EXTRACT FROM THE PROLOGUE BY ANGELIKI VELLOU-KEIL
I first got to know Markos Vamvakaris at his house at 35 Odhos Ofriniou, in Aspra Chomata in Kokkinia, in the autumn of 1967. Mingos Christou had sent us from Thessaloniki. When he heard that my husband and I were interested in learning the ‘roads’ of the bouzouki and the taximia, he introduced us at once. ‘Go and find Markos Vamvakaris in Piraeus.’
Markos wrote his story knowing that the world knew and loved his work and his story was the life through which the songs came into being. It is a story representative of all the people who as a class gave birth to and loved rebetika and laiko song. To a large degree it’s the history of our cities as it was lived by the exiled islander, farmer, or skilled worker who became a general labourer and paved the way for the urbanization of Greece with his ill paid toil.
SYRA, YOUR UPPER CHORA
I am driven to tell the story of my life. I want to see it written and to read it from beginning to end as if it were someone else’s. I think this will give me some relief from all the sufferings that have filled my heart till it’s ready to burst. So many sorrows that nobody would want in his own life. This story of mine I plan to make known to the world.
The kind lady who’s acting as my scribe says the first Christians used to confess their sins aloud and then everybody forgave them. That’s how they got it off their chests. But now the world’s a rotten place and I know plenty of people will think I should be ashamed to own up to the things I’m about to tell you. But I’ll find the courage and take no notice of those people. A man, if he’s to be called a human being, has to be able to step into the shoes of his fellow man.
I want this world to be my confessor and I believe all these people I’ve written for and will go on writing for, hundreds of songs, will forgive me as this is the reason for looking back over my life. To be understood and to be forgiven. That’s why all of you who read my story, friends or strangers, but especially those who know me, come now and shake my hand with a heart-felt greeting. Tell me what’s done is done and all these things belong to the past. Tell me that if you’d lived the life I did you’d have done the same.
My father stopped working as a coal hauler for something better. He started weaving baskets, panniers and hampers. He used to take me with him to sell them. Since he was hard up he had to gather the materials for his work by himself and bring them back home for weaving. Together we used to go round the rivers collecting willow switches, reeds and carobs. The rivers we used to go to, the Paos and the Galisas, joined up into one. You could smell the reeds. My old man used to do the cutting and I’d soak them under a fig tree. After soaking the switches we made them into bundles that weighed forty okes more or less - the ones for my father, but mine were smaller, fifteen to twenty okes. Barefoot and hungry, we carried this load all the way from the village of Galisa to Upper Chora - a two and a half hour trudge. I was a strong boy but still my father was sorry for me. He was afraid I’d suffer from carrying such a heavy load. But then I was sorry for him.
1912 came along. They took my father off into the army. So then my mother enlisted me and off we went to get work in a cotton factory that belonged to Deliyianni. My mother was pregnant with her belly way out. She started working in the dye section of the mill and I was packaging the thread. She got three and a half drachmas a day and I was getting three and a half drachmas a week. That’s what we lived on at home. A few months later mama gave birth to a little girl. In Deliyianni’s cotton mill I was packaging the skeins. There were lots of young girls working there and I used to tease them no end, nip them, pat them, grab them, a little kiss here and a little something there. They used to kiss me too …
STEVEDORE IN PIRAEUS
One day we went to load up one of those big old ships that had been sailing between Greece and America for years. They’d sent me down into the hold as trimmer to level out the coals with my shovel.1 The others were emptying coal sacks from up top but I got lazy down there. What the hell, says I, let me just sit down and have a little kip and never mind, they won’t pour in the coal. Well they did of course but I wasn’t shoveling. They threw down ninety tons of coal and when they saw at last that I wasn’t shoveling one of them says ‘What’s up with him? Something happened down there?’ I was fast asleep. Flat out, eh? But when I woke up with ninety tons of coal on top of me I was terrified. What’s this! How do I get all this off me? I struggled like crazy to get out from under. They pulled me out senseless, half suffocated. They only just managed to get me out by going in from the engine room. They tugged me out and shoveled up the coal so it fell in from above …
People say a mangas is someone you shouldn’t go anywhere near. But I can assure you that a mangas is a laid back, very placid kind of guy. He doesn’t harm anyone. Not if he’s a decent sort. If he’s a rogue of course, he’ll still be a rogue. The manghes were serious individuals. I was a mangas. I didn’t bother a soul. I wasn’t looking to do any mischief. Each to his own. Of course the folks at home, maybe they didn’t want me to be going down this path, but for me sadly, it was the instrument that did it.
The bouzouki, like I told you, is what the hardened criminals laid hold of, killers with life sentences, the guys on death row, those sorts of people. Same with both bouzoukia and baglamadhes. Nowadays, as you see, just anybody picks it up. A guy’s not even likely to think what he’s got his hands or to say ‘I’ve got a bouzouki and it’s a sacred thing, because it’s come out of that world.’ Like we said, that’s why the police were hounding it and that’s why the police were chasing me. They didn’t want the bouzouki to spread. But still, it did spread …
It won’t be long now before they take bouzouki to the moon. You think they won’t take it there? You bet they will! It’s bouzouki. A sacred thing …
Every evening I used to go and find all these dudes, Batis, Karydhakias, Anestos and Stratos, and we’d do the rounds of the tekedhes and bordellos, everywhere. People round here knew us by that time. They knew we were a band. They’d got used to us and we were good chasiklidhes. We didn’t do bad stuff, it was all above board. Everyone knew us and loved us. We weren’t looking for trouble and it didn’t make any difference to us what the guys around us were doing. So maybe they were robbers or murderers. Whatever they did was fine by us. And if the police were on our tails they were after us because we were smoking, not because of anything worse. We just wanted a quiet life, no matter what …
Those who have the passion for it will understand something, and they’ll all see that the bouzouki, which the police were hounding for years like it was a crime, is one hell of a big deal. It can’t easily be grasped by just any old person. I learnt all these things bit by bit from the old guys in the tekedhes, because I had a great passion and my life was all bouzouki. Like I said, I sacrificed everything for the bouzouki. It took me over - but it also took me up in the world, way up …
A German guy opened up two massive doors with lots of locks and bolts and let me in. I was shaking like a leaf. On one side there was a very large underground space and it had small locked cells packed with people. As I went past them towards the stairs they were shouting ‘Markos what are you doing here? Come here!’ But I couldn’t, I was so scared. The place looked like a slaughterhouse. I saw blood on the walls and some of them were shouting ‘Come back, come here, we need to speak to you. Go to our homes. Tell them tomorrow they’re going to shoot us. Kiss my children for me, my wife, my little brothers and sisters…’ And me, poor devil, hearing these things, boy was I sorry for them! Especially knowing as I did that they were shooting about fifteen or twenty guys a day.
Rita was her name and it was the start of an idyll, an overpowering passion. The minute I saw her I was swept off my feet. She was a twenty year old girl with ‘long hair’ as the saying goes ‘and little brain.’ I was head over heels and little by little she made me forget Yorgia, the girl from Patras. Rita told me later on that she’d been in a convent when she heard that. She’d planned to become a nun but when she heard it she packed it all in and went off to Kolonaki to work as a maid in someone’s house.
‘Ach!’ was all that would come out of my mouth. I couldn’t stop at home because my wife never quit complaining. To get any peace I had either to be asleep so I couldn’t hear it or to be out. One day I got on the bus to Tzitzifies and they were both on it, Yorgia and Rita! They had a row and I left them to it; got away on another bus …