See Something, Say Something

Greece's songs of protest and pain, and Costas Ferris's 1983 movie 'Rembetiko'.

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In 2011, when Tiger Lilies came to Athens to perform, they arrived during two tumultuous days in June when the state proceeded to pummel its citizens with tear gas (most of it expired) through the might of its riot police. After all, this was the a crucial two-day period – June 28 and 29 – and the government had to pass through yet another round of austerity measures imposed by the dreaded Troika. This was another quarterly injection that would only lead to greater debt – something the Greek people, who had already experienced years of straight recession, could not accept. The result was unprecedented violence against the people. On both days, police even threw tear gas into the central metro station on Syntagma Square, where medical volunteers had set up a makeshift clinic, only to be gassed like rats (a war veteran said he had never seen anything like it).

That night, on Zougla.gr, a local internet radio station, call-ins from listeners revealed a growing sense of militancy; a realization that the state no longer fended for its people, but rather a conglomerate of technocrats belonging to a vast pool of global stakeholders. In between such moments of realization, there were appeals for medical equipment and medicine for those still holding strong at Syntagma Square; a public space named after an uprising in 1843 when the Greek people demanded a Constitution from their foreign King. In 2011, the square had become a Tahrir, where the Greek Indignants  – the first Occupiers in the West after the Spanish – set up camp, inspired by the Arab uprisings that same year.

As the sun came down that evening of June 28, and the flames and fumes subsided, Tiger Lilies played an impromptu gig on Syntagma Square: “a concert in the teargas” as one spectator called it. It was a show of solidarity from one subcultural performer to another; the kind of subculture the Greek people have known for hundreds of years – one that is slightly left of field and not quite subservient to dominant cultural norms. What the Tiger Lilies performed in Syntagma Square, like the protests that had been taking place in and around this square for years, even generations, was a song of protest, uttered in a space of protest. It was a song sung directly to and for a people for whom music has long been a form of resistance, since the Ottoman occupation that started in the 15th century, to the occupation of market forces in the 21st, and from the music of the Cretans and their eagle-like war dance, to the song of the rembetes, the Greek-speaking riff raff from Asia Minor, expelled from Turkey in the great population exchange of 1923 when an estimated 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks were sent back to the mainland (and 500,000 Turks shipped back to Turkey).

It is after the rembetes that a particular genre of music was named in Greece: Rembetiko, used to define a certain type of folk music that emerged from the Greek underground during and around the Ottoman occupation. It is a genre – and a word – used to describe the traditional tune of the vandal and the vagabond; the thief and the fighter against the powers that be. It is a style that lends its name to the 1983 movie by Costas Ferris, Rembetiko, which focuses specifically on the life of one woman – a rembetiko singer in an all-man band. In her first ever performance, she sits in the middle of the band before a crowded kafeneion, a traditionally male space. The frame of the stage invokes a Renaissance Last Supper. She is a Mary Magdalene figure; a tainted woman wrought in a man’s world. I’m burning, I’m burning, she sings slowly and deliberately, demanding the listener to throw more oil onto the fire as if it would soothe her.

The audience recognizes her pain, forged from the ashes of war and the salty tears of exile; she is a daughter of Smyrna. A child of one the many refugees in the above-mentioned population exchange that had never set foot in Greece proper, facing an impoverished local population who did not want them, and for whom war, and upheaval were part of daily life. It is a history that haunts modern Greece like the spectre of Constantinople, or Istanbul, the spiritual capital of Eastern Orthodoxy, occupied in the fifteenth century by the Ottomans; an occupation that marked the beginning of an occupation of Greece proper that would last for some four hundred years. It was from this historical point that waves of Greek migration began, triggered thereafter by such events as World War I and II, civil war, military occupation and the current Crisis. As a consequence of this history, there are more Greeks living outside Greece’s modern borders than within them, and many a song has lamented this fate, like the one in Ferris’s movie: Kaigomai: I’m Burning.

