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Seeking Marika

1925 press advert
1925 press advert
Immediately after the tragedy, Marika undertook recording of her most overtly pop material. On 18th October 1922, she recorded accompanied by the orchestrations of Nat Shilkret, the Jewish Austrian director of light music at Victor and the composer of Show Boat’s closing number. More flapperish modern material was recorded in 1923 and 1924. From 1925 onward, we see Marika moving away from pop towards the amanes of her days in the Mediterranean as well as more songs about prisons and hashish. Some of the latter category of songs may have been concessions to changing taste (with the rising popularity of recordings by Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abadzi) or experiments in marketing, like the Shilkret session or the seemingly ill-advised incorporation of a xylophone in her 1929 sessions.

That her work has been revived in the context of interest in rembetika and that she has largely been contextualised that way is not a true reading of what she actually did.

Just to reinforce the point about the Turkish-Greek connections in her work, of course many other Greek singers (Koula and Achilles Poulos) sang in Turkish. Makedounas recorded a Turkish-style taxim solo at Papagika’s first Columbia session. The person listed as Gus and Marika’s contact on their Ellis Island documentation, Eftrakias Yassemidis, was from the Dardanelles strait in Turkey. Marika was a pan-Ottoman creature in the US and performed as such.

It seems worth pointing out that during the 1920s, the number of Greek women in the US was about fifteen per hundred Greek men. The image of Marika as a talented, attractive, 30-something, relatively affluent, relatively powerful woman, singing in her club for Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Egyptians and other Mediterranean immigrant men (and probably the occasional Anglo in search of prohibited liquor), gazing at her night after night through ouzo-hazed eyes, is a powerful one. Most of the men were in the USA following the failure of Greece’s cash crop – currants – to raise money, largely for dowries. Approximately half of them returned home to Greece. Of the half that remained, about half of those married picture-brides who were sent by their families in Greece to the US in arranged marriages. So, her live audience included a preponderance of lonely, horny, homesick men who worked incredibly hard.


Ian Nagoski is currently working on a two or three CD set for Dust-To-Digital to be released in about 18 months, which will include at least a disc’s worth of material of the people in Marika Papagika’s immediate personal circle, and other Greek-Turkish singers active in New York in the café scene of which she was such a vital participant. He’s always looking for people with good collections of Greek music from New York in the 1920s. If readers know anyone who might be willing to make copies of some of the songs he needs to hear and potentially loan discs for use on the Dust-To-Digital compilation, contact fRoots and we’ll put you in touch.

fRom fRoots 300, June 2008


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