Talk About Beauties
September 22, 2014 | by Christopher King
The lost recordings of a phantom musician.
The text printed on the label of the Greek 78-rpm disc translated as “Alexis Zoumbas ~ violin, accompanied by young men of the Epirot village of Politsani.” Its significance, and the meaning behind its very existence, stymied all speculation. No one had heard what was etched into these grooves since they’d been pressed—the Greek title for the song was untranslatable, and the recording itself was undocumented, hushed into being for no perceptible reason other than to come into my possession.
A week before this record arrived at my post office, I’d finally untethered myself from Zoumbas and his recorded legacy. After two years of focused inquiry, I’d finished work on Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928, a collection of his recordings. I’d let go. But any comfort I found in that was lost when this disc came into my life.
The 78 rpm record was the dominant medium of auricular permanence and commerce for more than fifty years. These fragile vessels of sound are coveted by collectors who, like myself, have developed a precise yet vaguely sexual phraseology to describe their physical condition. This Zoumbas disc, for instance, was in excellent condition, but with a tight hairline crack and a slightly enlarged spindle hole.
And what of its artist? Alexis Zoumbas was a phantom musician, a violinist. Born in the hinterlands of Epirus, Greece, in 1883, he immigrated to New York City in 1910 and died practically unknown in Detroit in 1946. The myth surrounding his life maintained that he’d fled Greece after murdering his landlord, and that he himself had been gunned down by a jealous lover. Drawn in by his music and intrigued by these stories, I become obsessed with his life. I traveled to his home village, Grammeno, to interview his two surviving nephews, Michalis and Napoleon Zoumbas, both retired musicians in their eighties. In Ioannina, the capitol of Epirus, I unearthed biographical documents; in the U.S. I found immigration and naturalization papers, as well as a draft card and a death certificate. This trail of evidence, dispersed across continents, corrected the narrative of this powerful musician’s life. He did not kill his landlord, and he wasn’t offed by a jilted lady friend—those were apocryphal stories created to elevate his musical status and cultural legacy. Zoumbas had entered into the elite mythical realm reserved for more well-known American prewar musicians like the Delta bluesman Skip James and the Appalachian banjoist “Dock” Boggs, majestic artists surrounded by imaginary rows of corpses, stacked like cordwood, coolly dispatched in their dreams and in the stories told about them.
My fixation with Zoumbas—especially with his bow stroke and what it said about him, about his movement from traditional northern Greek melodies to an idiosyncratic expression of immigrant artistry—sprang from an earlier fixation with instrumental songs from Albania and Epirus. Zoumbas came from a musical tradition where the violin rarely led the entire performance and where the repertoire scarcely varied from one small village to the next. When he moved to New York in 1910, he found he could take this very old body of folk music and imbue it with his own story: his experiences of a strange land and his raw emotions. Zoumbas longed for Epirus, and this longing combined with his virtuosity to produce recordings of unfathomable misery and pathos. His music was colored by the Epirot concept of xenitia—a profound yearning for one’s home soil, and a corresponding ache for the emigrant by those left behind.
Villagers and musicians from Epirus believe that a unique body of melodies, played principally with the clarinet and violin, give psychological healing to all those who listen to them: a harmonic panacea. The two tunes most strongly identified with Epirus are the mirologi and the skaros, both improvised pentatonic instrumentals, with free melody and meter but regionally defined tonal emphases and embellishments. They’re ancient and primal. The mirologi was originally a vocalized funerary lament, sung over the body or next to the grave of the deceased for several years until the earth consumed the flesh; after that, the bones were exhumed, bathed in wine, and placed in the village. Mirologi are found throughout ancient Greek literature, in the epic poems and tragedies. At some point, the keening of mourning women was transformed into an instrumental that’s central to Epirot music and culture. This dark, melismatic piece is played at the beginning and at the end of the traditional feast-dances in Epirus, the paniyeria.
A skaros is a shepherd’s song, as old as the mirologi. The shepherd would play a special skaros with his flute to calm and gather his herd, essentially drawing them together in a hypnotic state. An especially well-crafted skaros, played in Epirus with the clarinet and violin, produces a kind of viscerally felt introspection.
