MIKIS THEODORAKIS (1925-2021)
Where in this world would you find a person who’s life work brought together modern Greek poetry, Brendan Behan, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda and embraced film, theatre, symphonies, operas and a life-long commitment to human freedom? Mikis Theodorakis died on September 2nd, 2021 in Athens. To people of a certain generation all over the world, Theodorakis will be remembered for the music he composed for the film Zorba The Greek (1964). There was so much more to Theodorakis, however, in terms of his music, his life, his politics and his passion. As Gail Holst, who played with Theodorakis and wrote a number of books about Greece and its music, said: ‘I don’t think there’s anybody in Greece who hasn’t been touched in some way by Theodorakis…I think he’ll be seen as perhaps the last of the great Greek heroes like Kanatzakis [who wrote the novel Zorba The Greek]…who seemed larger than life in all sorts of ways.’
It was in Greece in 1981 that I first heard of The Road To Rembetika, Gail Holst’s book about the songs and music that were sung in the poor quarters of Smyrna, Istanbul and the ports of Greece in the late 19th.c. The music was compared to American blues and became popular in Greece again from the 1930s right down to present day. Working in Ancient Corinth that summer, a local bouzouki player brought me to the village of Vrahati to meet a younger bouzouki player. This young bouzouki player was passionate about music and literature, and it was he who told me about the rembetika music, which he played. He also told me that Mikis Theodorakis had a house in Vrahati and brought me to the beach in front of Theodorakis’ house a number of times. Theodorakis was a great symbol of resistance to the dictatorship which had ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 and was held in the highest regard by any Greeks I knew. He seemed, in some ways, to be everywhere. I went to the ancient amphitheatre at Epidavros to see a performance of an ancient Greek tragedy and Theodorakis regularly composed music for the plays staged there.
Throughout that summer there was a general election campaign running in Greece, a relatively recent novelty for the country. Even in a little village like Ancient Corinth, there were regular political debates and meetings in the tavernas on the village square, which often became very passionate and inflamed. Theodorakis, who had been part of the Greek resistance during World War Two and had been imprisoned and tortured during the Greek Civil War, was himself running for election with the KKE (Greek Communist Party).
Later that summer, I was leaving Greece to head for Paris and got a lift from an American man. He said that he would leave me to the Yugoslav border if I didn’t mind attending a political festival on the seafront in Thessaloniki with him first. The political festival was organised by the KKE and, at the end of the night, Theodorakis appeared on stage with his band and played a rousing and energetic set of music and song. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing there in the open air surrounded by hundreds of Greeks singing along with Theodorakis, songs which, just a few years previously, had been banned in Greece.
One of the most famous songs in Greece in the last 40 years, an anthem for freedom, is ‘To Gelasto Paidi’, his version of Brendan Behan’s song ‘The Laughing Boy’, about the assassination of Michael Collins during the Irish Civil War. You can hear The Brendan Behan Pig and Whistle Band singing the original version on YouTube. https://youtu.be/Q5VMdqoRl5c
Theodorakis originally created his version of the song as part of a version of Behan’s play, The Hostage in Athens in 1962, sung by Maria Farantouri. When he became involved in the political thriller Z (1969), ‘To Gelasto Paidi’ became a major part of the film score, which also included Behan’s ‘Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week’. Behan’s original version of the latter can be heard at https://youtu.be/yMXywJaZgWQ , Theodorakis’ at https://youtu.be/K0ERaShOXww. The Irish writer Jack Harte wrote an excellent piece about Greece in 2014 and ‘The Laughing Boy/To Gelasto Paidi’’ which includes links to various versions of the song https://fromtheharte.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/the-laughing-boy/
One of the most striking versions of ‘To Gelasto Paidi’ available is that recorded live in October 1974 in a large stadium in Athens, Theodorakis’ first performance in Greece after his exile during the dictatorship, where it was again sung by Maria Farantouri. This version, a clip from the film Z and background to the Irish connection with both can be found at https://damomac.wordpress.com/2021/09/02/who-was-theodorakis-laughing-boy/ On the album Alexia-Mikis Theodorakis in 1998, the Cypriot singer Alexia Vassiliou recorded a version of ‘The Laughing Boy’ preceded by another piece by Behan, ‘On the 18th Day Of November’ with the lyrics in English and the music of Theodorakis https://youtu.be/ML7iNLZqRIY
I revisited Thessaloniki with my family in 2019. Although much has changed along the seafront since 1981, the Greek love for the music of Theodorakis, and their music in general, is as strong as ever. We enjoyed a couple of great nights of music in a little taverna in the market in Thessaloniki and found that, as in 1981, when Greeks find out you are Irish you usually get a very enthusiastic response. Perhaps it’s something to do with that same spirit that brought together the work of Behan and Theodorakis almost sixty years ago.
Greece declared 3 days of official mourning for Theodorakis and he was buried on the island of Crete, where his father is buried, on Thursday, September 9th. His family had originally announced that he would be buried in Vrahati, where he still had his holiday home, but this was subsequently found to be counter to the written wishes of Theodorakis himself. You can read more about Theodorakis on Wikipedia or in Gail Holst’s book Theodorakis: Myth and Politics in Modern Greek Music (1979). Holst has also published I Had Three Lives: Selected Poems of Mikis Theodorakis (2004) and The House With The Scorpions: Selected Poems and Song-Lyrics of Mikis Theodorakis (2020) https://gailholst-warhaft.com/
Musician at taverna, Thessaloniki