Before I listened to the Rough Guide to Greek Café I looked at a picture of the cover and thought, “I wonder if the emphasis will be on the word café or on the word Greek.” A lot of the Greek music that I’d heard, when it wasn’t pop music, tended to be hard and ringing. It was music played to a circle-dance rhythm, with a regular stress that told the dancers when to emphasise a step. When I thought of Greek singing, it was George Dalaras who came to mind, and specifically my favourite Dalaras song, “Ya Pare Gifto Sphiri Ki Amoni”, a song shot through with the singer’s folk-toughness, a languidly-paced voice, but one that is pitched to a kind of nasal sharpness. He sings at a drawling pace without sounding sleepy or lazy. He sounds insistent. And this carries the song, the unvarying strength of that nose-humming vocal thrust, which drives the movement from start to finish.
All of this was so far away from my idea of the music that gets marketed under the rubric of café that I wondered how the two things could be reconciled. When I thought of café music, I thought of something friendly and soft-edged. The aim of café music, I thought, is to be interesting enough to be entertaining, but not so exciting that you look up from your coffee. It wanders. It has a light beat and an attractive voice. It is smooth. And how could they put these things together without eviscerating the Greek or ruining the softness of the café? I know nothing about Greek music, I thought. Perhaps it was going to be music played specifically by live bands in Greek cafes? No, because—here I checked—the blurb for the album referred to it as, “a selection of some of the irresistible and enriching sounds that you can hear … quietly on the sound systems of Greek restaurants, beach tavernas or café-bars.” So it was going to be a blend of the two. It would be a collection of tracks by Greek musicians, selected with an emphasis on some quality that made them suitable for quiet play on the sound systems of restaurants.
How does the compiler do it? It seems to me that he decides to favour forward movement. Flow is the thing here, flow is the key to this compilation. Hardness is allowed, melancholy is allowed, but we always go forward, we carry the restaurant-listener with us. The singers sing in streams, and the instruments advance in a continuous tide. The profound stop/start dance rhythm becomes part of the wash. It emerges in hops and skips. It would rather touch the earth with a toe and bob up vividly than stamp its foot down. The jangle in Kristi Stassinopoulou’s “Sto Patithraki” introduces this idea of brightness in the first track and it goes on from there. When a downstroke appears in Thanasis Papakonstantinou’s “Pehlivanis”, the guitar player lightens the music by following that moment of solemn weight with a bit of crochet. In Sophia Papazoglou’s “Rixte Sto Yiali Farmaki”, the speed bump of a percussive downslap is superseded by Papazoglou’s voice. So everything is upward, upward, and on.
Inside this box of optimism you have rough voices and smooth voices, strings, percussion, and a terrific tart loveliness, which is something like a wail without the anguish. Some of the tracks have been chosen to remind you explicitly of the musical legacy left by the Ottoman empire that ruled Greece from the mid-1400s to the 1830s, but traces of that sound are in everything else too, in the writhing patterns of the music, in the intricacy, in the quasi-formal beauty. Emotion has been refined to a needlepoint, the source of that tart sting. An aristocratic folk music, in other words. Passion is seized with a bow. The café soundtrack for mobs of 19th-century European aesthetes.