Ta Kavourakia,
Ta Kavourakia
(independent, 2004)

As is periodically the case, I write today to introduce folks to musicians off the beaten path who labor largely in local vineyards. In this particular case, the vineyards are in the greater Athens, Georgia area, and those stomping the grapes are collectively known as Ta Kavourakia.

Now, the larger world knows Ta Kavourakia (if they know it at all) as one of the better-known compositions of Greek composer Vassilis Tsitsanis. The phrase variously translates as "the Baby Crabs" or "the Crawfish," and is considered a standard of the Rembetika canon to which Tsitsanis was such a vital contributor. Rembetika is a form of Greek folk music that rose out of the immense influx of Greek refugees from Anatolia between the close of World War I and the end of the Greek revolution in 1949. In that span of years, more than 2 million Greeks fled the fighting in Turkish Anatolia and created an enormous underclass for a country already struggling economically.

Many of these expatriates wound up in urban ghettos, and proceeded to fuel what would be characterized as a quasi-criminal subculture. A significant aspect of this subculture was the new music of Rembetika. Fueled by both instruments and melodic and rhythmic forms brought back from the old Ottoman traditions in Anatolia, this "new" music was looked down upon with disdain by the domestic elites in Greece.

And indeed, as Tsitsanis and others such as Markos Vamvakaris documented the down-at-the-heels life of the refugees as it played itself out in the hashish dens of Piraeus and Thessalonica, it is easy to understand that this was a different way of Greek life than would be subsequently documented in the more familiar folk forms of Laika music. Here were tales of skirting the law, the pleasures of the pipe, the torments of addiction, the dislocation of those driven from the only homes they had ever known. In short, it was a litany of privation and indulgence to forget pain, much the same as the musical refuge sought by underclasses the whole world round. Indeed, the oft-heard characterization of Rembetika as "urban blues" ties it both to the traditional American black experiences of the earlier 20th century as well as some of the more politically self-aware music emerging from modern American cities today.

A word about the instruments. As one might expect, the bouzouki is here, along with guitar and fiddle. Also in evidence here is the baglamas (a smallish sort of tenor bouzouki), a percussive wood block and the komboloi, a rhythm instrument born of the rhythmic tapping of prayer beads on a glass. In this ensemble, the bouzouki is supplied by Andy Lemons, and he assists on the baglamas with David Rutland, who also offers guitar support and the aforementioned wood block. Guitar and assorted percussion are the province of Brian Crum, and Michael Bordeaux rounds out the quartet with steady work on fiddle, guitar and komboloi. Vocal duties are taken up in turn by each of the gentlemen. I would speak to the matter of their vocal performances, but, well, it's all Greek to me....

The 12-song set opens with "Tonight By the Seashore," a lively dance tune driven by the strings. It is followed by the vaguely sinister "In the Basement," framed by a bass drone on the guitar and some distinctly oriental figurings on bouzouki. The somewhat lighter "Boat from Persia" is next, though the vocal is freighted with the weight of the dislocated. This in turn gives way to "The Pain of the Addict." The jaunty meter of this tune caused me to wonder how much ironic subtext I was losing in the lyric by virtue of not speaking the language, but I was nonetheless reminded of the closing song in The Life of Brian.

"Down There in Drapetsona" has a vocal with a certain relentless quality to it, counterpointed with a delicate mix of the string ensemble. The distinctly Eastern "I Learned Many Things, My Dear" follows, with the lightness of the instruments cutting sharply back against the lament of the voices. The strongest lead vocal belongs to "Camel Driver," perhaps in an exhortation to domestic dromedaries who will remain unresponsive to more delicate entreaties. The fiddle emerges into its own for the first time on "The Voice of the Waterpipe," loosely doubling the lead vocal and serving as melodic bridge, and the concern of every young man on the streets is addressed with brio in "I Appeared to Be a Cool Guy," proof yet again that there is no substitute for a bit of ruthless self-promotion.

The mood shifts to the Saharan with "Morocco," a paen, one assumes, to the mood elevators so oft associated with that portion of Northwest Africa. This lyric theme continues with "We Were Smoking One Evening," yet another example of droning strings and delicate instrumental figurings balancing against more sustained vocal couplets. The set closes with the self-referential "The Baby Crabs," as the four gentlemen from New Athens pay homage to both the Tsitsanis classic and Rembetica in this exuberant read on the genre classic.

I recommend this effort to all fans of Rembetika, and to any who would like to experience the form for the first time. Because it is self-produced, the digital sound is not overly engineered, but the resultant music retains a certain freshness one could easily associate with a Saturday night session at an (unusually quiet) ouzo bar....

- Rambles
written by Gilbert Head
published 13 August 2005