On Sept. 20, 1926, the Greek violinist Alexis Zoumbas recorded one of the most devastating bits of music I’ve ever encountered. The song, “Epirotiko Mirologi,” is a pentatonic lament — mirologi — that, for millenniums, has been sung beside fresh graves in Epirus, a historically contentious chunk of land on the Greek-Albanian border. The performance is a little over four minutes long, instrumental and largely improvised against the low anchoring drone of some unnamed accompanist dragging a bow across a double bass. Zoumbas was a technically proficient musician, even virtuosic, but his real gift was in effectively articulating disintegration. There is a palpable hysteria to his playing; each note trembles, as if he has recently suffered an emotional collapse of unknowable magnitude.
Who or what knocked him so askew? In 1941, his wife, at least one of his daughters and two of his grandchildren would be killed in Axis air raids, but that was still 15 years off. At the time he recorded “Epirotiko Mirologi,” he had been a naturalized citizen of the United States for 16 years. He enjoyed moderate success as a professional musician, recording several dozen 78 r.p.m. records (either as a solo performer or as an instrumentalist for a few popular Greek singers), enough that he was able to return to Epirus in 1928, for a daughter’s wedding. The narrative of the song is clear — loss — but all the details are missing.
I learned about Zoumbas from Christopher King, a record producer I came to know a few years ago while I was writing a book about people who obsessively collect rare recordings. King had invited me to visit him at his home in Faber, Va., where he keeps his own massive collection of 78 r.p.m. records, decaying discs that could only be experienced there, in person. He asked me what I might like to hear, and when I hesitated, he suggested Zoumbas, whose name was completely new to me. He understood enough about my taste to know that I would appreciate “Epirotiko Mirologi,” which I very much did.
King had been hunting down and buying the best copies of Zoumbas’s work from collectors and dealers all over the world, and in January he compiled 12 of them into a new release, “Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928.” All of the songs were recorded in New York City or Camden, N.J., over a three-year period during which, King suggests in the liner notes, Zoumbas became overwhelmed by what the Greeks call xenitia: a sense of catastrophic loss characterized by a frenzied yearning for home. King’s carefully restored recordings make that yearning all the more vivid — back at home, I listened to them constantly — but some of the details were still missing.
This spring, King told me that this music was still being performed in Epirus and that the recordings I heard were a limp approximation of the lived experience, a bold admission from a record producer. You can say “you have to be there” about almost any musical tradition, especially if it’s tied to a particular region. But in Epirus, King said, these songs live and die in the looks and handshakes and embraces exchanged in their presence. As I listened to Zoumbas alone in my apartment, this was the part that I couldn’t access.
Every year, King said, the people of Epirus hold panegyria, multiday, music-intensive events in which they mourn their losses and celebrate what remains. Panegyria are religious festivals, in that they are tied to the patron saint of a village church and are held on a day dedicated to honoring the life of that saint, as determined by the Greek Orthodox calendar. (The festivals tend to be better attended in villages that celebrate a saint day in the summer, when the weather is more cooperative.) There is speculation that the panegyria have pagan roots, that the priests simply assimilated them. Regardless, panegyria have always aimed to treat xenitia with a hefty dose of parea, a company of friends. Panegyria are a way for the village to pay homage not just to its saints but also to its missing (those who left home to work, those who are otherwise exiled) and then to exult in the remaining togetherness, however fleeting it might be.
King said he made the trip from Virginia to Epirus whenever he could; he thinks of it as a kind of psychic balm. His destination was always Vitsa, a midsize village high in the Pindos Mountains. Vitsa’s panegyri, which is held annually on Aug. 14, 15 and 16, is the region’s most elaborate. Attending it, King said, was the best way to get myself closer to the music of Epirus, to the wild and careening songs that made me feel as if I were communing with some unknown and unknowable part of myself. Hearing it there was the only way to begin to solve the mysteries it contained.
Vitsa is uncommonly idyllic. Its low hillside buildings are constructed almost entirely of local white limestone and feature very few concessions to modernity. In 1812, Byron, in “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” wrote fondly of the surrounding area, calling one nearby village a “small but favour’d spot of holy ground,” citing its “rainbow tints” and “magic charms.” Little has changed since. Stray dogs trot between buildings, sniffing out newcomers. The air smells healthful and clean, like a garden tomato that has just been sliced in half. Vitsa’s four kalderimia — steep, cobblestoned mule trails — intersect at the village square, where a platanus tree offers benevolent shade.
