My diary of the 2003 Hydra Rebetiko Conference.
October 14th to 15th, 2003
I flew to Athens from Luton airport by Easyjet, which is a very fine service. They are unbelievably cheap if you book well in advance. They will sell you a drink, but they don't bother with the strange stuff that the other airlines pretend is food. I have never managed to sleep for more than ten seconds at a time on an aircraft, and this was a night flight. When it arrived in Athens, I liked the new and very clean airport. I chickened out of finding the bus to Piraeus, pretending there would be none at that time of day.
Instead, I took a taxi. the driver didn't want to agree a price, but used the taxi meter, which is honest but not cheap. He stormed along the new roads that were being prepared in time for the Olympics, and I caught a quick glimpse of the stadium. We went through an automatic toll-gate without slowing down, which presumably uses some sort of transponder in the taxi. When we arrived in Piraeus, he was really careful to make sure he took me to the right place to get a Flying Dolphin. It was still dark.
I hung around, and had an iced tea when the first kiosk opened. They said the Dolphin ticket office would open at six-thirty. The girls who operate the ticket office arrived at six-fifteen, saw me, and sold me a ticket anyway. There were a few people begging on the docks, but none of them were particularly insistent. A pack of dogs, mostly with unpleasant looking injuries, stayed just out of range. The Flying Dolphin ticket, one way, was only €16, which is good value.
I met a young man who was going to Hydra "to learn to drive ships". My brain wasn't working terribly well at that time in the morning, so my conversation wasn't as stimulating as it should have been. It turns out the Greek nautical college is on Hydra. Only thirty or so years before, I had gone off to Liverpool to learn the same stuff.
I managed to get a window seat on the Dolphin, on the right, which is the shaded side, and the hydrofoil set off on time. The front cabin is less noisy than the rear one. I sat and watched Greece go past, nodding off from time to time, but never for more than a few seconds, as Flying Dolphins are a lot like aircraft, with the added feature that they bounce when the foils go through waves. I managed to resist the panicky temptation to get off at the first port we stopped at, which was Poros. And forty-five minutes later, we arrived at what was recognisably Hydra.
Hydra looks great, and there really are quite a lot of donkeys waiting at the harbour. I had my case taken to the Hydra Hotel by donkey, and followed it. I regretted deciding not to ride up, the driver did, and there were so many steps I was out of breath by the time we got to the hotel. And that only cost €10.
I had arrived too early, and my room wasn't ready. No problem, I was given a coffee, and sat and chatted with two Austrian ladies. I tried to get a GPS fix with my iPaq, but it wasn't interested. A few weeks later, the battery died, and I replaced it. New batteries for iPaqs cost a fortune...
Once I was settled in, I went for a walk, to find the Melina Mercouri Hall. This picture shows it...
Breakfast in the Hydra Hotel... then down 116 steps, which took me to the bookshop. The lady who was looking after it didn't speak English, but I chose a couple of books, and waited. The shop's owner arrived quite soon, and I bought the books. Then I wandered around the town, buying souvenirs, having coffees, and observing the Japanese tourists who arrived quite suddenly. They rush ashore from the boat, shop and then hit the tavernas. I have not seen anything like this before - the Greek waiters are bowing to the Japanese tourists, and it gets them in to buy food and drink.
First conference session
I wandered along to the Melina Mercouri Hall, and met Hank Bradley and Cathy Whitesides, who were sat outside on the white plastic chairs in the picture above, playing violins and guitar. They didn't know me, but were very friendly. I didn't find out until much later that they are quite famous... unlike me.
Then there was conference registration, at which I met Ed Emery, and got ticket number 6.
There was a very interesting session inside the hall, in which Madelyn Taylor was teaching Greek dances. I joined in because I found I was thinking I would avoid doing so. The dance was the Karsilamas, and I actually managed to learn the basic step, which makes Madelyn something of a miracle worker.
Later, I went for a walk along the coast, with my camera. I found Kondilenia's taverna, which does a very nice lobster spaghetti. Walking back to town, I passed a camera team all set up to video the sunset. It was quite a good one...
