The Greek Pillar of Israeli Music

The World Trade Center towers fell just three days before, but millions of Greeks and music-lovers everywhere remember September 14, 2001 because of a different event. "The television was on, as usual, to the Greek station, and suddenly the announcer said that Stelios Kazantzidis was dead," Raz Kedar recalled. "It hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew he had a brain tumor and was in hospitalized, but when you worship someone you don't believe he'll die."

After the death of Kazantzidis, one of the greatest Greek singers of the late 20th century, Kedar made a giant collage out of dozens of photographs of his idol and hung it in his bedroom, facing his bed. "Every morning I open my eyes and see Kazantzidis. That's how I greet the day," says Kedar, 54, of Jerusalem. He once worked at Intel but now runs a school for culinary sculpture. "To each his own madness," he says, adding, "Admiring Stelios Kazantzidis is a good kind of crazy."

It's doubtful whether other people have huge pictures of Kazantzidis in their bedrooms, but many Israelis have strong feelings for the man Shlomi Saranga calls "the Greek Farid al-Atrash" and most know his songs, if not his name. Zohar Argov's "Elinor" was written by Kazantzidis, as was Yehuda Poliker's "Zingwalla" and "Nitzotz Ha'ahava," performed by both Ehud Banai and Daklon (Yosef Levy), among many others.

For some few weeks now it's been impossible not to hear the wonderful "Berehov Shelakh" on the radio, sung by Daviko (David Shaltiel), a 48-year-old taxi driver from Gan Yavneh who has been singing Kazantzidis songs since childhood and now performs them professionally. His album "Yassou Kazantzidis," with 20 Kazantzidis songs, came out a few weeks ago. Yaakov Gilad, who produced and served as artistic advisor, has produced the music of Yoni Poliker, Yehuda Poliker's nephew. The album's release is a good excuse to discuss Kazantzidis' story and how he became such an admired figure in Israel, too.

"To understand the worship of Kazantzidis you must first understand the nature of Greek music and its place in the culture," explained Israel Radio broadcaster Yaron Enosh, who often plays Greek music on his programs. "The role of the musician in that culture is to connect people to their feelings. And so most Greek songs involve emotions: love, pain, joy, sadness. Greek culture is a journey culture, as opposed to ours, which is goal-oriented. Life is a journey. Not much changes; life is here and now. One doesn't use the present as collateral for the future. According to this thinking, music as a medium that evokes emotion is of the highest importance, and so musicians are figures to be admired," Enosh said.

"There is a Greek concept called charmolipi," Enosh continued. "It's untranslatable, and combines joy with sorrow. This is the task of music: to touch the entire range of feelings, from one end to the other. Kazantzidis could do this; he played on all the strings. That's one of the reasons people admired him so much," Enosh said.

Singer Jacky Mekaiten, who turned Kazantzidis' "Yparxo" into "Elinor," says the same thing in different words: "Almost all his songs are melancholy, but a party without Kazantzidis is not a party."

Stelios Kazantzidis was born in Athens in 1931, to a very poor family on the margins of society. "His mother was from Smyrna, the Greek name for the Turkish city of Izmir, and as a youth he was the target of the hostility the Greeks felt for Greeks who came from Turkey," explains Samiko Reitan, an El Al retiree who operates the Internet station Radio Agapi from his home in Tel Mond, playing Greek music 24 hours a day. "This background, I believe, shaped his personality and his profound solidarity with the poor, the unfortunate and the outcast," Reitan said.

Kazantzidis was 13 when his father, who belonged to the Greek Resistance, was murdered by rightists. It was around the time of the Greek Civil War, which began at the end of World War II. He went out to work, finding employment as a porter, a chestnut vendor and a laborer, until (according to legend) the factory manager heard him sing during a break and bought him a guitar. He began his musical career in 1950, when the heavy Rembetiko style was giving way to the happier Laika, and he became one of the most popular singers in Greece.

He was a wonderful singer. "He had the voice of his generation," Saranga said. "But it wasn't only his voice, it was his character." According to Reitan, Kazantzidis "was the voice of the people, of the weary, the exploited, the betrayed. And the voice of the refugee and the emigre, too." In the 1950s, millions of Greeks went to Australia and America in search of work. To them, Kazantzidis' voice was the voice of their homeland.

For the Jews who came from Greece to Israel, Kazantzidis was the voice of the world they left behind, for good and for bad. And for their children, such as Daviko, Kazantzidis's voice carries heavy emotional baggage. When asked about "Anixe Mana," which is not included on "Yassou Kazantzidis," he sighs and his voice breaks. "Anixe Mana," one of Kazantzidis' greatest songs, is about a man who returns to his home after the war to find his parents gone and no one there who remembers them. "I can't even talk about it," Daviko says; both his parents lost their families and their first spouses in the Holocaust. "It kills me. Really. Perhaps one day I'll be able to sing this song."

Israelis of Greek descent were the first to listen to Kazantzidis here, but his listenership grew. Aris San, the (non-Jewish) Greek Israeli singer who used to boast of his ties to Kazantzidis (according to guitarist Yehuda Keisar), and hosted him at his club in Jaffa in the early 1960s, played a major role in spreading his music. According to musicians Avihu Medina as well as Rami Danoch, of Sounds of the Oud, by the mid-1960s Kazantzidis' music was heard everywhere.

Mekaiten, who says he first heard Kazantzidis as a teenager, also played a key role in introducing Kazantzidis' music to Israel. "Someone gave me tapes of his songs. What attracted me to him? It's hard to explain; something profound. Kazantzidis is Kazantzidis. He's not a singer; he's a concept. He should be studied they way people study the Jewish Scriptures," Mekaiten said.

After Kazantzidis himself became part of Israeli music, in the early 1990s it was the turn of the "Israeli Kazantzidis."

"That's what the poster said when I was 20... an ugly purple poster," Saranga said with a laugh. Four years later he went to Greece, determined to meet his spiritual father. Saranga and a group of friends reached the remote village, several hours from Athens, where Kazantzidis lived. They found his home and were invited inside.

"I played him my versions of three of his songs," Saranga recalled. "He listened, didn't say a word, as I sat there, pale as a fish. After the tape-recorder was turned off he said: 'You've got a big future ahead of you. In my opinion you are my heir. You sing all the nuances that no one can sing as I do.' It was a big moment. My guru finally heard me sing. It has helped me and kept me going my whole life," Saranga said.

Despite his large number of admirers there is no consensus about Kazantzidis. "People who worked at the port liked him more than the upper classes," Enosh said. "It was like Middle Eastern music for us - something that 'they' listened to. Only at a certain point did it spread." Enosh does not count himself among Kazantzidis's admirers. "I don't play him much," he says, "He belongs to the heavies; I prefer lighter, more contemporary music."

Avihu Medina, too, was never drawn to Kazantzidis. "I can understand the solidarity he arouses in people. His voice is the voice of a man who is tired, depressed, abused. But personally I've never connected with him."

And there are those who can't bear Kazantzidis: Israelis of Greek descent who are proud of their heritage but not the singer who is one of its symbols. "Are you sure you want to ask me about Kazantzidis? Because I don't have anything good to say about him," an attorney of Greek descent told me. "I don't like his nasal voice. I admit that he had a few good songs, but he wasn't a great songwriter. And I hate the crybaby in him. He doesn't just cry; he whines. It's unbearable. From the people around him, I'd say that whoever loves our great poets - Theodorakis and Xydakis - doesn't like Kazantzidis."