Monday, April 27, 2009

Nikos Xylouris & Giannis Markopoulos – Rizitika (1971)

Rizitika are a form of traditional vocal music native to the mountain ranges of western Crete, and among the oldest unbroken Greek musical traditions. The word comes from the Greek “rizes” (roots), but they are commonly referred to as “rebel songs” due to their often-revolutionary lyrical themes. While they were mostly written during the periods of Venetian and Ottoman occupation, the unusual poetic meter and lack of rhyme in many of these songs’ lyrics is evidence of even older roots – at least predating the Venetian conquest (circa 1200 AD) and some would argue reaching as far back as antiquity.
The subject matter can range anywhere from longing and lust to friendship and everyday experiences, but again these are for the most part heavily allegorical songs of revolution. Not surprising, considering that Crete, a fiercely independent little island, was occupied by foreign powers for roughly 700 years. The third song (Agrimia kai agrimakia mou), for example, is a coded reference to the resistance fighters who often took to the mountains and became outlaws:
You wild goats and kids, you tamed deer,
Tell me, where do you live, where are you staying in the winter.
In the precipices we live, the steep peaks are our winter quarters,
The caves in the mountains are our ancestral home.

Nikos Xylouris (1936-80), generally acknowledged as one of the best and most idiosyncratic singers to come out of Crete, recorded this album (with songwriter and arranger Giannis Markopoulos) in celebration of his roots and in protest of the military dictatorship of the time. These songs resounded with the disenfranchised people, and became the rallying cries of the Athens Polytechnic students during their massive 1973 anti-government demonstration. Legend has it that during a particularly tense standoff between students and government tanks, Xylouris himself climbed to the top of the university’s outer gate, sat there with his lyra (three-stringed Cretan fiddle) and sang the first tune on this album, “Pote tha kani xasteria?” (When will there be a starlit sky?).
Anyway, enough with the history lesson. I realize this kind of music isn’t for everyone. But it’s one of my favourite records, and I find that Cretan music is sorely underrepresented on the Internet, so I guess this is my little contribution.

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