It’s funny because in Athens, people can literally tell you when the city will burn, like when Angela Merkel comes to town or when debt is fed with more debt. Sometimes, ‘Athens Burns’ can be seen scrawled on public walls around the historical centre – huge swathes of which have become ghettoized in the space of only a few years – as if to remind those who forget that Athens does burn, often. As the music continues in this scene, the controlled, sustained melodic rhythm forms a perfect sonic tableau. I’m drowning, I’m drowning; throw me into the sea, she sings, lyrics describing a certain, Sapphic state of mind that drives people off cliffs so they might quiet their relentless pain. Such lyrics recall looking over the Bosphoros from Galata Tower in Istanbul (or Constantinople), and thinking of another song written by Nikos Zoudiaris, “I Want to Drink the Whole Bosphorous”, simply because the experience of watching, experiencing and therefore feeling the world’s borders change is too unbearable. It is a famous song, mourning the memory of something that has become distant and removed. It is the notion of a lost “home” as described by Constantine Cavafy’s Ithaca, a poem for the displaced, for whom “home” has become nothing more than an idea or a memory.

Perhaps not having the choice is what feeds the turmoil when one must abandon a certain reality: why oil becomes the remedy for a burned up soul. It could certainly explain the pain experienced by a nation struggling with the memory of what it once was – or never was – while coming to terms with what it really is.

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Returning to the woman in Rembetiko, singing a song about burning and drowning in that masculine, kafeneion space, that ubiquitous male gaze is never perverse. Rather, it exudes solidarity, reflective of an emotive transaction between audience and performer enacted as seamlessly as the way the singer’s voice is absorbed into the ensemble arrangement; a song that cuts so deep it leaves man and woman equal in their suffering. The same could be said of the suffering in Greece today; a nation plunged into a Crisis not entirely of its own making, shaped by global currents dictating an economic system rooted in post World War II modernization and marketization, from the Truman Doctrine, a bailout plan for Greece and Turkey, to the Marshall Plan, both devised by American policymakers to rebuild Europe’s ravaged economies, and the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1961. Then there was the premature entry of Greece into an economic system it was not equipped to handle, resulting in a populace now disciplined by forces beyond its control – like the woman in this movie, caught in a mortal journey that follows the social and historical currents of time and circumstance. And it burns, quite literally.

Intoxicated, she stares straight into the camera fleetingly, her face gilded by the composition of the frame like a Madonna, swearing on your eyes as she sings that she’ll turn this knife wound “you” inflicted on her into laughter. Her smile harbors a frightening power; wielded by those who know they have nothing to lose, like those protestors today, unafraid to walk into the plumes of prickly, peppery teargas that can choke and blind. As Greek writer Augustine Zenakos observed of a June 15 protest that took place at Syntagma Square, also in 2011:

The police had attacked Syntagma Square. The people sat on the grass and some sang, others danced, when they saw the first teargas canister fall between them. In the peaceful crowd, teargas seemed to come from nowhere – it was so much – but as the skin started to burn and no one could breathe any longer, the assembled found incredible strength to sit there: do not leave, do not leave the Square.[1]

It is an act of defiance, to ‘sing’ in this way, like the woman in Rembetiko, as she sings her haunting song. She turns towards the camera once more, with calculated precision, surrendering to you, the viewer, so ‘deep in hell’, to ‘break the chains’ and take her with you if you can manage it. There is a smile at the corners of her lips. An invitation. But, like those of us who watch Greece’s demise from afar – as we watch it burn – we know those chains are unbreakable because we have little power over how these chains were formed. And they bind us, too.

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[1] This quote was taken from a post made by Zenakos in Greek via Facebook in 2011. To read his witness account of state brutality in Greece during this period, follow this link to an article written by Zenakos for The Press Project, ‘Police Violence, Ideology and the Myth of Representation’, published June 26 2011. http://www.thepressproject.gr/en/theme.php?type=blog&id=5116