Monday, August 22, 2016

Markos Vamvakaris, Rebetiko Master, @3QD

I’ve got another piece up at 3 Quarks Daily: Markos Vamvakaris: A Pilgrim on Ancient Byzantine Roads. It’s a review of his autobiography, Markos Vamvakaris: The Man and the Bouzouki, as told to Angeliki Vellou-Keil and translated into English by Noonie Minogue.

Markos Vamvakaris in 1967
Here’s a note I sent to Charlie Keil, Angeliki’s husband, while I was reading the book:
I’m now 57 pages into the Markos autobiography and beginning to get the barest hint of how to deal with it for 3QD. The easy thing, of course, would be to treat him as an exotic primitive. I think, in fact, that it will be difficult NOT to treat him in that way. But I’m beginning to get a sense of how I can, if not completely avoid that, at least to subject that temptation to some humanizing discipline.

I very quickly started comparing him with Louis Armstrong. Both were born poor and had difficult early lives, both lived among criminals and reprobates, both were involved with drugs, and, of course, both eventually became nationally recognized musicians. And Armstrong, of course, wrote his own autobiography, albeit early in life, which was then edited into shape. And he wrote (often long) letters all his long. So there is that. But it’s not clear how far this gets me.

But then we have the fact of Markos’ songs appearing in the text near events to which they are somehow tied. And so they are contextualized. THAT’s the barest hint.

And then there’s the odd and, yes, exotic part of the world he comes from. Except that we in the West have the myth of the origins of Western culture in ancient Greece, Rome, and Jerusalem. And yeah well sure, except that those places would appear very exotic indeed to any modern civilized Westerner who would time-travel back to them. But then we treat contemporary musicians and performers (of all kinds) as exotics, don’t we? It’s a curious business.

And I’ve got a question, perhaps for Angie. In her appendix she refers (p. 284) to “the dhromos (path) or maqam of each song”. I’m curious about the word “maqam.” I know it as Arabic for melodic mode. Is she using it as an Arabic term that’s equivalent to “dhromos” or has the term been adopted into Greek?
Yes, maqam was taken into Greek. Same word, same meaning. This is a part of the world where the difference between Europe and Asia Minor has more to do with lines drawn on maps than with the lifeways of the people living there.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the review Charlie posted to; it talks about just how such a book is gathered together:
I am biased, of course, because I know that my wife, Angeliki Vellou Keil, worked very hard to pull the transcriptions of taped interviews together for this book. It took over a year of daily visits to a little office around the corner from our house in Buffalo, patiently shaping different pieces of interviews together for each chapter. I often looked at Alan Lomax's Mr. Jelly Roll as an early example of an as-told-to book. He made it look so easy to do. And David Ritz is another master of this craft, sometimes turning out 2 or 3 books a year by recording, transcribing, and sequencing the events and opinions, editing out any excesses of profanity, or leaving out a passing on of ugly rumors. His books, some of them very long and fully detailed, always feel natural, true to life – again it looks easy. But take it from a friend of David's and a witness to wife Angeliki's labors, there are a lot of decisions to make about how many repetitions to leave in, and when does it seem prudent to leave a love affair out, or to put some particularly nasty insult or criticism of someone aside. At all times Angie insisted on keeping it just the way Markos spoke it, sticking to the transcription, and that turned out to have some unexpected benefits.
Even if it made it difficult to untangle at points. But it’s worth your serious attention.

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