Friday, 31 July 2015

Mikis Theodorakis: music and a life of political struggle


Thousands flocked to the Megaron Mousikis, the Music Hall, on the 29th of August to celebrate the 90th birthday of Mikis Theodorakis.

We were early, and yet, the streets around the Megaron were packed. It took us quite a while to get to the garden where the concert was to take place

The garden is made up of a series of 'rooms' so it was impossible to see the whole crowd


which was so tightly packed that we could not see the stage - but the sound was good.

Theodorakis is much more than Greece's favourite composer. He has become a symbol of modern Greece, and the most beloved Greek public figure. His life mirrors the history of Greece in the 20th century and his life-long struggle for freedom, equality and justice epitomises the struggle of the Greek people.

Born on the island of Chios in 1925, he knew from very early on that he was going to become a composer. His political involvement started very early too. He fought during WWII and was captured in Tripoli. He was tortured and when he was set free he joined the partisan army of Greece, EAM, the National Liberation Movement, and took part in the civil war during 1945-49. Arrested, he was exiled on the island of Ikaria in 1947 and was then transferred to the island of Makronisos in 1948 where he was tortured again and barely survived. When he was released he moved to Paris to continue with his studies in music.  He composed continuously.

After Lambrakis, an MP, was murdered, Theodorakis himself became an MP. During this time he wrote the score for Kostas Gavras' film Z, which is about the assassination of Lambrakis.

In 1967 when the junta seized power, Theodorakis founded the underground movement 'Patriotic Front'. He was arrested and held in a prison camp in Oropos. Following an international outcry he was released and exiled once more, abroad this time. His music was banned in Greece but people listened to it nevertheless, and it became an anthem of resistance. Meanwhile, while in exile in Europe, he called for resistance to the military dictatorship and for the restoration of democracy in Greece. Maria Farantouri, one of the artists who performed his songs and who was also in exile, has this to say about that time: 'during the military dictatorship in Greece and just before it, I started singing with Mikis and all of our songs had to do with social justice, peace, solidarity and humanity'.

Immediately after the fall of the junta, Theodorakis returned to Greece as a politician in 1974. At that time his compositional work focussed mainly on numerous large-scale song cycles, including Epitaphios, Epiphania, The Hostage, Zorba the Greek, Romiossini, Songs of the Struggle, March of the Spirit, State of Siege, The Trojan Women,  Axion Esti,

Mauthausen (about the Nazi concentration camp)

and Canto General (poetry by Pablo Neruda).
He has put to music the work of leading poets, such as Odysseas Elytis, Pablo Neruda, Brendan Behan, Federico Garcia Lorca, George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. He has composed the national anthem of Palestine. He has become a symbol of resistance proving that music has no borders. Throughout his life, he has remained true to his principles, has never compromised and has fought during Greece's darkest and most difficult times always hoping for a brighter future. No wonder he is such a loved and respected figure in Greek public life.

Theodorakis has composed over 1000 songs. His repertoire also includes operas, film scores and symphony music. Orestia, Missa Greca, Canto Olympico, Medea, Elektra and Antigone are some examples of his work after the 1970s.
His political involvement has never wavered. The last demonstration he participated in was on February 12, 2012 along with Manolis Glezos, a Syriza MP and the guy who at 19, during the Nazi occupation of Greece, took the swastika down from the Acropolis and raised the Greek flag. 'Glezos was walking, I was in a wheelchair. It was a rally against austerity, which was what pushed us into the present misery. Then the police threw tear gas and I got some in the face because I had stood up to see and I fell back in the wheelchair. Some young people tried to help me and they put a gas mask on my face, but it was too late. My lungs suffered great damage and I had to stay in bed for weeks. I'm not the young Mikis anymore'. He is still suffering from the after effects of that 'encounter' with the chemicals.
Recently, he called on Alexis Tsipras not to follow in the steps of his predecessors and sign another damaging agreement with the creditors. 'Europe is ruled by money. To me it looks like a giant spider and those who are trapped in its web are lost.... The government's predecessors signed everything away. They sold the family silver... Now it's up to Alexis Tsipras to take it back. I hope he won't go in the same direction his predecessors did'.

Yesterday, the day after the concert, Theodorakis and other public figures have signed a letter asking for the third bailout agreement to be reversed in line with the wishes of the Greek people who voted an overwhelming OXI to a new memorandum.

The concert was disappointing. It was bland. The rich political life and activism of the composer, the things that mostly define him, were not mentioned and the singing was mediocre and did absolutely no justice to the richness and complexity of the music. Even though it was good to hear some of the favourites we cringed at how badly they were performed, and in fact, we left before the end.

I will post some of my favourites in the next post, as this post is already too long.

