Martha Mavroidi has studied saz with Pericles Papapetropoulos, Byzantine music with Ioannis Arvanitis, Bulgarian song with Dessislava Stefanova, Galina Durmushlyiska, and Tzvetanka Varimezova and vocal music with Ghiorghos Samartzis. She has studied Musicology in Athens, Ethnomusicology in London and Los Angeles, and Contemporary Music in Amsterdam. She coordinates the workshop of the Happy Hour Choir vocal band and directs the Rodia Traditional Music Choir. She is also artistic director of the Tinos Music Festival.

Spiros Balios attended classical violin lessons with Nikos Haliassas at the “Nikos Skalkotas” Conservatory and studied traditional violin with Nikos Economides and Stathis Koukoularis. He has founded the DelaParo band at Paros and the Musical band Sofrano with an Aegean sea repertoire, along with Vangelis Karipis, Dionyssia Pappoulis, Martha Mavroidi, Maria Ploumis and Giorghos Ventouris.

Martha Mavroidi
& Spiros Balios

Interview: Maro Voulgari | Photos: Spiros Balios

Let me sing and rejoice…

Talking with the musicians Martha Mavroidi and Spiros Balios about traditional music today, Greek feasts, fairs, the present and the future of our music tradition.

How could one define traditional music today? What is traditional?

Spiros Balios: I’ve come to conclude that there is one music and seven notes, all the rest is expression; we usually say that the traditional music comes from a geographical definition. Surely, this entails a number of distortions. Jimmis Panoussis had once said that our traditional music is not what we got from our grandfathers but what we’ll leave to our grandchildren.

Martha Mavroidi: It’s the difference between cultural heritage and tradition. Tradition is something you are given and you give back but by means of this process you also renew it. Usually, it has a folk element. The extent to which one can intervene depends on the kind of people handling it. Some are more conservative, others more liberal…

Would you be in favour of a set of rules to use as a foothold for any unorthodox interventions, whatever?

Spiros: To judge something as liberal requires something else to compare it with. Music has a structure which contains rules.

Martha: But in traditional music these rules are unwritten while in classical music they are quite immovable. They are written.

Have any instrumentalists of the past served as a model for you? Musicians who you always listen to or you listened to when you started.

Spiros: In the violin which is my instrument, it is Stathis Koukoularis. He is a great master on this instrument in traditional music. Anyway, I think I admire all the old instrumentalists. Many of them are not alive. If you find an interesting piece, you’ll want to listen to all the masters who have played it.

The islands are open spaces with open air feasts and fairs. Can music retain its quality in such places and mass gatherings?

Spiros: We should have in mind that in the past there were no devices or microphones and things were not very big. Everything was on a much smaller scale. I’ve had the chance to do such things in the old way, without electricity and with a few people. There is no comparison. It’s better to play without extras. Today, to be able to enjoy music in open spaces there must be something elementary: respect for the other person -not even for music itself. Basically, we must all know why we are there. The truth is that it’s the people that make the difference.

Martha: In singing as well, this is insuperable. You might have an audience of five people giving you all their attention or many more who are indifferent. It has to do with the group dynamics. Music goes to and fro. You must get energy from below.

What about the orchestra? Is some kind of chemistry necessary? Musicians who have some “shared flight hours”?

Spiros: What’s really necessary is that they look at the straight direction and jointly respect the genre they serve. When we look at the same direction we don’t even need any “flight hours”. What we need is collective awareness that is a handling of the ego. However, if there is antagonism and selfishness in the group then they should disband in time. Frequently, what the audience sees is not really a group but what we call a session, musicians who have gathered for a specific night or a specific event. There, one can see much incongruence, but surely, they are not a group.

Martha: The voice has a stronger grip on the listener and many believe that it usurps the glory. Actually, it has to do with the personality. It is likely that one with not a very privileged role can steal the show. The question is not who will send out more glamour but who will best communicate what the group wants to give.

What’s your opinion about groups that make covers of traditional songs? Like the Vic and the Mode Plagal who have introduced a rock beat into traditional forms?

Martha: I have done that. It has to do with one’s sense of aesthetics. Not a few bands in Greece mix traditional and contemporary music.

Spiros: What counts is to offer a chance to an audience which had never listened to a specific genre to get to know it, thanks to this stimulus, and then seek the original. Very few will do this but some will. On the other hand, this mix is fashionable but, in my opinion, it is not creation. It indicates a lack of original material and also that there is no way to channel it because the trade is not very sound in Greece.

Can we have lyrics and recordings of traditional music today? Can there be new “traditional” songs?

Martha: Yes, there are musical pieces written in the 70’s. Compared to the songs created in the 17th century they are very fresh, indeed. However, they have taken a place in the repertoire. That’s how tradition develops; when a piece becomes as popular as to enter the repertoire of traditional music.

Spiros: It becomes public domain. Yes, an island song can be written today, but not in the city. Every time a piece is composed, it is as if it “absorbs” the sounds of the surroundings. The music of the city, the urban music as we call it, records its noises: the garbage truck, the lift, the espresso machine, the hooting in the street…
On the contrary, the songs we write on the island exude serenity. For example, the jazz of Yiannis Balikos has a sea smell. It has a continuous wave coming from behind… Anyway, that’s how music started: we wanted to reproduce what we heard in nature. The environment dictates what you’ll write.

What annoys you in the entertainment scene?

Spiros: Anyone in this domain chooses to expose oneself one way or another. They believe they have talent and they must go up to the platform and give it to the others, too. It happens in all sectors. On the other hand, there are the recipients. They must know why they have gone there. Yes, there is also very bad music. That it reaches the audience is also the responsibility of the intermediaries. Unfortunately, most of the time, the motives are financial. They pick a commercial band to collect money and, on the way, the quality goes with the wind. Unfortunately, quality doesn’t count.

Which are the events on the island you like to be invited to play?

Spiros: In general, the very big and commercial events are not our favourites. They give us a hard time. Let’s see it historically. Once, the feasts took place at countryside churches at which a family was responsible for an icon. When this, small scale is observed there are fewer people, people who are really interested. They know why they are there. They observe a custom. There is a ritual. In such events we’ve never had a bad time. Because this serves the condition for which it was created, in the right location and the right scale…Later it was taken over by various associations. Financial considerations have slipped in and the things go awry frequently…

Is there a nursery of young musicians who will carry on along the way you have taken?

Spiros: Things are much better than in the past years. When we started, 1997-98, most of the old musicians had died and there were no new ones. There was a generation gap. Now there are more people, they are not all on the “right way” I’d say but they exist.

Martha: At least today anyone who decides to study and play music has all the means at one’s disposal. There are numerous recordings, access to archives etc. Our generation grew up struggling to study from the cassettes. We played the same piece one hundred times, afraid that the cassette would get damaged. Now you can find hundreds of performances. Abundant information to help your study and this is a considerable advantage. This unlimited access makes you want to learn more and more and, in the end, you acquire a better understanding of your object. Besides, in musical education there are no compartments. You have to find the way to train yourself…Therefore, all this information is very useful. The old masters when they saw a youngster, turned their backs when they played, so as not to give away their secrets!

Spiros: There are stories that when someone wanted to learn, they went to fairs and handed out money for the same piece again and again. Now we press the play button again and again. But there, they paid for it….

Of all the songs you have played, is there a favourite?

Spiros: May we be well next year / And if the Beauforts are severe / Ride the gale sea / And have the violins sing / At the Donoussa seaways / For the Cross’s holy grace.

Martha: Let me sing and rejoice / Play and laugh / Youth is no more on sale / It can’t be bought again.

Summer 2018