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Greek Folk Songs in New York City ca. 1916​-​26

by Mme. Koula Antonopoulo

Kesik Karem 03:03
Tzivairi 03:23
Sabah Manes 03:23


Kyriaki Yiortzi (b. 1879) and Andreas Antonopoulos (b. ca. 1875) were teenagers when they were married in Patras, Greece. Their first child, who was named for his father but called George, was born when Koula (the diminutive nickname of Kyriaki by which she was known all her life) was about 14 years old. Their next son Christanthy was born about a year later, and their daughter Paraskevi was born in 1898 when Koula was about 19.

Andreas took Koula and George to New York City around 1898, but she and the kids ultimately remained with their family in Patras while Andreas worked in restaurants, presumably building businesses among the ubiquitous Greek diners of New York and northern New Jersey. Andreas and Koula visited one another every few years until finally, on March 11, 1914, the whole family of five including the two grown sons and 16-year-old daughter settled once and for all in New York City. Andreas then 40 years old had, over two decades of hard work and periods of separation from his wife and kids, created a good life for all of them.

Along the way, Koula must have been singing, because by the end of 1916, at the age of 37, she approached the Columbia Gramophone Company for whom she recorded 18 discs, largely accompanied by violinist Athanasios Makedonas (b 1879), lauto-player Andreas Patrinos, and santouri-player Stelios Melas. Recording in the Greek language had only started five years earlier in New York and was just becoming profitable. Koula’s discs sold well for Columbia’s foreign-language series. The most ardent researcher of her music over the past several decades has been Steve Frangos, who interviewed Koula’s grandson Xenophon Mitchell (b. 1918; d. 2006) in the 1990s. Frangos points out that among the Columbia discs, Koula is often accompanied vocally by other members of the recording session and that Mitchell stated that her recordings were intended to reproduce the conditions of cafe performances. So, Koula’s early performances are not necessarily solos by an “artistic” stage performer on a pedestal but often documents of a singer leading group-singing in an informal setting. Certainly, there is something down-home and deeply democratic about Koula’s surviving career on discs.

In his article on Koula in the book Greek Music in America (University Press of Mississippi, 2019), Frangos points out that she and Andreas traveled again to Greece and Egypt shortly after her Columbia recordings and that when they returned, they purchased, at enormous expense, German-made disc-cutting equipment with which they founded their own record label around 1919 called Panhellenion. Patents on disc production did not expire until several years later, so they were, initailly operating illegally. Panhellenion's address in mid-town Manhattan was close to the theater district and is now subsumed by Penn Station. Over the next eight years they released more than two hundred discs in small quantities of a wide range of Greek performers including performances from the Karagozi shadow-puppet repertoire, their daughter, and the then newly-arrived singer and record producer Tetos Demetriades (b. ca. 1897 in Constantinople; d. Nov. 28, 1971 in New Jersey). Having been made as cottage-industry discs, they were not of the quality that the major record companies were releasing, even in the years before the introduction of the microphone. The seriously low fidelity of Panhellenion's releases and their relative scarcity in excellent condition is certainly one of the primary factors in her present-day obscurity.

Demetriades wound up connecting with many of the most significant immigrant performers, Greek and otherwise, over the next decade as a staff producer for Victor Records. He ultimately set up shop as a publisher and record dealer near Koula and Andreas’s place, where later he ran his own Standard and Colonial labels. Among the Greek musicians he became close to was another husband-and-wife team, Marika and Costas Papagikas, who began recording for Victor at the end of 1918 and then Columbia in mid-1919, almost exactly when Koula and Andreas were setting up their own label. The Papagikases set up a venue called the Apollo Tea Room only about six blocks away from Panhellenion’s headquarters. Short-lived venues operated nearby in the 1920s under the leadership of other Greek musicians including Amalia Bakas and Achilleas Poulos, and by the 1940s, another group of nightclubs including Port Said and the Brittania had sprung up nearby catering primarily to Greek and Armenian audiences.

It is reasonable to assume a rivalry between Koula and Marika during the 1920s. They were working only blocks from one another and taking significantly divergent paths although their repertoires and accompanists overlapped noticeably. Koula worked first with the violinist Makedonas and clarinetist Nicolas Relias, whom Marika seemingly poached. Koula was an absolutely independent artist, recording and releasing her material on her own label, while Marika worked for the major record companies Victor and Columbia (with the exception of a couple of sessions for independent companies, one in Chicago called the Greek Record Company, and one in New York called Acropolis). Both were strident Hellenists who recorded primarily in Greek with a few songs in Turkish, but Papagika was more of a formal concert singer with no concessions to the “dancing girl” expectations of an audience that was almost entirely lonely male immigrants. (There were, in the 1920s, nine Greek men for every one Greek woman in the U.S.) Koula’s presentation was more “down-home” and accessible. Our friend and fellow researcher Michael Alexandratos has described Koula's output, having been independent and less oriented toward musical precision, as “punk rock,” and I see what he means. However, I have always been amazed that Koula was at times OK with releasing records that were incredibly amateurish and sometimes outrageously out of tune.

We are not aware of any systemic collection of Koula’s recordings. They must certainly rival Papagika’s output of 250 recordings in terms of quantity, and a guess of “over 200” songs seems like a significant underestimation. This very slight collection presents only a tiny fragmet of her output.

When Andreas died in 1927, she retired and folded the Panhellenion label which had released well over 200 discs. Demetriades tried immediately to revive her by recording her on the Victor label in 1927. (He attempted the same thing for Papagika in the '30s after she had retired, it so happens. Neither attempt came to anything.) Eventually, Koula Antonopoulo relocated to Lowell, Massachusetts, and in the late 30s,collaborating with the Armenian oudist Ashot Yergat, she relaunched her label, this time with the name Panhellenic and recorded for several more years. Heart failure took her life in 1954 at the age of 75.


released September 23, 2023

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

All songs in Greek except 2 and 3 in Turkish
Recdording dates:
1. 1916
2-3 and 12. ca. Jan 1917
4-11 ca. 1919-26

Hat tip to Michael Alexandratos


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