Alexis Zoumbas, the subject of this amazing collection, was born and raised in Ioannina, the capital of Epirus in northern Greece in the Pindus Mountain range, some 60 miles from the country's border with Albania. His music evolved in an unbroken evolutionary line from the ancient music of sheepherders playing wooden flutes for their flocks. Two folk traditions in distinct forms are reflected in his recordings: the skaros and the mirologi. The former is a contemplative improvisation -- usually with clarinet as lead instrument with violin and the lute-like laouto as accompaniment -- meant to lull or pacify listeners. The latter is a lament, usually led by a vocalist. Zoumbas played and sometimes combined these forms inside a music decidedly associated with his region yet distinctly his own. It is unlike any other music from Greece. These 12 sides, recorded between 1926 and 1928, were remastered by Christopher King in a painstaking manner that retains their warmth. Listeners may have a difficult time getting past the devastating beauty and sadness in opener "Epirotiko Mirologie," wishing to play it over and again. It is the sound of longing for home by an exile -- Zoumbas escaped to New York in 1914 after he and a friend murdered their landlord. For those who love prewar American blues, the uncommon, haunted quality of this music is of a kindred spirit. These are the songs of a man awash in grief and yearning, condemned to permanent exile, or at least we think so -- his biography ends abruptly in N.Y.C. (though the legend of his demise is as striking and tragic as the murder he committed). Zoumbas is accompanied by either an arco upright bass or a cymbalom. There are dance tunes here too, such as "Frasia" and "Kleftes (Tsamikos)" (Bandit's Dance), but even these are uttered from the depths of the sea of loneliness and remorse. "Shizo Rizo Mor Panagia" (Pulling Apart the Lemon) and closer "Tzamara Arvanitiko" (Albanian Shepherd's Tune) are filled with a pervasive sense of longing that is almost erotic. The technical facility in his playing is no less astonishing, nearly classical -- check the fiery interplay between violin and cymbalom on "Papadopoula" (Priest's Daughter). Zoumbas' discipline, however, is ruled by raw emotion, making the power of these songs undiminished -- perhaps even enhanced -- by time. King's liner notes are informative, authoritative, and exhaustive; they introduce us to an outlaw artist nearly mythical in his musical abilities and biographical legend, and the remote place that informed it all.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek