Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Doing The Rounds: Part One #11

The cover star of Artful, pictured curled up at some well-stocked bookshelves, is Aliki Vougiouklaki, a very popular Greek actress and singer. She features in the book too, in a lovely passage where the dead lover leaves a message behind saying: “I wasn't really working, and I was suddenly unbelievably embarrassed in case you found out I wasn't, and even worse, that instead of working I was trawling the net for things you'd love." What a lovely series of thoughts. Basically, instead of listening to a piano sonata, the dear departed had been on YouTube, watching clips of Aliki, cheerfully wasting time as we have all done so often when we should be working.
In her Desert Island Discs appearance Ali explains how in 2009, when her dad died, she would sit in the middle of the night, trying to find a way out of the darkness, watching disjointed clips from old Greek musicals (“Who knew?” said Ali) on YouTube. She chose Aliki singing ‘To Feggaraki’, as one of her desert island choices, and described Aliki as being a great figure on a par with Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren.
Look up Aliki singing the song on YouTube and, while you may be at risk of disappearing down a rabbit hole, there is no escape from being enchanted by Aliki hoofing gamely, in the 1964 film it appears in, sending herself up something rotten, a little Clare Groganesque in that sense. And it is easy to see how the funny, subversive, playful, beautiful Aliki might be one of Ali’s key blondes, like Dusty, Sylvie, Pauline Boty.
Is ‘To Feggaraki’ that good? Good enough to take to a desert island? Oh, very much so. And there is so much treasure in the Greek vintage pop world, which became very apparent when, in 2010, disappearing down that very rabbit hole, losing hours at home watching clips of old Greek musicals, and tracking connections, via the vagaries of Googled translations and YouTube algorithms.
This was around the time of the Greek debt crisis and the on/off EU bail-out, Athens riots, and anger about the European Union’s bullying. All of which added a certain spice to the explorations of Greece’s musical past. Although oddly Aliki was not among the many clips closely studied here. But it has been fun catching up.
A personal obsession was, and is, clips of songs where they were always being sung in a tavern by a preoccupied lady, lost in the songs’ exquisite sadness, like a great jazz torch or fado singer, while at the tables around the bar the tense conversations stop, meaningful glances are exchanged between protagonists, or someone walks in, freezes at seeing who is sitting there listening to the music, stays hovering in the doorway, distracted by the tragic nature of the song, the tragoudia, the musicians are absorbed entirely in what they are doing, smoke from forgotten cigarettes drifts, drinks are left untouched, time stands still. Shorn of context from the original films, these clips tell all sorts of stories of their own.
Look up Tzenh Banoy, or Jenny Vanou, for the permutations of spelling of Greek in translation are trickily inconsistent, for film of her singing in old films from the early 1960s. And then step on to Tzenh singing her 1961 single ‘An s'arnitho agapi mou’, an absolute obsession here, with its the fingersnappin’, walking bass, jazzy piano, and scatting interludes, a little like Peggy Lee attempting an accelerated ‘Fever’.
Some of those Tzenh Banoy recordings are wonderfully emotional and dramatic, rather in the spirit of what Timi Yuro was doing in the US concurrently, or the Italian singer Mina (whose original of ‘Se telefonado ...’ with the Morricone connection is a glorious thing, with its connections on to Fran├žoise Hardy and Subway Sect), and later Dusty who had an Italian link with ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’. Tzenh as the 1960s progressed turned into a striking beehived blonde, somewhere between Dusty and Monica Vitti who is a ghostly presence, it seems, throughout the modern half of How To Be Both.
The title of the Aliki song Ali chose, ‘To Feggaraki’, seemed familiar somehow, and that is because of a (not the same) song from a very early Nana Mouskouri collection of (her very early patron) Manos Hadjidakis songs which is played an awful lot here, alongside her 1965 collaboration with the arranger and producer Bobby Scott. This, the way Nana sings it, is a mournful ballad, which is known as ‘Hartino To Feggaraki’ which translates as ‘The Paper Moon’. 
It is one of the earliest collaborations between the great Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis and his close friend and lyricist, the poet Nikos Gatsos (whose role in Greek pop is somewhat similar to Vinicius De Moraes in Braziliian bossa nova and beyond). It is a different sort of song to the perky one Aliki sang, though Manos and Nikos did compose for Aliki, notably for the 1963 film Aliki, My Love which was the first film she made for an English-speaking audience, with co-stars including Jess Conrad and William Hyde-White, and some glorious gratuitous near nudity of the sort that so obsessed Michael Owen in Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! 


  1. Choosing a random instalment of this new series to thank you for the welcome stimulus. Might start working on that "Daydream Nation: what it means to the world and me" essay that's sleeping on my hard drive...