The silent bagpiper, at last, takes his instrument out from within his legs. Vassilis shows it’s time to start tapping his small hand drum. From the first note the bagpipe mesmerises you.

Meeting with the god Bacchus

Text, Photos: Panorea Mantzavali

The cause. This year’s souma distillation. The occasion. My friend’s invitation to the party accompanying the production process, naturally, as every year. A customary symbolic event. The whole thing refers to rites and rituals. It revives again and again, aiming at the magic power of a circular and infinite repetition. Very similar to the one defining the rules of life.

According to custom, a successful feast guarantees both the success and the high quality of the hedonic drink also known as “agioneri” (holy water). Although the musicians, usually relatives, are in high spirits, most people calm down, surrender… They know now that chemistry “inside” and “outside” the copper cauldron, harmoniously linked, will “drop” this year’s fresh souma.

In other words, while the 21st century is rolling and we experience a culture that demands an absolutely “identical” way of life, entertainment and self-expression of modern man… we’d better believe that such things happen as well! What things? Let’s go and see. A pretext for a very serious escapade.

We abandon our permanent intolerable companion and conspirator, the television, with a hidden happiness. We forget the pace of the city and the places we frequent, get on the metro and off to the harbour in Piraeus. Sunrise meets us in the company of the Aegean waves, which “swallow” images, stress and urban problems. And all this coloured in a deep blue. Nothing is similar to the Aegean. A seascape which changes constantly along with the seasons and the passing of time. It disappears and sinks to the bottom of the sea only to emerge again the next morning. We arrive in Parikia around noon.

It’s already mid-November. Paros is resting from the summer tourist hustle and bustle and the vines from the spring blossoms. We’re heading toward the house on the hill, with windows overlooking the sea, the sky, the endless Cycladic landscape… A three-hour rest with a view of the unlimited and then off for our appointment with Bacchus, the god. Not bad. Light gives way to darkness, “I can see the will of the night gushing out the stars, I let the unknown take my mind away” (Odysseas Elytis).

On the way I open the window just to fill up with the night silence. Somewhere in Marpissa, in the middle of nowhere, a sound awaits the silence, a light awaits the darkness…
A smell of mushrooms being grilled somewhere outdoors enters my nose…
“Oh, here come the squealers!” A loud male voice calls. I turn around and see a handsome well-built young man, full of kindness, with his eyes fixed on the camera hanging from my neck, at the wrong place, the wrong time…Fortunately, a pleasant familiarity in his voice, despite the effort to hide it, gave me the chance to steal a piece of mushroom smelling like freshly wet soil. Smiling with a bit of embarrassment I placed it on my dripping tongue. Yummy… the same enjoyment each time. Each time like the first time.

A pleasant process of hedonic search smells intensely as soon as we set foot inside the distillery. After being shown the door and having tasted the wonderful meze, we are now inside a plain rectangular space, with a makeshift roof, enough to offer protection against November weather. “The lid and cauldron are the parts of the distillery equipment that get unlocked at the beginning of the month and get sealed again at the end of the month. According to the law, producers are only allowed to distill the souma of the year within 24 hours, in one of the distilleries bearing a permit, which is usually a family heirloom”.

Laughter, inebriety, dance. Talk, verses and songs. Tastes, smells and music. Guest of honour? Who else but Bacchus. The god who will always invite to the “banquet cheer”, where “a break-out of laughter meets with the sound of flute” as Euripides characteristically says in his play Bacchae.

And the fire? The ultimate transformation. The distillery owner allows it to reach 70 degrees Celsius and then brings down to a much lower level. Like the liquid grape juice, which will boil inside the cauldron, it will turn into vapour, and re-appear as a transparent liquid at the end of distillation.
Following exactly the same recipe, embarrassment turns into smile and smile into warm handshakes. Introductions and an exchange of trust are pushed aside by welcoming wishes. You see, people here are different. They’re still in dialogue with nature, they care for their growing vineyard, for the rain being late, they talk to the trees. They’re not in a hurry. They save the magic and the dream and hand them down to the next generation as if a sacred heirloom. They can tell old stories, they reveal unknown places, unthreaded on places of the island, the mind, the heart…

At the other end of the table my friend’s uncle keeps his bagpipe hidden. He lets the time flow, he lets the wine fill the body, he lets the body expecting warming up the soul… The temperature has risen both inside and outside the cauldron. The time has come. The silent bagpiper, at last, takes his instrument out from within his legs. Vasilis shows it’s time to start tapping his small hand drum. From the first note the bagpipe mesmerises you.

The combination of the intense beat on the drum and the acute male tone of the bagpipe lead to ecstasy, not only the musicians but all present. It’s a remnant of an ancient custom. You grow roots on the ground for a while, the vibration penetrates you, it makes you move and dance. The sound enters the body through every cell. In your veins you can hear the pulse of the earth.

“It’s great to meet my beloved friends and let us always be happy with a kind heart”. With Vasilis’s warm welcome we have come to the main point of the evening. Vasilis from Lefkes, excellent musician and carpenter, has a voice like a church bell! He’s the one who sings, who makes improvised verses on the spot known as “kotsakia”. These little verses express the feelings of the here and now.
Vasilis is the one who plays with his drum and voice, his eyes and hands, reminding everyone that the feast is dedicated to Bacchus and love. I catch my mind reminiscing “love, who amongst the immortals, is the most beautiful, the one who unlocks the limbs”.

