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Seeking Marika

Obsessed by the 1918-29 US recordings of Greek singer Marika Papagika, our editor set early ethnic shellac expert Paul Vernon on accumulating all the currently available information on her. One thing led to another… are you sitting comfortably?

Marika Papagika
Marika Papagika
Of the many immigrant groups arriving in America via Ellis Island to begin new lives, the Greek community was one of the more persistent and enduring. The Victor record company’s trade journal The Voice Of Victor had offered its dealers demographic figures in 1915 that showed over 8,000 Greek settlers in New York and almost as many in Chicago, with a further 15,000 scattered throughout other American cities. By the mid-1920s, when the major explosion of ethnic recording was taking place in the USA, the Greek catalogues already boasted over a decade’s worth of comprehensive input. The breeding ground for Greek-American music was often the ‘café Amans’, atmospheric gathering places filled with cultural reassurance, Greek newspapers, home-cooked food, ouzo, strong coffee and, always, music. One of the most popular was a New York-based operation run by the husband and wife team of Kostas and Marika Papagika.

Marika was born on the island of Kos, on 1st September 1890. Her family moved to Egypt, probably settling in Alexandria, when she was a teenager and it was there that she began her singing career, working in cafés catering to the significant resident Greek community. She recorded in about January 1914, for the Gramophone Company, and the records were issued in Egypt for the Greek community. There are nothing more than unsubstantiated rumours that a few examples, in appalling condition, now survive. Nevertheless, it seems that her singing career continued in this environment, and by the time she left Egypt, her talents were probably well-honed.

Marika and Kostas (also known as ‘Gus’) arrived in New York on 22nd April 1915, on board the Themistocles, a ship that had sailed from the Greek port of Piraeus, and by 1923 they were living at 532 Eighth Avenue in New York; by 1925 they had moved to 215 West 34th Street, where they owned and operated their own club. Kostas played the cimbalom and they regularly worked with the violinist Athanasios Makedounas; their repertoire included folk and popular songs, but Marika also became a noted exponent of the Smyrnaic Greek style of the rebetiko tragoudi, the freshly reinvented and garrulous music that had first emerged in Smyrna, and was then tempered by the tragic events of the 1922 Turkish expulsions that transplanted the Greek community into the ramshackle world of Piraeus.

By this time Marika was also an established recording artist, having initially signed with Victor in 1918, and she was one of the first to commit rembetika to wax in the new world. Interestingly, as well as Greek songs, operetta, influences from French café music and an adventurous utilising of unusual combinations of instruments, her repertoire also included a few Turkish songs. One of her 1923 recordings, Çanakkale Içhinde Vurdular Beni (I Was Shot Dead In Chanakkale), is especially fascinating as it chronicles events of the 1914-18 war from a Turkish perspective, and is the oldest recorded performance of what has become a famous Turkish song. This willingness to perform both Turkish and Greek works at a time of strained relations between the two countries points, perhaps, to the immigrant’s differing perspective of events. She saw herself, it seems, at least as much as a product of the crumbling Ottoman Empire as of her culturally Greek background.

fRom fRoots 300, June 2008


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