I came to discover Alexis Zoumbas through two old 78 discs, one containing a mirologi and the other a skaros. Upon acquiring his Epirotiko Mirologi, “A Lament for Epirus,” I played it in my record room and a dark vastness opened; I wanted to uncover the instinct that created this music, this expression of despair. While his violin keened and wept, the horsehair on the bow of the contrabass maintained constant contact and dark tension, a tonal anchor. Zoumbas’s mirologi was the sound of a looming asteroid right before it smacks into Earth, ending all life and hope.
* * *
As I unpacked his life and constructed a narrative, Zoumbas had inevitably taken on a corporeal form. The trek to Epirus to gather oral history from his family and village, the dossier of vital documents from the U.S. and Europe, and the shelf containing nearly all of Zoumbas’s twenty-odd instrumental discs seemed to imply closure. But then this record came.
An Albanian American and second-generation Bostonian, Steve John, had been graciously feeding me duplicate 78s from his collection. Three days after I’d finally finished the Zoumbas compilation, Steve called to inform me that he had acquired a stack of Albanian records and a very curious Greek disc, a twelve-inch record on the Me-Re label, established by an Albanian musician, Ajdin Asllan. I had acquired a 1946 catalog of the Mi-Re label a few days earlier and had scarcely thumbed through it. Now, looking up the disc, I shuddered in disbelief: Zoumbas was listed in a catalog the very year he died, sixteen years after his last documented recording. Typical of the time, the listings for the records were misspelled in Greek, so the title of this one was untranslatable. Only when I got the disc in my trembling hands did I realize that someone, probably Asllan, had etched the proper name of the song and the date of recording into the dead wax. It read: “O MENOUSIS (10-2-43).” After washing the disc, I glided the stylus into the groove and the old Greco-Albanian murder ballad echoed forth after having been unheard all these years. Slow, stark, and funereal:
Menousis, Birbilis and Resul-aga
Met at a taverna to eat and drink.
While eating, while drinking, while making merry,
They drifted into talk about beauties.
“A beautiful wife you have, Menous-aga.”
“Where did you see her, how do you know her and mention her?”
“I saw her last evening at the well—she was drawing water
And I gave her my kerchief and she washed it.”
“If you met her and you know her, tell us what she’s wearing.”
“A silver petticoat with golden coin.”
Menousis, drunk, went home and stabbed her to death.
In the morning, sober now, he wept her a lament:
“Rise, my duck, rise, my goose, rise, my blue-eyed one,
Rise and dress, put on your jewelry and join the dance,
That young men may see you and wither,
That I, poor man, may see you and rejoice in you.”
It was dizzying to hold the last disc, the only known copy, of Zoumbas in my hands, but perhaps it was more unnerving that this was barely a Zoumbas recording. The voices of four or five young men from Politsani—a village that’s almost wholly Greek Orthodox and Greek speaking, though it’s located about twenty miles within Albania’s border—dominate the recording. They sing in the iso-polyphonic style of Epirotes and Southern Albanians, in which one or more vocalists deliver the main melodic line while another singer or two add commentary, weaving in and out, creating dissonances and increasing the tension of the narrative. Another one or two people provide a constant drone an octave below the tonic key of the piece: a low, dark center. This tapestry of sound has its roots in Byzantine hymnody and Balkan epic song. Zoumbas’s violin and probably Asllan’s clarinet punctuate each verse, nothing more.
Questions flowed from this record, suggesting narrative detours that I must explore. Why, for instance, did Asllan choose to label and list this disc as a Zoumbas record when Zoumbas was no longer famous in the forties? His music, outside of Epirus, was too old-fashioned, reminiscent of a homeland that few longed for. Perhaps Asllan recorded Zoumbas out of friendship, maybe as a last glorious gesture before the void took everything away but this brittle piece of shellac. Because of rationing for the war, this disc wasn’t pressed until early 1946, implying either that Zoumbas saw and heard it right before he died—on February 7, 1946—or that he never saw it at all. And why had this disc found me? How had something so rare, so fleeting, ended up in my hands at exactly this time?
I’d thought earlier that the collection I produced was a proper lament for Alexis—he had never been mourned, and he died in a state of xenitia, yearning for his home soil. But as I sat alone in my record room, the needle trapped in the dead wax of the run-off groove, I realized that having stitched up a new suit of flesh for this specter meant I’d always have to look after him. In Epirus the dead are always with the living: they see them, they long for them, they care for them.
Lyrics translated by the Greek poet Demetrios Dallas.
Christopher King is an auricular raconteur and sonic archeologist. He produces CD and LP collections of music from old 78s through his studio, Long Gone Sound Productions, in Virginia.