A Greek-Israeli Romance

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George Dalaras is upset about the socio-economic situation in Greece, discouraged from the new trends in music, and is looking forward to his visit in Israel • Special Interview

Asaf Shlonsky

Posted on: 05/14/2013 01:10 | Updated at: 05/21/2013 10:01


There is no greater worn-out cliché in an interview than the description of the interviewee's: "his eyes looked at me” ... First lesson of the do's and don'ts in the press. But when George Dalaras, one of the greatest Greek singers of all time and a legend both in Greece and in Israel, was asked about his first recollections of us, his eyes really sparkled. There is no other way to describe it.


"It was long before I came to perform in Israel. I was 10 years old then, in the late fifties. I was a very curious boy. I loved to study. I was looking into books and maps for days and listening to my father’s stories. At the time, it was your first years, and my father was telling about the special atmosphere of a re-birth of a nation. About people arriving from around the world, giving Israel a sense of community not found anywhere else."

Dalaras continues with enthusiasm and throughout the interview he talks with his hands, theatrical, illustrating everything. It is important for him to explain, so that we understand him. It seems that he is thirsty to give his sermon to the Israeli public.


"My father used to live at that time in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. He performed also in Jaffa at “Ariana’s” with Aris San. He lived in many places. Istanbul, Beirut, Thessaloniki. And then he came to Israel. As a child I always dreamed to travel around the world. I thought I'd become a sailor or maybe a sportsman or a musician, to travel to different places. My dad always told me how you love Greek music in Israel, how you used to listen to Kazantzidis and other Greek mythological songs. Until today I see how the elder crowd in Israel know all our classics ".


Dalaras performed in Israel since 1987. An unprecedented phenomenon for a foreign artist, certainly when it comes to the dimension of his success here. "That was indeed 26 years ago" he says, "and we are still standing here. So it is a miracle, it's wonderful. A miracle had happened, something wonderful with the Greek music in Israel."


Dalaras should credit his initial success in the Israel, first and foremost to Poliker, whose successful album "My Eyes" 1986 was based largely on Dalaras’ songs and really exposed him to the Israeli public. "When I first came to Israel as a musician, in the eighties, I heard that there is a musician named Yehuda Poliker, who translates my songs and plays them bouzouki. So when I arrived, the door was wide open for me. But there were some more people who played an important role in the success of my music in Israel: Shimon Parnas, Yaakov Gilad who wrote beautiful lyrics, and a Jewish man named Makis Matsas, at the time the head of the Jewish Council of Athens. Later on I had also collaborated with the Israel Philharmonic. "


So far, idyllic. Since in Athens of spring 2013, reality is pressing. Somewhat strange. The interview takes place in the office of Dalaras’ managers, Nelly and Anna (his wife), in the city center, near the American Embassy. Probably one of the most guarded streets in the Greek capital, in an upscale area, where one can ignore for a moment the severe economic crisis. From the window on the first floor of the building, one can see only trees, and nature is a rare sight in Athens.

But half an hour earlier, at the train station near Omonia Square, which is one of the less pleasant areas in the city, one could notice the change that the Greek society is undergoing these days. Four young men hang banners on the light poles in the square, ahead of the May 1st parade, which was expected to be unusually large this year. "I really hope that we will witness the change, since many times we just talk and do nothing" says Dalaras, quite evident on which side of the political spectrum he is.


A young couple walking near them, holding hands. The man asks the woman to take a picture of him. So far, nothing unusual. Then he climbs up a small concrete, standing tightly next to a political poster which I did not understand its meaning and gives the Nazi salute. Looking serious, not a shred of a smile. The woman puts back the smartphone into her bag and the two return to hold hands and walk towards Syntagma Square shopping area. Routine of fanaticism. To Dalaras it is clear where it comes from.


"True, there are many more incidents of racism and fascism in recent years, all over the world," he says. "It is a reaction to the capitalism in the world. The mistakes made here are human. What we are going through here is because of human errors. I do not judge nor naming and blaming, even though there are guilty ones, and he who wants to look for the guilty, will find them. History is not compassionate, it remembers everything. But since human errors led to this situation, it is in our hands, the people, to fix it."



"Yes, absolutely! no way it will not. Our fathers and forefathers, the previous generations, went through much worse than us. We shall survive that’s for sure. Let’s not forget that there are countries undergoing a crisis much harsher and with greater barbaric mentality."


The conversation turns into politics, and Dalaras loses his cool. He speaks firmly, slowly, apparently he has his doctrine in order, he knows what he wants to say. When asked whether the Greeks are capable of working extra ten hours a week to get them out of crisis, he gets a little upset. "Greeks never worked little, it's a myth. Greeks love to work. The democracy which we love to say that it was born here, should be made from those who work and will be happy. That they will have a job and they can carry out their job. In democracy, employees come first then employers. But it should go together for it to work right. He who worked for ten years as an employee and later became an employer, must remember that and not behave badly towards his new employees.


