Books and Music

The Trio Bel Canto

The Sound of an Era

If you grew up in a Greek household and are of a certain age, as it's politely put, you likely had a record or two by the Trio Bel Canto. They were certainly on high rotation in my house, and I'm pretty sure my folks had almost every album they ever put out. 

 

They had some personnel changes over the years, but the band I remember consisted of Evangelos Metaxas, Yiannis Papamakariou and Michalis Matheos.

 

I even saw them live when I was about 10 or so, at the auditorium of the Greek church in Somerville, Massachusetts. I remember being utterly star-struck. 

 

A little friend of mine and I hovered nervously nearby when one of the guys - Michalis Matheos, who played bouzouki - was having a break. Commanding all the courage my aggressively awkward and deeply introverted little self could muster, I approached him and asked for his autograph. Not being at all prepared for this level of celebrity interaction, all I could find for the job was a rather flimsy paper plate, which he graciously signed for me. 

 

My mother threaded a thin ribbon through it as a hanger and hung up on our wall at home for many years thereafter, above a bronze Athens tourist-shop statue of Leonidas of Sparta and a small Greek flag.

 

That is the level of star-power and admiration these guys had in the Greek community. 

 

In the 1950s, Greece was falling in love with Latin music, which was cheerfully taking over the world at that time. You can see it in the US in that era with a trend towards mambo, cha-cha and other Latin rhythms. Greece was no different, unexpected as that may seem. (I will have a future post about the curious phenomenon of Latin-style Greek music - keep an eye out for it.)

 

The original Trio of Evangelos Metaxas, Yiannis Papamakariou and Bobby Tsombanakis were youngsters enjoying the latest tunes on the radio. They were influenced by those Latin sounds, adding their own beautiful harmonies. They played their upbeat and pleasing Latin-American/Greek songs and became popular in some of the Athens clubs. Once they gained the notice of Greek producer Giorgios Economidis they were on their way. 

 

The band's line-up changed a bit over the years, but what never changed were their trademark three-part harmonies, led by Evangelios' beautiful tenor. They played the "elafro" style of music - essentially "light" and more Western-style music - in the beginning. This was the fizzy and romantic style of music popular with the Athenian audiences at the time. 

 

But they didn't stop there; they turned their hands to the traditional tunes and grew a new audience of younger, urban people who liked their sophisticated take on the old "demotika", or folk songs. These new audiences responded to the Trio's more elegant bel canto (beautiful song) stamp on these familiar old tunes.

 

They began playing more and bigger Greek clubs, then Near Eastern venues, then eventually made their way over to the United States for several tours, playing the famous Greek New York supper clubs and Greek-American dinner dances. They even played Carnegie Hall, and were on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in May of 1963. 

 

They were wildly popular at home and in the US throughout the 1960s and '70s, but began to decline in the 80s. when Greek music was having something of an identity crisis. They made a bit of a comeback in the 1990s, with Evangelos' son Kyriakos and Nick Mandoukos as the next generation Trio Bel Canto. 

 

You can find a list of their tunes on YouTube here. Some of my favorites are "Petradaki Petradaki", "Mes'tou Vosporou ta Stena", "Aspra Kokkina Kitrina Mbleh", but it's decades of my life's worth of music to sift through (and more!), so trying to pick favorites is a tough call. 

 

So accessible was their sound that even many non-Greeks became fans, just for how beautiful and lively it was. It spoke to both the heart and to the feet (much of it was great dancing music and a fixture of djs at Greek festivals). 

 

The Trio Bel Canto were a rare example of blending strong Greek tradition with a seemingly out-of-left-field approach in an era where that really hadn't been done, and it turned them into legends.

Are you interested in Greek music? Please take a look at our other articles here!

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