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!
- past Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello posts