1. Mikis Theodorakis
Michail Theodorakis was born in Chios in 1925 and is the giant of Greek music with over 1,000 works to his name. He was a teen living in Tripolis when he heard his first classical symphony, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and this decided him to become a composer.
He leftist political convictions often made him at target for much of his early life. In the Greek Civil War, Theodorakis was arrested and tortured several times. Despite this he continued with his music studies and produced his first symphony while in detention on Maronissos island. It was also during this time he developed his interest in folk music and rebetika and also determined to work for reconciliation after the civil war.
The early 1960s saw the development of a new wave of Greek arts. Theodorakis took a lead in setting Greek poetry to music, a trend that others were to follow.
In 1964 Theodorakis composed the soundtrack for the international movie hit Zorba the Greek and gave Greek music an international profile. His soundtrack for the Costa-Gravras movie Z earned Theodorakis further world prominence.
The junta which grabbed power in 1967, imprisoned Theodorakis for 20 months and it was thanks to an international campaign that he was released in 1970 and exiled to France.
He returned with the restoration of democracy in 1974, and was to serve several terms as a member of parliament for the Greek communist party (KKE). His music has remained prolific and is of the highest quality.
The national institution that is Dionysios Savvopoulos was born in the Thessaloniki in 1944. He went to Athens to study law in 1963 but gave it all up for music. He came to international prominence in 1969 with his hypnotic rendition of Dirlada/Sinefoula – an old sponge diver’s song from Kalymnos. His music represented a fusion of a range Greek music styles with the influences of the burgeoning rock scene of the 1960s and 1970s that included the likes of Frank Zappa, Jethro Tull and Bob Dylan. Savopoulos was vocal in his opposition to the dictatorship and was imprisoned for a period in 1967.
Over the years, Savvopoulos has collaborated with many of the big names of Greek music. He was the musical director for the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Vangelis Papathanasiou was musical prodigy who was born in Agria Volos. His musical talent was apparent at age four and gave the first public performance of his own music just two years.
Vangelis was driven by the need to discover new sounds rather than to develop as a conventional musician or composer. Experimentation was what drove him and this need coincided with the development of electronic musical instruments, such as the synthesizer, which would allow him to do this. In the late 1960s he moved to Paris and formed the progressive Greek rock group Aphrodite’s Child which featured vocalist Demis Roussos who was to find fame in the 1970s.
In 1970, Vangelis took the first steps in the genre that was to make him famous in later years with the production of soundtracks to accompany the works of influential French documentary film maker Frederic Rossif. It was a genre that gave Vangelis the full range for his unique talents.
He founded Nemo Studios in London which was a large sound laboratory and sound-recording facility and gave him the platform to pursue his ideas in sound.
Vangelis continued to make a name himself on film and television soundtracks namely on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and above all, the inspirational soundtrack for Chariots of Fire for which he earned the 1982 Academy Award for Best Original Score.
The association with the Olympics was to continue when in 1999 he was commissioned to write the score for the unveiling of the official emblem of the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The following year he was chosen to be the artistic director for the passing of the Olympic flag in Sydney.
Vangelis has also produced music for ballet and stage plays.
George Dalaras, who was born in Nea Kokinia in 1949, is the son of rebetiko singer Loukas Daralas. He is one of Greek music’s great phenomenons with over 70 albums to his name and 15 million records sold.
His first recording Prosmoni (Expectation) took place on the day the Greek military junta took power in 1967. In 1969 he released his first album, Pou ‘ne ta chronia (Where Are the Years) with many of the songs composed by Stavros Kouyioumoutzis; an association that was to last until the composer’s death in 2005.
In the following year, the release of Na ‘ta ne to ikosi ena (If it was 21) put Dalaras firmly on the road to stardom.
Over the years Dalaras has collaborated with many musicians including Mikis Theodorakis, Kouyioumtzis, Kaldaras,and Manos Loïzos. He is not only a voice but a multi-instrumentalist on guitar, bouzouki, baglamas, tzouras and oudi. He has accompanied international luminaries such as Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucia and has sung with Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Jethro Tull – to name but a few.
He has embraced rebetiko music and brought Smirneiko (from Smyrna) music to the limelight by his his championing of the work of Estoudiantina Neas Ionias an orchestra based in Volos.
