Thursday, August 9, 2018

Statement of Proposed Research

STATEMENT OF GRANT PURPOSE
Jennifer Sherrill, Greece - Musicology
Songs in Transit: One Hundred Years Ago and Today

Dromoi is the name given to the musical scales of Greek Rembetiko music. Romantically translated, dromoi means roads or paths and as a musician sets her feet on the beginnings of asong or scale, a new path full of twists and turns is revealed. Rembetiko is the music of the refugee, the underdog, the outcast, the poor and the displaced. This music was born from fire and struggle, it’s birth rising from the ashes of the Greco-Turkish war. In 1922 as Smyrna burned, Greek, Armenian and Jewish refugees fled Turkey and flooded into Greece, bringing with them their food, culture, language and of course, music. They blended the Turkish scales (makamlar) with elements of Byzantine music while mixing in traces of pain, struggle and humor to contribute to the style of music known as Rembetiko.

Much the same as a hundred years ago, the island of Lesvos sits on the forefront of the mass movement of people. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have landed on the shores, overwhelming a population of not quite ninety-thousand. Despite the obvious tensions that arise from the combining of differing cultures into close proximity, one benefit is that music on Lesvos is absolutely thriving and powerfully representative of multiple traditions.

My proposed project is multifaceted, encompassing elements of research, performance and teaching. With a Fulbright award, I will spend my time researching the rise of Rembetiko while immersing myself in the playing practices. Acting as a participant observer, I will work with Rembetiko musicians and teachers living on Lesvos in order to learn the songs and their connections to them. Each Rembetiko musician will choose one song which I will then research, focusing on the historical origins of the song and what is means to the musician personally.

Along side my work with Greek musicians, I will be teaching adult music classes through Mosaik, a community center working towards the goal of providing safety and warmth, community and dignity to the most vulnerable populations on the island. Using a qualitative approach, I will help Mosaik students pick songs of any genre that have been important to them throughout their present day journey. I will research their songs and work with them to tell the stories of how these songs have been important to them. I will present these songs in a final exhibit on the island and also weekly, in narrative blog form. Each week, I will post the story of one song from a Rembetiko musician beside the story of one song from a present day refugee in order to bridge the parallel cultures that are currently residing on Lesvos. My project will serve to fill a gap in existing research on the similarities of the origins and experiences of Rembetiko with the present day migratory movement of people and music.

My post Fulbright plan will be to present these stories of song in book form to coincide with the timing of the two hundred year anniversary of the start of the Greek war for independence and the one hundred year anniversary of the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish War. I will pursue publishing while targeting an audience of students of world music, geo-musicology and sociology. My subject will also appeal to those attempting to put individual faces to the overwhelming numbers heard in news stories about the economic and refugee crisis. My research and human interest project leads well into the next step of my academic path towards applying for a Ph.D in Ethnomusicology with the University of Chicago being my first choice program.

Throughout the process of my work on Lesvos, I will affiliate with Prof. Dimitris Papageorgiou, director of the Image and Cultural Representation Lab of The University of the Aegean. I will work with the cooperation of Mariza Vamvoukli, musical director at Mosaik and of Cantalaloun, an adult choir combining singers from Greek populations and vulnerable groups. I will also work with the guidance of Efi Averof, musicologist and president of the board of Athens based Polyphonica. I will look to these three accomplished advisors for access to existing research data, guidance on collection methods and advice on cultural sensitivity and musical accuracy.