The first mention of Vitsa is on a Byzantine decree from 1319, but the village has been inhabited, in one way or another, for thousands of years. (In 1965, workers digging a cistern at the northwest edge of the village discovered 177 tombs, some dating to the ninth century B.C., containing members of the Molossoi, a seminomadic tribe.) In 1430, Vitsa was forced to submit to Ottoman rule; selected young men from the village were shipped off to Constantinople to work or swept up in “child gatherings,” wherein Christian boys were snatched from their homes to be raised as Muslims and then enlisted in the Janissaries, the elite infantry units of the Ottoman Army. Even now, because there is so little work there, those who call Vitsa home in fact live mostly elsewhere (the year-round population of Vitsa probably hovers around 50) and return only in the summer, primarily for thepanegyri.
No one ever bothers to take a formal head count, but at least several hundred people returned for this year’s festivities. I’d booked a room at a small guesthouse with two picture windows overlooking the Vikos Gorge, one of the deepest in the world (the easiest way to see it is by visiting the abandoned Monastery of Saint Paraskevi just north of the village and walking out onto the terrace of the chapel). I sat for a while on the stone patio outside my room, listening as villagers emerged from their homes and began climbing the kalderimia toward the square, loose chunks of limestone rolling under their feet. By 10 p.m., a good-size crowd had assembled to eat souvlakia and drink homemade tsipouro, a pomace brandy produced, like grappa, from the residue of the wine press and sold here in repurposed water bottles. While Grigoris Kapsalis, an 85-year-old clarinetist, prepared for the opening mirologi, the sounds of the Orthodox liturgy — a deep and heavy Byzantine chanting — drifted up from the church of the Dormition of the Virgin in lower Vitsa.
Nonetheless, the spirit was convivial, nearly jubilant. I asked Vangelis Papachristos, a 33-year-old Vitsa native with a short, dark beard, about the significance of the day. He said that we were here now, together, but next year we might not be. “For this we dance, and for this we cry,” he said, his hand on my shoulder. I quickly chugged a couple mouthfuls of tsipouro, recalling a few lines from the young Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku: “So long as we still reflect each other — /even deformed — as through silver spoons,/wine glasses, and exultant bottles/on the table of a dinner party about to begin,/things can’t be that bad.”
The mirologi that opens a panegyri is improvised — all mirologia are — but there are still musical markers that unite the form. Most traditional Epirotic bands are made up of clarinet, violin, laouto (an oud-like instrument with eight paired strings) and defi (a small, chimed drum). The clarinetist plays and repeats a handful of pivotal phrases, following a pentatonic scale, like many Indian ragas, and can deploy embellishments, motifs and moods unique to the region. The melody is flustered, like a bird that has accidentally flown through the kitchen window and is frantic to get back out. A mirologi can sometimes be disorienting, but when it’s performed well, it untangles things inside you. I was sharing a table with George Charisis, a 30-year-old photographer and filmmaker. He described a mirologi as a song for those who, simply, “are not here.” That feeling of xenitia can be bittersweet — it is present, for example, at Greek weddings, when a bride “departs” one family for another — but it mostly manifests as a kind of low, lingering heartache, the sort that dulls but never dissipates.
The panegyri, at least, helps defang it. “Here, we are other people,” Charisis said. Any misunderstandings or enmities that might have accrued during the previous year are released, neutralized. “We are all together, we are all friends,” he said. “Even the strangers are friends.”
Before us, Kapsalis, joined by a second clarinetist, a laouto player, a defi player and a violinist, was ready to begin. The band was amplified, which is something of a prickly topic in Epirus (smaller panegyria are more likely to be performed acoustically). The crowd quieted. Kapsalis raised his clarinet. A mirologi isn’t always played with the same sort of desperation evinced by Zoumbas. Kapsalis’s version was smoother, gentler and less panicked but still imbued with a kind of unspeakable hunger. He moved up and down through the scale, his eyes soft and temporarily unfocused.
