A Gravelly Prophet: The Music of Thanassis Papakonstantinou

  A Gravelly Prophet: The Music of Thanassis Papakonstantinou Thanassis Papakonstantinou is not happy with his voice, he’s said so in numerous interviews, he’s just not a singer. Nonetheless, his summer concerts sold out, and in true Athenian fashion, were then crashed by at least a third more people than had tickets. The crowd contained a range of ages from serious teenagers, to a big student following and a solid base of young and middle aged Greek fans. His pre-Christmas concerts held in a smoky theatre in Athens’ most densely populated district, Kypselli, were standing room only for late comers. And then he sings and his seven member musical partners, Laïkadelika, play.

His sets often last over three hours, value for money he explained, embarrassed at the (quite reasonable) price of the tickets. Uneasy on the stage, except when crouched over his instrument (usually a left-handed bouzoukomana, slightly larger than a traditional bouzouki), he could be a sensitive engineer in his jeans, a faded t-shirt and glasses: which is what he was until his music career took off enough to support his wife and two daughters in a small town outside Larissa famous for its cheese. But Papakonstantinou is no pop-idol. He has a discography stretching back into the early nineteen eighties and has worked with many of Greece’s most influential singers and song writers on numerous albums. His last two albums Agrypnia (Night Vigil) and a Live album have done well and like his earlier work are a studied mix of jazz, rock and folk sounds accompanied by thoughtful lyrics. His voice, though perhaps lacking the range of the professional singers that interpret many of his songs both live and on his albums, is deep, engaging and effective: something like Tom Waits in Mediterranean harmonics. In any case, his albums, masterfully combine sources and sounds to create an authentic experimental music that allows Papakonstantinou to sample diverse inspirations and arrange them in creative acts informed as much by D.J’ing as by traditional orchestration. Thus despite his music’s unmistakable Greekness, his sources of inspiration are much wider: the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa is one example, and the lonely ‘Astro tou Proïnou’ (Morning Star) is a translation of a South American Pawnee Indian prayer. A Gravelly Prophet: The Music of Thanassis Papakonstantinou In a short e-interview he gave me after his final night in Athens, he goes on to say that “ Agripnia is based on a poem by the French writer Tristan Corbieres, but on the whole, I don’t think that I’ve been influenced a great deal by French culture, as I know so little of it. However, if I were given the opportunity to hear one of my songs sung by a French artist, it would have to be George Bressens because I like his anarchic spirit. Kantilanaftis (The Candle-Lighter from his 1993 album Agia Nostalgia – Holy Nostalgia) is the song I’d love to hear him sing, but I don’t know why. I rarely listen to my own songs, however, as I know them like counterfeit coins, and I know the feelings they create from before they were even born and became songs. At a push, if you put a knife to my throat, and it were possible to use a computer, I would make a selection from all my albums. On the other hand, and because I need the inscrutable world of other artists if I had to choose just one record, with great difficulty, I would choose Piovani’s music from the film ‘Chaos’ by the brothers Taviani. Don’t ask me why: the chaos of a man’s soul.” A Gravelly Prophet: The Music of Thanassis Papakonstantinou Papakonstantinou, often seems uncomfortable in interviews and in concerts gives the impression of being an intensely private person with something to say – well sing or play - and his life in Tirnavos, far from the centres of Athens or Thessaloniki seem to confirm this impression. There are references to provincial life scattered amongst his songs, from Trata (Trawler but also a dance) to his early song Pasta me Kerasaki (Cake with a Cherry) which, as he told me, has the most direct allusions to his home town. “Such inquiries, however, are typical. Everyone knows whatever anyone lives through, wherever they are, influences what they make. In any case it’s dull to analyse ones creativity when it’s at its height. Maybe when I’m an old man I’ll do it. For the time being I’d prefer to play the tambourine at a jester’s wedding.” Asked which lyrics from one of his songs express him best at the moment, he added, “If one song were to be translated, it would be the lyrics from Atman – on Brachnos Profitis (his 2000 album Gravelly Prophet)– as it expresses everything I feel about existence.” So to let his work have the last word, here are the translated lyrics from the Atman, that means breath or spirit in Sanskrit.

On Magellan’s flames,
On the mast of a Northerly
And on a child’s knee
The same thing changes
And covers the voices.

In heaven’s galaxies
And inside my mind
The same thing is hidden,
Sighing lightly
Watching and waiting.
Leonidas Liambey