There will be multiple languages spoken in the undertaking of this project and often times I will have to rely on recordings and the many talented multilingual members of the community. However, usable Greek will be integral to my success and to that end, I have enrolled in a modern Greek class for Fall 2018 at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I will continue the class through the spring semester while working independently with Greek music in order to give a present day purpose to the language before arriving to the island.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach on Lesvos, but in leaving, I felt that I left work undone. In my eight weeks on the island, I discovered that community engagement is not an option, but a given. The community wraps around each newcomer, asking to share a cup of coffee, a song or a conversation. I will happily engage further, by working through Mosaik as a music teacher and TEOFL certified ESL tutor. While I will be teaching the basics of western music theory, chord shapes and structure, I will also incorporate elements of Rembetiko, teaching students the fundamentals for improvising within each dromos, using Rembetiko to help empower and connect refugees to the culture and community around them. I will also lend my voice to Cantalaloun, an intercultural adult choir. I will lend my organizational and cantoral skills to the Catholic Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Mytilini in order to help them build their music program. And I will lend my ear and heart as a friend.

When I first heard the music of Rembetiko, I felt an unexpected moment of recognition. There is strength and resilience in the songs of those who passed through Lesvos one hundred years ago. The first time I played a familiar English song only to hear it sung back in a language I didn’t know, I began to understand that that same strength fills the music of those passing through today. A Fulbright award will enable me to give voice to untold stories of struggle, joy and song while allowing me to teach in a community that is so incredibly hungry to learn. I will work to help create and present a common language of music between a small population of residents and refugees in order to find understanding and warmth. Lesvos sits in a unique place between beauty, hope, chaos and fear. There is much work to do and my hands are able




Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Fulbright Personal Statement


PERSONAL STATEMENT 
Jennifer Sherrill: Greece - Musicology
Songs in Transit: One Hundred Years Ago and Today

I am a foster child. I grew up in the system, traded back and forth between families of strangers and my own mother. I was incredibly lucky that I had a singing voice which allowed me to attend university on scholarship. However, I was ill prepared for the demands of the program and I failed out spectacularly. In the intervening years, I have detasseled corn, worked my way through restaurants as a dishwasher, waitress, hostess and line-cook, cleaned as a hotel maid, interrupted dinners as a telemarketer, and ran countless soccer games as a referee. I have since, completed my Bachelor of Arts and served as a church musician and youth choir director for over a decade. I have taught in Peru and worked as an ESL tutor to an immigrant population in Chicago’s Centro Romero. I have built a successful teaching studio and I am one semester away from completing my Masters in Vocal Performance with honors. I am not a stranger to hard work, I do not look away from pain and after a lifetime of lessons, I am not afraid to learn. 
Despite my own hard work, I would not be as I am today without the helping hands of so many who made sure that I knew I had value. These people gave me a safe place, books and a hunger for the world. Recently, I found myself on the other side of the world in a small, lush courtyard. A young girl sat in front of me, her fingers shaping the harmony of Sol on her ukulele. She looked up, her smile free and in her eyes I saw equal parts pain, potential and strength. In that moment, I understood the love and the risks taken by those who chose to stand by me. Many on Lesvos have experienced trauma that I am unable to comprehend. However, I am familiar with fear and the desperation to find balance in the middle of chaos. A ukulele, a song, or telling a story may seem small frivolous things, but when one’s heart is tired, they can be everything. 
Even now as I write my statement in my Chicago home, my day is punctuated by little notes of encouragement from the island. There is Aref, a quiet young man who takes every class he can, acquiring any skill available. He makes beautiful art and as I left Lesvos, he gave me a pair of earrings with delicate paper cranes dangling optimistically. There is Antonis, the luthier who lovingly built my baglamas. There is Mariza, a musician who can step into chaos and create. And there is the young Afghani couple, Mehdi and Faisa, who spend their nights separated and surrounded by uncertainty in the Moria refugee camp. Yet they spend their days in classes leaning close to each other. Our six weeks of classes were outside and in response they, who have nothing, brought me bug spray. These people humble me, and it is for them that I ask to go back.   

From the perspective of an adult, I have looked back to discover that Greece has been feeding me for years. I was fed where I grew up, working in the restaurants surrounded by rapid fire Greek and I was fed at the dinner table of my college friend Tony Kidonakis, whose father would feed me past a rational bursting point. It was this warmth and the knowledge that I could help in a small way, that called me to Greece for the first time. I was not surprised to find that upon arrival, Greece continued to feed me, quite literally. I fell in love with her tastes, her songs, her people, her community and her stories. In going back, both my stomach and heart will be fed. 






