Graded on a Curve:
Why The Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music: 1907-1960

Third Man Records’ Why the Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music: 1907-1960 offers 28 cuts on either compact disc or superbly designed double vinyl with a triple gatefold sporting a typically fine R. Crumb cover illustration. And if that were all, the modern listener would easily be engulfed in the enigmatic, but thanks to the indefatigable research and perspective of Grammy-winner, writer, and all-around record man Christopher King, the contents come into focus with an air of mystery remaining; rarely does the oft-ineffable sonic creativity of a bygone world get elucidated with such keen, welcoming intellect. For folks cultivating adventurous pre-rock shelves this release is absolutely mandatory.

Though this set will surely appeal to similar clientele, it’s important to recognize Why the Mountains Are Black as distinct from the “old-time” canon of the USA; obviously Greek folk music, or demotika as it’s called, derives from unique cultural circumstances, and unlike those of Africa and other European regions, its traditions and methods haven’t tangibly impacted modern music.

And yet, to quote King’s notes: “Most scholars of antiquity can confidently assert that no ancient Western culture valued music more highly than the ancient Greeks. Practically every social event, no matter how small or large, was accompanied by live music, both vocal and instrumental.” Today music may give the impression of being widespread (perhaps too much so), but seldom does it produce catharsis, i.e. the Greek terminology for emotional release by an audience in direct response to a work of art.

Music may seem to be everywhere today, but it’s often experienced individually and with increasing frequency in easily digestible chunks serving more as a distraction than in a cathartic role. It’s a tendency extending to art in general; to elaborate, it’s become quite common to hear or read advance apologies when some shared item is in danger of being assessed as “long.”

In this modern sense the descriptor of “long” could easily apply to Christopher King’s text, but in reality the author errs on the side of concision; each track here underscores a potential chapter being written about its qualities, or maybe even two chapters, one to communicate the facts and another to ruminate on the lingering unknowns.

King’s writing does a terrific job in examining the difference between music as entertainment (where we are right now) and music as a component in survival (‘twas such back then) without coming off as curmudgeonly; though our world is vast enough that one need not very look far to become acquainted with ugliness, it is also a safer, more hospitable planet than at any prior point, and with security and comfort comes an adjustment to art’s purpose. It’s no doubt a cliché, but Why Are the Mountains Black provides a doorway to when music served a different, certainly more intense, function.

But there are numerous avenues in which to explore this set. For instance, the instrumentation is a vigorous blend of the familiar and eclectic; the oldest selection here, the ballad “Golfo,” consists of the trilling notes of the floghera, a shepherd’s flute that undoubtedly sounded aged in 1907, alternating with an unpolished vocal (the musician(s) responsible are lost to time) and doing battle with a barrage of noise inevitable on a recording of this vintage.

King smartly avoids chronology here, beginning sides one and three with recordings from 1932 featuring K. Bournelis, F. Tsilikos, and Christos Kantilas, the trio wielding drum and zourna, an ancient instrument described by King as a double reed folk oboe. Both “Kalamatianos (Dance of Kalamata)” and “Arvanitiko O Aetos (An Eagle, Arvanitiko-Style)” mingle high-pitched zourna flurries with drones from its counterpart as the drum gets empathically beaten.

Panagiotis Kokontinis and Haralabos Kavakos respectively wield the pipizi, a smaller relative of the zourna, and the tabor, a frame drum with chimes on the outer edge; they conjure a regal (and slightly Arabic) atmosphere on “Kalamatianos (Dance of Kalamata).” Two tracks by Efthimios Christou, “Makedoniko Hasapiko (Hasapikos Dance of Macedonia)” and “Poustseno, Boufiou (Loose Dance)” supply an enlightening listen to the gaidas, or Greek bagpipes; differing from the zourna, the gaidas seems well-designed for repetition and variation of phrases.

Just as eye-opening are three pieces utilizing the Cretan lyre; “Sousta Rethymniotiki (Sousta Dance of Rethymno)” by G. Canteris and G. Gombakis is a maelstrom of bowing and plucking while “Syrtos Haniotikos (Syrtos Dance from Hania)” finds Nikos Harhalis approaching the same level of intensity through higher velocity in duet with vocalist Mavrodimitris. “Kritiki Sousta (Fast Dance from Crete)” teams the lyre of A. Karavitis with the violin of K. Marianos, and is an utter delight of bows on strings.

