Domna Samiou: The stuff legends are made of
At 74, Samiou holds the wealth of Greek traditional song in her hands and voice. The demotika singer speaks to the 'Athens News' about folk music, the need to preserve it and state indifference
Interview, Maria Paravantes, Newspaper, Athen's News, 06/12/2002
She was born in the poor district of Kaisariani to parents from Asia Minor in 1928. The Depression deprived her of her beloved father and sister. In order to save herself and her mother from hunger, the 13-year-old child started working as a domestic helper in a wealthy Kolonaki home. It was the mistress of this family that discovered the teen's gift. Every time she would do household chores she would sing church hymns. Impressed by what she heard, the woman made sure the child went to Simon Karas - a master of the Byzantine musical art. She praises the lord that her voice was in key ‘unlike my mother's’ and stresses the need to keep our musical heritage alive. How can one begin to fit the life and 50-year contribution of 74-year-old Domna Samiou on a single page?
Samiou remembers her Kaisariani neighbourhood: ‘We lived in a hut near the unassuming church of Agios Nikolas. Things were much simpler and humble back then. Every Sunday my father would take me to church and it was my greatest pleasure. I would wear the only dress I had and run to hear the mesmerising hymns. Whenever I saw a wedding or even a funeral - because back then everything took place in the streets would join the procession just to chant along. I couldn't wait for Apokries (Carnival Season) and the Easter period. I'd go to church and I knew all the hymns by heart. A child is like a sponge. To this day, now that I'm old, I know all the hymns word for word. The only thing that upset me was that I couldn't join the boys and chant in church and I would always complain to my mother: ‘Why didn't you make me a boy so I too could sing with the others?’
What influenced you most?
My father was a chanter at church and I remember when I was a child there was a small kafeneio next to our hut where the men would gather every night to have an ouzaki - a sardine, an olive or two. At around 8 or 9 they'd go home singing and I clearly remember Kyr Vangelis who had a horse and carriage and sold vegetables - he would pass in front of the house always in a merry mood, he was a meraklis (enthusiast). My childhood years were very poor but there was kindness and compassion, people knew each other and they all helped out. They felt your pain and were happy in your joy. Things were different. In summer people would pull out footstools and sit in the road singing and speaking while kids played ball. We didn't know that in Kolonaki - a stone's throw away - things were different. And kids don't care. When you know that everyone eats the same thing, wears the same shoes, does the same things you don't feel different.
How did you meet [researcher and educator] Simon Karas?
In 1941 during the Depression, which was a very gloomy period, I became a domestic helper at a house in Kolonaki because I would starve. I was only 13 and had already lost my father and sister. While I was doing the chores I sang hymns. The mistress of the house - she's 95 now - heard me and told her brother-in-law. He took me to Karas, who took me under his wing immediately. I am grateful to this woman. Karas taught me many things. I learned about the demotika [Greek folk song] and that each region has its own musical style, rhythms, instruments and dances that accompany the music. I stayed by his side for 20 years. I think my teacher [she respectfully calls him daskalos meaning master] tuned in to the passion I had and noticed that I loved to sing. I also had an ability to learn fast and was able to mimic the idiomatic styles of each region whether it was a song from Pontos, Epirus, Cyprus, Crete, mainland Greece or the Peloponnese.
My relationship with the teacher was a milestone in my life. Karas had a profound knowledge of Byzantine music and by extent demotika. The fundamentals of demotika are deeply embedded in Byzantine music. When Karas taught us a plagal mode, underneath the church hymn on the blackboard he would add an example of a folk song that was based on the same sound.
In 1954, Samiou begins working as a radio producer at EIR (Greek Radio Institution) under Karas, who was head of the traditional music department. ‘That's were I came into contact with local groups from all over Greece. It was after the war and all the internal problems, and Greece was trying to pick up the pieces. That's when the best musicians - Chalkias, Aidonidis, Konitopoulou [only Eirini she stresses] - left the rural villages and islands and came to Athens. They would come to EIR, which was on Rigillis St, and play at its studios (underneath Zappeio park) for Karas' show Elliniki Antilaloi (Greek Echoes). I also had some solos on that show. So I gained hands-on experience and lots of insight by listening to each of them play and sing.
In the meantime, whenever Karas took his summer holidays he would roam Greece with his wife and record the different music traditions. He'd come back, empty his pockets of pencil stubs and present us with piles of papers with notation.’
You mean he jotted down note for note?