1st draft

I am a foster child. I grew up in the system, traded back and forth between families, my own mother and the government. I was incredibly lucky that through no work of my own, I had a singing voice which allowed me to attend university on scholarship. However, I was ill prepared for the demands of the program and I failed out spectacularly. In the intervening years, I have detasseled corn, worked my way through restaurants as a dishwasher, waitress, hostess and line-cook, cleaned as a hotel maid, interrupted dinners as a telemarketer, and served as a referee for countless soccer games. I have since, completed my Bachelor of Arts and served as a church musician for fifteen years, directing the youth choir for eleven of those years. I have taught in Peru and Greece and worked as an ESL tutor to an immigrant population in Chicago’s Centro Romero. I have built a successful teaching studio on Chicago’s north side and I am one semester away from completing my Masters with honors. I am not a stranger to hard work, I do not look away from pain and after a lifetime of lessons, I am not afraid to learn. 

However, despite my own hard work, I must admit that I would not be as I am today without the helping hands of so many who have loved me. I did not belong to these people, but they made sure that I knew I had value. As my own family was breaking apart, there was always a couch for me, a meal, a conversation and love. These people gave me books and a hunger for the world around me and it is to them that I owe everything I am. Until now, I have not understood their motives. I could not make sense of why they would take care of a child who was not their own. Recently though, I found myself on the other side of the world in a small courtyard with the sun creating golden shadows through the leaves of the trees above. A young girl, soon to become a woman, sat in front of me, her fingers making the shape of the harmony of Sol on her ukulele. She looked up, her smile free and as her eyes locked with mine I saw equal parts pain, potential and strength. In that moment, I understood the love and the risks taken by those who chose to stand by me.

A Fulbright grant will allow me to use my skills as a classically trained musician, to analyze the structure of Rebetiko in order to discover the personal pull. A Fulbright will give me the means to research the rise of Rebetiko and how it relates to the refugee crisis today. A Fulbright will give me the luxury of spending a year’s worth of evenings listening to and playing Rebetiko with an island full of amazing musicians and friends. A Fulbright will help me to solidify Greek as a  language that I am capable of using. A Fulbright will let me lend my knowledge of classical, American folk and gospel in order to help expand the repertoire of Mosaik’s intercultural choir. A Fulbright will allow me the time I need to teach in a refugee community that is so incredibly hungry to learn. A Fulbright will enable me to use my skills as a creative writer to give voice to untold stories. A Fulbright will help me to create a common language of music between a small population of refugees, Greeks and volunteers in order to find understanding and laughter.  But most of all, a Fulbright will give me the chance to repay and pass on the love that was given to me.

Love and music saved me and gave me sanity in the midst of chaos. Lesvos sits in a unique place between beauty, hope, chaos and fear. There is much work to do and my hands are able. 

2nd draft..

I am a foster child. I grew up in the system, traded back and forth between families, my own mother and the government. I was incredibly lucky that through no work of my own, I had a singing voice which allowed me to attend university on scholarship. However, I was ill prepared for the demands of the program and I failed out spectacularly. In the intervening years, I have detasseled corn, worked my way through restaurants as a dishwasher, waitress, hostess and line-cook, cleaned as a hotel maid, interrupted dinners as a telemarketer, and served as a referee for countless soccer games. I have since, completed my Bachelor of Arts and served as a church musician for fifteen years, directing the youth choir for eleven of those years. I have taught in Peru and Greece and worked as an ESL tutor to an immigrant population in Chicago’s Centro Romero. I have built a successful teaching studio on Chicago’s north side and I am one semester away from completing my Masters with honors. I am not a stranger to hard work, I do not look away from pain and after a lifetime of lessons, I am not afraid to learn. 

