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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress presents

The Homegrown 2011 Concert Series
Traditional Ethnic and Regional Music and Dance that's "Homegrown" in Communities Across the US

August 24, 2011 Event Flyer

Sophia Bilides Greek Smyrneika

Sophia Bilides concert flyer

"The songs are about the celebration of life and the power of endurance," reflects Sofia Bilides on the music to which she has devoted her life. This celebration of life, hardship and even death is sadly very much on Sophia's mind this late Spring 2011, as her husband, guitarist, and musical partner recently passed away. This endurance of life, a tradition everyone shares, is a central theme of the Smyrneika music that Sophia has been performing since her twenties.

Smyrneika's musical roots are in the Greek Asia Minor (Anatolian) refugee community that began in the 1920s. Anatolian Greeks (Greek Orthodox people living in Turkey) migrated to Athens and urban areas of Greece during the Greco-Turkish War. At the war's end in 1922, a de jure formal "population exchange" completed this migration, sending Muslim Greeks to Turkey and Greek Orthodox Turks to Greece. Smyrneika (literally "music of Smyrna") emerged from the urban café culture of these refugees. The Greek Anatolian community of New Haven, Connecticut, was populated by refugees from the village of Permata, including Sophia's own paternal grandparents, Mihalis and Domna Bilides. These refugees brought Smyrneika with them.

What we typically hear or consider "Greek folk music" is known in Greek as Dimotika. Sophia, born in 1954 in New Haven, would listen to and attend performances of Smyrneika with her Turkish-speaking grandparents. Smyrneika is characterized by strong vocal presence set to intricate melodies using Middle Eastern modes (hijaz, usak, saba) and rhythms (tsiffetelli, karasilma, zeibekiko), which contrasts with Dimotika's more European sound. Smyrneika instrumentation includes the santouri (the Greek hammered dulcimer) and the zilia (finger cymbals), which Sophia plays, as well as doumbeleki (hand drum), outi (oud or lute), and kythara (guitar).

Sophia's performance communicates Smyrneika's origins; her deeply resonant voice carries us through each richly ornamented phrase, shaped from modal scales derived from different intervals than those heard in western scales. The narrow intervals pull toward the tonal center, continually building and releasing expressive and musical tension. When the accompanying instruments join in, commenting and imitating, the intermingling of the melodic lines expands the musical texture.

Smyrneika's lyrics center on the universal topics of nostalgia for the lost homeland, endurance, love, and the celebration of life. Sophia remembers fondly the rich, "throaty" vocals of singers whose performances she attended or heard on 78-rpm records. It is this soulful, what she calls "throaty" singing, that Sophia emulates; it defines her identity as a second-generation Greek. But Sophia has always loved other music, too, including jazz, cabaret and Broadway musicals. "When I sing Smyrneika I'm performing for the old country, when I sing American cabaret, I am American. I always seem to have one foot in one door and one in the other."

Sophia attended the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston. She graduated as a classical alto, while continuing to collect compilation cassette tapes of Smyrneika. After graduation, her own singing shifted to Smyrneika, when she met and began visiting the record collector Dino Pappas. "He and I would talk about the music, and he would run over and pull out these 78s. Even though the walls were lined everywhere with recordings, he knew exactly where each recording was. He would say, 'I think you'd like this,' and go exactly to a section and pull it out. It was then that I knew I wanted to study this tradition."

Smyrneika values the mastery of an established repertory. Consequently, Sophia wouldn’t think of making up her own songs. Instead, she studies the tradition. Using a variable-speed cassette player, Sophia slows down the recordings to absorb and memorize the scales, the lyrics and the "thickness of ornamentation." "There has always been more repertory than I could master," she explains. "That’s the challenge, not making up my own songs."

Smyrneika had a mainstream revival of sorts during the 1980s in Athens. Sophia’s own performance schedule picked up in the 1990s, with requests from folk festivals and regional Greek events, although rarely from the cafes from which the tradition derived. Recently, however, the performance scene has evolved to a semblance of its roots, returning to small venues, cafes, and specialty clubs. This reminds Sophia of her own roots, listening to her Turkish-speaking grandparents, her Greek- and Italian-speaking parents, and the compilation recordings given to her over the years.

Sophia still listens to repertory from masters she loves, including Roza Eskenazi, Rita Abadzi, and Antonis Dalgas, whose talent and virtuosity still shine through the hiss that obscures their recordings. Through this listening, remembering, and the endurance of life, Sophia continues to sing, despite life’s hardships, despite the untimely death of her husband, who learned guitar so that he could spend time with her while she was on the road performing. This power of endurance is embodied in Sophia’s music, and certainly will sustain her as she continues to perform.

Sophia Bilides has been named three times as a Traditional Arts Fellowship Finalist by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. She was featured in a New England Singing Traditions Tour arranged by the National Endowment for the Arts, and received an MCC Individual Artist Folklore Award. She has taught Greek singing for the East European Folklife Center (CA and VA), and at numerous workshops across the country.

Other readings and recordings:

Sophia Bilides, Greek Legacy (1991).

Greece Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture, complied
by Vivy Niotis, series editor, Ann Hoog; revised, April, 2011.

Sophia Bilides's website External link

Gregory Jenkins,
Executive Director, Somerville Arts Council

American Folklife Center Logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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