There were celebrations in other parts of Greece too. In Hania, Crete, thousands of people formed a human chain in the area of the Old Harbour and danced to the music of Zorba the Greek. (Image taken from here )

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Street art and graffiti in Exarheia

Exarheia is one of my favourite areas in Athens. It's portrayed as a hotbed of anarchist radicalism by the media, as an area that should be avoided at all costs. It's true that an awful lot of students live here as it's very close to the University the Polytechnic and a large majority of them are anti-establishment and very radicalised - just looking at the posters around the area is testimony to that. A lot of the resistance that Athens has witnessed in the last years has started here. It's here that the school boy Alexis Gregoropoulos was murdered by the police, and this sparked off large demonstrations in the streets of Athens.

Large parts of the area are very run-down, but there are also an awful lot of quiet, residential streets. There is a real sense of community here, of people using the area and living in it - a real medley of people: grungy youth, trendies, old ladies wearing twin-sets and pearls carrying their shopping, older men, newspaper under the arm, walking to their favourite cafeteria for a coffee and a read.

There is a palpable energy, a real buzz, with a mix of people who peacefully co-exist. We like it a lot.

Lots of street art all around that tells the story of this city

The period of the crisis is over... No more lies. Freedom or Death (Freedom or Death was the rallying cry of the Greek war of Independence against the Turks)

Your system is wrong

As a noun, lathos means mistake. As an adjective it means wrong. Except it's misspelt: it should be an omicron rather than omega.

'Lathos' is everywhere, usually just the word, and I have taken it to mean wrong epoch/wrong times. This time, it's a phrase: your system is wrong.

No to subjugation

This is a recurring image throughout the city. And no wonder. In a country where the State launches chemical warfare against its own people, gas masks become a necessary protection in any demonstration.
We (mistakenly, naively?) thought that there would be no more chemical warfare under the new 'left' government. I cannot describe the shock we all felt last week when the Syriza government used tear gas against people who were demonstrating against the new and third bailout programme that has just been accepted.

OXI posters, left overs from before the referendum - lots still around

NO to bailout programmes and post-third bailout agreement, someone has added: What do we do now?



Some compare the present Greek predicament and the imposition of continuous austerity to the labours of Sisyphys who was punished by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating this action forever.


Does this refer to the burning of books, or to the fact that books lighten up our lives?

Wake up by INO


A pity about the red van that was parked in front of this mural that takes up the whole of the ground floor of this house

looking closer, the dedication


On the steps leading to Lykabettus Hill, Asteras 1928, referring to the sports club of Exarheia, founded in 1928. The club has three active sports sections: Men's baskeball, men's football and Women's basketball. The latter team compete in the top division the A1 Ethniki.

The market on the day we visited the area was extremely quiet: very few shoppers, a sign of the times. Our local market is the same - just a fraction of the usual number of people shopping.

This street art that refers to the market.



Monday, 27 July 2015

The art trail - 4

We are in the middle of a heat wave. The first of the summer, I am told. Everything has slowed down and any kind of activity requires great effort. The only viable solution is to go swimming. But I can't. Three weeks ago while we were walking in the woods at Blenheim Palace I got stung by some kind of beetle and the palm of my hand is a sorry and disgusting sight. I am on strong antibiotics and antihistamines but progress is very slow. I have been told I should not go swimming until it clears. So, no swimming. No walking much either, as it's impossible in this heat.

Trips to Athens are therefore a welcome distraction. We walked around Kolonaki on Saturday visiting some of the galleries that we like to go to but it was not a very successful trip as many are closed. Not surprising, given the economic situation - it's a wonder so many have survived.

First stop, the shop of Zoumboulakis Galleries.

The walk-in window had this painting of the Greek flag

Jasper Johns came to mind, but this one is by Teolemas Miltos and has the word Revolution written on one of the blue stripes.

The interior of the shop looked as inviting and interesting as ever

Fire by Manolis Romantzis

a print by Yannis Moralis

No Smoking, by H. Lambert

Across the road is the shop of one of the annexes of the Benaki Museum

and this was our next stop

small ceramic pots by Theodora Horafa

and a large one by the same ceramicist

looking in

this small box is by Horafa as well

A T-shirt of Melina Merkouri's face by Jean-Paul Gaultier

nice bags


'lucky' pomegranates

their art book section is always impressive.

Skoufa Gallery was our next stop. There was a group exhibition. No write-up whatsoever, not even a printed list of artists and prices - we had to ask the gallery assistant about each piece. This was the second gallery where we encountered this and a real sign of the times, when even a printed list of the exhibits is an 'extra' that can't be afforded.

by N. Kontrobrakis

by N. Kontrobrakis

Zoumboulaki Gallery was closed. They are open three days a week, but not on Saturdays (!)  Life goes on, but the signs of austerity in all its forms, are everywhere.