THE swallow is an appropriate adornment to a musical instrument that was created by Hermes for the patron god of music. I say this because one of the many images that remained with me since watching Crete’s seminal musician, Adonis Psarandonis, perform at the Thornbury Theatre two weeks ago was an etching of a swallow on the belly of his lyre.
The swallow is traditionally associated with the traveller and it is for this reason that it is dear to the Greek migrant heart. Its conical mud and twig home located beneath the eaves of many Greek village homes signifies security for every Greek.
I recall my grandfather lamenting the absence of swallows in the place he migrated to thousands of miles away from his place of birth. According to him, the Australia landscape is far too harsh and remote for the helidoni to venture.
My grandfather spent his twilight years looking out for a helidoni, and found it in the Greek song; as did those who flocked to The Thornbury Theatre on a balmy Melbourne summer’s night to hear Psarandonis perform songs from his home.
You will no doubt find the helidoni dancing to Psarandonis’ songs in Anogeia. It is here, in a village nestled in the upper reaches of Crete’s Mount Psiloritis where the younger brother of the late Nikos Xilouris set out at the age of 13 on a musical journey that took him to festivals all over the world.
Legend has is that the Pharaohs departed to a great island in the midst of the Field of Offerings on which the swallow gods alight; the swallows are the imperishable stars. This great island could well have been the place where travellers come to see Psarandonis perched with his fellow musicians at the mouth of the same cave that served as a refuge for the resistance and became the first place where Christians honoured their cult.
John Rerakis, host of the post concert gathering at his restaurant, The Philhellene, spoke to me of his first encounter with Psarandonis.
It is after the stars begin to fade and the first rays of light appeared across the Mediterranean and alight the tallest mountain on the great Island of Crete when one is able experience Psarandonis’ music in its purity. This, he emphasised, is an out of this world experience.
Although it is not possible to emulate this physical setting in Australia, it is indeed possible to recreate the spirit, as was the case in Mount Bulla where Psarandonis along with a host of bands and Musicians such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Dirty Three, The Saints, James Ulmer Blood, Spiritualised and my recent favourite, The Fuck Buttons, entertained three thousand rock pilgrims.
Warren Ellis, the musician responsible for introducing Psarandonis to Australians, also describes him as a man from another world; a world in which Apollo first strummed his golden lyre to create a sound that is ancient as the human spirit.
On the night of the Thornbury Theatre performance, Psarandonis resembled an aesthete from the Byzantium era. This indeed is how he appeared to me as he placed his forefinger to his lips in request for silence.
The audience were soon lulled by his mesmerising melodies; the sound that one hears when the gods call. The delicate and sober tunes soon switched to an uplifting tempo driven by Psarandonis’ frenzied bow work that animated an audience that seemed to be in need of spiritual nourishment.
Early in the performance, an audible crack that could very well have been directed by Poseidon himself echoed throughout the auditorium, bringing proceedings to a brief halt.
A moment of silence, a wry smile, and the replacement of his broken-bridged lyre with the instrument that carried the swallow on its belly ensured that the music we had come to hear was to soar high above us.
The group of lovely ladies seated in the upper level of the auditorium were slightly irritated by their inability to decipher the lyrics. But as Psarandonis explained to me at the end of the night, it is the spirit – the pnevma – that animates the soul. Lyrics are not as important as the music, as the many non-Greek speaking fans who became acquainted with Psarandonis’ music at the All Tomorrow’s Party music Festival would attest.
The predominantly Greek audience at the Thornbury Theatre were however moved by a rendition of a song that is usually associated with Mikis Theodorakis: Pote tha kanei ksasteria.
This revolutionary song conjured images of resistant fighters nestled amid the mountainous Greek terrain uniting in solidarity to ward off threats to freedom with their bare knuckles, rifles, music and dance.
Watching George Xylouris (Psarandonis’ son) and Paddy Montgomery accompany the maestro on laouto, as well as the much younger Melbourne born Rory Hannan keeping good time on the hand drum (bedir) confirmed that the Apollonian spirit would indeed survive at least the next generation of music aficionados.
A notable aspect of the performance related to how the musicians caressed, stroked and embraced their musical instrument. It appeared as if they were channelling a spirit that resided in the timber in which these instruments were crafted from. I was particularly struck by the way Psarandonis held his lyre close to his heart, pressing its neck to his lips as though kissing a sacred icon.
The audience eventually made their way to the dance space to participate in what resembled a pagan frolic. By midnight a couple of mates and myself responded to John Rerakis’ philoxenia by joining the troubadours and their friends at his restaurant to continue the Dionysian celebration over food, wine and music.
By the end of a long night, Psarandonis spoke of his flight to Sydney to participate in the Sydney leg of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island (named after Australia’s screeching version of the helidoni).
The muse that inspires artists to spread their art to all corners of the world is like the migratory bird; it does not recognise national borders or cultural divisions. Psarandonis’ appearance at Mount Bulla, Cockatoo Island and The Thornbury Theatre proves that the Apollonian spirit is alive and well not only in Australia, but in regions of the globe where the helidoni appears in the form of a song.