Lyricist Nikos Moraitis remembered this aphorism, in his tribute to the singer and songwriter, who passed on Tuesday, after a long illness, at 72 years of age. Tributes flooded Greek social media, in what was proof of the impact that this quiet, whispering voice had on the collective Greek psyche for five decades, ever since she was discovered in Hydra by the legendary radio and record producer Yorgos Papastefanou. It was 1966; Arleta was a timid, introvert Arts student, on a holiday trip to Hydra, artist colony and craddle of artists such as Leonard Cohen. Strumming her guitar, she sang one of Manos Hadjidakis songs, impressing the producer who introduced her to Alekos Patsifas, head of Lyra records. “We have our own Joan Baez”, he said. Arleta herself despised this label. Yet she took her guitar and got to the studio, recording one of the biggest hits of the ‘Neo Kyma’ (new wave) school of singer-songwriters, nurtured by Patsifas. “Mia fora thymamai” (I remember once), penned by Papastefanou and Yannis Spanos – which was covered decades later by Australia’s own post-rockers, Dirty Three – made her a household name. Her performances in her beloved small ‘boite’ venues made her a symbol for this new school of songwriting; and her low-key, whispering singing, made her the undisputed queen of emotional understatement.
Always an introvert, this soft-singing, sweet-voiced, guitar-strumming songstress was narrating the stories of people growing up – and growing old – in Athens in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Her stories took place in Athens, in empty squares where stray dogs roam, in appartments where divorcing couples separate their belongings and in the neighbourhood bars, where locals share stories and meet mysterious saints. She sang songs of all the great composers – Theodorakis, Hadjidakis, Spanos – before making her first fully self-written album, ‘Ena kapelo tragoudia’ (‘A hatful of songs’) in 1981, and then proceeding to collaborate with songwriter Lakis Papadopoulos for a couple of hugely popular albums, ‘Tsai giasemiou’ and ‘Peripou’ (with lyrics mostly written by Marianina Kriezi), which are still essential listening for anyone interested in understanding what real life was like in Athens in the ’80s, what middle-class couples fought about in their two-bedroom appartments. Born and raised in Athens, Argyro-Nicoletta Tsapra lived in Omonia until her teens, then relocated to Exarchia, becoming one of the bohemian neighbourhood institutions.
A very private person, she was never lured by the spotlight, avoiding publicity and exposure as much as she could, preferring to simply communicate through her songs. In 2008, she suffered a stroke, during a concert in Volos. After her recovery, she was urged by her musician friends to return to the stage. Her comeback concerts were a tremendous success, with more than 5000 people flooding a venue of a 1000 seat capacity, to see her walk to the stage with the aid of a cane, strum her guitar and deliver her songs with the same honesty, sentimentality and dry humour as always. She remained true to herself, never conceding to what she sang, how she sang and when she sang, following the path she had paved for herself. She had no disciples, or imitators, being a ‘school’ of her own. For the past couple of months, she was hospitalised in the intensive care of Evangelismos, suffering the combined effect of both a heart attack and a stroke. She was reportedly working on another album with Lakis Papadopoulos and Sunny Baltzi, who was the first to break the sad news on Facebook: “our unique Arleta left a while ago, quietly and tenderly, just the way she had lived”.