Ask any rebetiko expert about Panagiotis Toundas and they will confirm he has earned his place in the genre’s hall of fame.
Despite his impact as perhaps the most prominent representative of the Smyrna School of rebetiko, few know his name. And yet Toundas is credited for shaping the musical sound of Greece for decades.This month, Melbourne-based band The Philhellenes honour his contribution to rebetiko, through a tribute show hosted at the Kew Court House and supported by the City of Boroondara.
The ensemble features Con Kalamaras (from Melbourne Rebetiko Ensemble) on guitar and tzouras, Mairead Hannan (from Xylouris Ensemble) on violin and voice Greek music fan double bass player Adrian Close and Wayne Simmons (from Polyxeni) on guitar, accordion and banjo.
“We’re going to perform all songs acoustically. The format and the kind of instrumentation that we’re using is the same as played when they first came out,” Kalamaras tells Neos Kosmos and promises an authentic musical flash back to the era where ‘Greek blues’ was born.
A PIONEER SETTING THE FOOTPRINT FOR YEARS TO COME
“Toundas was a very talented musician and exceptional songwriter, but the unique thing about him is that after he came across from Smyrna to Greece he landed a job as a head manager of two of the largest record companies in Greece at the time. He was responsible for what talent they would record. So apart from his own amazing songwriting[…] in a way he changed the landscape of Greek music in the 1930s and that’s an incredible legacy, the fact that someone had this kind of influence on the sound that was coming out in Greece at the time, ” explains Kalamaras pointing out that his 80 – 90 year old songs are still being played by young people in Greece to this day.
Among the well-known singers who performed his songs were Roza Eskenazi, Stelios (Stellakis) Perpiniadis, Rita Abatzi and Kostas Roukounas.
“I think that’s gonna be a surprise and that most of the people will go ‘Oh, I didn’t realise he wrote that’ and that’s the beauty of that kind of tribute concert,” he says.
Despite representing what was then considered an underground music scene, Toundas was nothing but an outcast with his background being instrumental for the legacy he left behind.
Born in Smyrna in 1886, he came from a wealthy family and learned to play the mandolin at a young age. A member of the acclaimed ‘Smyrneiki Estudiantina’, he joined various groups having the opportunity to tour extensively to major centres of the Greek diaspora, such as Egypt.
Following the catastrophe of Smyrna, he settled in Athens.
“He did bring a broader array of music sounds to mainland Greece and that probably comes down to this Eastern influence,” Kalamaras points out.
Initially he worked with other refugee artists and in a couple of years managed to assume the position of art director for record labels Columbia Records and His Master’s Voice, as well as for the local offices of Odeon Records.
It is estimated that between 1924 and 1941 – a year before he died during the period of German occupation – he had recorded around 400 songs, covering a broad repertoire but especially traditional Minor Asia sounds.
REVIVING THE REBETIKO HERITAGE
“Modern music has its roots to that kind of music,” says Kalamaras who believes the recent revival of rebetiko in Greece and even Melbourne is not a passing fashion trend.
“For music to last that long and still be relevant to this day, is a testament to the relevance of its themes. Songs that are 90 years old talking about love, death, family etc are still relevant to this day[…]When you read the lyrics of these songs, every word counts, it’s like poetry and as happens with any good songwriting it has stood the test of time. We’re going to be playing music that my grandfather used to listen to and it’s just exciting, it still sounds fresh to me.”
During the concert tribute to Panagiotis Toundas, there will be snippets of information between the songs, explaining a little bit about each song and the artist, in English of course as the show aims to attract both younger generation Greeks but also members of the broader community, initiating them to the magic of rebetiko.
“We really want the music net to go as far as possible. And it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and still do … taking Greek music outside to non-Greeks … and presenting it in a way that shows people what Greek music sounds and helps us remember where we came from.”
The Philhellenes: The Music of Panagiotis Toundas’ concert will take place at the Kew Court (188 High St, Kew VIC) on Saturday 18 May from 8.00-9.40 pm. For tickets, visit https://bit.ly/2PDFvbU