

Like the mention of the Bosphorus. Phosphorus and Bosphorus are the rhyming words in the original: Τα βεγγαλικά σου μάτια φέγγουν σαν το φώσφορο / σαν νυχτερινά καράβια που περνούν το Βόσπορο. In English, that sounds too marked to be anything but silly. (I’ve received a guffaw about it that is in retrospect painful. There’s some personal associations going on here.) That is why I’ve had to dodge the rhyme in English.

But it’s not silly in Greek. First, because they aren’t Greek words that stick out in English; they are just Greek words in Greek. Second, because the rhyme in Greek isn’t that rich: it’s [ˈvosporo] rhyming with [ˈfosforo]. And third, because ships in the Bosphorus is a painfully rich image in Greek. The romance and melancholy of Istanbul, yes. But also the pain that comes with thinking of Istanbul: the memory that once, this was our city. And now it is lost to us.

Which is just right for what the song is about.

The second thing about the lyrics is that the metre gets disrupted in the final stanza (before the repeat of the Bosphorus stanza). Up until then, the stanzas were all in trochaic octameter, with a masculine ending (i.e. ending on a strong syllable: ´ – ´ – ´ – ´ – | ´ – ´ – ´ – ´ .) The metre of final stanza falters: it adds a weak syllable at the end:

Είμαι πια εγκλωβισμένος στ’ άρωμά σου στ’ όνομά σου
και στα μάτια ναι στα μάτια τα ψυχρά βεγγαλικά σου

And everything falters with it. The music puts that extra note on an uncomfortable minim, that sounds drawn out too long, deliberately out of place. Dalaras captures the hesitation and awkwardness of the notes beautifully. And the lyric matches it: the faltering repetition of “your”, the syntactically disruptive, rueful recapitulation “yes, your eyes”, the forced piling up of adjectives at the end of the stanza.

There’s a third thing. The images are vivid, but they are disjointed, they don’t really come together as a narrative. There’s a reason for that; and the reason tells you a lot about how lyricists work in Greece—and how composers can make a virtue of it. With a little help from their family.

The composer Stamos Semsis has told the story about how the song came to be written. It explains the disjointedness; and it also explains how the obsessive, single-minded tune took the song over.

When I started collaborating with the lyricist Michalis Bourboulis—someone much older than me, and a great writer—the initial material he had entrusted me with was a package of some 80 pieces. He asked me to read through them, to pick what I liked, and take it from there. Most of them were printed, but a large number were handwritten. In the back of a handwritten sheet, he had printed the quatrains of Firework in random order. They turned up there by accident.

I was married at the time, and my stepson Alexandros was around 14. Despite me being his stepfather, we were good friends, and we got along very well. We had the following routine: I’d work mornings at home, and when he’d come back from school, he’d listen to my songs and tell me what he thought of them. I had started working on that particular piece, and I’d constructed the basic tune for one of the quatrains and a small bridge.

When Alexandros came home from school, I told him about the piece, and I explained that it was a little weird, because the quatrains were out of order. He asked to listen to it, and he went crazy. “Look, Stamos, don’t go complicating the melody like you usually do. It’s so beautiful and simple.” When I asked him what order to put the quatrains in, he told me to leave it with him. And that’s what happened. He took a sheet of paper and put the quatrains in order.

That’s how the piece came to have the form it does. “What you’ve just done is producer work”, I told him, and I asked him whether he wanted credits on the album. “No, no, be serious”, he answered. Twenty-odd years on, Alexandros is working in one of the biggest consulting firms in the world.

8 Comments

  • Thanks for taking me back to my guitar playing youth Nick. Apologies for the long rant by the way, it’s certainly not critical of your post, just me extending an interesting debate.

    And just as I was about to give up, you had to throw Karsilamas in there, didn’t you?

