Márkos Vamvakáris

Markos Vamvakaris: 40 Years

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Serious shot in the dark here -- the Amazon website lists this as 40 Years, so we'll assume that 40 Hronia translates that way. At any rate, this is a compilation spanning four decades of recordings by a cornerstone of rembetika, and thus Greek music in general. With song titles in Greek and absolutely no other information, that's all there is to know beyond the fact that the bouzouki player, Márkos Vamvakáris, is a genuine founder of roots rembetika.

Can't even say who's singing, although the Rough Guide to World Music says the smooth, sweet Stratos was Vamvakáris' regular vocalist during the golden age of the 1930s, so it's probably him on the first dozen-odd tracks. The gruff, metallic-toned (Rough Guide again) guy singing a duet with a female singer on track 17 is probably Vamvakáris himself, but who can tell for sure? We do know that Vamvakáris made his name playing the bouzouki, so that should be him playing the lead lines over the lurching slow-to-mid-tempo rhythm that marks what amounts to the Greek equivalent of blues.

The sound clarity goes up a notch on Track Five and Track 13, the latter at about the same spot where the arrangements start to flesh out with accordion, bass, and hints of drums from just a couple of bouzoukis and a singer. If you want to criticize classic rembetika as form, it's for always hinting and teasing at building up to an explosive rave-up that never arrives.

Track Six is more sprightly and lively; Vamvakáris' spiky runs on Track Seven are worth noting, and Track 13 sports a nice interplay between the accordion and bouzouki lines, and a hook that (amusingly) has parts that almost sound like a forerunner of the "Addams Family Theme." Interesting accordion swirls, melody lines, and arrangement touches adorn Track 14. Vamvakáris wails on Track 16; violins and a female singer over a jog-trot rhythm mark the jaunty Track 17, and the female vocals on Track 18 generate a sprightly atmosphere.

Fine music, but ultimately, 40 Hronia is frustrating because you can't learn anything. Is it a greatest-hits collection, as it seems to be? or a selection of Vamvakáris' songs designed to show the evolution of his music? Are the tracks and duets featuring female vocalists a first-ever meeting (or reunion for that matter) of golden age titans, or examples of younger singers crossing generational lines to pay homage to a roots master?

There's just no way of knowing, and a healthy part of the appeal of these historical compilations of little-known styles and musical subcultures is learning the personal history of the artist, and the social context the music sprang from. That can't happen here, so Rounder's Vamvakáris collection rates as a better starting point, both for the high quality of their rembetika releases in general, and because it focuses exclusively on his recordings from 1932-1940, the recognized golden age of rembetika.

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