Despite my own hard work, I must admit that I would not be as I am today without the helping hands of so many who have loved me. I did not belong to these people, but they made sure that I knew I had value. As my own family was breaking apart, there was always a couch for me, a meal, a conversation and love. These people gave me books and a hunger for the world around me and it is to them that I owe everything I am. Until now, I have not understood their motives. I could not make sense of why they would take care of a child who was not their own. Recently though, I found myself on the other side of the world in a small courtyard with the sun creating golden shadows through the leaves of the trees above. A young girl, soon to become a woman, sat in front of me, her fingers making the shape of the harmony of Sol on her ukulele. She looked up, her smile free and as her eyes locked with mine I saw equal parts pain, potential and strength. In that moment, I understood the love and the risks taken by those who chose to stand by me. My students on Lesvos have experienced trauma that I am unable to comprehend. However, I am familiar with fear and the desperation to find balance in the middle of chaos. A ukulele, a song, or telling a story may seem small frivolous things, but when one’s heart is tired, they can be everything. 

A Fulbright grant will allow me to use my skills as a classically trained musician, to analyze the structure of Rebetiko in order to discover the personal pull. I will have the means to research the rise of Rebetiko and how it relates to the refugee crisis today. I will enjoy the luxury of spending a year’s worth of evenings listening to and playing Rebetiko with an island full of amazing musicians and friends. Through the course of the year, Greek will become a language that I am capable of expressing myself with every day. I will be able to lend my knowledge of classical, American folk and gospel in order to help expand the repertoire of Mosaik’s intercultural choir.  A Fulbright will give me the time I need to teach in a refugee community that is so incredibly hungry to learn and it will enable me to use my skills as a creative writer to give voice to untold stories. I will work as hard as I can to help create a common language of music between a small population of refugees, Greeks and volunteers in order to find understanding and laughter. 

 Lesvos sits in a unique place between beauty, hope, chaos and fear. There is much work to do and my hands are able. 


3rd draft... and my favorite


PERSONAL STATEMENT 
Lesvos, Greece - Sociology and Music

I am a foster child. I grew up in the system, traded back and forth between families, my own mother and the government. I was incredibly lucky that through no work of my own, I had a singing voice which allowed me to attend university on scholarship. However, I was ill prepared for the demands of the program and I failed out spectacularly. In the intervening years, I have detasseled corn, worked my way through restaurants as a dishwasher, waitress, hostess and line-cook, cleaned as a hotel maid, interrupted dinners as a telemarketer, and served as a referee for countless soccer games. I have since, completed my Bachelor of Arts and served as a church musician for fifteen years, directing the youth choir for eleven of those years. I have taught in Peru and Greece and worked as an ESL tutor to an immigrant population in Chicago’s Centro Romero. I have built a successful teaching studio on Chicago’s north side and I am one semester away from completing my Masters with honors. I am not a stranger to hard work, I do not look away from pain and after a lifetime of lessons, I am not afraid to learn. 
Despite my own hard work, I must admit that I would not be as I am today without the helping hands of so many who have loved me. I did not belong to these people, but they made sure that I knew I had value. As my own family was breaking apart, there was always a couch for me, a meal, a conversation and love. These people gave me books and a hunger for the world around me and it is to them that I owe everything I am. Until now, I could not make sense of why they would take care of a child who was not their own. Recently though, I found myself on the other side of the world in a small courtyard with the sun creating golden shadows through the leaves of the trees above. A young girl, soon to become a woman, sat in front of me, her fingers shaping the harmony of Sol on her ukulele. She looked up, her smile free and as her eyes locked with mine I saw equal parts pain, potential and strength. In that moment, I understood the love and the risks taken by those who chose to stand by me. My students on Lesvos have experienced trauma that I am unable to comprehend. However, I am familiar with fear and the desperation to find balance in the middle of chaos. A ukulele, a song, or telling a story may seem small frivolous things, but when one’s heart is tired, they can be everything. 
Even now as I write my statement in my Chicago home, my day is punctuated by little messages and notes of encouragement from the island. They are not so far away. There is Aref, a quiet young man who takes every class he can, acquiring any skill available. He makes beautiful art and as I left, he gave me a pair of earrings with delicate paper cranes dangling optimistically. Martins, a smiling man from the Congo, spreads warmth everywhere he goes. Despite constant setbacks and struggles with claims for asylum, he always has a smile to share and a song to sing. There is the beautiful young Afghani couple, Mehdi and Faisa, who spend their nights separated and surrounded by ugliness in the Moria refugee camp. Yet they spend their days in classes leaning close to each other. Our classes were outside and in response they brought me bug spray. And there is Arash, a determined Iranian man who has since moved on to Athens. Even though he is angry with government and disillusioned by bureaucracy, he rushed without hesitation to give support and strength to those affected by the Athens fires. These people humble me, and it is for them that I ask for time.   
A Fulbright will give me the time I need to teach in a refugee community that is so incredibly hungry to learn and it will enable me to use my skills as a creative writer to give voice to untold stories. I will work as hard as I can to help create a common language of music between a small population of refugees, Greeks and volunteers in order to find understanding and laughter. 


 Lesvos sits in a unique place between beauty, hope, chaos and fear. There is much work to do and my hands are able.


4th draft..
PERSONAL STATEMENT 
Jennifer Sherrill: Greece - Musicology
Songs in Transit: One Hundred Years Ago and Today

I am a foster child. I grew up in the system, traded back and forth between families of strangers and my own mother. I was incredibly lucky that I had a singing voice which allowed me to attend university on scholarship. However, I was ill prepared for the demands of the program and I failed out spectacularly. In the intervening years, I have detasseled corn, worked my way through restaurants as a dishwasher, waitress, hostess and line-cook, cleaned as a hotel maid, interrupted dinners as a telemarketer, and ran as a referee for countless soccer games. I have since, completed my Bachelor of Arts and served as a church musician and youth choir director for over a decade. I have taught in Peru and worked as an ESL tutor to an immigrant population in Chicago’s Centro Romero. I have built a successful teaching studio and I am one semester away from completing my Masters in Vocal Performance with honors. I am not a stranger to hard work, I do not look away from pain and after a lifetime of lessons, I am not afraid to learn. 
Despite my own hard work, I would not be as I am today without the helping hands of so many who made sure that I knew I had value. These people gave me a safe place, books and a hunger for the world. Recently, I found myself on the other side of the world in a small, lush courtyard. A young girl sat in front of me, her fingers shaping the harmony of Sol on her ukulele. She looked up, her smile free and in her eyes I saw equal parts pain, potential and strength. In that moment, I understood the love and the risks taken by those who chose to stand by me. Many on Lesvos have experienced trauma that I am unable to comprehend. However, I am familiar with fear and the desperation to find balance in the middle of chaos. A ukulele, a song, or telling a story may seem small frivolous things, but when one’s heart is tired, they can be everything. 
Even now as I write my statement in my Chicago home, my day is punctuated by little notes of encouragement from the island. There is Aref, a quiet young man who takes every class he can, acquiring any skill available. He makes beautiful art and as I left Lesvos, he gave me a pair of earrings with delicate paper cranes dangling optimistically. There is Antonis, the luthier who lovingly built my baglamas. There is Mariza, a musician who can step into chaos and create. And there is the young Afghani couple, Mehdi and Faisa, who spend their nights separated and surrounded by ugliness in the Moria refugee camp. Yet they spend their days in classes leaning close to each other. Our six weeks of classes were outside and in response they, who have nothing, brought me bug spray. These people humble me, and it is for them that I ask to go back.   

