Vamvakaris, Markos

1. Early years

Markos Vamvakaris was born in 1905 at the settlement Skali in Syros, a son of Catholic parents (Domenicos, Elpida). He was the first of their six children. He first came in touch with music trough his family: his father and brothers played the bagpipes, whereas Markos himself played the drum. After his father’s enlistment in 1912 (Balkan Wars), young Markos quit school at the fourth grade of elementary school to work with his mother at the spinning-mill of Deligiannis.

Aged 13, he left as a stowaway for Piraeus in 1917. There, he worked as a stevedore at the port, at the coal factory, at grocery stores, as a shoe-shiner, at spinning-mills, as a paperboy and as a flayer at abattoirs for many years. At the same time, he got in touch with the musical tradition of the refugees from Asia Minor, and Nikos Aivaliotis taught him how to play the bouzouki (1925). As time passed, he embraced the port culture of social marginality. As years passed, he dedicated himself exclusively to playing the bouzouki and singing. Gradually, and always through the refugees, he was introduced to the rebetiko, a kind of music he faithfully served until he died. The rebetiko expressed the difficulties the lower and marginal social groups had adjusting to the new bourgeois reality they were faced with, and their effort to find alternative ways of creating former social networks in this new environment. Thus, the rebetiko also expressed the difficulties Vamvakaris himself faced when he came to Piraeus.

2. Vamvakaris in discography

His first songs were released in the early ’30s, and soon he became a leading man of the rebetiko. He is considered the father of rebetiko songs for two main reasons: he was the first to create a band with bouzouki, and to organize the recording of rebetiko songs. The factory of Columbia Records operated for the first time at Rizoupoli of Nea Ionia, Athens. Vamvakaris broke new ground by playing the bouzouki while singing when recording, a thing unheard of at that time, since the bouzouki was looked down on. Then, he recorded (while playing the bouzouki) the songs "Taxim Seri" (Ταξίμ Σερί) and "Efoumarame ena vrady" (Εφουμάραμε ένα βράδυ).

In 1934-1935, he co-founded the band Tetras, i xakousti tou Pireos (Τετράς, η ξακουστή του Πειραιώς - The Renowned Quartet of Piraeus) with Giorgos Batis, Stratos Pagioumtzis and Anestis Delias, who was replaced by Apostolos Chatzichristos after he died of an overdose of heroin in 1941. He became known playing with them in the coffeehouses and drug dens of Piraeus. He also worked with record companies Odeon-Parlophone and recorded the songs "Charmani" (Χαρμάνη), the "Arap Zeibekiko" (Αράπ Ζεϊμπέκικο), as well as some 30 more songs. In 1934, his "Na 'rchosouna re manga mou" (Να ΄ρχόσουνα ρε μάγκα μου)was the first rebetiko record ever to be released. Vamvakaris as a composer and songwriter introduced more subjects into rebetiko. With his contribution, the rebetiko no longer dealt exclusively with the culture of the lumpen proletariat and the system of values of this particular group; it now also talked about broader contemporary social issues: poverty, social injustice and migration. That is how it became known to a broader social spectrum and was gradually accepted.

Between 1935 and 1940 Vamvakaris wrote many songs, including the famous "Frangosyriani" ("Φραγκοσυριανή", 1937). The rebetiko had already imposed itself as the par excellence popular urban song in Greece. During the German Occupation (1941-1944), Vamvakaris kept writing and singing songs. The most characteristic ones are the "Stis Alvanias ta vouna" (Στης Αλβανίας τα βουνά, Up on the Mountains of Albania), "An fevgoume ston polemo" (Αν φεύγουμε στον πόλεμο) and "Haidari" (Χαϊδάρι) at 1944, also performed later by the singer Giorgos Dalaras.

After the liberation, he was considered by most “outdated”, and he faced major problems getting by. In the late ’50s though, the other great figure of the rebetiko, Vasilis Tsitsanis, released old and new songs of Vamvakaris performed by major Greek artists, such as Grigoris Bithikotsis, Keti Grei or Stratos Dionysiou. He therefore regained his reputation, and was recognized as the major rebetiko artist. A new era of songwriting began for him from 1959 ending with his death. He has written approximately 350-400 songs.

Vamvakaris’s wife was called Evangelia; together they had three sons, Vasilis, Stelios and Domenicos. He died on Syros in 1972.