“Old songs were poems…” Vasilis interrupts my thoughts. He remembers the biographical and experiential songs of Markos Vamvakaris. Almost mechanically, he touches his heart with his palm and starts singing, after reciting the national song with the due respect…
“I’ve got unhealed wounds in the depths of my heart and the evening always find me melancholy.
She knows I love her and my chest is on fire,
but doesn’t believe she’s my real light.
I’m crazy for her, and if I can’t have her,
what is there to live for?
She’s sweet, dark-skinned, a teaser and a flirt,
the finest of the girls I’ve met”.

The instigator is Dionysus, again. He “loves the festive tables, Peace, mother of prosperity and nurturer of the young. Gives to the rich and the poor alike the consoling enjoyment of wine”. And “hates the one who denies the joy of life”. At least Euripides says so. And I couldn’t agree more!
Applause and Vasilis adds: “I could also sing the one that says ‘let’s all go to the island, your mother, me and you…”.
“It’s very old. They used to dance to such songs…”. Fortunately he goes on to a rather improvised song. Vasilis is leading and the rest follow.
“Immortal water flows from your sweet eyes,
yes, immortal water
I only asked to drink a bit
And you didn’t give me a drop
No, not a drop
-Rain broke out on my way to you last night
-You should’ve come, even if you were soaked to the bone
Yes, soaked to the bone
I had plenty of dry clothes for you
A quilt for you to cover up
A body to embrace until you’d get bored of it…

He hesitates. “What’s next?” everybody asks.
“Shall I say it?” asks Vasilis.
“Go ahead!”.

The song goes on.
“Come and make love under the moon
I love you so much, love you so much”.

Bacchus has been whispering into our ear and playful Eros awaits his victim who will look at him and wink. When listening to the recording made by the small recorder left on the table, I realised very little could be clearly heard, but it didn’t matter, really. Everything was transmitted in an unforgettable experience.

“Next year I’ll come and fetch you on horseback” calls Vasilis jokingly and urges me to cross-drink from our glasses. This is the difference. What calls you back again and again. What makes you want to be near these people, who, with their freshness and unpretentious attitude, they can instill happiness and well-being in your heart.

A whistle cuts the break short. You can’t really put all this into words, you just feel it. As if following the rout of History, it was time for Byzantine music.
“Someone went hunting and came back.
Not hunting for hares and deer, only hunting for two black eyes.
My beloved black eyes, where are you
heading without me?
My black eyes, my red lips, come out to your window, my young one.
Come see the sun and the moon, come see you husband to be”.
Pause. Pausing also serves its own purpose. As if in a concert, when a pause can be more important than the main theme.

The souma is ready for trial. Suspicion becomes certainty. The promise becomes a reality. The little pipe that drips out the hot souma, the “roumba” is the centre of attention… for everybody. After cropping the head and tail, we’re going to drink the heart. We’re going to wish for the next year and the respected diners will offer their critique after the tasting.
“The cauldron returns what you’ve fed it with”. Mastery is graded…pretty strictly. We drink the freshly distilled souma from special glasses with a small handle, made from small pumpkins, dried in the sun, expertly but simply carved.

The evening will come to an end along the tunes of known ecclesiastical hymns and improvised verses dedicated to, who else than the drinkers. We’re all drunk by now, it can’t be hidden. With the exception of the dog, who couldn’t be absent, and the babies who are fast asleep. I forgot to mention that the guests, characters in a well-staged drama, belong to all ages. I see my friend pleased and I’m happy for that. He prepared gifts for his guests, bottle of his souma, of course. He honoured tradition this year, too, and tradition demands that the best feasts are organises while souma is being distilled. He has the same proud look I’d noticed earlier that evening when he told me about the preparation stages. I realise it would be unfair to omit the pre-stages.
Well, for those who didn’t understand, souma, or whatever else it is called, is made from grapes which have been crashed from wine-making but not all their juice has been extracted. “Suitable for distillation”, my friend says “are only those which have been crashed by human feet in traditional presses. Fortunately, these have not completely disappeared”.

The presses are places -as mentioned in old scripts- where those stepping on the grapes did so shouting “Bacchus, Bacchus!”. Parian lyric poet Archilochos talks about the god’s birth and the thunder of wine. Plutarch, too, in his work “Love narratives” presents the newly born god taking his first bath in a source of water in “the colour of wine”. References to god’s gift, the vine, and it eternal fruit and object of worship, the grape, are endless. But let’s also learn a few things about the other rules that each producer of home-made souma, such as my friend, has to observe.
“After choosing the grapes very carefully, you take off the stems, so that the wood alcohol contained in them is not present in the drink. The grapes are exposed to the sun for 10 days, so that fermentation starts and then they are allowed to ferment inside special vessels with water and a little grape juice for about a month. When fermentation is over, and sugars are just about to turn into alcohol, lentisk beads are added to enhance the aroma and we’re ready for distillation”.

We were present in the last act of the drama since we had been invited to attend. The dramatic sense of purpose hidden behind the setting rivaled with the ultimate spontaneity…  We were there. On the corner of Dream Street and the house on the hill, just to the left. Just one step before Morpheus. Tonight, will be a warmer night, just like the warm souma we enjoyed. No, it’s not the 4, 5, 6 shots we had. It’s the thirst for a cheerful life that was satisfied. It’s a way our troubled minds can break free of the uniform entertainment served by the industry’s experts… Just like the times when not everything was enslaved to money. It’s participation in an act of resistance at the time of globalisation. It’s the beauty of the newly found cheer. Goodnight! Let what’s important come tomorrow!