Books and Music
Kostas Roukounas - "Ο Σαμιωτάκης"
("O Samiotakis" - The little guy from Samos)
A rare intersection of my love of Greek music and my obsession with genealogy comes together in the person of Kostas Roukounas, a prolific singer and songwriter of the early and mid-twentieth century.
My maternal great-grandmother, Kalliopi Roukouna Margaroni, was said to have been a beautiful singer, according to my grandmother. The Roukounas line, which family lore says originated on Crete before ending up on the island of Samos in the 1700s, apparently produced more than just her lovely voice.
Kostas was a cousin of Kalliopi's and so a distant cousin of mine.
He was born on Samos in 1903 and was discovered by Smyrna-born composer and record producer Panagiotis Toundas, after Kostas had moved to Athens around 1927. Some of Toundas' other notable discoveries were Rita Abatzi and Roza Eskenazi, both wonderful, sassy examples of female rebetiko singers.
Kostas was sometimes pigeonholed as a rebetiko singer, and he did that style remarkably well, but he was much more versatile than that. His mentor Toundas was from Smyrna in Asia Minor/Turkey, and Samos is just a short hop across the water to the Turkish coast. The Smyrneika style was also something Kostas did beautifully, with a selection of emotional and vocally-difficult manethes among his songs like "Manes Sabah", which is essentially one long maneh. Not everyone's cup of tea, certainly, but he did it well. Other of his Smyrneika songs were of a more upbeat variety.
He also did laika, or popular music, and other traditional styles ranging from the dignified and heavy tsamika to the lilting island nisiotika. He had a supple if somewhat nasally voice - although that's not actually a liability in the styles he sang in - and richly infused his songs with either the mournfulness or mirth the tune called for.
(If the Sample This Song button doesn't appear when you click the link, simply refresh that page.)
You can find tons of his music on YouTube. Apologies for not linking them directly. I'm still unsure of the legality/etiquette of linking to other people's YouTube videos, and I don't need anyone kicking my door down and dragging me off to the pokey (Although my newfound life of crime might inspire a rebetiko song of my own! SILVER LINING!).
While you're on YouTube, do a search for "Κώστας Ρούκουνας - Τά παιδιά τής γειτονιάς σου" for a short interview with him in his later years, as well as a charming rendition of that classic song. He looks like quite a character! I'd have loved to have had the chance to meet this extended family member. The little guy from Samos had a big personality, and a big talent to match.
Kalliopi Roukouna Margaroni
Rebetiko (sometimes spelled rembetiko) music is often referred to as "Greek blues". It was the urban music of the dispossessed refugees from the Asia Minor conflict that had found themselves shoehorned into the slums of Athens and Piraeus, forced there after the involuntary population exchange of the Lausanne Convention in 1923. The style is heavy on the bouzouki and baglama, with lyrics about good times, crime, drinking, drugs and women. Many of the musicians and aficionados were known as mangkes - roughly "tough guys" - who hung out in hashish dens and dive bars called "tekes", who had their own fashion, their own lingo and even their own type of distinctive walk called "Koutsa Koutsa". They were considered counterculture and disreputable, and therefore likely had all the best fun.
Are you interested in Greek music and the fascinating people who make it? Please take a look at the Books & Music section for more articles!