Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Maria Farantouri, the voice of
Greek conscience, reaches 70

Maria Farantouri, the voice of Greek conscience, was born 70 years ago on 28 November 2017

Patrick Comerford

The Greek singer and political and cultural activist Maria Farantouri (Μαρία Φαραντούρη) turns 70 today (28 November 2017). I have built up a modest collection of her work over many years, buying her CDs in Crete and Athens, and her influence on Greek political and social activism is immeasurable, perhaps comparable only with the composer Mikis Theodorakis, and the two have collaborated closely throughout her career.

Her voice is a deep contralto with about an octave and a half range, and is immediately recognisable to every Greek, stirring deep emotional reactions. The international press has called her a people’s Callas (The Daily Telegraph), and the Joan Baez of the Mediterranean (Le Monde). The Guardian said her voice was a gift from the gods of Olympus.

She has worked with prominent Greek composers such as Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis with the Australian guitarist John Williams, she has recorded in Greek, English, Italian and Spanish, and she has recorded poems and works by international writers from Brendan Behan to Federico García Lorca.

In their collaboration, Maria Farantouri and Mikis Theodorakis have radically transformed modern Greek music and have made Greek people familiar with the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning poets George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis and many other Greek poets.

The Irish journalist Damian Mac Con Uladh, who lives in Greece, and the Irish diplomat Patrick Sammon have painstakingly researched the story of her recording of Το Γελαστό παιδί, Mikis Theodorakis’s interpretation of Brendan Behan’s poem, with Greek lyrics translated by Vasilis Rotas for a Greek setting of the play The Hostage.

The song featured in Costas Garvas’s movie Z (1969) and became one of the emotional anthems in the resistance to the colonels’ junta in 1967-1974.

Maria Farantouri was born in Athens on 28 November 1947, when Greece was recovering in the aftermath of of World War II, and her childhood was full of hardship. Her father was from Kefalonia, and her mother from Kythira, living in the working-class suburb of Nea Ionia, which had been settled in the 1920s by refugees from Asia Minor.

At the age of two, Maria was struck by the polio epidemic sweeping across Europe, and was she was separated from her parents while she was quarantined in a children’s hospital. Her creative career began in her teens when she took part in the choir of the Society of Friends of Greek Music. She was soon recognised for her rich contralto voice, and became a soloist.

She was 15 and singing with the choir in 1963 when Mikis Theodorakis heard her singing his song Grief. He was deeply impressed, met her backstage, and asked: ‘Do you know that you were born to sing my songs?’

‘I know,’ was her immediate response.

During her school summer holiday, Maria became a member of Theodorakis’s ensemble, which included Grigoris Bithikotsis, Dora Yiannakopoulou and Soula Birbili.

Soon, she was singing at important political and social events. Theodorakis’s new work The Hostage was performed at every peace demonstration, and with her militant young voice, Maria made his Greek version of Brendan Behan’s song The Laughing Boy known throughout Greece.



Around this time, Theodorakis composed the first work he had written for her voice, The Ballad of Mauthausen (Η Μπαλάντα του Μαουτχάουζεν), a cantata based on the writings of the Greek playwright Iakovos Kambanellis (1922-2011).

This cantata would become identified with her voice throughout the world. The best-known song of all, Άσμα Ασμάτων (Asma Asmaton, ‘Song of Songs’), which opens hauntingly with the words:

Τι ωραία που είν’ η αγάπη μου
με το καθημερνό της φόρεμα
κι ένα χτενάκι στα μαλλιά.
Κανείς δεν ήξερε πως είναι τόσο ωραία.


‘My love, how beautiful she is in her everyday dress.’

That year, Maria also recorded a song by Spyros Papas and Yiannis Argyris, Someone is Celebrating, accompanied by Lakis Papas. In 1966, the soundtrack of Harilaos Papadopoulos’s movie Island of Aphrodite was released with music by Theodorakis. This included Maria’s first recording of Theodorakis, Blood-stained Moon, a setting of a poem by Nikos Gatsos.

Theodorakis wrote six more songs for her voice, naming them Farandouri’s Cycle in a tribute to the young artist who would become his major interpreter. Although he has written many other songs for male and female voices, she remains the only artist to whom he has dedicated a song cycle.

She toured Greece and abroad as a member of Theodorakis’s ensemble, and visited the Soviet Union in 1966.

In the military coup in 1967, the colonels’ junta to power in Greece, and the new regime banned Theodorakis’s music. He went underground, and during his four months on the run sent a short message to Maria on chewing-gum wrapping paper advising her to flee Greece.

She was just 20 when she went into exile in Paris. There she started singing in concerts, with the takings going to movements working to overthrow the colonels. She became a symbol of resistance and hope, and also took an active part in the women’s movement, in ecological activism and the struggle against drugs.



