Mikis Theodorakis

From: Robin Denselow, WHEN THE MUSIC'S OVER: The Story of Political Pop, London, 1989, Chapter Four: Goodbye to the Sixties: Brazil, Greece, Britain and the States, pp. 88-92.

In December 1968, when Gilberto Gil was led off to jail in Brazil, Mikis Theodorakis, the most popular and distinguished Greek composer of the twentieth century, had already been locked up for sixteen months by the military regime in Athens. He had perfected what the American and British pop world would probably consider to be a contradiction in terms: a national pop music, a highly commercial style that would blare out from juke-boxes and radios all over Greece, but which could also be considered 'art music', music for concert halls. It was music inspired by Greek fold and pop traditions, but which could be joyful, tragic, wildly emotional and serious, often using lyrics by the country's finest poets. It was also highly political music, that would be used as a symbol of resistance by the left in Greece, for Mikis Theodorakis is also the country's best known Communist politician.

Theodorakis may have been in jail as sixties student protest and pop protest reached a peak in the USA and Britain, but he identified with what was going on (even if he felt he had done it all better himself). In his Artistic Credo he wrote how the 'popular masses' were alienated from classical music, because the symphonic concert and the recital 'had been for decades the exclusive privilege of the bourgeois, the middle class'. What they needed was a form of music 'that would belong to them entirely ... This music – their music – is the popular song. This statement is valid not only for Greece ... but for the whole world. A brilliant example is the triumph of the Anglo-Saxon pop song, as it has been restored by so many pop groups, interpreters and composers, from the Beatles to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan'.

What Theodorakis achieved, as a popular, political songwriter and composer, went far beyond the efforts of most sixties pop.It is true that he was working within a different cultural framework, in a country were, for historical reasons, popular song had come to have far more political importance than it does in the USA or Britain. But his achievement – and the way he was forced to suffer because of what he did – stands, along with the death of Victor Jara in Chile, as the most extreme reminder of how political song can be feared, and how the musician can suffer.

The Theodorakis story starts back in the Second World War, when he became a Communist 'out of patriotism. The only ones who took up arms against the Germans were the Communists. The only revolution I want is democracy.' But he was also aiming at a musical revolution, using pop music as a weapon, just as it had been used to keep the nationalist spirit alive during the four centuries when Greece was dominated by Turkey, before the 1821 Revolution. Along with other composers like Hadjidakis, he turned away from conventional classical styles, and instead looked for inspirations in the songs that could be heard down by the docks of Piraeus, where the sailors, dockers, outcasts, or the unemployed sang of love and despair to the accompaniment of the guitar-like bouzouki. This, in a way, was the natural blues of the East Mediterranean.

With the bouzouki, Theodorakis and his friends hoped to create a new music. They also had to fight their way to freedom. Theodorakis joined the Resistance against the Nazis, and then, in the vicious civil war that followed, he was jailed in Makronissos prison along with other Communist supporters. When he was released, in his early thirties, he left to study in Paris.

Meanwhile, Hadjidakis, who wrote the music for the international film success Never On Sunday, struck the first blow in the 'bouzouki wars', causing wild controversy in Greek artistic circles by trying to make the instrument socially acceptable. Then back came Theodorakis (who would later have an even bigger cinema hit with Zorba the Greek) to launch the style that he said was superior to anything in British or American pop music. With 'Epitaphios' he hadn't just written a song, but a whole song-cycle (predating the rock 'concept albums' of the seventies by over a decade) that was stirring, tragic and used bouzoukis and local dance music. What's more, the lyrics (originally written in 1936) were by one of Greece's finest poets, Yannis Ritsos, and were powerful and highly political. 'The Epitaph' dealt with the lament of a mother for her son, killed during the repression of a strike.

In the summer of 1961, the composer tested the genuine mass popularity of 'Epitaphios', and other new song-cycles, by going on tour around Greece – just as the country was preparing for elections. The Karamanlis Government were deeply suspicious of the Communist Theodorakis and his dangerous music, and the concerts were marked by trouble at the halls (allegedly often caused by agents provocateurs); there was a radio ban on 'Epitaphios'. The public still loved it.