Exactly, he would approach a yiayia (grandma) in the village and ask her to sing. Then he'd write down what he heard phrase for phrase. But this was difficult because the demotika songs - unlike Western music, which is made up of dry notes - have so many tsalimia (musical adornments), that every time he'd ask the yiayia to stop and sing again, it would be totally different. [She stops and gives me a vocal example, interpreting one song three different ways.] And that's what makes singing demotika so difficult. There's a different way, a different technique and expression depending on the region.
What was a major turning point?
In 1960, an American came to EIR offices and sold me an Ucher recorder. I didn't have all the money. It cost 6,000 drs [c. approx. 18 euros] and my monthly salary was 1,000 drs [c. approx. 3 euros]. But I borrowed and bought it. And in my teacher's footsteps, I set off for the rural villages of Greece with the recorder hanging from my shoulder and started chronicling on tape traditional songs unique to each region. That's how I created my own archive of thousands of songs. I would go to the kafeneio or village council and ask whether they knew anyone who sang well. Usually the response was ‘Kyra Maria sang wonderfully... but she died.’
In the meantime, Samiou collaborates with Greek television and produces - on a shoe-string budget - A Musical Tour, a 19-episode documentary series which followed her on the road. She would (and her crew) visit numerous parts of Greece, attend local celebrations or go by the kafeneio and invite villagers to sing. ‘The difficulty in recording Greek folk song lied in the fact that most of these songs were never chronicled. They have been passed down through word of mouth from generation to generation.’
Samiou resigned from EIR after the 1967 military coup because ‘things were horrendous. We'd get the OK to proceed with the programme from high-ranking army officers who had nothing to do with music.’
‘And it's partly due to the junta that demotika got a bad name. The only thing the military regime allowed on the radio was demotika and military marches. So people associated the demotika with the junta. They also became tired of it.’
When did you first appear on stage?
In 1971, Lina Lalanti (responsible for the English Bach Festival) invited me to perform traditional songs in London for the anniversary of 150 years since the Greek revolution. I sang for the first time in front of an audience at 43. And in Greece it was with Dionysis Savvopoulos at the Rodeo (and later the Kyttaro) also in 1971. I started off with an a cappella Epirot song and the audience - mostly university students - broke into applause. I took a deep breath; I didn't know what to expect. In 1980, Samiou founds the Domna Samiou Folk Music Association with the aim of classifying, preserving and promoting the nation's folk tradition in its original form. ‘My dream was to bring in traditional groups from around the world and exchange traditions and insight but the association is very poor. Besides producing albums we can do very little else.’
Haven't the Culture and Education Ministries helped?
The Culture Ministry funded us a couple times and then said there was no more money. No more money for the preservation of our musical heritage? I don't think they've realised that it's only a handful of us that still carry the secrets of the demotika art. What will happen when we die?
Unfortunately, I haven't managed to do the things I wanted to and now I've become old. How long do you think my voice will last? I would suggest a closer examination of the people around our culture minister. The future of the demotika, of Greece's musical heritage, is in their hands. You find the same people holding a number of key posts not promoting Greek traditional music.
Have you been asked to be part of the 2004 Games ceremonies?
No. I've sung at the Womad festival [to a massive audience], in Australia, the US and Europe, at the Nestos River Party [packed with 20-year-old electronica lovers], and throughout Greece, what I've done I've done out of my love for our tradition. For me the greatest satisfaction is that people, young people especially, know me but I ask you who stands to lose from my absence? Greece as a whole, I believe.
Are you optimistic about the future of Greek folk music and what would you recommend to a young person interested in singing demotika?
When I saw the participation of hundreds of students during the education ministry-backed student song competition a few years back, I couldn't help but be optimistic. Demotika are respected particularly in rural Greece. Many young people love it - just look at the group that accompanies me. I would recommend they take it seriously. It's difficult to interpret the demotika and they should not expect an easy profit. Money is no motivation, deep love for your art is.
What about the ethnic-world music buzz?
I'm against any type of interference in the demotika. These songs have survived for centuries. This is our song, our melodies and verse, any intervention to this wealth is merely changing it into something it is not.
Future plans? Will we be hearing you in rebetika?
On December 20 I will be presenting demotika over the radio for ERA 2 (Deftero Programma) which will be broadcast worldwide. In March, I've been invited to perform the Apokriatika (Carnival Songs) as well as Macedonian songs at the Megaron Mousikis in Thessaloniki. As for the rebetika, hopefully...
Only by listening to her sing can one truly realise her gift. Her crystal clear vocals embody all the aspects that make up the Greek landscape. It seems that every single vocal mannerism has some part of history lingering.
Domna Samiou will be presenting her latest album Of Dame Sea - songs about the sea from the islands and the mainland - at the 'Fones' (9 Artemonos St, Neos Kosmos, tel. 210-927-0628) on December 6 and 7. Starts at 10.30pm.