While the colonels remained in power (1967-1974), Maria worked throughout Europe, recording protest songs with Mikis Theodorakis, who wrote the score for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General.

In 1971, she recorded Songs and Guitar Pieces by Theodorakis with the Australian guitarist John Williams, which included seven poems by Federico García Lorca. Since then, she has recorded songs in Spanish (Hasta Siempre Comandante Che Guevara), Italian and English (Joe Hill and Elisabeth Hauptmann’s Alabama Song, from Bertolt Brecht’s political-satirical opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, as well as works by Greek composers.

Her recording and concerts in Europe and America, broadcast by the BBC and Deutsche Welle, kept alive the music of Theodorakis. The composer was in internal exile in the remote mountain village of Zatouna, and he secretly supplied her with tapes of his new songs which he recorded crudely on a small tape-recorder. They were then smuggled to her, and she organised musical arrangements for his songs, playing them on the piano and singing them himself.

These included State of Siege, his setting of a poem by a woman prisoner, broadcast from London’s Roundhouse. In this concert, Maria was supported by Greek artists such as Minos Volanakis, and actors from the musical Hair, who rushed from their show during an interval to support her. Sir John Gielgud, Alan Bates and Peggy Ashcroft also supported a later concert by Maria at the Albert Hall.

She met Tilemachos Chytiris, a poet from Corfu and a student of philosophy at Florence, while she was giving a concert at the invitation of Greek students.

In 1970, international artists and writers intervened on behalf of Theodorakis, whose health had deteriorated. With the support of the French politician Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber he too went into exile in Paris. When his health began to recover, Theodorakis began his tours of Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East, with Maria playing a leading part in his concerts.

Meanwhile, Maria also began collaborating with the composer Manos Hadzidakis, who was then working on The Age of Melissanthi, and subtitled his new composition A Musical Story with Maria Farantouri, although this work was not finished for some years. His intervention allowed Maria to return to Greece in 1972 to say farewell to her father who died that year. The military junta gave her a 48-hour visa, and during these two days she visited the ancient theatre of Epidaurus.

Her packed concerts encouraged and emboldened Greeks in exile, and recordings were smuggled back into Greece, giving courage to those who were struggling against the junta.

By the early 1970s, she was living in exile in London. There in 1971 she and the Australian guitar virtuoso John Williams recorded Theodorakis’s Romancero Gitano, a setting of poems by Federico Garcia Lorca translated by the Greek poet Odysseus Elytis. Lorca was a victim of Spanish fascism and Theodorakis had set his poetry to music just before the colonels’ coup.

In Paris, Maria made such an impression on François Mitterrand that in his book The Bee and the Architect he compared her to Greece itself: ‘For me, Greece is Maria Farantouri. This is how I imagined the goddess Hera to be, strong, pure, and vigilant. I have never encountered any other artist able to give such a strong sense of the divine.’

Maria Farantouri in a memorable performance of the song at the first concert given by Mikis Theodorakis in Greece after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974

When the Greek junta sent in tanks against protesting students in Athens on 17 November 1973, causing the deaths of at least 24 people over a number of days, Maria Farandouri added a couple of stanzas to the song Το Γελαστό παιδί, deliberately linking it to that event.

After the dictatorship fell in 1974, Mikis Theodorakis and Maria Farandouri returned to Greece. There they gave moving concerts to audiences who had experienced seven years of fear and repression, and at a concert by Theodorakis in Athens in October to mark the fall of the junta and the restoration of democracy she sang that new version of that song.

As Damian Mac Con Uladh points out, While Brendan Behan's original ‘laughing boy,’ Michael Collins, was killed ‘on an August morning,’ Maria’s extra lines referred to ‘November 17,’ and instead of saying the laughing boy was killed by ‘our own,’ the Polytechnic version refers to the killers as ‘fascists.’

About 125,000 people attended her performance with the baritone Petros Pandis of Theodorakis’s Canto General in the Karaiskakis Stadium. Her Songs of Protest from all over the World in Greek became a gold record.

She was the first foreign artist to be accepted by German audiences as an interpreter of Berthold Brecht in a language other than German, and she inspired many foreign artists who sang her songs, giving them their own interpretation.

Maria also renewed her collaboration with the Greek song-writer Manos Loizos, recording an album that characterised that era, The Negro Songs, based on poems by Yiannis Negrepontis. She worked too with Mihalis Grigoriou, who set the poetry of Manolis Anagnostakis to music.

Her collaboration with Hadzidakis was revived when he completed Mellissanthi and wrote new songs for her. Their concerts in the Roman Agora in Athens with younger singers became the musical event of the season.

With her longing for peace and friendship between Greece and Turkey, Maria took the daring step of collaborating with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli. They staged concerts in Athens and for Turkish audiences.