    Zeimbekiko includes in fact several accepted rhythms in 9/8 (or 9/4 which is slower). They are constructed internally in a different way (Old Zeimbekiko vs New Zeimbekiko for example) or they form their own subgenres corresponding to different dances (e.g. Aptaliko, Kamilieriko). Sometimes multiple beats can co-exist within the same song (e.g. “To zeimbekiko tis Eudokias”).

    Karsilamas however is not considered a Zeimbekiko rhythm, even if it is a fast rhythm in 9/8. Some of its variations might even be identical to the ones from Zeimbekiko, but I’m not sure to be honest, no musician would confuse the two and few (drunk) people would confuse them when dancing, which is true for most beats anyway in my experience.

    Which brings me back to “Yparho” by Poulikakos: it’s the exac same 9/4 zeimbekiko rhythm of Kazantzidis’ version but no one would call it a Zeimbekiko, would they?

    To wrap up, I think I can live with your description of Dalaras’ song as an “unusual zeimbekiko”, but personally I would just call it a song in 9/8 inspired by zeimbekiko.

  • You see Nick, I’d be hesitant to call the song a zeimbekiko. While the rhythm is 9/4, a textbook “slow (half speed) zeimbekiko” beat, it doesn’t feel like you could dance it like a proper zeimbekiko.

    The slowness is in fact part of what makes the song undanceable; live performances at bouzoukia are usually played faster, so that might solve the problem. Another issue is the “discreet” bass line, if it’s exaggerated like in your last example it can help in that respect.

    To give an example, this is also a 9/4 zeimbekiko.

    • Fair, but just as Dalaras (or Semsis) chose to sing it as a torch song, they chose to sing it too slow to dance to. Speed it up just a touch, having, I dunno, Vasilis Karas belt it out, and it’s a zeibekiko. Not surprised that live performances are less scrupulous.

      I didn’t catch it about the bass; if I understand you right, the song has a more Western than Laiko bass line, yes?

      Oh that example you gave is magnificent. One of the most heart-on-sleeve classics from Kazantzidis, transmogrified into… Black Sabbath? Iron Maiden? Early Brit Metal, certainly.

      Though that’s starting to get close to the recent fad of Lounge music covers of pop songs. It’s a shift of genre, but not an insidious, clever shift like I think Vamvamaris’ and Semsis’ was.

      • Fully agree with you, but I wouldn’t focus solely on tempo; there are some excellent very slow sentimental zeimbekiko songs, so there’s more to it.

        My point about the bass line was that it’s kind of mild and subtle; the kind that you do expect in entechno-laiko (see Malamas-Karras effect). I think it’s also part of what makes the song great and why any live performance that turns it into a zeimbekiko dance by exaggerating the bass line will be inferior, even if you could get Karras and Poulikakos to turn it into an Death Metal – Laiko fusion…

        I think we could have an endless conversation around Poulikakos and how his adaptation from 1979 fits in to the broader picture of adaptations and genre shifts.

        Going back to my initial comment, all I was trying to do was to mention that despite the fact that there’s a rhythm/beat called zeimbekiko and a dance called zeimbekiko, they’re not necessarily the same thing and that confuses people.

        • despite the fact that there’s a rhythm/beat called zeimbekiko and a dance called zeimbekiko, they’re not necessarily the same thing

          Sure, but that’s what happens when genres evolve. At the beginning, the two were tightly bound.

          • Evangelos Lolos says:

            It’s certainly true that both the musical aspects as well as the dance itself have evolved greatly during the past century.

            Forgive me if I misunderstood, but are you saying that any song played with a 9/8 or 9/4 rhythm matching the beat of zeimbekiko is by definition a zeimbekiko? Because I think that examples like Poulikakos’ Yparho strongly suggest you need more than that, such as the right instruments and perhaps the ability to dance in a zeimbekiko fashion.

          • I think I am close to saying that. And I realise that’s a tough claim to make. A Karsimalas is not a Zeibeikiko just because both are in 9/8, for example.

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