Text by Giorgos Evangelou, Musicologist–Post doctoral researcher, School of Music Studies, University of Ioannina
The word “exoticism” is associated with places or settings “outside” the vantage point of Western normality. Like many other “–isms”, the term can be broadly inclusive or relatively abstract and incorporates ideologies, prejudices and aesthetic tendencies which have been reflected in the arts. Through music, theater, literature and the visual arts, a distinctive and familiar image of distant, exotic places was formed: sultans, maharajahs, caravans, witches, harem girls enslaved to the harems and appetites of Eastern officials have stimulated the collective imagination since the era of European colonialism. Apart from the East, exotic representations of other places and cultures, such as those of Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Latin America and the Gypsies of Greece, of the East and of Spain can be found.
Exoticism in Greek-speaking repertoires and by extension its imprint on discography is not the result of parthenogenesis and does not concern a small-scale aesthetic phenomenon. On the contrary, it is part of a complex and long-term process of osmosis of Greek urban musicians with the spirit (or rather the spirits) of the times, as it takes advantage of the multi-faceted cultural networks to channel itself into the local musical realities.
The revolutionary technologies that modernity would make accessible, such as discography, radio, cinema, television, photography, etc., would accelerate the flows of cultural information; new, massive networks of diffusion and interaction would be formed, outside the traditional limitations of geomorphology and geopolitics. Through these processes, musical exoticism ceases to be a monopoly of Central Europe’s scholar musical traditions; it, emerges from all kinds of localities and turns into a global aesthetic constant, a common language of the new, modern era.
The historical recordings, as well as the printed commercial musical scores of the Kounadis Archive, in which elements of exoticism can be detected, are anthologized in the collection “Exoticism in Greek historical discography” and are classified into five categories, depending on the described imaginary places: the representations of the East, Latin America, Spain, Hawaii and the boundless world of the Gypsies.
The collection offers a representative overview of how exoticism imbued Greek-speaking music, already from the first years of recording activity. A voluminous and varied repertoire was gradually built up, describing a multitude of faraway, exotic places and people, and a rich vocabulary of exotic lyrical and musical concoctions to the evolving urban popular musics is attached: exotic places and people are primarily represented as lustful and attractive, yet culturally inferior, and inherently passive entities, justifiably accountable to Western superiority and dominance.
In this light, exoticism is not only an artistic expression, a depiction of the Other, but a hegemonic discourse and a form of perception of exotic otherness as inherently inferior, regressive and barbaric, but at the same time heavenly, erotic, and intensely emotional. The degree to which this rhetoric was consciously used is not easy to determine. However, the discographical evidence demonstrates that the exotic aesthetic fascinated the de facto extroverted urban musics of the Greeks and, in fact, often blended with their familiarity with the Near Eastern world.
It is important to underline that musical exoticism is not a self-existent musical current or school, but a dictionary of stylistic motifs which are linked to the representation of exotic places and attached to individual musical styles. Both lyrically and musically, the Greeks adopt this aesthetic model and reshape it, adapting it to their already polystylistic musical reality. The result of this integration is the expansion of the compositional, orchestral and thematic horizons and the continuous renewal of the sound context of urban music. An urban music through which those who produce and use it exoticize their not-so-distant East, but also other exotic places, as modern Europeans, simultaneously putting into practise the fantasy of the progressive West of which they strive to become a part.