Midway through a mirologi, villagers join hands, form a circle around the band and begin to move counterclockwise. At various points during the night, the circle might spiral into three or four concentric rings of dancers, but it will not break until daylight or late morning. Most villagers learn these dances as children and do not hesitate to initiate a visitor; nearly every time I crept off toward one of the tables that had been temporarily assembled in the square, I was patiently directed back to the circle, where I made continued and hilarious attempts to imitate Epirote footwork, which is not complicated (there is a lot of foot-crossing and toe-pointing and the occasional modest kick) but which is so innate to its practitioners that any foreign approximation is, as far as I can tell, inherently graceless. The next day, over coffee and through a translator, a grinning Kapsalis took my hand and told me he enjoyed my dancing — I had spirit, he said.
Stamina among the Epirote, at least during a panegyri, is peerless, and the dancing and drinking continue unabated until the morning, when everyone breaks for a bit of napping and a few gulps of thick Greek coffee before reconvening in the square. This goes on for three days. Eat and drink and hold your neighbor’s hand — those are the directives. Be overcome bykefi, that acutely Mediterranean idea of elation and exuberance.
The music is both the source and the structure of this experience. It is so potent in part because it was developed in isolation. Epirus was occupied by the Ottoman Empire until 1913, but the stern, inhospitable terrain of its more remote villages — stony slopes suitable, at best, for grazing sheep or goats — offered little for a sultan to covet. As long as the tax was paid, in either money or men, the mountains were left alone.
Similarly secluded pockets of land in America — the flood plains of the Mississippi Delta, the bayous of Louisiana, the Arctic Circle in Alaska — have produced equally electrifying strains of folk music, in part because the songs birthed there remain tied to that particular bit of ground. Musical cross-pollination can yield useful things, too (and no music develops entirely out of time), but there is something whole and nurturing about these relatively isolated traditions. My years spent listening to obscure country-blues sides in the parlor rooms of 78 r.p.m. collectors had prepared me, in a way, for what I hoped to hear in Epirus: a visceral expression of a particular way of living, uninfected by outside notions of how art should work. In the Mississippi Delta, those musical traditions were seeded just a few centuries before, with West African praise songs; in Epirus, they have been present for millenniums.
The shape of an Epirotic composition often mimics the hard contours of the landscape, while the instrumentation replicates its sounds. The melodies of the skaros, a shepherd’s tune devised to soothe errant sheep, are improvised, but they mirror nature in obvious ways. The rippling laouto performance on one 1928 skaros, recorded by Elias Litos and Lazaros Rouvas in Athens — probably the earliest iteration committed to shellac — suggests a mountain stream, while a warbling clarinet recalls the high, wobbly shrieks of songbirds. (This happens in American folk songs, too: In Red Gay and Jack Wellman’s “Flat Train Wheel Blues,” Parts 1 and 2, recorded in Atlanta in 1930, Gay’s fiddle approximates both a train whistle and a sputtering mule.) In the early skaros, you can hear the beauty and the toughness of Epirus.
On the afternoon of my second day in Vitsa, King and I visited a daytimepanegyri in a nearby village called Geroplatanos. The directions we had been given were comically (if inevitably) imprecise — “turn right at the white roadside shrine,” which in Epirus is like saying “Turn right when you see a tree” — and it took us an hour of lurching up and down several mountain roads until we finally found the proper route. The musicians in Geroplatanos (two clarinetists, an accordionist, a defi player and a laouto player, all of Roma descent) were musically scrappier than the ones who had assembled in Vitsa. They moved freely about a wooded clearing, circling slowly and coolly through the dappled, late-afternoon sun. I watched a man in a short-sleeved pink shirt, overcome with kefi, unveil some of the most glorious dance moves I have ever seen. As he led the procession — meaning he was the person from whom everyone else circled out — he waved his right arm in a terrifically odd and graceful way, like one of those balloon men stationed outside a car dealership.
Villagers who run up and tip the musicians get “played into” in return. This involves one or even two clarinets being tooted directly into a person’s face or ears. It is not nearly as violent as it sounds; I would say it’s done almost gently. I saw it happen to a man in jeans and a powder blue polo shirt, who had a little white handkerchief in his left hand. He seized with joy and fell to his knees. Then, he was dancing again, only the clarinets were pushing forward, almost playfully, and he bent so far back that the top of his head brushed the ground. I did not know how to ask him if he felt better — if he even felt bad to begin with — but his comportment suggested a certain kind of ecstasy. It suggested that the question was unnecessary. He waved the handkerchief, admitting surrender.
