23 Oct 2021

Epirus

UPGRADE

A collection of expressive and mournful fiddle pieces to stir the soul.

Pathos and Loss: The Violin of a Greek Emigré. 

'Tucked in the northeast corner of Greece is a region best suited for raising goats and sheep, a mountainous terrain that had thwarted empire-builders. Thus, Epirus was largely left alone and its only chief external cultural influences until the 20th century were Albanian and a touch of Balkan. Record collector, musicologist, and producer Christopher King, who collects old 78 rpm discs of American blues and country by largely forgotten musicians, had previously explored Albanian 78s but fell in love with the music of Epirus after encountering some old discs in Istanbul. He recently released a stunning 2-CD collection of remastered Epirusian 78's that span 1919 to 1958. This present album focuses on one musician not included in the anthology and his recordings from 1926 to 1928. Extensive notes present the legend of violinist Alexis Michalis Zoumbas, his actual biography, and details about his discography. Listening to this music is a revelation, and while the folk (demotic) ballads and dances are interesting, the pathos of the meditations and laments are shattering.

Traditional Epirusian music originated with the shepherd's flute to pacify the livestock and within the community to entertain and celebrate (the skaros) and to lament (the mirologi). Clarinet, violin, the double four-string lauto lute, and frame drum (daf) later were the village instruments and are heard on the old discs. Zoumbas was born in 1883 in Ioannina and already an accomplished musician, immigrated to the United States in 1910. He performed in New York restaurants and ethnic clubs that featured music of Turkish, Greek rembetika, and Armenian and other music of Asia Minor. Numerous ethnic and "race" record companies were forming everywhere to take advantage of the new recording equipment and support the various communities of listeners and buyers. Zoumbas recorded with other musicians and also made purely solo discs. King selected 12 'sides' that represent the various styles, solo and with supporting musicicans who play bowed bass or cymbalom. Zoumbas stopped recording in the 1930s but continued to perform, moving to Chicago in 1941 and later to Detroit, where he died in 1946. Most of the 78s of Epirusian music were made in Athens and while Elias Litos, clarinet, and Lazorous Rouvas, laouto, had much of the musicianship and emotive power of Zoumbas, the immigré had that special xenitia, the feeling of loss, sadness, and nostalgia. Thus, King's CDs of Epirusian music are special treats, nay, treasures for world music fans. By the way, the cover illustration is by Robert Crumb.' -Dr. Debra Jan Bibel

'"Alexis Zoumbas' expressions of longing are so raw and unmediated that I suspect anyone who has ever yearned for anything -- who has ever gazed dolefully out a window, or sighed audibly over a cup of whiskey, or felt subsumed by a certain kind of ache -- will feel these songs like a club to the back of the knees. They are immediate, destructive, and stunning. That Christopher King was able to collect and contain them for us is an extraordinary gift." -Amanda Petrusich

'Alexis Zoumbas was one of the most sublime musicians to ever cast a shadow across the face of the Earth and no one has been able to translate the emotions of despair-of devastation-through an instrument as effectively as Zoumbas. Years of research and obsession have resulted in this, the first collection of recordings by the legendary and masterful Greek folk violinist Alexis Zoumbas. Very few Pre-War musicians have tapped deeper into the human soul than Zoumbas and this volume presents his most profoundly hypnotic and unearthly pieces. A deep set of notes based on Christopher King's pioneering research from 2012 is accompanied by previously-unpublished photographs as well as original artwork by R. Crumb. Originally issued in 2014 for Record Store Day, the limited release of the LP immediately went out of print. Faithfully remastered from the original 78s, Christopher King's original version of the LP has been enhanced for Third Man Records by the inclusion of a 7' EP featuring two previously unissued and unheard alternate takes of the masterpieces Epirotiko Mirologi and Doina.'

'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.' --AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek


Talk About Beauties

Christopher King | The Paris Review | September 22, 2014

The lost recordings of a phantom musician.

The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.

A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.

The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.

And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them.


My fixation with Zoumbas—especially with his bow stroke and what it said about him, about his movement from traditional northern Greek melodies to an idiosyncratic expression of immigrant artistry—sprang from an earlier fixation with instrumental songs from Albania and Epirus. Zoumbas came from a musical tradition where the violin rarely led the entire performance and where the repertoire scarcely varied from one small village to the next. When he moved to New York in 1910, he found he could take this very old body of folk music and imbue it with his own story: his experiences of a strange land and his raw emotions. Zoumbas longed for Epirus, and this longing combined with his virtuosity to produce recordings of unfathomable misery and pathos. His music was colored by the Epirot concept of xenitia—a profound yearning for one’s home soil, and a corresponding ache for the emigrant by those left behind.

Villagers and musicians from Epirus believe that a unique body of melodies, played principally with the clarinet and violin, give psychological healing to all those who listen to them: a harmonic panacea. The two tunes most strongly identified with Epirus are the mirologi and the skaros, both improvised pentatonic instrumentals, with free melody and meter but regionally defined tonal emphases and embellishments. They’re ancient and primal. The mirologi was originally a vocalized funerary lament, sung over the body or next to the grave of the deceased for several years until the earth consumed the flesh; after that, the bones were exhumed, bathed in wine, and placed in the village. Mirologi are found throughout ancient Greek literature, in the epic poems and tragedies. At some point, the keening of mourning women was transformed into an instrumental that’s central to Epirot music and culture. This dark, melismatic piece is played at the beginning and at the end of the traditional feast-dances in Epirus, the paniyeria.

