Friday, 18 July 2008

No more (Greek) heroes?

Twenty or so years ago, when I was going through what I grandly term my Greek phase (basically, when the only holidays we could afford were in bare rooms over tavernas, with cold showers and hole-in-the-ground toilets, but which left me with an abiding enthusiasm for Greek history, politics and culture), I was quite keen on the music of Mikis Theodorakis. I don't mean all that commercial Zorba stuff, but his more serious compositions, and especially his settings of the great twentieth-century Greek poets. Having heard some of this music emanating from doorways on remote Aegean islands, I searched high and low back in the UK to find recordings of his work (this was in pre-internet days) and eventually came across a scratched and jumping LP in a little Greek secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road.

The album paired the compositional skills of Theodorakis with the magnificent, keening voice of Maria Farantouri. A particular favourite of mine was Theodorakis' setting of 'Epitaphios', a poem by Yannis Ritsos, a communist and, like Theodorakis, part of the resistance to the neo-fascist regime of the Greek colonels (underwritten, as I mentioned here, by the CIA). I remember asking an adult education colleague who had been born in Greece if she knew where I could find a translation of Ritsos' poems, at which she began to cry. His name brought back memories, she said, of the hopes that had inspired people like her after the defeat of the Nazis, before those hopes were trampled on by the colonels.

What has brought on this bout of Hellenic nostalgia? Over at Engage, David Hirsh has reproduced an interview with Theodorakis that appeared in Ha'aretz in 2004, in which the Greek composer responds to accusations of antisemitism that have been levelled against him. Despite his denials, it's clear that Theodorakis has bought into many of the conspiratorial myths that characterise contemporary antisemitism, and has no qualms about giving voice to the most offensive comparisons between Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and Nazi genocide (which is of a piece with his hysterical labelling of Bush's America as 'fascist'). Can this be the same person who wrote 'Mauthausen'?

What to do when an artist whose work you admire gives voice to political opinions that you find repellent? I've faced a similar dilemma with Jose Saramago, the author of one of my all-time favourite novels, who also made Nazi-Israeli comparisons on a visit to the West Bank. Can you separate the artist from the politics? And does an awareness of their political stance make you listen to their music, or read their books, differently? It's an issue I find myself struggling with more and more - perhaps an indication of how far my own views have changed, but I'd also argue it's a symptom of the extent to which some elements of the left have embraced ideas once associated with the far right.

Anyway: here, out of purely historical interest, is a compilation video of Farantouri performing with Theodorakis in the Sixties, including footage of a concert in Cuba (about which I would once have had fewer qualms, my Greek phase coinciding with my romantic-communist phase):

I'm not the only afficionado of Greek music in this corner of the blogosphere. The Plump has recently posted about rebetika, while Roland included in his seven songs for spring this great performance by Meslina Aslanidou (incidentally, if you're enchanted by the musical and - ahem - visual charms of the accordion player, her name is Zoe Tiganouria and you hear more of her here).


The Plump said...

I had not seen that article before. It is a horror. What strikes me, apart from the acceptance of virtually every anti-Semitic stereotype, is that it is incredibly muddled and confused. This is one of the problems with some, not all, engaged artists.

The source of the much of this more recent prejudice is the Orthodox sympathy with Serb nationalism. It is deeply conservative, despite being associated with the left, and triggers the anti-Americanism that was generated both by the support for the Colonels and Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Anti-Semitism runs deep in Orthodoxy.

I suppose you can comfort yourself with the fact that Wagner is now performed in Israel.

Nice clips though, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I deal with the same concerns re: artists whose politics I disagree with. Also artists who beat or otherwise abused their wives/girlfriends/lovers.

Is the latter more or less loathsome than having f-ed up politics?

Or are they both in the same league?