Soon I became stuck in a comparable state of giddiness. Like the man in Geroplatanos, I knew there was something to be received from this music, a healing. I was getting so close to it. One night, a few miles outside Vitsa, after a tentative request, I knelt on the ground in the moonlight while a man played a clarinet a foot or two away from me. It was nearly 2 a.m. Yiannis Chaldoupis, a 45-year-old Roma musician born and reared in Epirus, had told me that he preferred to perform this way: outside, in a secluded swath of forest, in near or total blackness.
Earlier in the day, with his wife translating, Chaldoupis said that being an Epirot musician — someone who is hired to play panegyria and other celebrations, who is fluent in the traditions here — also required him to function as a kind of renegade psychologist. There is a belief among the people of Epirus that their music is deeply curative: that it reverses certain strains of heartache and expands certain joys, that it’s a panacea for certain existential and physiological ailments. Chaldoupis sees what is broken, he says, and begins the fixing. In Epirus, this is not some sort of reconstituted folk ritual, trotted out for curious, authenticity-starved interlopers, like the luaus staged in the manicured side yards of sprawling Hawaiian resorts. It is merely the way people think about music.
Chaldoupis was so close I could hear the soft stick-stick of the keys as he released each note. Periodically, his tanned face flashed in the moonlight; the muscles of his jaw were slack. He had begun his performance a few yards away, fully concealed amid the squat Valonia oaks and barbed thickets of nettles, and although I knew Chaldoupis was there, crouching in the woods, his song felt like an emanation from deep within the earth, a conjuring. Slowly, he danced his way out, a modern-day Pan in boot-cut jeans, tiptoeing closer, creeping toward my cocked head, his clarinet high.
I became aware, just then, of a vague rustling in the forest and of something that sounded like a wet snarl but was so distracted by Chaldoupis’s playing that I didn’t register it. Chaldoupis stiffened, lowered his instrument and shook my shoulder. Then he started hotfooting it back toward the road and his old Volkswagen van.
“Arkouda!” he hollered. “Bear!”
The music of Epirus can be challenging even for Greeks. Rebetika, a song style that developed in coastal cities in the 1920s, is softer and sweeter (though still, at times, deeply sad); the songs are more fixed and include less improvisation. In the 1960s, rebetika enjoyed a revival in Greece that mirrored, in its way, the American folk revival that began around the same time. I can see how a person charmed by, say, the easy melodiousness of Mississippi John Hurt might find something similar to cherish in Giorgos Batis, Stratos Pagioumtzis or other early rebetika performers. This is not hard music to like. It moves in a comprehensible way.
What I heard was not like that at all. “The music is very difficult for other people, even people who like the clarinet, to listen to,” Demetrios Dallas, a translator and editor who has family in Epirus, told me as we sat in the back seat of a car. I had persuaded Dallas, King and King’s friend Jim Potts, an English writer who has kept a house in Vitsa since the early 1980s and to whom the car belonged, to journey with me to another unamplifiedpanegyri, in an even smaller village called Vristovo. “It is so emotional and so slow,” Dallas continued. “In Athens, when they play Zagori songs” — Zagori being a small confederation of Epirotic villages and a hotbed for the wilder strains of Epirotic music — “people leave.” He told us about a friend of his who claimed that this music comes more easily to those who are schooled in jazz or blues. “A few years ago, we left Elafotopos at about 3 in the morning, after quite a lot of tsipouro, to go to the panegyri in Vitsa,” he said. “We used one car. The music that was playing was Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue.’ It was like the one music snaked into the other.”
I asked Dallas if he preferred the folk songs of Zagori to other kinds of Greek music. “There’s no question about preferring it,” he said. “It is my home-soil music.” I asked him what he experienced when he heard those songs. He paused. “It is a kind of nostalgia for things I have never felt,” he said.
On the rest of the drive — and it turned out to be a two-hour trip, over sheer-sided and mostly unpaved roads, a perilous crossing that punctured but never deflated Potts’s English stoicism — we had to stop the car and wait for all of the following: two herds of goats, a pig, three red foxes, assorted hedgehogs, a tortoise, a strange, stubby-looking bird and many snarling dogs. Each time we encountered a cluster of sheep waddling along or across the asphalt, the muted tinkling of handmade copper bells filled the car. I thought briefly of the brown bear we roused and galloped away from in Vitsa. I couldn’t stop nosing my face out the window and gulping in the air.