When I first heard rebetiko, I had an unexpected reaction of recognition.There is strength and resilience in the songs of those who passed through Lesvos one hundred years ago. The first time I played a familiar English song only to hear it sung in a language I didn’t know, I began to understand that that same strength fills the music of those passing through today.  A Fulbright will allow me to teach in a community that is so incredibly hungry to learn and it will enable me to give voice to untold stories of song. I will work to help create a common language of music between a small population of Greeks and refugees in order to find understanding and warmth.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

To bind, to tie, to knot, to connect (Μπαγλαμας)

There is a narrow house sandwiched between other narrow houses sitting on a hill on the north side of town. After climbing the breath stealing hill to reach this little house, one opens the door and faced with a flight of stairs, continues upward. At the top of the stairs, there is a tiny unfinished bedroom to the left and a minuscule kitchen to the right, complete with a floor painted colorfully by a child’s hand and meticulously lacquered over by a loving father. 

Directly in front of the stairs, a door opens to reveal a room in seeming disarray. Wood fragments sit tilted against each other. Drills, saws, clamps and pliers decorate counter tops and walls, and instruments in varying states of brokenness lay waiting for a restoration of their beauty. A man moves through this room, his thick dark hair colored by traces of sawdust, and his hands, with capable dirt under the nails, touch briefly on each piece of wood as though touching a living being. He steps forward, lifting his arms to open optimistic blue shutters and reveals the sea below, bathing the room in afternoon light. The incense of heated wood perfumes the air and dust holds court.  

This man and another talk quietly, their voices echoing on the periphery of my consciousness as I study the fascinating room around me. The buzzing of the conversation behind me shifts to prices and timetables and I jump in impulsively, my fingertips coated in dust from tracing the exotic shape of an instrument I couldn’t name “Yes,” I say without hesitation, “Can you make one for me?” 

There is great irony to the names of the instruments distinct to Rebetiko, the names being derived from their Turkish origins. Bouzouki (μπουζούκι) comes from the Turkish word bozuk meaning “broken.” While this meaning could be figuratively applied to the state of many bouzouki players, the concept of being broken actually applies to the shifted tuning of the instrument itself. The Bouzouki is a fretted stringed instrument in the family of the lute and a descendent of the Turkish Saz. While the Saz was fretted, the frets were spaced microtonally to account for the non-western intervals of the Turkish scales. The frets of the Bouzouki, however, are tempered spacing to whole and half steps and the tuning of the strings are D, A, D. 

Baglamas (Μπαγλαμας) comes from the Turkish word bağlamak, meaning “to bind, to tie, to knot, to connect.” A Baglamas is the smaller counterpart to the Bouzouki, tuned the same yet an octave higher, comparable in size to a soprano ukulele and a Portuguese cavaquinho. As Greek politics shifted, and Rebetiko became a persecuted art form, the petite frame of the Baglamas allowed it to be slipped unseen into a sleeve or coat pocket.  Due to the higher register and the bright timbre, the notes of the Baglamas carry over the full sound of a Rebetiko group. 

There is a responsibility to having and instrument created for you. There is a respect that one must have for the maker beyond simple compensation. There must be an acknowledgement of the work done and love offered. There must be an understanding of the instrument itself, a familiarity of the smell of the wood, the smoothness of the texture and a comfort with the weight. I am soon to be bound to a baglamas, an instrument I have never attempted to play. My fingers will find the shapes for the first time on the neck of an instrument that will be measured and crafted specifically to the contours of my hands. My baglamas will carry the humidity of the sea absorbed in the wood and my fingers will learn to play Rebetiko, a music so full of passion and love, that I find myself needing to re-examine my own definitions.   

