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It's Not Easy Being Greek

Musicians Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis, who re-spark old Greek folk songs with a modern push.
courtesy of the artists
Musicians Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis, who re-spark old Greek folk songs with a modern push.

It's not an easy time to be Greek. There's the grinding and seemingly interminable economic crisis, endemic unemployment, riots and violence in the streets, a corroded political landscape (including the stratospheric rise of a neo-Nazi party, as chronicled by Maria Margaronis for The Nation) — and the feeling that the country is sliding into irrelevance. Greece's collective self-identity is in trauma, both at home and within the diaspora. (My name kind of gives me away as a member of that tribe.)

Perhaps entertainment and culture would, or should, be the very least of anyone's worries at the moment: when the unemployment rate is over 22%, who really cares what's on the radio? But these days, and whether intentionally or not, the rudderless state of Greek music seems to mirror something of the country's drift.

Consider, as one measure, Greece's current pop charts. Between the globally omnipresent Carly Rae Jepsen and Gotye, the Greek productions include a throwaway summertime club tune (Demy's "Poses Xiliades Kalokairia") and the vaguely merengue-flavored "Mamacita Buena," featuring a model-singer who recently came in second place in the Greek version of "Dancing with the Stars." There's little sense of popular music that speaks to what's actually going on in the country right now.

It hasn't always been this way. Greece has a long tradition of musicians creating strong and beautiful work under difficult circumstances, from World War II to the military junta of 1967-1974. Music has been an anchor through those terrible times. So today, where's the depth, the soul, the imagination, the pathos (passion), the...Greekness?

Into this chasm steps the duo of the "Greekadelia" project: vocalist Kristi Stassinopoulou, who also occasionally plays percussion and harmonium, and Stathis Kalyviotis, who plays the lauta (a Greek lute) and mans the looping and sampling.

The two first met in Athens' punk scene in the 1980s. These days, however, Stassinopoulou and Kalyviotis are plunging back into Greek traditional music — and then twisting those tunes for the 21st century, using a baker's dozen of demotika (traditional folk songs) from all around Greece as their ground and inspiration. But thankfully, this isn't your grandmother's bouzouki-driven nostalgia trip. Instead, what Greekadelia produces is fresh, modern and imbued with a palpable sense of "fight." The punk sound is gone — but definitely not its spirit.

Some of their tracks are based on rare grooves, like "Rodo tis protanastasis." It's a song that I've only encountered through recordings by Alekos Karavitis, a musician from Crete who was born in 1904, died in 1975, and who played the ultimate Cretan instrument, the lyra: a small, three-stringed, bowed fiddle.

There's something so primal and driving about the lyra, both in its smoky voice and in the ultra high-energy dance rhythms often associated with it — and somehow, that translates beautifully to the Greekadelia project.

For "Rodo Tis Protanastasis," Stassinopoulou bends her often ethereal voice into a smoky trail framed by a driving club beat. This is modern music, no doubt about it; but that Cretan DNA is still embedded in each thump.

It's rare that such old-new mixes work so incredibly well, and it's totally heartening to hear this Greek duo revisit their roots in inventive ways. A single album won't wipe Greece's blues away, but maybe — just maybe — Greekadelia has something to teach the politicians: how to push forward while honoring the past.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas
Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.