Emotionally wrenching music from northwestern Greece evokes questions about the meaning of music itself.
King, a Grammy-winning producer, describes himself as an “obsessed” collector of 78 rpm phonograph records, counting among his treasures American folk music and Delta blues recorded in the 1920s and ’30s. In his exuberant literary debut, he recounts his discovery of music far different from any that he had heard before, music so intense and transformative that it set him on a quest to find its cultural roots and to decipher “a larger enigma: why we make music.” In 2009, the author was vacationing in Istanbul when he noticed a dusty collection of records on a shop shelf. Buying a few, he carefully transported the fragile discs home and, with great anticipation, played them. The sound, he writes, was startling: “a dissonant instrumental played with an uncontrolled abandon”; a clarinet “sounded as if it were in the throes of death—bent, contorted, and skirting along the margins of control.” The music came from Epirus, a remote region in northwestern Greece that had “steadfastly resisted assimilation” for thousands of years. After acquiring hundreds more records, King made several trips to the mountain villages of Epirus to investigate the “musical biosphere” from which the viscerally shattering sounds emerged. He locates one origin of the music in “laments and funeral dirges,” which evolved from metrical poetry into instrumental pieces: “a calculated wailing through an instrument such as the clarinet or the violin” that represented “collective remembrance” rather than the commemoration of one individual. In Epirus’ sheepherding villages, the shepherd’s flute, he believes, was the foundation of all the music that ensued. Participating in festivals, learning traditional dances, drinking the “psychotropic grape distillate” tsipouro, interviewing musicians, collectors, and scholars, King concludes that the “preeminent purpose” of music in Epirus was “therapeutic and curative to the individual and the village.” Music, he writes, “was a tool for survival.”
A fascinating journey led by a passionate guide.