Stathis Koukoularis is considered and is one of the greatest violinists in Greek folk music and especially in the Aegean Sea. Born in 1945 in Kynidaros of Naxos, he has had a very important career in music and has a large body of work in his discography, which lists about 5 thousand songs. He started playing the violin at the age of 13 and when he moved to Athens shortly afterward, he studied at the Athens Conservatory with teachers Joseph and Helen Bustidoui, from Spain. In 1968 he traveled to Australia, where he remained with his family until 1976. Earlier, he was a key collaborator of Simon Karras in his radio broadcasts and of Anna Karambesini in her discography. He collaborated with most of the island singers and recorded three personal albums: “History of Greek Music: violin”, “From Asia Minor to the Aegean” and “My island will be remembered”.
His early years in folk music
I started playing the violin professionally at the age of 13, in Kynidaros, Naxos, where my family comes from. The Konitopouli were cousins with my mother. George Konitopoulos’ father, Michalis (“Baby”) was my mother’s first cousin and our grandparents were brothers, however, apart from this kinship, I have no musical roots from anywhere else. I started playing the violin when Stamatis Bardanis from Apeiranthos of Naxos first taught me. That’s where I first started when he showed me three or four pieces. Politika, Artemonas, Amorgiano and Balo. But then I was forced to come to Athens and I continued on my own because at that time he was asking me 300 drachmas per piece when the daily wage was only 20 drachmas. And I was a kid, 13 years old. My father gave me an allowance. So I learned these three or four pieces and because I understood the maqam a.k.a the tunes and I started playing with what I had in my head. I didn’t go to the panigiria yet, but I participated in everything that was going on in the village. At that time the “names” were the Konitopouli and some of their nephews, the “God’s kids”. The nickname came from Michael Konitopoulos’ brother, Kostas. Once he and a friend of his were drunk and he said to him “I will be God and you will be the devil…”. That’s how he got the nickname “God’s kids” and the nickname for his children “Theodakia”. He had three sons, all three of them musicians. George, Leonidas, and Jacob, played the lute. The other two played the violin. So they were the ones who were in the village at the time. Konitopoulos and some others who were not at the same level.
The old panigiria (festivals) in Naxos
Our festivals were held whenever there was a celebration or a wedding. Originally the band was two people. I made most of the musicians famous. I would get another singer or if there was another instrument. In those days business was tough and you didn’t go out with just one organ “banging” all night by itself. It was very tiring. So there was a need for extra musicians. People were very involved, as they had nowhere else to go. There was no TV or radio for their entertainment. There was a bigger turnout than nowadays. People went to the panigiri even if they had to make a two-hour walk. From village to village. The panigyria started late in the afternoon, as soon as the sun went down, and went on until the early hours of the morning. Singers were then the ones who played the lute, there were no individual singers. Now things have changed. One of the best singers at that time in our villages in Naxos was the so-called “Pepos”. I didn’t meet him, but the older people acknowledged him as the best singer on the island. Those old ones were played by everyone. Thermiotiko, Artemonas, Balo, Sylivrian, Amorgiano, Yalitissa, and others depend on the classic traditional repertoire. Sometimes they even brought in some “foreign” music. That is if something came out that was played all over Greece. For example, songs by Papassideris or Rosa (ed. Eskenazy), would bring some of them.
The Greek folk music
When we are talking about the folk song, the clarinet is at the forefront, but when it is about the island song, it is the violin. Depending on the genre. There are also parts in mainland songs where the violin has the leading role, as in the songs of the Sarakatsani. I’ve worked with all of them. I learned the mainland songs by ear, as they were passed from one to another. I had to be familiar with a large repertoire. In fact, now I can say that the demands are greater because people have learned differently, with television and radio. Back then you very rarely needed to play a zeibeck at a panigiri, for example. Now it’s almost necessary. You’ll even play an hour of the popular program. I don’t think the folk song has been altered by that. Songs are altered by ignorant people who go out to work and misrepresent them. You can now go to places and hear a song in different versions. Back then, because there were no audio recorders, somebody else got it this way or that way, with additions. On every island, you might hear a different version. You’d never find the same one. The reason is that you could only steal by ear. That’s why there was a difference.
The following text is an excerpt from an interview given by Stathis Koukoularis to Sotiris Bekas, for the magazine “Oasis”. The interview was edited by Marianna Papaki.