When most people think of Greek music, they envision a long sandy beach overlooking the turquoise Mediterranean, and men dancing in a line with their arms on each other’s shoulders to the sound of a hasaposerviko played on a bouzouki, a la Zorba the Greek. That is, of course, one aspect of Greek music; but there is so much more. Every region of Greece, from the islands to the mainland, has their own unique style, whether it be the a capella polyphonic singing of Epirus (similar to that of neighboring Albania) or the mixed rhythms of the Cretan and Pontic lyras, to the rembetiko of the Greeks who were forced out of Turkey and who—for the most part—became Greece’s “underworld”.
Greece has one of the richest and most varied musical traditions in all the Balkans. Thus it is a little disappointing for me to listen to Putumayo’s collection of Greek music, entitled Greece: A Musical Odyssey, because of the almost homogenized selection of music that was chosen for this recording. Not to say that most of the music is not excellent, it is, and for the mass marketing that Putumayo has, I would say that for most people this will serve as an adequate introduction to what is palatable for the audience that this record label has built. Great—I support whatever gets people listening to music in other languages besides their own, and there are enough differences in the rhythms and voices to keep the selections interesting. Nonetheless, the selections are still of the highly produced style of music that caters to popular tastes, and to the average listener this is what one thinks of when one thinks of Greek music—all tinkly bouzoukis and trap drums.
In Greece: A Musical Odyssey, Putumayo has collected a selection of offerings by some of Greece’s most popular artists. (As an aficionado of Greek music, including that country’s very fine popular music which combines the tradition with modern sensibilities, I, of course, regret that some of my particular favorites weren’t included, namely Haris Alexiou, who the Greeks love and affectionately call “Haroulia”, Miltiades Pashalides and Pyx Lax). Still, there are some very good choices here, especially by the great George Dalaras. The liner notes say that Dalaras is one of Greece’s most popular artists because he merges the traditional music with pop. Yes, this is true; but I think he would still be one of Greece’s greatest stars no matter what he did, as he is not only an excellent musician and composer, he has one of the greatest voices in the world and possesses not only very good taste in music but an extraordinarily charismatic character. On any compilation of music, Dalaras’ voice would stand out.
Other outstanding tracks are: “Eleni” from Epirut singer Kostas Mantzios—the song referring to the Iliad’s Helen of Troy; and Elly Paspala, who although American-born, was steeped in her Greek heritage while growing up In New York City. She later immigrated to Greece where she performs jazz and pop as well as traditional music.
One of the best aspects of Putumayo collections are their extensive liner notes, and Greece: A Musical Odyssey is no exception. Not only are they presented in English, Spanish and French, but they also include information about Greek music, the artists included in this compilation, a Greek music glossary and even a recipe for Tsatziki, the delicious Greek cucumber and yogurt salad.
Although my personal tastes lean towards the more traditional music of Greece, I still recommend Greece: A Musical Odyssey to anyone wishing for an introduction to the popular music of this ancient culture. Hopefully for Putumayo the timing of this release is perfect, as the eyes of much of the world are on the summer Olympics in Greece this year.