Why The Mountains Are Black collects “Primeval Greek Village Music” from 1907 – 1960 for Third Man Records. 28 tracks are culled from the 78 rpm collection of Christopher King, a life-long collector and expert set of ears based in the small community of Faber, VA.
Mountains is an excellent point of entry to the world of Greek demotika (rural folk music) from Epirus, the liminal region where northern Greece and southern Albania kiss in an intractable swath of mountains. The people that inhabited this rugged land developed an enduring culture in relative isolation, despite being nestled in the heart of the Ancient World and a hosting a bloody vortex of pagan, Greek Orthodox, and Turkish Islamic influence. These black mountains’ history runs deep, and the earliest recordings of its musical traditions sound beguiling, hypnotic, and alien… difficult to place, yet timeless and familiar.
King describes this demotika as a “tools for survival.” The songs present include shepherds’ calls, funeral laments, wedding and feast day dances. The source 78s are aural documents of a culture that existed before the insidious and widespread sublimation into a “Monoculture of the West.” They sound outside of a modern recording industry that molded music-making into a commodity. This music is vital and intense, and King says it serves “an existential function within the community.”
This is the sort of music King lives for (and it should be noted that he abstains from listening to much else). Whether it’s country blues, string band, gospel, Cajun, or Epirotic, if he hears that raw, unhinged beauty, the music reveals itself as a transhistorical vessel to ponder and discuss the nature of humanity at its purest and most conflicting. He’s a prominent collector with a knack at sourcing the best copies of the rarest music, and he specializes in the subtle craft of engineering that fragile shellac for reissue. Technical expertise aside, King is a thoroughly charismatic producer, curator, and historian… an indispensible tour guide through the primordial sonic backwaters. His poetic liner notes are deeply human and thought provoking, informed by parallel loves of literature, cinema, and philosophy—essential companions to the music.
Regulars at AD will certainly recognize some of his past work—his Long Gone Sound label has partnered with Tompkins Square includes Imaginational Anthem, Vol. 6: Origins of American Primitive Guitar, the unparalleled Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin amongst others. He won a Grammy for his work on Revenant’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, and was featured alongside his copy of “Last Kind Word Blues” in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s deep NY Times investigation of the mysterious Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Chris King has played a part in many intoxicating trips into the past and sports an enlightened perspective on the strange market of reissue music.
Yet King’s relatively recent interest in music from Northern Greece has generated a massive project. Why The Mountains Are Black is in fact the fourth of a seven-part serialization of Greek/Balkan music. Its predecessors are Don’t Trust Your Neighbors: Early Albanian Traditional Songs & Improvisations, 1920s-1930s, Five Days Married & Other Laments: Song and Dance From Northern Greece, 1928-1958, and Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament For Epirus 1926-1928. That last one, released in 2014, is a dizzyingly beautiful portrait of a mysterious, mythical, expatriate violinist. I dare one to listen and not have the soul shaken! Each collection posits a philosophical inquisition, introduced by King’s accompanying writings that brim with his singular personality. In addition to the three remaining serializations, he’s also working on a proper book on the music of Northern Greek for W.W. Norton & Co., a “musical travelogue through the eyes of a 78 collector.” While waiting on King’s book, check out Amanda Petrusich’s excellent ride-along piece in the NY Times, where she attends the panegyri (marathon village festivals) with King for a present-day glimpse at Epirotic music. Needless to say, this deeply traditional music is still alive and well despite the obscurity of these earliest recordings. There is much to appreciate in that corner of the Earth for the musically curious and adventurous.
Aquarium Drunkard caught up with King over the phone to discuss just what’s going on in those Mountains.
AD: You say that the collections of Greek/Balkan music you’ve been serializing explore philosophical themes. Can you elaborate on that?
Christopher King: Yeah. When I was in college, I became very enamored with this notion that literature itself can be a philosophical vehicle. I.e. you read Camus or Sartre or any of the other existentialists, and what they’re doing is they’re trying to explore deep philosophical themes about human existence, but not in a didactic, pedantic manner, but rather by telling a story. And if that’s the case, if one can do that with literature, why can’t one do that with music as well? Why can’t you tell a story through the music and explore themes that are deeply relevant to human existence? For instance with the first collection, Don’t Trust Your Neighbors, the starting point for any philosophical inquiry is to have trust in your own perceptions. You actually have to trust yourself and not trust outside influences, outside people that change your behavior… otherwise your pursuit is just kind of vacuous.
If suddenly you yourself have lost love and you need to be loved by somebody else in order to make it through life and you meet somebody, you’re either going to do one of two things: you’re either going to be yourself, trust yourself, not trust your neighbor and continue on with your life and be loved for who you are, or you’re going to alter your own behavior, your own psychology, your own essence in order to be more liked by that person that’s outside you. And that in and of itself is an existential theme, you know, what are you going to be? Are you going to be yourself and not really trust the perceptions of others? Or are you going to trust the perceptions of other and then modify yourself to fit within their particular way of looking at the universe. That’s the kind of question that I try to explore with the first collection.
