Christopher King | The Grammy awarded producer talks about his new compilation of Greek Demotic music

Maria-Anna Tanagia

The news on their own are almost touching. The famous record label «Third Man Records», which belongs to «The White Stripes» frontman Jack White, released a collection of previously unreleased recordings of Greek folk songs, among which  «Karagouna», «Golfo» and  other songs familiar to greek ears.

The mastermind behind the compilation «Why The Mountains are Black» is the Grammy-winning music producer, sound engineer and writer Christopher King.  This is not surprising, as these «diamonds» came from his impressive private 78rpm record archive

Quite spontaneously, I decided to email “Third Man Records” in order  to express my surprise and ask, if possible, for an interview with him. I was pretty sure that my email would end up in the junk folder or even worse  remain unanswered. I was wrong. A few hours later I received a reply saying that  Christopher King himself was anxiously awaiting my questions. As you can imagine, I had a lot of them. I was  surprised to meet a man with a strong personality  who speaks with utter respect for a genre of music (and by extension lifestyle) that even we, Greeks, have forgotten.

Maria-Anna Tanagia

I have read the “LA Times” article about your project and I am so curious to know more about this night of the summer of 2014. What do you remember from this night?

I recall vividly that Sasha Frere-Jones, who had ceased to drink alcohol for ten years prior to the visit suddenly wanted to try some of my tsipouro and then to follow it with several glasses of bourbon.  That was a mistake.  The combination of tsipouro, bourbon and then the old music from the 78 caused him to loose control, to become unhinged.  When he left that night, he was so drunk and happy that he walked up the hill to his car and then rolled all the way back down.  This is the power of old demotika and tsipouro.

It seems unbelievable that you know all these folk Greek songs. How did you discover this genre of music?

It was a process.  I have been collecting old Blues and Country 78 rpm discs ever since I was in high school.  This music has been everything to me all my life.  Later, I traveled to Istanbul and on the Asian side, I found and bought a small stack of Epirotiko and Albanian 78s—among these were recordings of the legendary Kitsos Harisiadis.  I became obsessed, fixated, on this very powerful, very hypnotic, very therapeutic music.  In a quest to have more, I started buying as many of these old Epirotic 78s as I could find, mainly through collectors in Athens including my close friend, Elias Barounis.  It was Elias who started to introduce me to other styles of Greek Demotic music.  Eventually I built up a network of friends and collectors that sold or traded me very special examples of demotic music, the very best of which are included on this collection.  However, my special interest, my focus, is on the very early music of Epirus, and in particular the music and musicians from the region of Zagori, near Vitsa.

Do you remember which was the first Greek traditional song that you have ever heard and which was your first thought or feeling?

The very first demotiko recording that I ever heard was one of the 78s I found in Istanbul.  It was Kitsos Harisiadis’ recording of “Mirologi Arvantico” from 1930.  When I heard it I felt as if I had been crucified, purged of every worry in the world, mesmerized, and overcome with sorrow and then bliss.  All of this in three minutes.  I would say that I had a deeply spiritual experience.

When did you decide to make this compilation of your favorite – I imagine – folk songs? What was your motivation?

I wouldn’t say “favorite.” Rather I would say “diverse, instructive, spiritual, and historically important.”  I built the idea for this collection within a year of finding those discs in Istanbul but only about two years ago did I start remastering, organizing, and writing about them.  I would say the motivation is singularly philosophical:  what does this music tell us about humanity’s method of dealing with crisis, uncertainty, life and death?  Also, can this music explain deeply a forgotten notion: does music have a function and, if so, what is that function?  I think it is best explored in music from the rural regions of Greece.

I would like to tell me about the reaction of “Third man records” team when you told them about your project.

Third Man Records was completely enamored with the collection when I presented it to them.  Essentially the collection that you hold in your hands is what I brought them and they almost immediately agreed to issue it.  See, I’ve been having a hard time finding a home for my projects, a label and a group of people that value aesthetics over money, vision over profits, and indeed value the producer as an artist.  These difficult collections are not money-making projects.

I have read that the recordings took place in Greece.

Most of the recordings took place in Greece, in Athens, but several were recorded in New York City and Chicago, Illinois.

If you have to describe this project to someone you know, what would you say about it?

I probably wouldn’t say anything to them.  Rather, I would just have them sit in my record room and I would play them some of my favorite tracks, and then ask them if they could identify where they came from and when they were recorded.  I’ve done this before with music from this collection and most people could not say where they came from or when they were recorded.  This kind of proves my thesis that this music transcends regional and temporal barriers.  It is timeless and it is purely, distinctively human.  Our most valuable cultural asset.

As I see, you chose songs from various regions of Greece. Which were your criteria in order to add them to the compilation?

The criteria is simply that it was a 78 rpm recording of a group or an artist from a distinct region in mainland Greece or one of its islands.  It must be authentic village music, i.e., country music, and not laiko.

Mtns Are Black cover 3-27

What does the title “Why the mountains are Black” mean to you?

The title is taken from a very old mirologi from the Peloponnese and collected by Nikolaos Politis.  It goes:

Why are the mountains black?

Why are they shrouded with misty tears?

Does the wind torture them, or does the wind whip them?

No, it is Charon who passes by with the dead.

Grabbing the children by the hair and the elders by the hand,

He holds the little ones and hangs them around his saddle.