When I got back to the Melina Mercouri Hall, it was time for Ed Emery's introduction to the conference, followed by Ruth Margraff and Nicos Brisco with excerpts from their work, inspired by Greek music. I don't know what to say about it. It was very dramatic, but I thought the connection with Rebetiko was maybe a little thin.
After that, we went off and watched the film "Nichtose xoris fengari" (Moonless Night), which I did with a Mythos beer in my hand. An excellent film.
The evening continued at the "To Steki" taverna. I ended up sat opposite Hank and Cathy, next to a Canadian lady whose name I totally forgot. I ate skordhalia, horiatiki and stifadho, and I drank retsina and ouzo. All through the evening, the people who had instruments with them played, providing wonderful entertainment. Being stupid, I had left my Archos MP3 recorder back in the hotel room, and was completely unable to record the great songs and instrumentals I heard. I wandered back at one in the morning, up 182 steps, which seemed somehow easier. The singing was still going on at two, but I got to sleep about then.
Madelyn Taylor gave a talk about Zeibekiko, and I had the Archos running. Then Yannis Zaimakis gave his talk, which was also recorded. I even recorded the people who think that a question is a long rambling statement of their own opinions, mostly nothing to do with the subject.
After that, Maria Kotsiri played and talked about the politiki laouto, and was joined by Cengiz Onural from Istanbul on politiki lyra. The music these two made was incredibly subtle and good. Soon after that, I found that a button on the Archos had got touched somehow, and the whole recording was lost forever. It beggars belief that such a good piece of hardware would have an operating system so bad it just throws files away when you accidentally touch the wrong key.
Later, in the conference room of the Bratsera Hotel, I partially mucked it up again, forgetting to start recording at the beginning of the music. Markos Dragoumis of the Athens Centre for Asia Minor Studies sat at the piano and played his arrangements of several Rebetiko songs. The first few minutes got missed, but I have the rest. Markos said he didn't play the piano. I wish I couldn't play it as well as he does!
Then, just so we didn't get too excited, a sociologist read out a paper about the zeibekiko, in terms of gender studies, using such phrases as "hegemonistic masculinity" to describe guys who danced when they happened to feel like dancing. It would have helped if her voice had not been completely expressionless, possibly.
Onward! Ed Emery talked about Ilias Petropoulos's Les Juifs de Salonica, a bit of history that should not be forgotten. It seems Petropoulos specified that his cremated remains were to be poured down a drain into the sewers of Paris.
Then, as this year's theme was "Women's place in Rebetika" Jason the Karaghiosis performer talked about women in Karaghiosis. There are not that many. The shadow theatre is made or broken by the quality of the voices the performers use, and Jason's voices are incredible. The first one sounded very much like Toshiro Mifune being a samurai warrior. He also told us a wonderfully offensive Greek word for women, which alas I have forgotten.
After that, to a nearby bar for a beer while watching the preliminary version of a film of the two previous conferences. I wonder if it will ever make it to the TV? I hope so.
Back to "To Steki", where I sat with Despina, a London Cypriot, Halvard from Norway, Hank and Cathy, and various other people. This time I recorded the music, though it might not have been quite as good as the previous night's performances. It was pretty good. I enjoyed some starters, some wine, some ouzo, keftedes (meatballs) and ouzo. I told Ed Emery he was a genius, and went back to the hotel at two. Once again, the music was still going when I nodded off.
I wrote in my diary as follows: A question is a short request for further information from the speaker, rather than an opportunity to make a long speech in which one expresses a range of opinions, some of which are in as many as one way related to the topic the speaker worked so hard on. It would be nice if these people would sit on their hands a bit so we could have more real questions or get the next speaker on a little sooner.