AD: So with regards to Why The Mountains Are Black, what is the theme or the philosophical question at play here?
Christopher King: This collection explores this notion of design, of functionality, of purposefulness. i.e. the problem of evil or the problem of badness. And no other place responded to badness or the problem of evil more deeply than, I think, Greece. It’s basically the birthplace of philosophy.
So when a village is confronted with this problem of badness i.e. death, destruction, annihilation, total disintegration, being wiped out at a blink of an eye, the sort of… the uncomfortable ephemerality of everything that surrounds you—to them, the way that they responded to this question of badness is this notion of village celebrations, of panegyri, of annual celebrations that can be predicted, i.e. the harvest, the putting up of food stuffs, marriage, when the sun would be at it’s longest peak etc. etc. and along with these things that are predicted, they came up with this highly articulated notion of music that was therapeutic.
AD: The “psychological balm,” as you say.
Christopher King: Yeah, so that would be the “philosophical theme” for this collection. The next collection, which focuses on Kitsos Harisiadis, is basically a meditation on this notion of identity, what it’s like to be deeply placed within a culture and not ever having left that culture. See, Kitsos Harisiadis was born roughly the same time period as Alexis Zoumbas in roughly the exact same place, playing the exact same material except Kitsos Harisiadis was on clarinet and Zoumbas was on violin. However, Zoumbas moved to the United States at the turn of the last century. Kitsos Harisiadis did not. He stayed there. We can ask ourselves, what does it mean to play a traditional form of music when you’re completely embedded and you never leave that culture? What does it say about your own personality, your own uniqueness, your own idiosyncratic nature? Versus somebody such as Zoumbas who has the exact same background, context, but then he moves to the United States, and something changes with his music—it changes profoundly. I suggest, I argue that it’s this deep context of xenetia, of being uprooted and moving to a different location and longing for your homesoil. And this gives your music a particular type of sadness, a particular type of effervescence that you really can’t translate unless you’re put within that context.
And of course, Zoumbas—because he relocated to America, he learned a lot of other styles, Turkish and Armenian and other styles when he was in New York, and so therefore technically speaking he matured as an artist, whereas Kitsos Harisiadis never really had that opportunity to be exposed to different elements outside of traditional Epirotic music. And yet his music is just as overpowering, just as emotionally visceral as Zoumbas’. But there are differences. It’s just this question of identity. I wish I could give you a better, simpler answer, but that’s kind of the whole thing, that these are not simple questions.
AD: Did you foresee a narrative arc to these serializations? Or has the scope evolved as you’ve located and discovered what records are out there over the years?
Christopher King: Well the original mapping of the serialization I sketched out when I did Don’t Trust Your Neighbors was more or less cemented in my mind. It has not been a process of questioning, but rather a process of realization. Having heard the records and having known what’s out there, it’s just been really a process of acquiring them and understanding them and then writing about them both in an analytic sense as well as in a poetic sense. There is a resolution to it all. The First collection was Don’t Trust Your Neighbors, and the last collection in the serialization is going to be called Don’t Mock the Afflicted. Where it ends with a collection of both Albanian as well as Epirotic music that cross-fertilized one another, you know, suggesting that there is a resolution to this music.
AD: Are there certain records that you have heard of but maybe have not listened to—or listened to more than once— that need to be acquired for these next collections?
Christopher King: Yeah, there are ones that I’ve heard. For instance, my friend in Athens, Elias Barounis, with whom I both trade but also buy records from, he happens to have 2 Epirotic 78s that I desperately need that I’ve heard over the last I don’t know, 3 years since I’ve been visiting him. And eventually I’m going to get them (chuckles). One of them happens to be a solo violin with vocal piece, Stis Deropolis Ton Kambo’s “On the Deropolis Plain,” and that piece is on the Five Days Married and Other Laments. However this is a completely different version by Demitrios Halkias, and it’s sung with almost an Albanian inflection, implying in my mind that Demitrios Halkias was a relatively recent immigrant from Albania to Northern Greece at the turn of the last century, and so it belongs on the last collection, that is to say, “Don’t Mock the Afflicted,” but it’s just a question of me actually acquiring the actual physical copy from him since it’s the only known copy, I have to get it out of his hands.
Aquarium Drunkard: To your ears, are there prominent inflections or musical gestures that you pick up on immediately that tells you whether it’s Albanian tradition or Greek tradition you’re hearing?
