Sweet as nectar, intoxicating as tsipouro

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Sweet as nectar, intoxicating as tsipouro

Intoxication
The haBiBis
Larrikin through Festival
Xylouris Ensemble
Self-titled
Hi-Gloss Records/MDS

Review by James Vassilopoulos

Advances in music are often the result of migrations: people leaving their homelands — often with little but their language, music and culture — for an alien land.

Rembetika, the Greek blues music, although beginning in the 1890s, was propelled by the migrations following the Greek-Turkish War in 1922.

The war, started by Greece, resulted in more than 1 million refugees coming from Turkey to Greece. Many of the refugees ended up in Athens and its coastal neighbour, Piraeus.

In the cities, migrants and refugees suffered high unemployment and discrimination. Many spoke only Turkish. They often lived in shantytowns.

Alienated from the rest of society, they became attracted to the already existing hashish cafes and rembetika subculture.

The refugees brought their culture and music from the cities of Asia Minor. This music, in a new setting, transformed itself into something new, dynamic and vibrant.

This is similar to what occurred with migrants to Australia. About 25% of all Australians were born overseas. Melbourne is at the centre of this cultural blend, and it has a thriving world music scene to prove it.

The haBiBis, based in Melbourne, perform traditional rembetika music mainly from Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. They sing in Greek, but the lineage of band members includes Albania, Turkey, Ireland and Holland. They describe their material and their style of performance as Australian. The lyrics are written on the CD sleeve in English.

They are a versatile five-person band who play recorders, mandolins, the guitar-like, traditional Greek instrument the laouto, bouzoukis and violins.

The haBiBis attempt to take traditional rembetika music, use it for inspiration, and mould it into a truly modern form. They succeed in developing an innovative form of music.

For example, the recorder is not a traditional Greek instrument (the clarinet is) but the recorder, played by Rachel Cogan, works well accompanying more traditional instruments. Its playing conjures up images of nimble-footed nymphs tippy-toeing on fluffy clouds.

Another innovation is for harmonies to be sung, which in the traditional songs is never done.

The band plays a large variety of songs — from serious songs about suffering, to uplifting songs like "My red apple", to energetic dance tunes. Many have great depth to them: the more they are heard, the greater the enjoyment. Don't be surprised to catch yourself whistling one of their catchy tunes as you're walking down the street.

The vocals of Pascal Latras are as sweet as nectar, as intoxicating as tsipouro, a spirit much stronger than ouzo.

The music of Xylouris Ensemble is quite different to that of the haBiBis. Xylouris Ensemble perform authentic, traditional music and songs, originating from the island of Crete.

Their music is characterised by the crisp, sharp, sounds of the lute, engrossing violins and mandolins. Many of the songs are instrumentals which do not need vocals, as they stand alone.