Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Markos Sifnios, Marika Papagika and the Greek Cello

Marika Papagika

I wish I had more information about Markos Sifnios, but as there is only been a recent resurgence of interest in his collaborator Marika Papagika and I’m not in a position to be doing extensive research into her career in the US during the earlier part of the 20th century (yet).

I had first come across Sifnios’ work when I found this wonderful youtube video (see below) of a tune called Smyrneiko Minore (Smyrnaean Air) which, given the date (1919) here (if it is correct) would coincide with Papagika’s first recording in the states with Victor Records.

There is a brief snippet about Sifnios’ collaboration with Papagika at the Wikipedia entry which I can’t really verify or attest to the truth of though interesting in its own right:

Cellist Markos Sifneos [sic] collaborated with Marika Papagika on at least 24 separate occasions. Aside from Kostas, he is her most frequent collaborator, and was one of the few people to play cello on Greek recordings before World War II. There are no records of him recording with anyone except the Papagikas as Cello was not an acceptable instrument for Greek music at the time.

So I came across this video and though I had already known about Marika Papagika I knew nothing about the fact she had a cellist in her Greek band.  So that was something of a revelation.  I doubt cellos were typically a part of traditional or folk Greek ensembles as the above quote seems to indicate, and more than likely, as is the case with Klezmer and other folk music ensembles (and “pick-up” bands in general) Sifnios and his cello just happened to be at her disposal.   But what this also says is that Sifnios could be considered one of the first “Alternative Cellists” in the US (if not the world).

I’d first heard this piece on a recording by the wonderful vocalist, Savina Yannatou and her wonderful Greek and pan-Mediterranean band, Primavera en Salonico, Mediterranea: Songs of the Mediterranean.  The liner notes from her CD says this about Smyrneiko Minore:

Track 10. Smyrneiko Minore (Smyrnaean Air)

Typical example of the mixed style that developed in Smyrna around the turn of the century. The tradition of the amanes and improvised song based on Byzantium and Ottoman maqamat, coexists with echoes of European operettas.

If she loves me and it is a dream
may I never waken from it.
In the sweetness of the dream,
I pray, let my soul fly from me.

Here’s a live version of Yannatou and members of her band performing the tune:

So much could be said about Smyrna (now called İzmir and officially in Turkey) and Greek and Turkish relations, but that’s probably a better topic for another day.

In the Papagika version of the Smyrnean Air, notice how the cello (and violin) are used in the recodring–slow and long glissandi in the opening portion with the and in alternation with the vocal melody.  The second half is a relatively well known tune throughout Eastern Europe and amongst Klezmer musicians, the “Expectation Waltz.”  In fact, my Klezmer band plays a version of it.  The violin again gets the melody, with the cello doubling until near the end where the cello diverges into a counter-melody.

Here is a version of a song called Manaki Mou:

Again, if the date is correct (1925) this would have coincided with Papagika opening her café-aman, Marika’s, on 34th street (Wikipedia claims it to be the first café-aman to open in the US)  where she and Sifnios would have frequently performed.  Notice how all three instruments (violin, cello, cymbalom/qanun) are basically doubling the melody in various registers.

This is very typical of a lot of pan-Mediterranean music traditions and often refer to as Monophonic.   That’s very misleading as the music would probably be better referred to as Heterophonic in that while everyone may be play the same line, each instrument will ornament the line different according to the individual player’s taste as well as the idiosyncrasies of the instrument itself as well as the instrument’s tradition for ornamentation.  Notice also that the cymbalom/qanun is playing some chordal material.

Sadly, I couldn’t locate a photo of Markos Sifnios–not even a full group photo of Marika Papagika with her band–to use as the main image for this post so for now we’ll have to settle for the image of Papagika.

Final Aside: The obvious paradox of this particular installment of the the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello is the often ambiguous place that Greece has in European culture since so much of its history overlaps and was bound by what would be considered non-European (and therefor “Non-Western”) cultures.  Also, since the Greeks mentioned here were immigrants to the US, they are technically “Western” by adopted nationality–but we so often characterize a nation by the dominant ethnic groups, hence one of the reasons why I’m interested in playing for underserved audiences!



Related Link:


  1. Jon, none of the links to “Watch” in your email work. As a greek music playing/singing cellist, I’m VERY interested in hearing these rare instances of cellists actually ornamenting, and playing along with such an icon! Please lend me a hand in that regard –Thanks, James


    • Sorry James–not sure why they’re not working.

      I have some Greek friends who are going to look into finding out more about Markos for me so I will definitely pass along any info I get a hold of. Also, I’ve been searching the academic route for Marika’s career so see what I can come up with!


  2. From the notes to my compilation of Marika’s music, The Futher the Flame…:

    “Cellist Markos Sifnios, born ca. 1878 and native to the island of Paros according to his Ellis Island records, performed with Papagika on at least 24 separate recording sessions (likely more), from her first Victor session through to 1928. Apart from Gus, he is the single most consistent musician to have recorded with Papagika. He is the only cellist to have recorded Greek music before the Second World War whose name we know. There seems to be a cello on a June 1916
    session recorded less than three years after his arrival in the U.S. of an anonymous Columbia instrumental group in New York, credited simply as “Athenian Orchestra.” And there is certainly a cello recorded on the Italian-influence Greek tenor George Kanakes’ early 20s recordings for the Panhellenion label. We can only guess whether these are Sifnios or someone else; none of his virtuosity has revealed itself on any of the non-Papagika Greek cello recordings that have crossed my path. With the exception of one 1927 instrumental session for the Okeh label, which shows off his remarkable gifts as an arranger, we have no proof that he ever recorded with anyone but the
    Papagikas. His imaginative use of harmonies were novel in Greek folk music, which is mostly monophonic. His dazzling, contrapuntal interplay with violinists and clarinettists and the sheer oddity of his lower-than-normal (for Greek music) instrument are a big part of what makes Marika’s records so special-sounding.”

    One of Sifnios’ 1926 performances for Okeh records will be issued later this year on the 3CD set To What Strange Place on Tompkins Square Records. No photos of him are known to exist.
    Ian Nagoski


    • Thanks so much, Ian! That’s really a big help–I’ve got some Greek friends looking through all their resources as well, but it looks like just going to the recording liner notes might be a the best bet!

      I’m almost wondering if scouring the archives of the local papers might give us more info–and possibly a photograph. Surely someone has reviewed one of Papagika’s many shows at her cafe aman–seems like something worth looking into at least!

      Again, thanks for taking the time to type that out–I really appreciate it!


  3. hi, Jon. If any information could come out of the resources at your of your readers’ disposal, it would be amazing to any of us music researchers who have been working on this for many years (foremost among them David Soffa who labored intensively on Marika’s life and music for the better part of a decade).

    For what it’s worth, a January 1929 performance of Marika’s – just a few months before the stock market collapse essentially ended her recording career – seemingly arranged by Sifnios was posted just yesterday on YouTube my the Canadian collector Michael Robertson:

    This gives a good example of the kind of theater style that existed for a couple decades in New York City that Sifnios was seemingly tangential to.


    • With luck, maybe we can. Thanks for the inf about David Soffa. I’ll definitely let you know if I ever come across something that might interest you and thanks for the video–glad more of this stuff is coming to light!!


  4. No matter what I do I can not find out the subject or lyrics (preferably with a translation) for Smyrneiko Minore. Can anyone help? Thank you.


    • Go to YouTube and type Markos Syfnios and you will find any songs with his band,and also with M. Papagiga . I find him by luck as I new he was a musician and he was the brother of my grand mother. I hope this was helpful to you.

      Sent from my iPad



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