In 1962, he followed up with songs about the civil war, and music for a Greek version of Brendan Behan's play, The Hostage. The following year, this work seemed tragically relevant to Greece, although it deals with political killings in Ireland. Lambrakis, a highly popular member of the Greek Parliament who had campaigned for disarmament and a democratization of education, was assassinated in Thessalonika. The event became the subject of the film Z (which used the music from the Hostage), and led to the collapse of the Karamanlis Government.

Mikis Theodorakis took over from the assassinated hero. He was elected to Parliament to take Lambrakis' place in the new Papandreou Government, and became Chairman of the Lambrakis Youth Organization, working to set up arts projects, libraries and conferences. At the same time he was writing ever more adventurous works, like the epic Axion Esti. Papandreou was removed from office, but Theodorakis kept up the pressure to revolutionize the Greek art world, organizing events like the First Week of Greek Music, which brought crowds of tens of thousands to Athens in the summer of 1966 to hear his passionate, popular and political work.

In April 1967, it all suddenly changed. The army colonels, under George Papadopoulos, seized power and once again Greece was ruled by decree, not by democracy. One of the first measures taken by the new Junta was the banning of Theodorakis' music. It was illegal for the Greek people to sing, whistle, hear, sell or even possess the works of the country's best-loved and most distinguished composer. As for Theodorakis himself, he was hunted down for what was called his 'natural opposition' to the regime.

He was working on an idea for an arts center down near the docks of Piraeus, outside Athens, when the army took over the capital, but by the time they came looking for him, he had escaped. He received a telephone warning, and fled just ahead of the raids in which over 12,000 left-wing politicians, trade union officials and intellectuals were rounded up to be sent to prison and camps. On the run, he founded a resistance movement, the Patriotic Front, and for five months he outwitted the police, until he was finally captured on 21 August.

Theodorakis was taken to the notorious Asfaleia prison in Athens, and then to Averoff prison, right in the city center, and here, miraculously, he continued to compose. The inspiration was a poem, written on a tiny folded piece of paper, which was smuggled to his cell, and which had obviously been written by on of the inmates of the women's prison. She was a political prisoner, twenty years old, and had simply signed the poem 'Marina'. No one knows exactly who she is, but her words became to basis for 'State of Siege'. Theodorakis wrote the melody in his cell, without the use of a musical instrument, banging on the cell bars to invent a rhythm. Four months later, when he was released from jail to be placed under house arrest (a brief period of comparative freedom before further detention), he finished the work on the piano. He sent the vocals himself, and a tape was smuggled out to his supporters in France.

The music of Theodorakis didn't die under the military regime. Its best-known performers, like Maria Farantouri and Antonis Caloyannis, had managed to leave Greece at the time of the coup, and traveled the world, singing and educating audiences about the situation in their country. 'State of Siege' was part of their repertoire, performed at universities or at London's Albert Hall. Back home what they were playing was regarded as both high art and pop music, but outside Greece it was perhaps inevitable, because of the language barrier, the unfamiliar noise of the bouzoukis, and the way the music was promoted, that it attracted the elite, rather than mass support. 'Free Theodorakis' shows in London were championed by classical musicians like guitarist John Williams, rather than pop stars.

Even so, the campaign succeeded. The Junta wasn't brought down until 1974, but in April 1970 Colonel Papadopoulos bowed to European pressure, and allowed Theodorakis to leave. The following year he set out on a world tour, and once democracy was restored to Greece he was re-elected to Parliament. He resigned in 1986 because he felt that'Parliament no longer counts for anything', and he had insufficient power as an MP. At a German poetry festival during the year, he explained his reasons to fellow musician, who says that Theodorakis' action was a protest against Greece refusing to abandon nuclear power after the Chernobyl disaster. His confidant was that very different rebel and survivor from the sixties, Ed Sanders.