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Crossover artists in Greek pop: the Malamas–Karras effect
I am about to post here on late song renderings by Dimitris Mitropanos, and there’s something about what he did with his late repertoire that was special, but that I couldn’t quite put a name to.
Mitropanos had a decades-long career as a Laiko artist: he worked in the mainstream Greek bouzouki pop tradition, singing songs of love and machismo and disillusionment. Nothing too intellectual.
In his later repertoire, Mitropanos sang Entechno repertoire. He sang Entechno with a firmly Laiko sensibility; and that made it all the richer for it.
Entechno music, “art music”, is a parallel tradition to Laiko; for a time it was emblematic of Greek music. (Theodorakis and Hadjidakis were its main early exponents.) The music is of the same family as Laiko, but tends to be more European than Levantine; it is friendlier to acoustic guitars and/or Western orchestral instruments, without letting go of the bouzouki bedrock; and (possibly the most important difference) the lyrics are consciously poetic. It often drew on established poets early on, and the lyricists who worked in the tradition regarded themselves as poets, and usually wrote like that. At their best, they wrote astonishing, richly and darkly allusive poetry. At their worst, they were obscurantist.
There isn’t a good equivalent in Anglo popular music; it’s like the singer-songwriter tradition exemplified by Bob Dylan times a hundred, staying in the mainstream for decades, setting Auden and Eliot and keeping poets in business.
And getting covered by artists like, say, Prince.
Now, I have ventured hesitantly back on Quora, although I can’t see myself putting in the investment there any more that I used to. The reasons I left there still hold, and the feed looks much more dysfunctional than it used to. But it’s good to have rekindled some friendships. Such as friend to this blog, Evangelos Lolos.
And this article draws on two observations he made, when we briefly discussed Mitropanos.
First: I just said that Mitropanos sang Entechno with a firmly Laiko sensibility. Evangelos put it more simply than that:
they are not entechno songs when he sings them.
There is a simpler name to put to it still, in the English tradition: Mitropanos was a crossover artist. That doesn’t necessarily make it a better name though. Crossover in the Anglo tradition has bad connotations of selling out and dilution, but then the Anglo tradition has some curious preoccupations with authenticity and purism.
The exemplar of this kind of crossing over, Evangelos proposed, was the Malamas–Karras effect. The song Πριγκιπέσα started out in the entechno tradition, recorded by singer-songwriter Sokratis Malamas in 2000:
With a lovely, singer-songwritery story behind how he came to write it:
I wrote it as a birthday present for a woman, because I had no money to buy her anything. She was cooking lentils, which is all we had left, and I looked at her and thought: “This song is worth singing at this moment, it’s worth getting out there.” I wrote it and played it immediately, without a pause. I burst out laughing when I played it, I thought it so funny. My friend, who had no idea about music, put down her ladle and said, “When did you write that? Do you realise how good it is? Why would you laugh?”
(And yes, Reader, he married her.)
It’s a lovely, melancholy tune, with tinkling bouzouki and guitar. But the guy is a singer-songwriter, and it shows: I don’t think he does the song justice, he doesn’t sing it with anywhere near enough oomph. Still, there was a rocking tune there, and an even more rocking lyric: a lyric which is full of love and wonderment and magic, like good Entechno should; but also pulsing with bad boy machismo and fatalism—the stuff of Laiko, in fact:
I want one thing, I do another.
How can I make you understand.
I thought, the years are going by,
I’ll go straight.
But it does you no favours
to try and change your nature.
No point in keeping score.
No point in forcing yourself to be good.
The wind blows outside,
but in my heart,
in this house,
your light and the light
dance around us.
The world is unbelievable
and so is our nature.
I want one thing, I do another.
That’s how I’ve ended up here.
Errors, missteps, and passions,
they’ve set me straight.
At dawn in the street,
I cast a line.
I catch myself;
I lose my mind.
As this blog post from 2009 blog put it,
When I first heard the record, I liked the uniform style he maintained on all the songs, but none of them stood out above the rest. (That particular song, I found somewhat confusing.) I found it good, in fact, but non-commercial. It never occurred to me that Pringipessa would become a massive crossover hit, admired by singers ranging from Haris Alexiou to Vasilis Karras, and that it would end up with 1,000,000 hits on YouTube! What I had momentarily missed was the approachability (λαϊκότητα) of Malamas’ songs, which would hit a vein in just two verses; and people wanted to keep listening to them over and over, like vain spells against time: it starts with “I want one thing, I do another, how can I make you understand”, anticipating defeat, and it ends in that conclusion full of bitterness and bewilderment: “The world is unbelievable, and so is our nature.”
That’s what Malamas did with it; this is what Karras does with it:
I love when a good, stern Laiko interpreter like Mitropanos turns Entechno into austere gold. I don’t think Karras can turn anything into austere gold, but it’s clearly not Malamas’ sensibility any more. It is a sensibility more in tune with the initial machismo, but it can’t do anything with the wonderment of the chorus.
Glykeria, on the other hand, turns everything to gold, though I think she too rattles the chorus off.
Peggy Zina does it a little more justice:
I don’t think Mitropanos ever did Pringipessa. I’ll come to what he did turn to gold in a future post.