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).

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Ottoman Cello Suites

This is a project I’d been thinking about for some months now but just haven’t had the time to get around to for various reasons.  With the recent publication of Eric Siblin’s The Cello Suites as well as the general lacunae in conservatory Music History education regarding the music in portions of Europe during the Arabic, Byzantine, and especially the Ottoman Empire, I thought the new year might as well be the time to start.

It’s been nearly a year since I starting seriously considering doing solo recitals again.  One of the ideas I had back then was to do a program of just Ottoman compositions.  Over the past few months of reading and research I’m finding good structural parallels between the Bach cello suites and what are ostensibly called “suites” in Ottoman music (fasıl) and I thought that it might be an interesting experiment to take an Ottoman fasıl and give a solo cello performance of it.  There are any number of Ottoman pieces that I just absolutely adore, but working from an outsider’s perspective [of Ottoman music] makes it difficult to decide how to negotiate a number of the issues that come from such a project.

I don’t have the time to sort through (or even list) some of these issues in this post, but I think I will be using my blog as a sounding board for them as well as just a place to document some of my solutions as good or as bad as they may be.