A skaros is a shepherd’s song, as old as the mirologi. The shepherd would play a special skaros with his flute to calm and gather his herd, essentially drawing them together in a hypnotic state. An especially well-crafted skaros, played in Epirus with the clarinet and violin, produces a kind of viscerally felt introspection.

I came to discover Alexis Zoumbas through two old 78 discs, one containing a mirologi and the other a skaros. Upon acquiring his Epirotiko Mirologi, “A Lament for Epirus,” I played it in my record room and a dark vastness opened; I wanted to uncover the instinct that created this music, this expression of despair. While his violin keened and wept, the horsehair on the bow of the contrabass maintained constant contact and dark tension, a tonal anchor. Zoumbas’s mirologi was the sound of a looming asteroid right before it smacks into Earth, ending all life and hope.

* * *


Epirus  antiquus tabula
A map of ancient Epirus by Heinrich Kiepert, 1902.

As I unpacked his life and constructed a narrative, Zoumbas had inevitably taken on a corporeal form. The trek to Epirus to gather oral history from his family and village, the dossier of vital documents from the U.S. and Europe, and the shelf containing nearly all of Zoumbas’s twenty-odd instrumental discs seemed to imply closure. But then this record came.

An Albanian American and second-generation Bostonian, Steve John, had been graciously feeding me duplicate 78s from his collection. Three days after I’d finally finished the Zoumbas compilation, Steve called to inform me that he had acquired a stack of Albanian records and a very curious Greek disc, a twelve-inch record on the Me-Re label, established by an Albanian musician, Ajdin Asllan. I had acquired a 1946 catalog of the Mi-Re label a few days earlier and had scarcely thumbed through it. Now, looking up the disc, I shuddered in disbelief: Zoumbas was listed in a catalog the very year he died, sixteen years after his last documented recording. Typical of the time, the listings for the records were misspelled in Greek, so the title of this one was untranslatable. Only when I got the disc in my trembling hands did I realize that someone, probably Asllan, had etched the proper name of the song and the date of recording into the dead wax. It read: “O MENOUSIS (10-2-43).” After washing the disc, I glided the stylus into the groove and the old Greco-Albanian murder ballad echoed forth after having been unheard all these years. Slow, stark, and funereal:

Menousis, Birbilis and Resul-aga
Met at a taverna to eat and drink.
While eating, while drinking, while making merry,
They drifted into talk about beauties.
“A beautiful wife you have, Menous-aga.”
“Where did you see her, how do you know her and mention her?”
“I saw her last evening at the well—she was drawing water
And I gave her my kerchief and she washed it.”
“If you met her and you know her, tell us what she’s wearing.”
“A silver petticoat with golden coin.”
Menousis, drunk, went home and stabbed her to death.
In the morning, sober now, he wept her a lament:
“Rise, my duck, rise, my goose, rise, my blue-eyed one,
Rise and dress, put on your jewelry and join the dance,
That young men may see you and wither,
That I, poor man, may see you and rejoice in you.”

It was dizzying to hold the last disc, the only known copy, of Zoumbas in my hands, but perhaps it was more unnerving that this was barely a Zoumbas recording. The voices of four or five young men from Politsani—a village that’s almost wholly Greek Orthodox and Greek speaking, though it’s located about twenty miles within Albania’s border—dominate the recording. They sing in the iso-polyphonic style of Epirotes and Southern Albanians, in which one or more vocalists deliver the main melodic line while another singer or two add commentary, weaving in and out, creating dissonances and increasing the tension of the narrative. Another one or two people provide a constant drone an octave below the tonic key of the piece: a low, dark center. This tapestry of sound has its roots in Byzantine hymnody and Balkan epic song. Zoumbas’s violin and probably Asllan’s clarinet punctuate each verse, nothing more.

Questions flowed from this record, suggesting narrative detours that I must explore. Why, for instance, did Asllan choose to label and list this disc as a Zoumbas record when Zoumbas was no longer famous in the forties? His music, outside of Epirus, was too old-fashioned, reminiscent of a homeland that few longed for. Perhaps Asllan recorded Zoumbas out of friendship, maybe as a last glorious gesture before the void took everything away but this brittle piece of shellac. Because of rationing for the war, this disc wasn’t pressed until early 1946, implying either that Zoumbas saw and heard it right before he died—on February 7, 1946—or that he never saw it at all. And why had this disc found me? How had something so rare, so fleeting, ended up in my hands at exactly this time?

I’d thought earlier that the collection I produced was a proper lament for Alexis—he had never been mourned, and he died in a state of xenitia, yearning for his home soil. But as I sat alone in my record room, the needle trapped in the dead wax of the run-off groove, I realized that having stitched up a new suit of flesh for this specter meant I’d always have to look after him. In Epirus the dead are always with the living: they see them, they long for them, they care for them.

Lyrics translated by the Greek poet Demetrios Dallas.

Christopher King


Christopher King is an auricular raconteur and sonic archeologist. He produces CD and LP collections of music from old 78s through his studio, Long Gone Sound Productions, in Virginia.

1. Epirotiko Mirologi 4:16
2. Gaitanaki 4:07
3. Tsamiko Makedonias  4:12
4. Samantakas 4:20
5. Frasia 3:58
6. Shizo Rizo Mor Panagia 4:22
7. Kleftes (Tsamikos)  4:04
8. Mpil Mpil  3:56
9. Alimbeis  4:14
10. Papadopoula  4:18
11. Syrtos Sta Dyo 4:18
12. Tzamara Arvanitiko 4:38

Notes
Incl. Pdf