Under the sun
The weight of history presses in around the music of the Helios Band—some of it ancient, some painfully close to living memory. It slips through the spaces between notes, and one need not comprehend the lyrics to feel it.
The band hails from the Bay Area and plays traditional Greek music in a variety of styles, traversing both the geographic and historical span of Hellenic culture.
“We play what’s called demotika music, which is probably the oldest,” said violin player Lefteri Tsacle, one of the band’s founding members. “That originated in the small villages.”
The band also plays laika and rembetika music. According to Tsacle, laika is most closely associated with Modern Greek music, while the roots of rembetika can be traced back to the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey following the Greek genocide and the Greco-Turkish War. Orthodox Christians forced to leave Turkey as a part of the exchange moved to mainland Greece, bringing Ottoman musical influences with them.
“It’s a little bit Eastern,” Tsacle explained. “It’s not a traditional Western scale. … It sounds a little strange to a Western ear, but it’s a major component in Greek music.”
The different styles are contrasting but feel cohesive nonetheless. To the uninitiated, the music mostly sounds—different. The tones are often a shade darker. The rhythms are at once unexpected and mesmerizing. Violin, clarinet, bass, keyboards and guitar take on unfamiliar qualities in the company of two traditional Greek stringed instruments—the tzouras, with its twangy, slightly metallic sound, and the bouzouki, which flutters over the rest of the ensemble at a hummingbird-like pace.
Five of the Helios Band’s six members are vocalists. Their harmonies are otherworldly. They’ve played together since 2012, but each has been in the Greek music scene for longer. Tsacle started playing violin when he was 8 and joined his first Greek band in the late ’60s.
“I played with the Merakledes band,” he said. “That was one of the premiere Greek bands in Northern California. … We had some very good musicians playing with us, and I learned a lot there.”
Vocalist, keyboardist and accordion player Michael Garibaldi began studying music at age 9. Clarinet player and vocalist Greg Jenkins got his start at 13. The band’s other three members are a family. Michael Mavroudis sings and plays the bass, tzouras and bouzouki. His daughter Irene also sings. His son, George, sings and plays bass and guitar. On occasion, they’re joined by keyboardist and band co-founder Ivan Kabaivanov.
The Helios Band regularly plays Greek festivals, weddings and baptisms across Northern California, Nevada and Montana. This year will be the band’s third time playing the Reno Greek Festival, which is scheduled for Aug. 19-21. According to Tsacle, annual festivals like Reno’s are common in Greece.
“Every village usually has one big festival per year,” he said. “They usually start about 8 o’clock in the evening … and the bands play continuously…’til the sun comes up the next morning, if you can believe that—nonstop. I mean it’s just a party atmosphere, a continuous party atmosphere.”
The members of the Helios Band won’t be playing from sundown to sunup, but their Aug. 20 set—from noon to 10 p.m.—is still a long one.