The father of rebetiko speaks in English

How a Greek musician and a British writer in London took on the impossible task of translating Markos Vamvakaris' autobiography

“I am driven to tell the story of my life. I want to see it written and to read it from beginning to end as if it were someone else’s. I think this will give me some relief from all the sufferings that have filled my heart till it’s ready to burst. So many sorrows that nobody would want in his own life. This story of mine I plan to make known to the world”.

Markos Vamvakaris might not have envisioned this when he started recounting his life story to Angeliki Vellou Keil, during what would be his remaining years on earth, but four decades later, a large step forward has been made in terms of his story becoming known to the world.

Vamvakaris’ autobiography – published shortly after his death in 1972 – has finally been translated and published in English.

The task was Herculean and it took the drive and persistence of a devoted person: Pavlos Melas.

A London-based musician and producer, Melas has been immersed in the universe of the Greek music tradition, both as a scholar and as a performer with his band Kourelou. (The term describes a patchwork type of rug, implying the variety of styles and elements played by the band.) It is in London that he realised the lack of an inclusive bibliography on rebetiko. Although Greek music has been popular since the 1960s, with the success of Manos Hadjidakis’ Never on Sunday and Mikis Theodorakis’ Zorba, it is difficult for people who want to delve into Greek music tradition to do so when they don’t understand “the codes, the language and culture”, as Melas says, explaining that the most important musicology papers on the subject are only published in Greek, with scarce reliable sources in other languages.

“I realised there is a void there, as well as a need for published material that would explain and establish Greek urban folk song,” says Melas. “So I started looking for the right book. I chose Markos Vamvakaris’ autobiography for two reasons. First, because Markos is the leading figure in rebetiko songwriting and second, because it is an autobiography, the book offers an inside look into his life and experience. His story is a clear and inclusive depiction of the circumstances and conditions under which the Greek urban folk song was created. It focuses on the struggle of the Greek musician in order to survive adversity, poverty and war, creating ingenious compositions and popular songs that stand the test of time.”

The book’s cover.

The task at hand was immense. After talks with Vamvakaris’ family and the book’s original editor, Angeliki Vellou-Keil, who lives in the US, Melas created a start-up kind of publishing venture, Greeklines, in order to bring the project to life. But the main obstacle was not the rights, or the logistics of publishing; it was translating Markos’ language to English. The burden fell on the shoulders of Noonie Minogue.

A writer, musician and artist, she is a passionate force of nature, tackling guitar and cello, as well as language, an avid scholar in both fields, who has studied Ancient Greek and Latin and has been in love with rebetiko for more than 30 years.

“I first heard about rebetiko in 1981 when I spent a winter teaching in Naxos, my first job after university,” she remembers. “PASOK had just won a landslide victory and they’d started to play it a lot on the radio, particularly Sotiria Bellou. I heard that voice of hers and thought ‘wow!’. This was also my first immersion in Modern Greek. My Ancient Greek was pretty hot stuff and I soon discovered the way to make people collapse in helpless laughter was to pop out one of those dusty old words from 2,000 years ago. But it helped me to learn Modern Greek faster.”

Noonie Minogue has never stopped learning Greek, reading history, novels and poetry, while her interest in rebetiko was revived when she visited Leros in 2002 and especially, when she became a part of a rebetiko fraternity in London, playing cello with a mixed group of amateur and professional musicians from Greece, Turkey and the UK. It is there that she met Pavlos and the idea of her translating Markos’ words to English was first discussed. Yet nothing had prepared her for the actual work she was to face.

“Markos’ language is very challenging: idiomatic, peppered with pre-war argot and chock full of words that only people belonging to that world fully understood,” she says. “Quite apart from the arcane rebetiko vocabulary, there were technical words to grapple with that took me deep into the world of dockers and cargo ships, all the different ranks of the army, and the vocabulary of butchers: words for the mysterious bits that gloop out when you string up a calf and slash its belly open. When it came to the hashish side of things I found myself doing labelled diagrams of the arghileh [hookah] complete with grommets and air-valves and whatnot. I googled pictures of cannabis plants and the stages by which they’re processed into sticky gum. There were various obsolete weights and measures and obscure episodes of Greek 20th century history, not to mention hundreds of names of little tiny birds or insects that little boys used to catch in the fields of Syros in about 1912 – words which disappeared after the war. You don’t find these in Babiniotis,” she jokes.

“I prepped myself like a method actor trying to get out of my skin and into his. I read the autobiographies of Billie Holiday and B.B. King. I read Carson McCullers and Raymond Chandler. I jotted down words I wouldn’t normally use in a notebook.

Pavlos was goading me all the time to man up, stop being dainty and spit it out like a horny-handed son of toil. So then I peppered up a page with f***ings and more f***ings till he had to rein me back in again. I had to find a voice for this guy so that he could speak directly and convincingly like a man of his time and place, but also as a man for all time, addressing his readers as fellow sinners and brothers. There’s a seriousness about Markos – a gravity that you wouldn’t want to diminish.”

Noonie Minogue, musician, writer and translator of Markos Vamvakaris’ autobiography – and songs – in English.

The book has been received with great acclaim so far, having been featured in media outlets such as the BBC and the Times Literary Supplement; Alex Kapranos, frontman of the indie rock band Franz Ferdinand, has described it as “addictive reading” and user reviews on have been very favourable. Pavlos Melas might want to capitalise on the book’s success, and further establish Greeklines, looking for new ventures. He admits that a film – either documentary or fiction – would not be a far fetched idea.

“We’ve seen so many films being produced about the world and underworld of Sicily and New York. It is time to discover the fascinating world of rebetiko; the migrants, the workers, the policemen, the Nazis, the whores, the slaughterhouses, the hashish dens, the shishas, the bouzouki, Markos and his music.”

As for the significance of Markos Vamvakaris in today’s cultural environment, the publisher is adamant. “Markos Vamvakaris can be a reminder to younger people of the difficulties the older generation has been through, showing them that no ‘crisis’ can be unsurpassed. On the contrary, when there’s a will and courage, things can be overturned and people can excel, like Markos did, changing the musical history of our land.”

Noonie Minogue agrees: “All eyes have been on Greece in the past year or two; first the crisis, now refugees pouring in,” she says. “It’s a difficult time, a time of anger, protest, disenchantment – but also a time of resilience and artistic resourcefulness. Disastrous times often bring an odd exhilaration and reignite the appreciation of cultural heritage – the determination to show that there’s much still to be proud of.

“Markos’ songs have a dogged, defiantly irrepressible joie de vivre that emerged out of even greater hardship. In the old song recordings, the appreciative shouts of the players to each other give off a vibe of spontaneity and fellowship. Quite unique. It’s not hard to understand its appeal right now”.

What might be next, after this major stepping stone? Maybe Markos Vamvakaris’ ultimate dream:
“It won’t be long now before they take bouzouki to the moon,” he says in the book. “You think they won’t take it there? You bet they will! It’s bouzouki. A sacred thing …”

* Markos Vamvakaris: the man and the bouzouki can be purchased through and through