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The Heart of a Mangas: Intersections of Popular Greek Theater & Rebetiko in Chicago & New York, 1923​-​29

by Canary Records



The standardized narrative of rebetiko - the so-called “Greek blues” that flourished in the 1930s and was revived in response to political repression in the 1970s and has since become a cultural touchstone for Greeks - is that when a Greco-Turkish military conflict in 1922 led to a population exchange in which over a million Greek living in Turkey were sent as refugees to live in slums surrounding Athens, they brought with them a different set of customs and sensibilities. Traumatized and disdained by the existing, Westward-looking Athenian middle class, they formed a semi-criminal underclass that had its own style of music that grew out of the prisons and tekes (hash-dens) where many of the men spent frequently languished. All of this must be true. There are, however, several other layers of truth that have been, to a greater or lesser degree, marginalized in the canonization of rebetiko as a retroactively anthologized genre. Greek speakers have, for a very long time, lived across a wide geographical area, and the proliferation of sound recording had a lot to do with the evolution of Greek music during the first half of the 20th century, connecting people on the islands, Athens, the Morea, the Balkans, Alexandria, Pontus, Australia, the Americas, etc. to one another faster than the thousands of years of ships that sailed from one place to another. Like many other linguistic/cultural/ethnic groups, Greek music went through a fast evolution and some consolidation from the 1910s-40s. What has become “rebetika” has been largely cherry-picked from that era.

Among the key influences that came into Athens during that period was the urban music of Argentina and Uraguay, likely imported through German record companies and touring troupes. Tango was unquestionably the most popular music among Greeks during the 1910s-40s. (One scholar pithily remarked to a friend that “tango plus demotika [traditional Greek folk songs] equals rebetika.”) And musical theater - plays - were similarly the most popular way for people to hear and learn songs in the cities. Listening back though recordings of early 20th century Greek music in America - the steamship era - one notices that it is alarmingly complex. Among the most prolific performers, often associated through specific performances of the rebetiko genre, including, for instance, the great performers Marika Papagika and George Katsaros, one hears a lot of tango and musical theater. This collection provides a small window into the specifics of how these influences mingled with the idea of the underworld music as well as with formal performance styles in the United States and then potentially influenced the direction of ideas of Greek music generally.

The word "mangas" for instance is untranslatable into English but has remained central to the notion of rebetika. It is a word that indicates a man who does not aspire to middle-class values and knows something deep about how to operate in the world. It has been compared to a "dude" or a "hipster" in their old, early 20th century senses as someone with their own way of being, based on the hardness of life, created outside of societal norms. Some correlate it (accurately, I think) to the contemporary American usage of "gangsta," just as it was correlated a generation ago to the 1930s usage of "apache" to describe a similar demimonde type in Paris in the 1930s. Spiv. Ruffneck. Motherfucker. Badass. There must be dozens of other possible context-dependent translations. On these old records, we see it translated into English as "hobo" and "bum," indicating the anti-capitalist and pro-intoxicant lifestyles but with more dismissal and judgement. As an Anglophone, I will likely never have total access to the word in its fullness. It is interesting to notice that as it arose, in the '20s, it didn't come out of nowhere.

The old records were, as a rule, produced as ephemera and were, naturally, produced only by a small minority of the active performers in any given place and time, but their durability provides a chance to look carefully at the artistic and cultural situations of the few who were fortunate enough to make them, knowing that they made their way first to those people who cared enough to pay the often outrageous “entrance fee” for ownership of a few minutes of music.

MARKOS SIFNIOS was born in 1886 or ’87 in Latomi on the island of Chios, He left behind an ex-wife and two children (born 1906 and 1909) on Chios, lived for a while in Djibouti, and ultimately arrived in the U.S. on a boat from Shanghai to San Francisco in July 1917. By September 1918, he was living on W. 31st St., one block down from the singer Marika Papagika and her husband Kostas. He performed with them from their first trial disc in July 1918 through December 1928 on nearly all of the 200 recordings they made in New York over the course of a decade, encompassing a wide variety of styles. When Marika and Costas lived at 215 W 34th St. in the mid-20s, Sifnios moved to number 253 on the same block. They were, it seems, very close. His death on April 5, 1929, around the age of 41 marks, as much as any other date, the end of the Marika and Kostas Papagikas as prolific and popular recording artists. They cut only eight more sides in the first half of 1929 without him before going into retirement from recording for nearly a decade. He recorded only six instrumental sides under his own name at a single session on Nov. 22, 1927, for Okeh / Columbia in New York City. His relationships to some significant publishers of Greek sheet music - particularly the Apollo Music Company (founded around 1920 at 301 W. 41st St.), the composer Nicholas Roubanis (whose publishing company operated out of 265 W. 41st St. in the ‘20s and ’30s) and producer/ impresario/ singer Tetos Demetriades (whose Standard Company was at 110 W. 34th St. by the ‘30s) - all within a few blocks from one another and forming, for all intents and purposes a Greek mini-Tin Pan Alley at the southern edge of Manhattan’s theater district - remains unknown. But apparently, he also accompanied the singer Liza Kouroukli and some of her circle.

