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Seeking Marika

David Soffa believes that Marika Papagika (and singer Koula Antonopoulos) toured an existing circuit of cafés in the Eastern Mediterranean in the late Ottoman period – Pireaus, Athens, Smyrna, Constantinople, Cairo, Alexandria. If so, then that’s what she was doing in Alexandria when she was recorded by HMV. He also feels that Marika (and Koula) were recruited by the record companies. It is possible that Hugh Murtagh (the engineer at the session) convinced her (or suggested to her) to move to America to capitalise on the burgeoning Greek music market. If that’s true, it doesn’t explain why she didn’t record a test for Victor until late 1918, although she arrived in 1915. It’s also a mystery that on her Ellis Island documentation, it says that she and Kostas were headed to Chicago to see their friend Eftrakios Yassimides.

Violinist Makedounas (born ca 1878 of Kastraki, Thessalia) had recorded two or three dozen pieces in 1916-17 with Koula Antonopoulos, a singer very much in Marika’s style. In 1917, he also had recorded solo, probably at one of Koula’s sessions, but he apparently worked sporadically with Marika (rather than with her competitor Koula or her circle) from 1919 until 1928. He travelled to Chicago in 1927 where he recorded with the singers Epamenondas Asimakopoulos and Maria Bakoska.

The equally awesome violinist Alexis Zoumbas began recording with Marika and Gus in 1923 and recorded regularly with them until at least 1928. He recorded two solo sessions in the late 1920s.

Cellist Markos Sifneos (of Pharos, Greece, born 1878) performed with Papagika on at least 24 separate recording sessions (likely more) from her first Victor session through to 1928. Apart from Gus, he is the single most consistent musician to have recorded with Papagika. He is also apparently the only cellist, or one of exceedingly few, to have recorded Greek music before the Second World War, and with the exception of one 1927 instrumental session for Okeh which shows off his remarkable gifts as an arranger, he never recorded with anyone but the Papagikas. His remarkable performances and interplay with the violinists and clarinettists and the sheer oddity of his lower-than-normal (for Greek music) instrument are a big part of what makes Marika’s records so special-sounding.

Corinthian clarinettist Nicolas Relias (born ca 1888) recorded between seven and ten separate sessions with Marika between 1922 and 1925. He also recorded with Marika’s friend Amalia Bakas in the 1920s.

I think it may not be useful to describe Marika as a rembetika singer. The style is popular and it’s a reasonable point of reference, and she did record rembetika material, but it’s a small part of the picture and doesn’t particularly serve to help someone understand who she was or what she did. Before 1922, her songs are pretty evenly divided into two main subject-headings: heartbreak and patriotism for Greece. These are songs from Greek folklore and the late-Ottoman cafés. The tragedy of September 1922 in Smyrna seems to have marked, not just for Marika but for many Greeks in America, a loss of innocence or change in attitude towards both Greece and the West.

fRom fRoots 300, June 2008


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