Tuesday, June 20

Rembetiko of the Month

In last month’s post, I included a reference to Kostas Masellos (1890-1972, a.ka. Nouros, shown left in the 1930s) in my discussion of Rita Abadzi’s Ο Ψύλλος. At the end of the song, a male voice yells out a greeting (as was common in Rembetika), “Γειά σου, ρε Ρίτα” (Yassou, Rita), to which she responds, “Γειά σου, Νούρε μου” (Yassou, my Nouros), so we know that Nouros was in the studio.

In that post, I concluded that Nouros was playing guitar or bouzouki. Whether it is in fact a bouzouki that’s being played is itself not clear. But this is a separate question from what Nouros is doing in the studio. Clearly he was there, but why was he there? These may seem like uninteresting questions, but to Rembetika lovers, they’re fascinating (really, they are). I figured that he must be playing an instrument. My cousin G disagreed.

He said Nouros was a singer and explained to me that there’s no indication that he played either the guitar or bouzouki. He checked with some experts (the guys who produced Rembetika: Historic Urban Folk Songs from Greece), and they agreed with him that Nouros wasn’t playing an instrument. It seemed unlikely to me that Nouros was just “hanging out” in the studio, but I guess it’s possible. There just doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Nouros played an instrument.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Nouros prior to my last Rembetiko of the Month post. I had heard the name—and actually have at least one 78rpm of Nouros from the 1930s—but that’s about it. My exposure to male singers of Rembetika focused more on the great Andonis Diamantidis (a.k.a. Dalgas), Dimitris Atraïdis, Yiorgos Papasideris, and even Yiorgos Katsaros. Certainly less is known about Nouros than some of these others. However, I don’t think it would be fair to say that he was obscure, since in his day he was a celebrated and quite prolific singer of αμανέδες.

Nouros began recording in 1926, just four years after arriving in Greece from Smyrna, where he had grown up. In Smyrna he had been singing in the port town’s famous music café’s since the age of eighteen. It has been said that Nouros’ style of singing is reminiscent of a ψάλτης (PSAL-tis) or cantor in the tradition of Byzantine music. I myself find Nouros’ voice more refined and less earthy than some of the other male singers of Rembetika and αμανέδες. Nouros was known to have a great love of Byzantine music and even spent some time at the Vatopedion monastery on Mount Athos.

I recently picked up a CD of some of Nouros’ early recordings, just to get a feel for him. Moreover, I was intrigued by my cousin’s suggestion that Nouros was a homosexual. He pointed to the photographic evidence showing Nouros in the company of young men (one example is the photo to the left, which shows Nouros with an unnamed Turkish soldier in Istanbul in 1950), but to me the photos seem ambiguous. Far more compelling is a version of the Ταμπαχανιότικος Μανές (ta-ba-ha-NIO-ti-kos ma-NESS) recorded by Nouros for Columbia around 1928. For the record, Nouros recorded several different versions of the Ταμπαχανιότικος, as did other artists, including Roza Eskenazi, who first recorded the song in 1929. What makes Nouros’ 1928 recording interesting is Stellakis Perpinadis’ “Νά πεθάνεις, πούστη” (Drop dead, faggot) at the end of the song.

The term πούστης (faggot) is a derisive term in Greek. At the same time, it would be a mistake to conclude that Perpiniadis intended to express hostility to Nouros. I think Perpinadis was being playful, albeit in that bawdy and edgy way that characterized the Rembetes. On the other hand, I have a hard time believing that Perpiniadis would go so far as to use the term jokingly on someone who was not believed to be a homosexual, because that could be insulting. The word πούστης is sometimes thrown around in jocular fashion, but it’s not something that one hears in Rembetika recordings.

As far as I know, Nouros’ 1928 recording of the Ταμπαχανιότικος Μανές is the only instance of such a thing. The use of the term in this case is funny only if Nouros was actually known among his circle of friends and colleagues to have enjoyed romantic and sexual dalliances with men and received some good-natured ribbing for it. While we can’t know for sure, I think a good case can be made for Nouros’ alleged homosexuality.

However, my interest in Nouros goes beyond mere speculation about his sexuality. In the end, I don’t think one can say with any certainty what Nouros’ erotic preferences were. Regardless of his sexuality, however, the lyrics to some of Nouros’ αμανέδες have a decidedly queer sensibility and resonate with my queer ears. Two in particular, Χουζάμ Μανές (hou-ZAM ma-NESS) or Ποιός έχει μάυρη την καρδιά, “Whoever has blackness in his heart,” and Χετζάζ Μανές (he-TZAZ ma-NESS) or Ο κόσμος με κατηγορεί, “The world condemns me”—both recorded in the early 1930s—evoke that sense of “the love that dare not speak its name.”

Click here to listen.

Χουζάμ Μανές

Ποιός έχει μάυρη την καρδιά, νά γίνουμε συντρόφοι
νά περπατάμε σ’ερημιές νά μη θωρούμε ανθρώποι.

Whoever has a blackened heart, let’s stay together
and wander the wastelands and hide ourselves from the world’s gaze.

Click here to listen.

Χετζάζ Μανές

Ο κόσμος με κατηγορεί, δίχως νά ξέυρει λέει—
αν ήξευρε τον πόνο μου μαζί μου θε νά κλαίει.

The world condemns me without knowing me—
if they knew my pain, together they would cry with me.

If Nouros were a homosexual, these lyrics would have had a special poignancy for him. Whether or not he actually loved other men, his αμανέδες speak to contemporary queers (at least those of us listening to Rembetika) about our experience of being marginalized and condemned because of whom we love.

Recommended Listening:
Ο Δημήτρης Ατραΐδης καί ο Κώςτας Νούρος τραγουδούν αμανέδες καί ρεμπέτικα (Dimitris Atraïdis and Kostas Nouros sing amanedes and rembetika)


Blogger Jay said...

Unbelievable. You really know this stuff.
I just had to tell you how much I enjoy this rembetika series. I have never been able to find this much information before on the music. Some CD liner notes (which can actually be pretty good), but that is about it.
Is there any book, in English, about Rembetika?
I hope you continue providing the English translations to the lyrics. I understand pretty much none of it, but the lyrics make it all much more poignant.

7:52 PM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

thanks for your kind words. i'm glad you're enjoying my posts.

the book that i'd recommend is gail holst's the road to rempetika, but it's almost impossible to find. there's both a greek and english edition.

you could also try elias petropoulos' songs of the greek underworld, which has been translated into english.

good luck!

12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like a lot Manolis the Hashish-smoker by Kostas Nouros. The entire compilation is awesome but this song is killing me.

10:39 AM  
Blogger ALEXZ said...

i am a family member of kostas masellos nouros--he was bi-sexual--married out of duty-had 3 children
you were correct in your assumption he preferred men!

12:48 AM  

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