Grammy-winning producer Christopher King talks about his new CD compilation, “Why the Mountains Are Black”, and why it’s important to preserve this music.
Christopher King is drawn to old music, particularly mountain music. It resonates in his soul, takes him back to his roots. So it’s not a stretch to learn that Greek mountain music speaks to him. His new CD, “Why the Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music: 1907-1960” is now out on Jack White’s Third Man Records.
Meet Christopher King
Christopher King has a penchant for mountain music, for old music that divulges the story of a people. Growing up in rural Virginia, he was exposed to America’s mountain music. As an amateur musician, playing violin and accordion, his passion for this storied, obscure music grew, and led to his curiosity about people’s relationship with folk music.
Fascinated with the sounds and the emotions the old songs elicited, in high school, Chris became an avid collector of old 78 r.p.m. records. Stumbling upon various types of ethnic music, including Polish and Ukrainian, his interest and collection grew,
Chris and his company, Long Gone Sound, have been producing collections on CD and LP of old 78 music for the past 19 years. In 2002, he won a Grammy for his work.
Discovering Greek Mountain Music
A few years ago, Chris took a trip to Istanbul, where in a small market, he discovered a stack of 78s.
“I studied Ancient Greek in college, so I had some knowledge of the writing. I couldn’t make much sense of it, but I was curious. I bought them. After playing them, I became obsessed, fixated. It was the music of Epiros. I wanted to acquire more, to learn more.”
Today, Chris boasts the largest collection of old Epirotic 78 r.p.m. discs in the world. He’s visited Epiros several times, and has interviewed villagers extensively to learn about their history and culture. Chris has attended panegyria, and spent time with the locals. He loves Epiros, its music and its people so much, that the residents of a tiny village called Vitsa, have named him an official citizen.
“The music reminded me of the music of my home in Central Virginia — old country music with fiddles and banjos. Any village music is essentially country music. Epirotic music had that same feeling. That story no longer exists in modern country music.”
The music elicited emotions, and was weaved into the fabric of the villagers’ lives. It portrayed the happy times, and brought them through the worst of times, offering catharsis. As our old friend Alexis Zorba tells us, “To dance is to live;” explaining that he dances in joy, and even through the pain of losing his son. This is what music and dance mean to these people.
“When you start to study the function, purpose of specific dances and instrumentals, you realize the music isn’t just about entertainment or good times, but it serves a medicinal or healing purpose. I’ve witnessed it firsthand; hearing a clarinet, people fall into a hypnotic state.”
The music spoke to his very soul, and Chris felt driven to re-release and preserve it; the feeling was intensely powerful, like a life calling.
Celebrating and Commemorating Greek/Balkan Music
“Why the Mountains Are Black” is the fourth in an eight-issue series of compilations of this music. Previous releases are: “Vitsa: By Takimi of Epirus”; “Parakalamos: Songs by Yiannis Chaldoupis & Moukliomos”; and “Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus, 1926-1928”.
This often misunderstood music is typically ignored by younger generations, called “heavy” and “primitive,” but just as a musician or actor cannot adequately portray pain, loss, and even joy, until they have lived it, so it is for this music — for musician and listener. Nonetheless, Chris believes it’s important for younger generations to give a listen.
“It’s good for Greeks — and non-Greeks — to know this music. When we think of Greek music, we think of bouzouki and modern laika. Most young people have never heard real authentic sounds of the 1920-1930s. Greek music is more diverse, vast, and that’s why these compilations are important. They give people the opportunity to hear music the way it was 100 years ago. There’s a universal significance — it’s not just Greek, it’s deeply human music. It transcends ‘Greekness’. All human beings suffer, and all need a way to deal with and manage their pain on earth. Music is the best panacea there is.”
Enter Jack White and TMR
Susan Archie, a graphic artist with whom Chris has worked for the past 19 years, designed the look of the cover and liner notes. She had a meeting at Third Man Records, with its famous founder, musician Jack White, plus Ben Blackwell. Susan brought in some of Chris’ work, and explained that he’d been looking for a home for his work, where it would be embraced, though it doesn’t hold wide commercial appeal. It was a fit, as Chris explained that TMR’s priorities are in aesthetics rather than profit.
Ben spoke about why he was interested in releasing this collection.
“I’ve been a fan of Chris’ collections for some time now, so when he mentioned in passing that he was looking for somewhere to place “Why the Mountains” I jumped at the opportunity to throw TMR’s hat in the ring. All I had to hear was the first song on the record and I was sold. And once I had the liner notes, well, it was perfect.”
Chris said that part of the beauty of the music is that an outsider can hear it and can’t determine the origin.
“They have no idea that it’s Greek or 100 years old. They may think it’s a psychedelic group.”
It didn’t matter to TMR that it was Greek or 100 years old. The music captivated them as well. Ben explained his attraction to the music.
“I’ve been to a lot of Arabic weddings in my day and I think there’s some hard-to-describe connection between the music I hear there and the music included on “Why the Mountains.” It inherently feels deep. I don’t understand the words, I don’t know all the ethnomusicological references that Chris can cross-reference; all I can say is that deep down in my stomach, this feels important and interesting. That’s how it speaks to me.”
Released earlier this month, “Why the Mountains Are Black” is an exploration into the music of the Greek mountains and villages, from 1907-1960. It’s a musical and historic journey to a people, through their hardships, the highs and lows, the hopes and dreams. It’s a step back in time. As many in those days were illiterate, these recordings serve as an archive of the life and times of these people.
Greek demotic music expresses everyday life — the sometimes mundane tasks, like gathering water or herding the sheep — and passed the time when there were no other forms of entertainment, often no radio and certainly no TV.
The music touches the very soul, the inner depths, evoking multiple emotions. It may have gone “underground” due to occupation, war, times of religious and cultural persecutions, migration, time. This soulful music was begging to be found, to be heard, to live again, and thanks to Christopher King, Greek mountain music has new life.
And just why are the mountains black? The title refers to a song of the same name in the collection, which essentially is a miroloi, or vocalized lament. This song talks about Charon picking up the young and draping them over his horse. Conceivably, the mountains are black, because it is the color of mourning — a collective mourning of the love and loss of 400 years of Ottoman rule, German occupation, civil war, or other tragic events further back. The Greeks invented tragedy, and comedy, for that matter, and the expression of either is always dramatic. Listeners may discover their own interpretation. But don’t think this collection is all despair, longing, and hurt; it’s also about hope, eliciting dance which makes mind, body, and soul feel better.
The liner notes are a virtual history of Greek music, and show Chris’ fervent passion for this music, for the people.
Chris is writing a book on the music of Epiros, which will be published next year by W.W. Norton & Company. Recordings of Kitsos Harisaidis, a clarinet player from Epiros, will also be released next year. A 2018 release will feature music from Asia Minor, a confluence of the music of the people who inhabited this region: Greeks, Armenians, and Turks.
Additionally, he’s seeking information and/or recordings of the Epirot violinist, Alexis Zoumbas. If readers should have information, send us an email and we will forward it to Chris.