Introduced to the Greek mainland in the 18th century, the violin is a comparative newcomer to these proceedings. The heavy bow and edgy aura of Demetris Halkias’ “Selfos (Nightingale)” reveals the violinist intermittently using his axe to mimic the sound of the titular bird to intriguing effect, while Alexis Zoumbas’ “E Triantafyllia (The Rose Tree)” lends this collection one of its prettiest (if no less vibrant) moments. But it’s Demetrios Semsis’ “Syrtos Politikos (Dance from Constantinople)” that elevates the violin’s stature through virtuosity that never loses track of the music’s folkloric urgency.

However, Christos Dalaras’ doom-laden bowing showcase “Svarniara (Reckless Woman)” really grabs the lobes, and his slightly inebriated “Pera Ston Pera Maxala (Over to the Other Neighborhood)” joins him with Nikos Karakostas, a clarinetist who delivers Why the Mountains Are Black one of its standout moments via the ominous slow-build of “Tzarama (Shepherd Flute Song).”

Ears attuned to deep klezmer and Balkan sounds are likely to cozy right up to the clarinet entries, particularly Elias Karathimios’ achy “Makedoniko Hasapiko (Hasapikos Dance of Macedonia)” and the robust wiggle of Christos Baniakas’ “Eseis Padia Vlahopoila (You Young Vlach Children).” And although this writer found Athanasios Lavidas’ “Platanos (Plane Tree)” to be a resonant plunge, it kinda takes a back seat to his “Ousak Tsiftelli (Tsiftelli Rhythm Dance in Ousak Mode),” a seriously soulful artifact that brings this 2LP an early highlight.

There are also singers, e.g. the booming Antonios Diamadidis on “Enas Aetos (An Eagle),” possibly with the violin of Semsis behind him, and the less forceful but still poignant Vasilis Vasiliou on “Karagouna, Gianniotiko (Karagouna Dance, Ioannina-style),” and as those nightingale sounds emerge, this time the fiddle is probably Halkias’.

The majority of these jewels were captured in Athens in the ’20s and ’30s, but the musicians hail from diverse areas such as Peloponnese (the peninsula constituting the southernmost part of mainland Greece), Strumica (which is now the Republic of Macedonia), Epirus, Crete, and Thessaly. That some sides were cut in the USA shouldn’t bother those thirsting for authenticity; Tchousi, Damalas & Company’s “Enas Aetos–Tsamiko (An Eagle – Dance) was shellacked in Chicago in ’26, and while King’s mention of hot jazz leanings is on the money, the “old-country” vibe remains strong.

It does contrast with Antonios Sakelarou’s “Kotta Mou (My Chicken),” cut in New York a year later and noticeably more trad in orientation. Also of great interest is the piece lending this treasure chest a name, “Giati Ine Mavra Ta Vouna (Why the Mountains Are Black)” performed in ‘26 by J. Lengas, J. Patsios, and G. Kokotis in the Windy City’s storied Webster Hotel.

Even more interesting is the journey of the tsabouna bagpipes, traveling courtesy of sponge fisherman from the islands of Kalymnos and Symni in the Aegean Sea to Tarpon Springs Florida. After the sponges were heavily killed off (by a red tide not overfishing), Steve Zembellas relocated to Gary, Indiana to run a mail order record company, though his two twin bagpipe tracks with I. Mailles were made in NYC in the ’50s for the Grecophone label.

Described as dance numbers from Kalymnos, they don’t have much (or anything) in common with contempo Western notions of bodily gyration; instead, they’re fascinating examples of abstract drone-friendly wind tangles, and markedly differ from the group assembled by Kyr. Keravnos and Michalis Giasemidis. Including clarinets, violin, accordion, and guitar, “Syrtos Politikos (Dance from Constantinople)” presents a tonally rich but very approachable chronological finale, though for heightened listening purposes King nestles it into the penultimate spot on side two.

A recurring motivation for the music collected here is suffering, put succinctly by King as “Everything Is Loss.” Why the Mountains Are Black proves that rather than despair, the fundamental responses to distress are to simply pick up an instrument and play, and to lift up one’s body and prick up one’s ears and dance.


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