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In pursuit of Zante serenades
The marina street front is of course fully tourist oriented, with lots of ads for cruises to island destinations for beach lovers and nature lovers.
And I had to overcome yet another prejudice that night. Because depicted is Varkarola taverna , the taverna recommended to me as the best place in town to hear folk music played.
Yes, I know “live music” in a tourist destination ordinarily makes the heart sink. But see? There’s a mandolin on the shop front alongside the guitar. (Ok, I guess you can’t see.)
There are, the first website I found tells me, two genres of Italianate, four part harmony, traditional urban songs here.
- Arekias, the older form of song, are a capella, with the 3rd male voice usually singing a third above the first. In Cephallonia, they are called arietes. They are songs sung about women.
- Kantadas add mandolin and guitar. They are serenades, songs sung to women. (Whether the women welcomed the attention or not is a different matter.)
Hence an inevitable 11880 phone directory ad, featuring a recurring couple of tourists:
[*Flower pot goes clunk*]
Yes?! Is that 11880? A hospital, a doctor, an ambulance! …. Where are we? Hang on!
George darling, do you remember now where we are?
11880! That’s the only thing I remember!
(Of course all parts were sung by men, and women didn’t get to stroll around singing in public, either arekies to themselves, or kantadas to other women. Venetian Zante was still traditional Greece, after all.)
I was momentarily concerned that whatever I was going to hear here would be much watered down, with just two vocalists if I was lucky, and no differentiation between arekia and kantada.
… Well of course. That’s what I’m going to get in a marina taverna in 2023. It’s still going to be a lot better than nothing. And if I want to go deeper, I can always look up mandolin orchestra performances on YouTube. (And to their credit, the duo declined to perform one song, because they thought it would sound awful reduced from four parts to two.)
Kantada is merely the Venetian pronunciation of cantata, in its original meaning: something sung. Arekia is less obviously Italian: it’s a orecchie, “by ear”.
Kantadas are known in the rest of Greece as serenades, although I doubt anyone in the rest of Greece has gone serenading in pursuit of courtship this past century, outside of comedy skits like in that 11880 ad.
But I have deep memories of kantadas, since my uncle Savva in Cyprus sang them to welcome us at his dining table. Singalongs at dinner is something I’ve yearned for this forty years since, and never had satisfied…
The duo performing did have to gratify their crowd, and there was a lot of extraneous repertoire they performed: they enjoyed the challenge. (They also had a heavily Italian crowd earlier in the evening, who got their Volare and whatever song it was that prompted them to yell Forza Napoli!)
By the end of the evening, I was requesting bouzouki classics myself, and singing a bass to their primo e secondo as best as I could manage. (Bass is easier, you just keep out of the other voices’ way.)
But I came for arekias, and arekias I got, and was grateful for. Starting with my uncle’s favourite, On the foam of the sea.
It’s going to be hard to recapture in the recording studio the manic glee with which the terzo-singer decides to start belting out his descant. This is one of those genres of music which are more fun to perform, or at least hear at very close quarters.
This is likely how O Νυχτομπάτης “The night-time breeze” was meant to be performed from the beginning:
How do you get away with just two guys doing it? Irreverently. The duo had a blast doing the sudden ritenutos and the boat calls. And of course, that irreverence is what you need to keep it a live tradition.
Even if the results are just tasteless, and I can’t describe what they did to Kostas Makedonas’ stern, resigned 1994 hit Μαργαριτάρια “Pearls” any other way.
Or, for that matter, their update ending an exchange of yore between prisoners:
When time comes for me to die, bury me with a mobile phoneDon’t bury me too deep, or I won’t have any reception!
These guys brought me joy, by sharing their island’s songs with me and all present. It was not the “genuine article”, and that was entirely fine. Thank you.