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George Dalares is one of my musical heros. Arguably the most famous Greek singer currently performing, he's deeply interested in reviving authentic Greek music. Between albums dedicated to laiki -- popular music, albeit always executed extremely well -- he participates in special events that cross genres, juxtapose him with other ensembles or singers and explore uncharted territories.
Having recently moved to Cyprus, the local music stores naturally carry a huge selection of Greek music. The fact that I can't read or understand the language presents only a small hurdle. I ask the shop keepers what they'd recommend by mentioning what I already own and like. Smyrne hid out in the Dalares section which I managed to find on my own. It does feature him but isn't really a Dalares album per se. It came about when Dalares participated in the Estoudiantina concerts held in the small Neo Ionia Municipal Theater in Magnesia Prefecture in the spring of 2000.
Impressed by this folk orchestra, their musical sensibilities and the emotionally charged experience of performing together, Dalares' liner notes go as far as saying that "it's no exaggeration that the creation and the active presence of this orchestra is one of the most important and positive aspects of our contemporary musical scene". Personally taking on the role of producer for the Estoudiantina orchestra's first release with a tribute to Smyrna birthed this album. Naturally, Dalares shares the stage with other famous soloists like Glykeria, Pantelis Thalassionos, Babis Tsertos, Eleni Vitali, Katerina Papadopoulou, Petros Gaitonos, Irini Karayanni, Chronis Aidonidis, Christos Tsiamoulis, Mario, Panayotis Lalezas, Sophia Papazoglou and Agathanos Iakovidis. But it's predominantly his super star status which he lent to the project to shepherd this recording to fruition.
The orchestra itself includes multiple ensembles within ensembles, including a mandolin formation and a Demotic Folk group with clarinet, violin and dulcimer as soloists. From the photos, I count 22 instrumentalists and a chorus of another 22. The generous 19-deep programme traces the development of styles as they occurred in the Grecian city of Smyrna starting in 1903 and gives credit to earlier ensembles that operated with a similar musical focus to this present latest installment of the Estoudiantina format.
From the martial opening march that recalls Bavarian oompah bands, we move through folk dances like syrtos, ballos, zeibekiko and various tsifeteli flavors and end with Arabian-style maqams like Rast, Gerndie and Sultani set to specific rhythmic accompaniments like hasapikos, longa and the Turkish aksak. There's complex 9/8, 5/8 and 12/8 time signatures and soft and hard diatonic tunes mixed with chromatic endings. In all, Smyrne is a perfect mix of sophisticated fare presented by bona fide artists intent on exposing us to real -- and exclusively acoustic -- Greek music and thereby help us stay well clear of the predictable tourist stuff played in the waterfront cafes. No hippety-hop here as the feisty old black lady in Tom Hanks' Lady Killers referred to "that modern stuff". One would expect nothing less from anything a knowledgeable music shop keeper sees fit to file away under George Dalares. Some super heroes are for real...