Someone recently told me that one cannot ask for Love, it must simply be given. I disagree. Perhaps it is my musician’s heart that rebels against this explanation, but to me Love is not a gift. It is a process, an action, a verb. It is in the clumsy years long journey of learning the scales, in the bending and sanding of wood, in the building of a house, brick by brick, in the combing of a child’s hair, in the touch of a hand with callouses forged by pain. Love is not an exclusion of all other paths but rather the following of one path as it veers and curves, changing horizons and notes with every verse. Love is loud as she shouts demands and she is quietly vulnerable through the soft hours of the night. She causes fear, gives power and takes responsibility. She does not follow rules or have a need to be conventional. Love bleeds into the broken notes of the bouzouki, sighs through the words of the rebetes, and ties herself to the strings of the baglamas. Love is what drives us to make music, to write and to create art.  Love builds instruments.

*****

We left the little workshop on the hill, closing the door on the cool shadows of the interior and stepping into the intense afternoon sun. My friend looked at me and then looked away, shaking his head. “Jen,” he commented drolly, “This is Greece. You could have asked for a better price.” 

Well, shit.











Tuesday, July 10, 2018

"I'll come to meet you again down at the shore" Φραγκοσυριανή

“The problem with getting older,” he stated, “is that we begin to have too many memories.” He leaned back in his chair philosophically rolling his cigarette; this man with skin darkened by a Mediterranean sun, the top three buttons of his white shirt hanging carelessly open, his sleeves rolled to reveal wrists liberally dusted with dark hair turning grey. 

“I grew up with this music. These songs tell the story of my life.” She sat, her posture straight with her feet tucked under her, her eyes intense and her wavy dark hair crowning the representation of a stunning woman powerfully in her prime. 

A coffee table, laden with beer and wine glasses, tobacco and an ornate moroccan ashtray sat between us. Pink walls, warm lamps and colorful art surrounded us. A puppy yowled and yawned and the sounds of cats chatting filtered in. Balcony doors opened to reveal the sea and the soft glow of orange lights from the city below. Turkey glimmered and winked on the horizon in the distance. We sat late into the early morning hours, as three musicians put together their list of songs to play the next night in a restaurant across the water in Turkey; one man, lost in his wanderings and afraid to find home, another man living so close to his Turkish home, but unsettled, and woman carrying so many memories that a listener aches to hear her sing. I sat, a privileged quiet observer, as each song was called, discussed, taken apart and put back together. I closed my eyes as they played, mentally placing my own parameters around the form of each song, attempting to bend the scales to the knowledge of my western ears. 

After the music stopped, I would ask a novice’s questions, “What was that song about?”  And after every song, the woman would look at me, her lips quirked with dry humor. “Pain.” 

Of course. 

But not every Rebetiko song is about pain in it’s pure form. Some sing of coffee, of being a waitress, of a woman’s power, of teasing, of hashish and some are political. After the Greco-Turkish war in the 1920s, a wave of over one and a half million refugees flooded into the poorest neighborhoods of the big cities; Athens, the port of Pireaus, and Thessaloniki. As their music blended with the already existing forms, Rebetiko began to evolve into the voice of the outcast, the poor, the displaced, and the laborers carrying Greece through the industrial revolution. While the Greek middle and upper classes turned their ears to the sounds of western classical music, the hidden heart of each city belonged to Rebetiko.

Passed on as an oral tradition, songs generally begin with an improvised instrumental solo (Taximi) The bare basics of a Rebetiko ensemble would consist of a harmonic instrument (rhythm guitar,) a solo instrument (baglamas, bouzouki..) and a singer. The harmonic structure of each song is fairly simple, often times centering around the key of D minor and usually consisting of no more than four chords. The melodies, however, are far more complicated, pulling their notes from different modes and emphasizing unexpected chromaticism. The lyrics evoke daily life, describing trials and joys with unapologetic stark simplicity.

I settled into my chair in the apartment on the hill as music moved past and through me. Perhaps I looked bored or maybe just tired.  But inside, the words and winding notes were wrapping around the heart of this American listener and giving a tight squeeze.  