"There must be justice at the top, in order to guard that the relationship between the classes will be correct. And these things that seem so simple, we simply forget them. This is what happens unfortunately in these countries in crisis. Fanaticism of the people, sadness, get grip of the people and disturb them from seeing things as they are. That’s why fanaticism is the enemy of progress."


Dalaras's wife, Anna, was during the crisis a Member of Parliament in the Socialist ruling party "PASOK." Dalaras was and still is a political man, ardent supporter of the party, on which he has been criticized in Greece for his views. Contrary to what happens to artists in most cases in our country, Dalaras does not hide his socio-political views, and is more than willing to explain what he thought of the capitalist establishment.


"Capitalism many times invests in the mess, in the chaos generated. As happened with the mortgage banks in America. I take your money, I'm holding it in my hands. You want money? I give it to you. And then I give you things that you will receive in the future and I even give you permission to give it to someone else. Golden Boys in America, and the banks, they are like those who play craps at the casino, not interested in what happens to the person because of the whole atmosphere of this chaos. When everyone can do what he wants, the culture of the young will also fall victim. "



"This is the name of the game, to consume more than we need. Now society is digital, and we consume a lot. We eat two pounds but we buy a hundred. Such is life, and that’s how factories earn. Clothes, weapons, refrigerators and so on. And of course the (cellular)phones, it's the most expensive product. If you want to call Australia, they will take off the shirt you are wearing. There is a young writer who wrote in recent years a book and its title actually answers the question everyone is asking themselves. What happened, why it happened to us? And the title is: "It's capitalism, stupid."

After years of stability there’s a wave of emigration out of Greece. Young people are looking for work in other European countries and Dalaras points out the vulnerable point: "To be in Greece in the situation today, as in other European countries, is tragic to me. The result is that young people, and rather the qualitative ones, leave. But these crises in the past had the same characteristics of migration. Also you in Israel know it very well. "


"Of course. I have done so in the past and I will continue to do so always. My opinion on music does not fall within the framework of the trend these days, in which people relate to the song only as a cheap entertainment."



When Dalaras talks about cheap entertainment he means the culture of Greek bouzoukia and the new music, which is completely different from the repertoire of his and his old friends.


In the Glyfada area near beach, some of the major bouzoukia clubs of Athens are operating. In Thea club, on Posidonius street, about 2,000 revelers gathered Saturday night at midnight to see Giannis Ploutarxos and Peggy Zina, two of the biggest stars today. Their evening lasted about six hours, until the morning, and included Greek songs of all times and of all the singers. Including Dalaras’ classics. Almost not a single song is sung fully: one couplet, one refrain, and on to the next one. Fast pace, very intensive and the artists try to dance the audience and succeed in it. The lyrics are irrelevant. Familiar to you from another Mediterranean country?

In normal days the bouzoukia ran at least four nights a week. Today one or two are enough. The economic crisis hit also this sector, but the Greek people do not want to give up completely on their music. Dalaras, the representative of the old school, is not happy at all with this culture.


"The Bouzoukia nowadays are places of intoxication, dizziness, rest and fun" he explains. "I am many years in this industry and I can say that the word bouzoukia has negative connotation, especially for musicians and songs. I knew these places during their early days, in better climate, in the seventies, but I quit decisively. I definitely prefer performances in theaters. Old music, old school where the lyrics are based on poetry, while the new music is mundain. The new singers are light-weight. I belong to another generation and that's how I will stay, because that’s where I arrived from. Unfortunately I am one of those who thinks there’s weight to music, except for having fun, drinking and breaking plates."


And that’s the art of changes in contemporary music that sets fire in Dalaras. The more he goes on with the arguments the more it becomes familiar to the Israeli ear. "The music was totally destroyed in recent years. There are many reasons to that. Usually they justify it by saying that the internet is the cause, that people no longer buy CDs. But it goes far beyond it."



"True, but in these various countries they have laws - the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden - that follows those who download music and charge for it in order for the creators to collect their money. In Greece there is no institution that monitors the internet."