Christopher King: Oh yeah. To the trained ear you can pick up on all kinds of nuances, particularly in the clarinet playing, that betray whether or not whether it’s Albanian or it’s Northern Greek. A lot of it has to do with the sort of coarseness of the phrasing or whether or not the glissando on the clarinet is ascending or descending. That kind of betrays right there whether it’s from Albania, if it’s in the ascending manner, or if it’s descending it would be Epirotic. But they both kind of have real dark shades to them, and I guess unlike a moth, I’m not really attracted to the light, but rather I’m kind of attracted to the dark.
AD: You write that Epirus produces the world’s best clarinet players. What makes them so outstanding?
Christopher King: Ah shit, because I think they wake up in the morning and they go to sleep at night with their clarinets. They’re neither classically trained musicians nor are they, in the Western sense, professional musicians, but rather what they learn is essentially homemade or homegrown or homeschooled. They hear these particular phrases or motifs such as the ostinato, you know, the persistent repetition of a phrase or the glissando, and then they will then kind of woodshed that within their family until they’re ready to go out and play their first panegyri, their first glendi. And once you experience that living culture, it makes sense to you… it makes sense why they are so fucking great.
For instance, in America like if a rock group goes and plays a concert, I think that they might play like an hour and a half set—you’d know more about this than I do, I don’t think… I can’t even recall a rock group that I’ve seen perform besides Boris—but they play for like an hour and a half or two hours and they might have a break or something. But when you go to Epirus and you go to a panegyri or to a glendi… it’s not… it’s not unexpected to see them play for 9 or 10 hours with maybe a break, you know, every 5 hours to have a drink of water. So it’s a different way of both learning the instrument as well as playing the instrument, and that is why it’s so perfectly crafted.
AD: The conception of time is completely different than any sort of Western pop music.
Christopher King: Because a piece on a 78 obviously is about 3 minutes and 30 seconds on average, and when you listen to a CD nowadays of people playing, I think that that effect of making a song last a few minutes is kind of hardwired into American popular music ever since the turn of the last century. But there, you listen to a piece and you look at your watch and you realize, shit, they’ve been playing this for 25 minutes and you just don’t realize it.
AD: Since you’ve been to Epirus and attended these marathon performances, do you ever fantasize about a super, gigantic format 78 that could hold, say, 5 hours of recorded time and what the differences might have been? Would you speculate on that just for fun?
Christopher King: At the beginning of the book, I quote this Arabic musician slash music critic (Kamil Al-Khulai) who basically says listening to the 78 is like eating with false teeth. The disconnect is always there. Even if I had a 78 that could capture a performance for 2 hours, it would not capture the entire dynamic of the environment and of the interactive nature of the music. For instance, I have some transfers from a friend of mine in Aristi of one of the best Zagorian groups from that region, and this was recorded in the 60s. In his words… his actual phrase was, “this was when the fire actually was bright.” i.e. in his mind, this was when the music was still vibrant and alive. And you listen to it and you can hear the music bouncing off the walls and you can hear the sort of drunken exuberance being shouted by different members of the group and you can hear some movement in the background, but what’s really lacking is the overall, interactive dynamic of having, you know, 2000 people dancing and drinking and participating in the music. That’s just something that you can’t really capture with any kind of media.
AD: Truly. You write a lot about how this music is derived from rural practices—herding sheep. I believe in the liner notes for Mountains you write about how the shepherd’s flute is almost like a translator, a way to communicate between the species of human and sheep.
Christopher King: Yeah
AD: And you were talking about how the Epirotic clarinetists wake up and go to bed with their clarinet, almost as if it’s an appendage or some piece of clothing or something—
Christopher King: Exactly. It’s not a musical instrument; it’s an actual tool for survival would be the best way of putting it.
AD: Do you mind doing an outline of the basic forms here, like the mirologi and the skaros—these same 3 or 4 song forms appear across these collections
Christopher King: Right, yeah, well the two principle instrumental variations that come up in all the last serializations that I’ve done have been the skaros, mirologi, and variations in between. The Albanian kaba is very similar to those forms, as is the tzamara, the sherpherd’s flute song, which Zoumbas of course recorded and is also on Why the Mountains Are Black. But they’re essentially improvised instrumentals that are based on the pentatonic scale in the keys of g major and g minor. They move back and forth between the major and the minor key, and their original function was meant to sort of placate or call together or calm a shepherd’s herd when they were being played to. That is to say the skaros and the tzamara. The mirologi has a different function, i.e. it’s a lamentation based upon originally the vocalized lament that would have been sung at the grave, or by the graveside of somebody recently deceased, and that kind of lamentation goes all the way back at least 25 hundred years, but probably more like 35 or 45 hundred… Homer actually has lamentations, has mirologi, in The Odyssey and in The Illiad. The verses that are found in in The Odyssey and in The Illiad can be accurately mapped to verses that are being sung now.