Somebody must have made me a bit bitter... or it may have been the hangover. After the first session, which I seem to have made no notes about, I went off to the nearby bakery and bought spanakopita (feta cheese and spinach pie) and a sausage roll. It was good comfort food, and made me feel a whole lot better. The bakery in question is in a street about four feet wide, with a different bakery before it, but he is a really nice guy, and deserves plenty of business, since the things he sells are good too. It's a tragedy I don't remember the name of the bakery, really...
Madelyn Taylor did a workshop on Zeibekiko that I was told was excellent, but I sat outside the hall with my three left feet and talked fairly intelligently to a Greek lady who lived locally, Despina and some Californians, about the Zeibekiko. We came to the conclusion that the Zeibekiko could not be taught, but had to be spontaneously expressed. Meanwhile, curiously, the Californians decided that my name was Brian.
Ali Fuat Aydin and Cenk Guray presented a paper about the role of the woman's voice in Smyrneika. I wasn't greatly thrilled by the paper, but then Ali played his baglama saz to give a demonstration of the differences between men's dances and womens's dances. This was a real treat, and I was glad I had kept the Archos recorder running.
Then Kyriakos Gouventas, who had to be persuaded that he knew enough English not to do his session in Greek, gave a talk about how he learned the violin, and how he learned to play the many different styles he uses. This was extremely interesting, and women had no role in it, not sociologically or any other way. Then, he played the violin. It was incredible, and my recording of it is good. Then Hank Bradley joined in, and they played some astounding duets. It has to be said that while Kyriakos was playing on his own, Hank's jaw kept dropping lower at each new, amazing piece of playing, until I began to think it would drop off.
We then moved to the excellent conference room of the Bratsera Hotel for a paper by Francesco Ganassin and Roberto Tombesi who are members of a group called Calicanto. They then played some music on violin, an accordion with buttons rather than a keyboard, clarinet and occarina. I recorded this session, and it rather surprisingly achieved an even higher decibel rating than any other performance at the conference.
Then I went back to the Hydra Hotel, gasp, gasp, to recharge the Archos's batteries, before finding the Douskos Restaurant (just a bit uphill from the Ippocampos Hotel, which in turn is just uphill from the Bratsera Hotel.) By the time I got to the Douskos, it was utterly packed. I managed to find a seat, next to another Chris. Considering the size of the crowd, the Douskos waiters did remarkably well in distributing the food that the kitchen was miraculously producing. What with the conference crew and the local wedding party, there had to be pushing five hundred people in there. The music began at about ten, with the Karagiosis performance at midnight. That was followed by more music, and by three in the morning the Archos was saying its battery was low. So was mine. Ali Fuat Aydin and Cenk Guray gave up waiting for their turn to play, and I wandered off to bed too.
The first session of the day was Pavlos Melas talking about a computer index of Rebetiko related information that will be part of the Moosootoo web site. Update in 2006: the link to the site appears to be dead.
The next paper was presented by Markos Dragoumis of the Athens Centre for Asia Minor Studies, and concerned the song "Politissa" by Markos Vamvakaris, which was recorded by Parlophone in 1939. The tune for this song appears to have already existed when Vamvakaris wrote it, and we heard four versions of the tune, including a comic song. The questions kept turning into speeches, and at one point somebody said "Ossum!"
I needed a siesta, and took one. Later, I wandered about, thinking I might have dinner in "To Steki" again, but then I noticed the entrance to the Secret Port of Captain Andreas.
I was the only customer, and sat under the lemon tree, and had a Mythos beer. I asked what was good that night, and ended up having bread and tzatziki, followed by the lamb special and a small bean salad. The lamb special was lamb stewed in a delicious tomato sauce, with a vegetable I thought might be squash. After the meal, the cook told me what it was, quince. The food was all excellent, and the whole meal only came to €17. With this sort of restaurant, the menu is often a blackboard...
After my meal, I wandered down to the harbour, had a small ouzo, and met some friends, who suggested moving to To Steki. While I sipped another ouzo, I recorded Hank and Cathy, John and others playing several interesting pieces of music. If I was forced to label it, I would have to call it Gaelic Hilly Billy music...
The next day, I went home.