5. Nana Mouskouri
She might have just one functioning vocal cord but Nana Mouskouri gained an international following for the purity of her voice. In 1950, at 16 years of age, she joined the Athens Conservetoire to study classical music (opera) for the next eight years. She was not allowed to sit her final exams when the conservatory discovered Mouskouri sang with a friend’s jazz group at night.
She went on to sing jazz in Athens night clubs and released her first record in 1957. Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis was so impressed with her voice that he offered to write songs for her. She gained national prominence when she won the first prize at the first Greek Song Festival in 1959. She gained international recognition singing in German The White Roses of Athens in 1961.
She moved to Paris and in 1962 where she met Quincy Jones the famous Motown producer (and later producer of Michael Jackson’s blockbuster Thriller album). Jones convinced her to go to New York to record the jazz album The Girl from Greece Sings. In the US, she was to sing regularly with Harry Belafonte, a major star of the era. She nearly walked out on him when he asked to her to perform without her black-framed glasses. He relented and Mouskouri and her glasses gained more momentum.
Mouskouri became a spokesperson for UNICEF IN 1993 and was elected as a Greek deputy to the European Parliament from 1994 to 1999.
From 1968 to 1976, she hosted her own television show in Britain and neither multi-lingualism nor her glasses were a barrier to stardom.
Yiannis Chrysomallis is Greek-born composer, pianist, and music producer who is based in the US. His music is a blend of influences ranging from jazz to classical music, rock to world music. Over 16 of his albums have reached number 1 on Billboard’s Top New Age album category. He has performed in 30 countries before five million people and has sold more than 25 million albums – 40 of them have reached gold and platinum status. His music is used on film and television soundtracks.
Yannis music combines electronic synthesizers with full orchestras he incorporates exotic music instruments from around the world and incorporates ethnic sounds in his productions.
The 1990s saw him performing live all over the world including the Taj Mahal in India and the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. His status as a world musician has continued to grow over the years.
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7. Vassilis Karras
Born in Kavala in 1959, Vasillis Karas grew up in Thessaloniki. It was here that he cemented his reputation as singer of Greek Laika (folk songs) at 16. During the 1970s, he built a strong following in Northern Greece. In 1980 he released this first album Alismonites Ores. His best-selling album, Tilefonise Mou, was a collaboration with songwriter Phoebus. The album heralded a new style which blended a more upbeat approach with bouzouki-based music. His fame has taken him to the Greek communities of the diaspora including Australia, the US, Canada and Germany.
8. Christos Dantis
Christos Dantis wrote the music for My Number One sung by Elena Paparizou which won the Eurovision Song Contest 2005 for Greece – its first ever success in the competition. Besides songwriting, Dantis is also a gifted multi-instrumentalist singer and record producer.
He began singing and playing a range of instruments in his early teens. Born in Athens, in 1966, Dantis first professionaly produced song Tell Me More featured in a compilation of Greek artists singing Western-style songs. He began to appear on television and his music gained momentum. In 1990 he released his first album Dahtilika Apotypomata. His next album Aman gained a wider international audience and featured on MTV. He has produced over 20 albums in the course of his career.
9. Eleftheria Arvanitakis
Voted the sixth top-certified female Greek artist since 1960, Eleftheria Arvanitaki has through her multi-faceted work and regular appearances at WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) festivals around the world garnered an international reputation. She has worked with musicians of international repute such as the late Cesaria Evora, Arto Tunçboyacıyan and Ara Dinkjian. Arvanitaki who was born in Pireaus in 1957 but her family originates from Icaria. Her music draws from laiko, rembetiko, jazz and dance as well as influences of other countries in the Mediterranean.
10. Cat Stevens
Yusuf Islam was born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London, the son of a Greek Cyrpiot father and a Swedish mother. Few can claim as varied a life as the former pop star whose music often reflected his spiritual quest ultimately culminating in his conversion to Islam. In 1978 he gave up on his musical career which he resumed in 2006.
As Cat Stevens he first made a name in the music world of the mid-1960s. In 1968 he contracted tuberculosis which forced him out of the limelight and into period of reflection. When he re-emerged in 1970, it was with work that reflected his spiritual yearnings and a call for universal peace and tolerance which struck a chord with audiences.
In 1977, he converted to Islam adopting the name Yusuf Islam. He again retired from music in 1978 to work with community and education organisations and on a number of charities. He resumed his career in 2006. And was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014.