When we finally arrived in Vristovo, the villagers were just sitting down to dinner at several long rows of tables in the paved front lot of a small community center. We were ushered into seats and handed cans of Coca-Cola, platters of bread, carafes of homemade white wine, plates of Greek salad and portions of tender, slow-cooked lamb. All of us — strangers, inching up in the dark and tumbling out of a dusty Volkswagen van — were received as family.
The band, a five-piece led by Yiannis Chaldoupis, swayed through the tables, Chaldoupis bending his clarinet into the enraptured faces of the older residents, his bandmates dancing along behind him. There was no dedicated vocalist, and many songs were instrumental, but when the musicians did sing — all of them, together — it was in a monophonic style, more of a call-and-response than the harmonized polyphony we heard in Geroplatanos. We feasted and drank and danced. (Byron, despite his affection for Epirus, once called these circular dances “the dull roundabout of the Greeks,” although, as Potts would later joke to me in an email, Byron “had a club foot,and he was British!”)
On the drive home, our group was quiet, sated. Back in Vitsa, Kapsalis and his group were still playing. Around 5 a.m., I lurched back to my guesthouse to take a steadying nap; three hours later, King woke me up, knocking. “They’re getting ready,” he said. The final dance was about to begin. I put on my sunglasses and followed him back to the square, where Vitsa’s citizens, exhausted but gleeful, were still dancing. Folding tables were littered with empty packs of Camels, abandoned souvlakia skewers and beer bottles. An older man in aviator sunglasses appeared and shook my hand. “You understand?” he bellowed, grinning. “You see? No doctors needed! Happy!”
I was dazedly scribbling something in my notebook when Vangelis Papachristos spotted me. “I don’t care about that,” Papachristos said, pointing at the pen. “This is for you. You are here.” He led me back toward the circle to dance.
On the final morning of the panegyri, the people of Vitsa escort the band out of town, forming one last circle around them before dissolving into applause and salutations. Through some series of nonverbal cues, they seemed to know when it was time and got very quiet. The sun, orange and bulbous, was still low in the sky, but light was striking people’s faces in incredible ways. Kapsalis lifted his clarinet to his lips. The closing mirologiis often a tune called “Mariola.” The lyrics are the lament of a young man returning home to Epirus only to find his wife freshly buried. King would later help me with a translation:
Oh, rise, Mariola, from the earth,
From the dark soil (oh, Mariola mine);
What legs, poor me, can I use to lift myself, ah,
Oh, what arms to lean upon;
Ah, my soul, my little heart.
Oh, make your fingernails into spades,
Your palms into shovels (oh, Mariola mine);
Oh, throw the soil onto one side,
And the slab to the other (oh, Mariola mine).
Turn your hands into shovels. Dig yourself out. Return to me.
There was a good deal of quiet crying, the kind that goes on for a while before you even realize it’s happening, before you taste the salt on your lips. The band was standing now, unplugged, and began to play something improvised and upbeat, stomping up a path and away from the square. We all followed, crowding around them. It was one of those moments where everything resets.
We danced up the path and onto the road out of town, where the band spilled out and finished its song. And then it felt like New Year’s Eve — people were hugging and wishing each other well. Everyone crammed together and posed for a photograph.
I asked Papachristos if he was going to sleep now. He smiled at me and said he felt like drinking beer for 10 hours. I understood the impulse; there’s a post-panegyri comedown that feels nearly terminal. The healing parea is receding, and you can see, off in the distance, the looming xenitia. The terrifying sense of loss that had for three days been the subject of a festive homecoming would soon become the workaday reality of most of the villagers, who in fact lived elsewhere, just as Alexis Zoumbas did a century before. Maybe that is what so devastated him in that studio back in New York: invoking the panegyri even as he himself was so far away from home. The record is all artist-in-exile xenitia, no joyous-reunion parea. Maybe Zoumbas thought he would never return. For us, at least, there was the hope that the things we felt would carry us through to the next year, the faith that there would be a next year.