Album Review: Dimitris Mystakidis – Esperanto [Fishbowl, November 2015]

I confess to being a relative newcomer to the Greek folk tradition of rebetiko, but renowned exponent of the style Dimitris Mystakidis’ latest album ‘Esperanto’ serves as a great introduction to these earthy songs, the domain of the urban poor.

Rebetiko arose around the time of the difficult period during which Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire, so themes of war, love and pain predominate. The sixteen tracks on this album are new interpretations of songs that date mostly from the late 1940s to the 1960s  – an altogether different post-war period – when a revival of the genre began. It was at this time that guitarist Manolis Chiotis began to bring gypsy-jazz style guitar accompaniments to the music, rather than the traditional rebetiko instrument, the bouzouki. And it is this style that Mystakidis explores on ‘Esperanto’, bringing the accompaniment to the fore with some virtuosic instrumental passages.

Heard in isolation, Mystakidis’ finger-picking style with its distinct manouche influence would make the music hard to place geographically and temporally were it not for the subject of the songs and the lineup – a veritable ‘who’s who’ of rebetika singers, which places it firmly in Greece. The album features 16 guest vocalists, each performing one song in their own inimitable way. Too many to list here they include Eleni Vitali, Christos Theban and Manolis Pappos.

Some tracks begin with a stylish taksim on guitar (an improvised introduction in free time) reminiscent of oud playing. Others are more straightforward in delivery, but each one is a gem, with titles that translate as The Cigarette Case, Strange Girl, To Save Ourselves and Condemned Squadron.

Despite the strong association to the past, the music has a refreshing, contemporary sound. An influential exponent and teacher of traditional music, Mystakidis has in one clean sweep succeeded in bringing together a wide range of traditional songs with some great exponents of the vocal tradition. His aim to retain and celebrate the identity of rebetiko music whilst producing something fresh is clearly achieved here. ‘Esperanto’ is simple in conception, yet entertaining from beginning to end!