Great song – but what does it mean?

When I started this blog, I intended to focus on photography and travel. That still remains my main aim, but for the moment my study of Modern Greek has pulled me off-track into the translation of Greek poems and listening to, and reading the texts of, some classic Greek songs.

The linguistic effort required to read and understand poems by, for example, Seferis, Elytis and Ritsos in the original Greek mirrors the effort to understand them as poems. I find it very satisfying to at least make the effort, even though I know I will never fully understand all the cultural allusions and associations. Sometimes the poems are really difficult to understand and not necessarily because they are difficult linguistically.  More often though, I find this type of obscurity in Greek songs.

I have been listening to a lot of Rembetika, the music that came out of the Asia Minor migration and invigorated Greek popular music from the early 1920s onwards. The obscurity here for me is linguistic and comes from not fully appreciating the context and the slang in the song texts.

But more recently I came across the great singer Dimitris Mitropanos and the extraordinary concert of Zeimbekiko songs he recorded at a concert recorded with Dimitris Mpasos and Themis Adamantidis in Peiraias in 2005. The recording features one of his greatest songs, Roza, with lyrics written by the poet Alkis Alkaios and music by Thanos Mikroutsikos.

It has been claimed that song is about Rosa Luxemburg, the Marxist activist and thinker murdered in the suppression of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin 1919. This association may be due to the fact that Mitropanos’s was a lifelong Communist. In fact the lyricist Alkaios always refused to explain the meaning of the lyrics despite repeated requests, especially from Mikroutsikos. Even if it actually was about Rosa Luxemburg, it doesn’t make the song’s text any easier to understand.  Here’s my translation:

My dry and parched lips
Are searching for water on the asphalt
Vehicles pass close by me
And you tell me that a downpour is waiting for us
And drag me off to a dank club.

We walk together along the same road
But our cells are separated
We are going back to a magic country
I don’t want to know any more what we are asking for
It’s enough for you to give me two kisses.

You play me at roulette and you lose to me
In a nightmare fairy tale
My voice is now the voice of an insect
My life a climbing plant
You cut me off and throw me into the void.

How does need become history?
How does history become silence?
Why do you look at me, numbed, Roza?
Forgive me for not understanding
What the computers and numbers are saying.

My love made from coal and sulphur
How has time changed you like this?
Vehicles pass over us
and in the fog and the downpour
I sleep, hungry, by your side.

How does need become history?
How does history become silence?
Why do you look at me, numbed, Roza?
Forgive me for not understanding
What the computers and numbers are saying.

Whatever it means, it’s the music that makes it a great song and carries you through the cloudiness of the lyrics and the lack of any coherent narrative. I may write some more soon about Alkaios’s lyrics because I find them so intriguing, but I would also like to write something about the challenges of real obscurity in poetry.




Greek word origins

As I think I have mentioned before, one of the interesting things about learning Modern Greek is that my tutor, Maria, helps me remember words better when I come across them by explaining their etymology.

So there’s the Ancient Greek verb fio to give birth, grow, which is at the root of several Greek words which have also come across to English; fisi (nature) from which we get physics; fito (a plant) from which we get phyto- in plant compound names. Then there’s fimi which mean to speak in Ancient Greek and from which we get our word famous.

The word for God/god is theos which comes from an Ancient Grek verb meaning to look at something high up and is linked to directly to the word for a view (thea). I find that rather engaging and can understand that this makes sense in Greece where the home of the gods was believed to be a mountain (Mt Olympos) and temples were often built in high places.

Recently we came across the word for devil (diavolos or diaolos). Maria explained that this is a Greek word, not one that has been adopted into Greek and that it comes from a verb in Ancient Greek diavallo which means to slander. I was suddenly curious at what the Greek version of the Lord’s Prayer uses in the final line ‘But deliver us from evil’. In the Russian version (A izbavi nas ot Lukavogo), it translates as ‘Deliver us from the Evil [or Cunning] One’. The Greek version is the same as the Russian one:  alla risai imas apo tou ponirou. 

It strikes me as odd the difference in this one word between the old eastern and western churches. The western churches uses the abstract word evil (also in Latin sed libera nos a malo), whereas the eastern churches use more of a personification of evil.