The Hellenic connection

Local quartet honors the music of legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis

Mikis Theodorakis in Hamburg, Germany in 1971.

Mikis Theodorakis in Hamburg, Germany in 1971.

Photo by Heinrich Klaffs—CC by SA 2.0

The Orestis Koletsos Greek Ensemble performs the music of Mikis Theodorakis Friday, May 4 at UC Davis' Ann E. Pitzer Center, Hutchison Dr & Cushing Way, Davis. The performance was made possible through a grant from the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Foundation. Admission is free.

In 1962, American guitarist Dick Dale put a surf-rock take on a traditional Greek song called “Misirlou,” which was famously purposed as the intro music for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. In 2006, The Black Eyed Peas sampled—some might say bastardized—the guitar track for their hit single, “Pump It.” Katerina Lagos, a professor of Hellenic studies at Sacramento State, often cites the song as an example of Greek influence on American culture.

“When I lecture on music in my Greek history class, I start off by saying, ‘You all have a CD with Greek music on it, or you dance to Greek music,'” Lagos said. “They look at me like I'm crazy.”

Indeed, most people in the states probably don't know much about Greek music, traditional or otherwise, with perhaps one exception: The compositions of Mikis Theodorakis.

Theodorakis' work is most recognizable from the 1964 film Zorba the Greek, or The Ballad of Mauthausen, a cycle of four arias written about the Holocaust. He's also known for supporting the ideas of freedom and liberty through his music, especially during the Greek military junta, a dictatorship that lasted from 1967 to 1974.

“He was very well known for creating music during this time to protest all of the repression and abuses of human rights,” Lagos said. “While it is political in the sense that he was resisting this military dictatorship, his themes are far more general and supportive of universal concepts.”

The Hellenic Studies Program at Sacramento State is hosting a concert to honor Theodorakis' music on Friday. It will be preceded by a short film about Theodorakis, as well as a special video recorded by the composer himself, who is 92 years old. Then the evening will be turned over to the Orestis Koletsos Greek Ensemble, a quartet of classically trained local musicians rounded out by Koletsos' wife, Jaime Smith (violin), Panagiotis Papageorgiou (piano, vocals) and Giannis Karalis (guitar, vocals).

Koletsos was born in Paris, and moved to Athens when he was two years old. He started playing piano and guitar shortly thereafter, but didn't fall in love with any particular type of music until he heard rebetiko—a century-old form of Greek music that was recently added to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“Musically, rebetiko combines the modes and rhythms of ancient Greece and the Byzantine period, but also uses Western harmonies,” he said. “The outcome is very unique. Concerning lyrics, the topics are sad—it's about poverty, prison, love and struggling—but somehow you see an optimism there. It's a little bit like when you get a high from listening to the blues. It's like a catharsis.”

Koletsos, 39, has spent his adult life studying rebetiko and mastering the genre's primary instrument, the bouzouki. “It's the most adored instrument in Greece,” he said. “It reminds of the mandolin, but has a more deep sound, I would say. The way you play the bouzouki is very staccato. For the player, it offers the ability to be very direct in their expression.”

He met Smith in Greece and followed her home to the Sacramento area about two-and-a-half years ago. He's found that the climate in Sacramento is indeed Mediterranean, but the similarities don't end there. “It's kind of relaxed here, and I would say the same of Greece,” he said. “And people are happy. I see the open hearts and open minds in California that I see in Greece too.”

Koletsos recently struck up a partnership with Lagos to put on the upcoming concert. Theodorakis composed many symphonies, operas and arias, but Koletsos' ensemble will focus on his rebetiko songs. “He had the wisdom to pay attention to the people, the working class,” Koletsos said. “He would use the bouzouki, he would compose songs for the people who wanted to dance and go to the tavernas.” One of Theodorakis' masterstrokes was setting popular music to classic and contemporary poems, he said: “The miracle he created was putting these masterpiece poems on the lips of the poor and less educated people, the working-class Greeks.”

Lagos views the concert as an opportunity to educate the public about Greek culture. “There are certain types of ideas about Greekness,” she said, “and I hope that Theodorakis' music shows [the culture] in a more universal light.”

Of course, the foundation of our political system—the very concept of democracy—was born in ancient Athens. For a more visual Hellenic connection, look no further than the neoclassical architecture of the State Capitol building.

“Look at those pillars,” Lagos said. “Are they British? No, they are not.”