"There are fewer performances. But we have to say there's something positive about it. People watch all the time Greek Idol and other reality shows and it creates confusion in one’s head. People believe that this is Greek music while the other Greek music is pushed to the back. Therefore something good will come out. There is just so much at the moment that the one who has really something to offer people will be drawn to hear him. The others will fade away with the years, those who will not be good. "


"They do not infuriate me. Sometimes it's pastime, sometimes it's entertainment. They create a mood and music which arouses the lowest the instincts. I'm not at all angry, I'm sad, I feel sorry for what is happening. These children, young people believe that this is actually life, and this is what awaits them, and they end up with alcohol, doctors and drugs. And what saddens me the most is the bosses of television who organize and tempt these young children and then throw them into the lion’s den. They cannot survive there. Is this the way you show your love to young people? Is this the way you show love to music, that you throw them so fast into the deep water? "



"They throw them into a weightless world, keen on gossip, world that goes crazy to watch other man’s problems in order to forget their own problems."


As Dalaras continues, the similarities to the Israeli cultural discourse only increases. "In recent years there is a strange mentality by manufacturers of discs. It has direct connection with the TV, which is a relatively new media in Greece. Until 1985 we had one channel, and then suddenly there was freedom, and it became 115 channels, and all deteriorated. When the discs producers saw they could create something fast, sell a flower for nothing, they started to finance productions that turned the song into something very cheap, and so the audience stopped taking music seriously. This is a worldwide phenomenon and a bi-product of capitalism. Music is a commercial product because we sell it. If we exaggerate the commercial use of music it will damage the music, but the question is to what extent the musicians and the audience really want that the good song survives. "



"What came first, the chicken or the egg? Both are responsible. The better song will survive and will continue for as long as we want it to continue. As long as they ask for better song, they will get it."



"Certainly! I'll propose to young people to do what their soul longs to do, without breaking the chain which connects them to their past. But the past will not be a burden for them, that they live in continuation to what all the people who were here before them had built. In order to make a better future you must remember that people had also created things before you. You need to restore your city or your country to a better state than that you received it. "



Dalaras is already 65 years old. He lives in Athens with his wife. His only daughter lives and studies in London with her husband and their two children - a toddler, one year old and a baby, one month old These days he is making a joint tour with Glykeria throughout Greece.


"When she (Glykeria) was much younger we worked a lot together," says Dalaras. "I saw her, she was petite but with so much art, technique and emotion. Many years later we decided to do a show dedicated to the composer Apostolos Kaldaras"


On May 29 Dalaras will arrive in Israel, for the umpteenth time, this time for the Méditerranée Festival Ashdod (see box). Because of the unique nature of the festival, the audience will not comprise only of his fans, and that rather pleases Dalaras. "It is interesting to me because I like to see how music works in a social way with different people."


Beyond his acquaintance with Poliker, Dalaras knows some other Israeli artists. "I know Yasmin Levy for many years and like her very much, because of the uniqueness of her voice. Sometimes she performs in Athens and I go to see her. Something is very special in her voice: while it is nasal, it is also very deep and this combination reminds me of some legendary Greek singers. And she also insists on singing in Ladino which I really love. A month ago I also played with Noa, whom I also like very much. From the new Israeli music I know what my friends send me, Parnas and others. I also followed Ofra Haza, with her unique and different voice".



"I was lucky that a lot of my songs are famous. It is very difficult not to include the well-known songs in the performances, no matter where, but I always take into consideration that I perform in Israel. I sing Yad Anuga, Zur Mishelo (ta prota logia /aa), and other songs that I do not sing in Greece".



"The music anywhere in the world, is a strong means for interacting socially. For us the musicians and those who listen to us, we will never share the same vision. The musician will always see what he personally produces as opposed to the audience who receive it. But there are some uniting elements, points that touch magic, and that is universal. Culture and civilization are based upon it. The same with painting, theater and drama. This is what humanity needs. To transcend to higher spheres. Music changes with the years, become more complex and so is the audience. Music is one of the essential needs of the human being. It's not as essential as water or food, but still extremely essential. Without music man cannot live therefore you need to innovate constantly. That’s why musicians have seasons, periods."


Although he is very opinionated regarding politics, you will never get him to utter a word on this subject. In the past he expressed himself in some cases against the policies of Israel, and in Israel they rushed to stigmatize him so now he prefers not to get hurt again. At the time, he summed it up when he said to one of his best friends in the country: "you should never get offended by a friend. I'm your friend, I come here all the time, so I'm allowed to criticize. Not like other artists who only criticize and never come here."


"Because once or twice in the past I suffered disappointing experiences on the subject. It’s a bit of what I say, a bit of (things that get lost in) translation, a bit of different languages, and a bit of a political perspective of each one of us. Israel has a very long history - both peoples have a long history - and each time that both nations, Greece and Israel, stood alongside together, there was a way forward. Every time that there was a quarrel between them, there was no progress. Besides, what's more important for me is that fanaticism will not win the day, but rather the thought and the light. This is my political viewpoint. "

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