The Zeimbekiko

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Stelios Kazantzidis
Through Kazantzidi, more than one generation of Greeks explored many different facets of emotion.

My song of the month for this month is "Roloi-Komboloi", by Grigoris Bithikotsis. My parents tell me I slept with the 45 of this song under my pillow at night, and they had to replace it once because it broke. I still have the second 45, but the song is readily available on many compilations of Greek 1960's music. It was released in 1967. This particular song is in the rhythm of the “Zeimbekiko”. The Zeimbekiko is actually a dance, but songs with the same peculiar rhythm also take on the term.

The lyrics are the typically passionate and personal Greek lyrics of the time, perhaps a little tame compared to such classics as "Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki" and others, but still well outside the boundary of experience of listeners of Western music. Almost by default, zeimbekika have depressing, almost morbid themes, a tradition which continues on to contemporary zeimbekika. The themes recur so often that most of the time Greeks just don’t notice them any more. Thankfully in this instance the composer stops well short of exploring the theme of death, which was very common in other music of the era. Greece as a nation was undergoing much turmoil in the 1960’s, and the music of the time reflected it. I did not really understand the lyrics as a child, as the theme is very adult. At the time I thought it was just about a clock, some beads and counting. Even now, while I can more fully appreciate the lyrics, I do not tend to pay attention to them when listening to this song. It is the musical accompaniment that is mesmerising.

There is a certain mathematical precision to this form of Zeimbekiko. It's a very simple, short repeating pattern, which expresses a methodical plodding and determination, in contrast to the despair in the lyrics. I have often heard this style referred to as "Greek Blues", but in actual fact it is very different. Blues is performed free-form in 4/4 time. The Zeimbekiko is precisely performed to a formula in a complex 9/4 or 9/8 rhythm. The timing tends to confuse inexperienced musicians, particularly bass players, and lends itself to the characteristic “stagger” of the Zeimbekiko dance. The lyrics themselves, while touching on similar themes, tend to be far more passionate, often desparate and way off the scale compared with Blues.

Even though “Roloi-Komboloi” has neither, I particularly like the longer, drawn-out introductions and piano accordion solos. While there are still some great Zeimbekika being released, the typical modern Zeimbekiko tends to be too complex for my taste. I like to be able to clearly discern the musical instruments, particularly the Baglama and, of course, the Piano Accordion. While the Bouzouki is clearly the lead instrument in many of these songs, it does not need to overwhelm everything else. Like many other people, I have a firm conviction that electrifying the Bouzouki is simply wrong.

“Roloi-Komboloi” by Grigoris Bithikotsis.
Not the best quality recording, but it’s all I could find on youtube. There are plenty of much better quality recordings available on CD.

“To Traoudi Tou Baglama”, by Stelios Kazantzidis.
A fine example of long introductions and piano accordion solos.

“Synnefies” by Litsa Diamanti
This was one of the first songs I learned to play on the bouzouki. Along with “Roloi-Komboloi” by Grigoris Bithikotsis, one of my other favourite songs as a child was “Tha Sou Kano Kapsonaki” by Litsa Diamanti, which is most definitely not a Zeimbekiko.

“Soma Mou” by Notis Sfakianakis.
A more contemporary work on the theme of drugs abuse.

“Anoixe Petra” by Marinella
A classic, downright depressing song by one of the greatest modern Greek female singers. The film clip contains some interesting retro-70’s Zeimbekiko dancing.
The “story” in the dance is only tangentially related to the lyrics. This appearance was a guest spot in a movie. It was common at the time to put popular singers such as Kazantzidi and Marinella in a movie to perform one or two songs to attract viewers.

“Dio Portes Echei I Zoi” by Stelios Kazantzidis
The all-time classic, archetypal eternal work as sung by Stelios Kazantzidis, exploring themes relating to the philosophy and rationalization of death. Judging from Stelios’ age in the clip, he would have been coming up to the time when he would have had to face his own death after battling in the courts to regain his intellectual property. This song looks death square in the face and exposes it for all to see.

Some of the most haunting words penned by Tsitsani are contained in the lyrics. Very roughly translated:

“Everything is a lie, a gasp, a breath. Like a flower, a hand will pluck us one evening.”

Quite typical of Kazantzidi - the man who showed us a thousand ways to express pain, love, and almost any other emotion you care to mention.

© Steven and Andrea Kazoullis 2014