Cosmopolitanism in Greek Historical Discography

Article by Giorgos Kokkonis, Musicologist, Associate Professor at the Department of Music Studies of the University of Ioannina

The title of the collection “Cosmopolitanism in Greek historical discography” comprises a competent body of recordings with Greek lyrics. They are characterized by the greater or lesser similarities they possess with corresponding recordings in other languages, which come from a wide geographical range. This body is completed by a significant number of instrumental pieces, which are recorded by Greek-speaking musicians and which also bear resemblance to corresponding pieces of other origins.

In the record industry, this interconnection of recordings could be taken for granted in the context of the formation of new music diffusion networks which encroach all kinds of localities. It is a given that an important role in this formation is due to the fact that the same companies/labels record everywhere, and each of them is aware of the production of the others. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, Gramophone is the company through which Victor was represented in Europe.

However, in this first historical phase of pre-war discography, one cannot take for granted the access of the musicians and of the public to these specific diffusion networks. In other words, although each company/label operates in a very wide geographical area and then gathers a large number of recordings at its headquarters, this does not mean that all recordings are distributed immediately and in a horizontal manner. A close look at the documentation material shows that the labels’ policy is to primarily target the audience of the place from which the recording originates. This place is of course not defined geographically, but symbolically: it is the “ecosystem” formed by locals or immigrants as they come together based on their languages, religions, cultural practices and mentalities.

The mapping of the diffusion networks also highlights the headquarters of the record industry as important hubs. These hubs are, once again, the large urban centers where, in contrast to the cultural purity that will later be claimed by the nation-state, the composition of the population is characterized by multiculturalism. From the second half of the 19th century onwards, commercial transactions increase human mobility, favoring the circulation of cultural elements. The resulting cosmopolitanism is linked to the economic, social and cultural hierarchy and constitutes an indicator of Europeanization. In fact, the Western world retains the particular spirit of syncretism of values and goods that constitutes the diversity of cities before nation-states. Multilingualism is at the base of this diversity, and, above all, the living experience of society with different cultural practices. For those who are unable to participate in this condition, a sort of imaginary cosmopolitanism is constructed, which replaces the practical experience with remote participation through visual and audio narratives. The large popularity of records and postcards is no accident, nor is the unprecedented osmosis between genres that seem sociologically circumscribed, such as the operetta, and the European popular light song on the one hand and folk-popular musical traditions on the other. This “latent” cosmopolitanism participates equally, if not more, in the formation of the diffusion networks of the recordings, which offer an objective, pragmatic substance to the elusive, but so attractive, dialectic of familiarity and heterogeneity.

In the networks of the south-eastern periphery of central Europe, cosmopolitanism is colored less by Europeanization and more by the enormous dynamism emitted by an exuberant pool of folk-popular musical traditions. As long as the “national” demand has not yet come to the fore, its characteristics are differentiated to the extent that hierarchies are constantly renegotiated and conversations are effortless: cosmopolitanism, in that context, means empathy and mixing of traditions (local, ethnic, religious, linguistic, musical…) that interpenetrate and intermix, each time based on historical circumstances, but also artistic dynamics.

In this spirit, far from the subsequent request to defend their national identity, the recordings of Greek interest in the present collection constitute a “snapshot” of transformations which constantly produce new versions of old and “deterritorialized” works. These do not possess any “archetypal” essence, but are revealed to us through their new lives, each time within a different context, with real or imaginary references to some recognizable historical, geographical or linguistic imprint. Some of these new lives have greater longevity and are more influential, and then lend themselves particularly to the rhetorics of national identity, which often declare as archetypes all those things that are, par excellence, transformations, ignoring their cosmopolitan nature, and, above all, their universal scope. Songs like “Karotseris”, “Tik-tak”, “Den se thelo pia” and “Prigkipessa” are typical examples.