Monday, July 9, 2018

δρόμοι (dromoi) roads, paths

δρόμοι (dromoi) 
roads, paths

The sun had just started a descent from it’s peak, golden shadows beginning to stretch. A wind had picked up since the night before, making the sea slightly more rough and edging on chilly. We sat, four of us, on a cheerful yellow blanket under a tree thick with leaves, our instruments ready. One musician bent to lift her accordion competently onto her slim shoulders, adjusting her body to the familiar weight, her strong fingers testing through fragments of melodies. Another musician laughed and rolled his eyes, lifting his guitar onto his lap, shifting the mildly ineffective sarong that he had tied carelessly around his waist. And one more musician, the lines at the edges of his dark eyes attesting to a ready smile, laid restless hands on a guitar perhaps too heavy for the seaside, but beautiful none-the-less.  Quick conversation and teasing insults floated over the top of birdsong and the tuning of instruments, while the smell of the sea mingled with the sweetness of tall grass and earth. A horse grazed nearby. 

The music began.

In Western music, there is a concept dating back to the late Baroque period, which turns up most notably in Handel’s Messiah.  This concept known as the Doctrine of the Affections, (Affektenlehre) states that each musical scale arouses specific emotions in the listener. For example, the key of C Major represents innocence and simplicity while the key of D Major is the key of triumph. This is why music teachers having a bad day, should make all students play in the key of F Major (calm..) The ancient Greeks pioneered this idea a few thousand years before with the Doctrine of Ethos, the word ethos referring to one’s character or being. Philosophers of the time were so convinced that music had the power to affect one’s character, that Plato strongly suggested music should be regulated so as not to awaken the wrong ethos. (He would have been standing with all of those moms picketing heavy metal concerts in the 90s.) But does music make the character or does the character pick the music?  

Present day Greeks give their musical scales the plural name dromoi, which romantically translates to roads. Each scale is a different path, a different choice, a different possibility and presenting a different struggle. Rebetiko was born from fire and struggle, it’s birth rising from the ashes of the Greco-Turkish war. In the early 1920s as the Ottoman empire fell and a newly independent Turkey was born, the nebulous border between Turkey and Greece violently shifted. This resulted in a mass resettling of people on either side, commonly along religious lines. Muslims from Crete were resettled along the the western edge of Turkey, their religion matching but their culture and language different, a difference still apparent today. In September of 1922 a fire raged in Smyrna (present day Izmir) for nearly ten days, destroying the Greek and Armenian sections of the city and killing tens of thousands of people. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greeks and Armenians rushed to the sea, desperate to cross (much as today.) As this wave of refugees flooded into Greece, they brought with them different food, culture, language and of course, music. They blended the Turkish scales, makamlar, with elements of Byzantine music, mixing in traces of pain, struggle and humor to create the style of music known as Rebetiko.  

And so, back on the yellow blanket of present day, musical phrases began to take shape, their 9/8 meter dancing between the leaves of the trees. Voices rose, laughter coloring the notes, and the hairs on my neck and arms lifted. In that one moment I could feel the excitement of a new dromos being set before me. I could choose to dive in and make this music mine. 

For just a taste (in 4/4 time) 



Ό,τι κι αν πω δε σε ξεχνώ
και μπρος στην πόρτα σου περνώ
σου λέω λόγια μαγικά
με το μπουζούκι μου γλυκά

Κλαίω με δάκρυα και καημό κα
ι με πικρό αναστεναγμό
πως πάντα λιώνω και πονώ
για σε μικρό μελαχρινό

Έχουν σωπάσει τα πουλιά
και στης νυχτιάς τη σιγαλιά
σου φέρνει ο άνεμος γλυκά
τα λόγια μου τα μαγικά


Whatever I say I do not forget you
and forward to your door
I say words magically
with my bouzouki sweets

I cry with tears and sorrow
and bitter sigh
that I always melt and I hurt
for a small brunette

The birds have been silenced
and in the night of silence
the wind brings you sweets
my words the magic