When the San Francisco bulletin announced in March 1924 the arrival of the fifteen-member Athens Theatrical Company, following their tour of Australia, the notice described the performers as “mostly graduates of the Odeon of Athens and the Conservatory of Actors” and said that they were the first Greek theater company to come to the U.S. About half of the company were women, among whom LIZA KOUROUKLI was one of the leads in a show called Agni Sousana, comprised of ten short plays, “both ancient and modern.” (Among the other performers listed was one “Ger. Kouroukli” with whom Liza continued to perform and to whom we assume she was related - maybe her husband.) She traveled to Chicago where she cut one disc for the small Greek Record Company before going to New York where she began recording for Columbia by January 1928, often recording with comedian Giannakis Ioannidis and Makis Kaneri (who recorded with Marika Papagika on one occasion). Various configurations of those three performers (and the previously mentioned Ger. Kouroukli made about 30 performances for Columbia until the end of 1930. We know that she, Ger. Kouroukli, and Ioannidis performed in January 1932 at the Greek Orthodox Church’s Eighth Annual Ball in Atlantic City, New Jersey, but after that, we have only one reference to G. Kouroukli having attended a party in Tarpon Springs, Florida in July 1937

GIANNAKIS IOANNIDIS also first recorded for the independent Greek Record Company in Chicago before recording at about ten sessions for Columbia in New York City from Jan. 1926 through Dec. 1930. Two of his recordings - “Apo Kato Ap’ Tos Donates” and “Toutoui Batsi Pourthan Tora” - both recorded in 1928 with bouzouki accompaniment by Manolis Karapiperis (b. Samos, Greece, Oct. 15, 1884) and both included in this collection, have been reissued many times since the 1970s on collections of rebetika. Notably, the disc on which they were issued by Columbia at the time listed them in Greek as “rebetika zeibekiko” and in English as “bum songs.”

We believe that OLGA MELLA was the stage name of one OLGA DIAMANTOU VASILAKOU about whom we know very little. She first recorded in Chicago around July 1926 at a same session with an obscure group of musicians - violinist James Tsousis, lauto player Gust Dalmas, and singer George Dokos. The songs she performed there were part of the repertoire of the Greek musical theater, one of which "Ta Syka," is a tango, the most popular style in Athens during the 1920s and a major, direct influence on the emerging rebetiko repertoire. The other song she performed at her first session, “To Cigaretto” is one that Liza Kouroukli cut the following year in New York. VASILAKOU, like Kouroukli, went to New York and released twelve more songs, ten under her real name and two more under her stage name, during 1928 and ’29. Based on a small social security reference, we believe that she got married and had a child, possibly bringing about her retirement from the stage.

Comedic actor PETROS KYRIAKOS (b. Athens 1893; d. Athens June 13, 1984) recorded only four performances in New York on Oct. 9, and Nov. 11, 1929 for Victor. (He recorded more for independent labels in the 40s-50s.) By May 1930, he had returned to Athens and started recording again for the Gramophone Company, cutting about 17 more performances by mid-1936. He first appeared on film in the 1930 movie The Apaches of Athens and then in ten more movies between 1952 and 1968. He also acted on television and in several theatrical productions, including a 1950-51 run with the troupe of the overwhelmingly popular singer Sophia Vembo.
His “I Kardia Tou Manga” is, like the Ioannidis & Karapiperis disc, among the first occurrences of the bouzouki in America (or Greece, for that matter) and like the Ioannidis performances plays the “mangas” type as a wizened if intoxicated low-life. Similarly on his ingenious satire “O Ymnomenos” a stock mangas character is drunk and told to speak up by his friends. He asks for more wine before launching into a litany in faux Orthodox liturgical style of types he’s encountered: the old Athenian gentry, the Tripolian drunk, the Cretian revolutionary, the Smyrnean flirt, the Thessalonian scalawag, the Corfucian octopus fisher, the Epirot baker, the Cypriot village idiot, the Greek-American businessman, and the New Yorker about whom he says “watch your wallet!”

We know almost nothing for certain about HARRIS PATRINOS, a specialist in the Karagiozis shadow-puppet folk theater repertoire, except that he recorded 22 sides in Chicago for Okeh / Columbia between 1923 and 1930. He is supposed to be the same Makis Patrinos who recorded 16 further sides for Victor and Columbia in New York between Dec. 1922 and June 1931 including some Karagiotis material and the second-ever recording of Roubanis's song "Miserlou" (first recorded by Demetriades in 1927), preformed a vocal solo with only bouzouki accompaniment. I hope to learned the truth of the matter. Karagiozis stories are centered around the title character, a poor, hunchbacked trickster, and have corollaries with Turkish and Syrian shadow plays about a similar character. Some of the stock characters in the plays - including the rural Rumelian Barba Yiorgos (Uncle George) and Yioussouf Arapis (Negro Joseph) - appear in Greek demotika (folks songs). Valigekas, who appears on one of the two Patrinos performances in this collection, is an abusive Albanian cop. Other performances of the Karagiozis stories were recorded in New York in the early ’20s for Koula Antonopoulo’s Panhellenion label by a performer called Suala about whom we know nothing. It is given the ubiquity of the repertoire, it would be interesting to consider the influence of the characters on ideas of the rebetika repertoire in a parallel sense of the stock characters of Jim Crow and Zip Coon in 19th-century minstrelsy potentially having influenced 20th-century popular entertainment. Musicological biases against comedy and “low” popular culture generally seem to leave many questions wide open.


released January 17, 2024

Transfers, restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

Recording dates and locations:
1. Nov. 22, 1927, New York City
2, 4, 7 & 16. 1928, New York City
3 & 17. May 1929, New York City
5 & 8. ca. August 1926, Chicago
6 & 12. Oct. 9, 1929 New York City
9 & 18. March 1929 New York City
10 & 15 1929 New York City
11. April 12, 1929 New York City
13-14. Oct. 1923, Chicago

Cover photo: Liza Kouroukli ca. 1924

Discographical data drawn largely from Richard K. Spottswood's Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 (University of Illinois Press, 1990)

NOTE: This album incorporates all four tracks previously released on the Canary collection of Olga Mella called Everyone is Look at the Sun. That EP is now deleted.

Further listening: Marika Papagika - What Makes You Happy, Greek Music in New York, December 1918 - January 1929


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