In 1981, she travelled again with Theodorakis to Cuba, and Fidel Castro was so impressed that he invited to the Greeks back for a new series of concerts the following year.

Maria and Tilemachos Chytiris began a new chapter in life when their son Stefanos was born on 28 October 1985, Oxi Day or Greek National Independence Day. For a time, she withdrew from all artistic engagements and only worked rarely and selectively.

Her most important collaboration was The Ballad of Mauthausen in the Herod Atticus Theatre in Athens with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. Later, she would work with him again in Paris to mark the Millennium under the auspices of UNESCO

In 1987, she performed Romancero Gitano in Fuente Vaqueros in the house where Lorca was born, with the poet’s sister and his friend Jose Caballero present.

The political situation in Greece became unstable in Greece in 1989. The Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, leader of Pasok, the Socialist Party, was under attack, election after election failed to produce a stable government, and in response to Papandreou’s invitation, Maria stood as a Pasok candidate. From the opposition benches, she worked on cultural issues with Melina Mercouri and Stavros Benos.

She remained an elected member of the Greek parliament until 1993, and her husband Tilemachos Chytiris is a Pasok politician too. He had worked as press adviser in the Greek Embassy in Bucharest (1982-1984) and in London (1984-1987). From 1987 to 1989 he was special Secretary at the Ministry for the Presidency of the Government. In 1989, Papandreou appointed him as his media spokesman.

Tilemachos Chytiris was elected in an Athens constituency in 1993 and was re-elected in every election until 2009. He was a deputy minister in 1993-1994 and deputy minister for the Press and the Media (1994-1995). I met him when he was Press Minister (1995-1996). Chytiris was Deputy Press Minister (2000-2009) in the third cabinet of Costas Simitis, and also served in of George Papandreou’s cabinet until 2011.

Meanwhile, Maria returned to singing and recording in 1990, when she worked with the Cuban composer Leo Brouwer on a double album that included songs written for her by the Greek composer Vangelis (Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou).

She has continued to work with Theodorakis to this day, and also works with a new generation of young Greek composers. In 2000, after years of absence, the avant-garde composer Lena Platonos returned to the recording studio, and recorded exclusively with Maria.



In August 2001, Maria filled the Theatre of Herod Atticus in Athens with a concert of ‘A Century of Greek Song.’ In June,2003, nine years after the death of Hadzidakis, once again in the Roman Odeon, she sang the completed version of his Amorgos, a setting of poems by Nikos Gatsos.

In recent years, Maria has given a new dimension to the traditional Greek rembetiko and to Byzantine music. She has reached out to international musical trends, such as ethnic music, in her recent CD Το Μυστικό (The Secret or Mosaic), when she has worked with Ross Daly, the Irish composer who lives in Archanes in Crete. She has collaborated too with classical musicians like Yannis Vakarelis.



Το γελαστό παιδί (η ελληνική απόδοση του Βασίλη Ρώτα)

Ήταν πρωί τ” Αυγούστου
κοντά στη ροδαυγή
βγήκα να πάρω αγέρα
στην ανθισμένη γή

Βλέπω μια κόρη κλαίει
σπαραχτικά θρηνεί
σπάσε καρδιά μου εχάθει
το γελαστό παιδί

Είχεν αντρειά και θάρρος
κι αιώνια θα θρηνώ
το πηδηχτό του βήμα
το γέλιο το γλυκό

Ανάθεμα στη ώρα
κατάρα στη στιγμή
σκοτώσαν οι δικοί
μας το γελαστό παιδί

Ω, να “ταν σκοτωμένο
στου αρχηγού το πλάϊ
και μόνο από βόλι
Εγγλέζου να “χε πάει

Κι απ” απεργία πείνας
μεσα στη φυλακή

θα “ταν τιμή μου που “χασα
το γελαστό παιδί

Βασιλικιά μου αγάπη
μ” αγάπη θα σε κλαίω
για το ότι έκανες
αιώνια θα το λέω

Γιατί όλους τους εχθρούς μας
θα ξέκανες εσύ
δόξα τιμή στ” αξέχαστο
το γελαστό παιδί

The laughing boy, by Brendan Behan

It was on an August morning, all in the morning hours,
I went to take the warming air all in the month of flowers,
And there I saw a maiden and heard her mournful cry,
Oh, what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy.

So strong, so wide, so brave he was, I’ll mourn his loss too sore
When thinking that we’ll hear the laugh or springing step no more.
Ah, curse the time, and sad the loss my heart to crucify,
Than an Irish son, with a rebel gun, shot down my Laughing Boy.

Oh, had he died by Pearse’s side, or in the GPO,
Killed by an English bullet from the rifle of the foe,
Or forcibly fed while Ashe lay dead in the dungeons of Mountjoy,
I’d have cried with pride at the way he died, my own dear Laughing Boy.



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