Of course, what this mirologi addresses is the bleak loss of life, what is owed to and collected by Charon, Death.  In 1926 a group from the Peloponnese recorded an instrumental version of this mirologi and it is the second track of the first disc.  To me, it answers why the mountains are black: only through dance and through the communion of village life and its celebrations, are we able to withstand the loss of everything that all life implies.

Macedonian zourna and drum player

In the notes of “Why The Mountains are black” you chose to write the phrase “EVERYTHING IS LOSS”. Why this one? What does this quote mean to you?

It is because many of the songs in this collection including Golfo, Why The Mountains Are Black and the Epirotic-Macedonian Mirologi deal solely with loss, as if everything is loss.  That is ultimately what motivates music and poetry: loss.

You have made an excellent remark, that Greeks, regardless of  what they confront, have always tried to be strong, optimistic and generous.  what should we do now, as we confront one of the most difficult period of all times?

There are no people more generous, strong and positive than the Greeks, particularly the Greeks from the villages, and especially the Greeks from Epirus.  I would say that what Greeks should do is hold together, to look out for their brothers and sisters, their neighbors.  Greeks need to bring themselves together much like they did during World War II to fight the fascists.  A person should not look out only for their own self-interest: they must look out for their neighbors, for the weak, the sick, and the meek.  They should not fight one another and they should not waste time fighting among themselves while other countries take advantage of them.  Here is a parable that is in the book that I am writing about music in Epirus:

The main problem is that many people are only interested in their own agenda, not their neighbors or their brothers, only their own.  It is like watching a group of men fumble with a pistol, dropping their bullets, arguing over the caliber, complaining about who is holding it, only eventually and after a very exhausting time, successfully shooting themselves in the foot over and over again.

Greeks need to come together, stop arguing among themselves and stop shooting themselves in the foot.  Greece is one of the wealthiest nations in terms of resources, people, intelligence, beauty, cultural riches, music and landscape.  Everyone else is just jealous and waiting for them to shoot themselves in the foot again.”

I would like to inform you that the majority of Greek People have forgotten all these precious “demotica” and they have fun with Greek or foreign pop music. These songs could be the “answer” to what we confront?

I know this.  Except for Epirus, particularly Zagori and the villages including Vitsa, mostly all is forgotten, lost.  The old music is particularly powerful in Epirus. There is still excellent “home-soil” music that is deeply felt and deeply played in Epirus, Western Greek Macedonia, parts of Crete and parts of some of the islands.  Therefore I think if Greeks lead the way in rediscovering their musical past, what music originally did for the people of Greece, they can find strength and power to help lead them out of this Dangerous Hour.”

Which is the “target group” of this compilation? I mean, why should a non-Greek hear these songs?

Actually the “target group” is all of humanity.  That is to say that there are deep listeners all throughout the world who have suffered and know when they hear authentic, profound therapeutic music.  They are therefore receptive.

I have read that you have come to Greece for the production of Yiannis Chaldoupis’ record. Would you like to tell me few things about this project?

I have made “field recordings” in Epirus of three different groups, Yiannis Chaldoupis and Moukliomos, Takimi of Epirus and Giorgos Floudas and Vassilis Triantis.  I did this so that I could show the world the strong thread of continuity between the early 20th century 78 rpm discs from Epirus and what is being played in the villages in the 21st century.  I did this out of pride that I have for the strength and longevity of this ancient music but also so that I could understand the music better.  I have been commissioned to write a book on the music of Epirus for the publisher W.W. Norton & Company in the United States and so it also part of being a responsible writer to understand deeply their subject.

Chris swaping records in Ioannina Greece photo courtesy of Steva Stowell-Hardcastle

Photo Credit: Steva Stowell-Hardcastle


Which is your favorite place in Greece or which place would you like to visit?

My favorite place in Greece is my village of Vitsa in Zagori, Epirus.  I belong to the village. I would love to visit Rethymno, Crete and other parts of Crete.

How many records do you have in your collection and how do you choose them?

I have approximately 5.000 78 rpm discs, not vinyl, but old shellac records that would have been played by your grandparents or great grandparents.  The single strand through all of these records is their intense unselfconsciousness, as if the musicians were playing for their villagers or the people in their own community, not for the record executive.

I also read that you are not fan of contemporary music. In your opinion, what is missing  from the new music genres?

You are correct.  I don’t hate contemporary music.  I just feel better when it is not around.  What is sorely absent from modern music is just what I mentioned: a home-made artistry combined with intense unselfconsciousness on the part of the musician.

What are you listening to these days?

I listen to old music pretty much whenever I am in my record room.  Early American Blues or Country, Greek music; especially from Epirus, Albanian music, Polish and Ukrainian string bands, Syrian, Persian and Egyptian music.

Do you have a music “ritual” in your everyday life?

My normal ritual is to have a small glass of tsipouro and then listen to a few 78s for a half an hour or an hour.  After that, I play the violin, guitar or laouto for a half an hour.  Then I write at night for a few hours.”

I read that you prefer “sad” songs to “entertaining” ones.

Unlike a moth, I am attracted to darkness, not light.  I think melancholic music reflects my own inner sadness as how the world has changed.  However, I do have some uplifting music, things that are full of unrestrained joy.  I play those when I feel hope or potential for humanity.

Feature Photo Credit: Andrea Frazzetta

Kudos to Retro (Rock “n” Roll Circus) for the news link which led to this interview