AD: Well now let me ask you about improvisation in this music… because there’s definitely a songbook of sorts—similar tunes or melodies or gestures that pop up or define what a song is—but improvisation is such a big element.
Christopher King: If you listen really carefully—it’s not obvious, but then again I don’t really make these things so that they’re terribly obvious or didactic, but there are 3 different performances of “Aetos,” “the Eagle,” on Why the Mountains Are Black. They are essentially the same melody, but you know, performed in such radically different manners as to be almost unrecognizable.
AD: Yeah, it seems like the improvisation almost outweighs the—I say text of the song—the codified version of the song. For example if you’re listening to American Appalachian tunes or something… a tune manifests distinctly across hundreds of different recordings despite the variations and interpretations. There seems to be something solid about the melody itself, the shape of the melody. These Greek songs go haywire in a much more extreme way.
Christopher King: That’s because they’re much more isolated.
AD: Can you talk a bit about “The Nightingale?”
Christopher King: Yeah, “Selfos.” yeah that’s one of my favorites on there.
AD: Yeah, it’s amazing. It appears on Why The Mountains Are Black, but it’s also on Five Days Married.
Christopher King: Yeah, it’s in Five Days Married but also Zoumbas performs a variation of that, or rather he recorded a variation of that also called “Selfos.” A slower version of that is the “Tzamara,” the shepherd’s tune. But the “Selfos” itself is a piece that utilizes a scale-ular structure i.e. a mode or what you would call a dramoi, which is most popular in the Zagori area. Essentially, there’s this use of what they call transitive notes, even though it has a strictly defined series of notes is what we would call a scale in the West.
In Cretan and Turkish thought, it’s a dramoi, a road that you follow—it’s a guidepost. These are the notes that you need to hit, however you can make exceptions here and there. So for instance, the dramoi might include both the F note as well as the Bb note, but you can use F# and B as transitive notes and what it does is it increases tension within the piece when you listen to it. So when you listen to the “Selfos” as performed by Halkias on Why The Mountains Are Black, you’ll hear at the end of that very first phrase, roughly 28, 29 seconds into his playing, that he rests on the B natural, which is the first time that he ever touches B. everything up until that point has been Bb, but when he rests on B natural, then suddenly the whole piece elevates in tension just a little bit, and then he stays on that Bb and then he returns back to the original mode. And then he ends up in C about 10 seconds later, when everything up until that point has been B. So it’s just a way of elevating the emotional or psychological tension on the listener.
AD: I think the closeness of those intervals too—if you’re thinking in sort of western music theory, like a minor second, a half step, is something that can be so dissonant, but the space of the interval is also very small (the smallest), and I think that that smallness is the greatest sort of tension.
Christopher King: Yeah, it really pulls in a listener.
AD: There’s kind of an onomatopoeia chirping sound that the violin does in the “Selfos” that seems to appear in you know, in the “Karagouna” dance and the “Tzamara”—
Christopher King: It’s all the same thing. You’re basically playing harmonics on the e string, cocking your “fret hand” at the fourth position, right where the fingerboard drops off into the abyss, and you’re basically creating a harmonic by very lightly touching the string below the first finger with your index finger. Then by applying different degrees of pressure with your bow, you’re either able to get a bird chirping sound, or you’re able to get smooth harmonics.
AD: Those really tight intervals get almost microtonal. Do you listen to much like… Carnatic violin music, like southern Indian violin music?
Christopher King: I have a pretty nice stack of 78s of southern Indian violin music, and that’s actually one of the collections that I want to put out once I finish this Greek/Balkan serialization. It is music that I think that was intended to put you under, you know, sort of like snake charming your mind. Shri Gajanan Karnad is my favorite; I have all of his 78s, but also the Indian snake charming tunes, which I have quite a few of too.
AD: Wow. I’ll be excited to hear that when you get around to it.
Christopher King: Yeah but I mean… I don’t know if I would necessarily call the it microtonal, although I guess in certain traditions it would be microtonal, particularly when you’re talking about Armenian music and obviously Southern Indian music. But what it does really do, it begs a question, you know? Not what this music is, but what is the function of this music. Because those particular scales, those particular arrangements of notes are purposeful, you know, they actually do serve a function, you know, and we’re now in a 21st century, and have we actually lost the ability to fathom what the functionality of a music might have been or what it could be?
AD: Can you talk a little bit about the Third Man connection and why this particular installment you decided to have it come out on Third Man.
Christopher King: Well I mean the basic story—and it’s not terribly exciting—is that in the world of reissues, in the world of putting out old music, there are at least 2 different approaches. There is the really easy to parse, easy to digest, easy to pitch projects. The “man bites dog” things that NPR, for instance, would easily pick up—like Amede Ardoin—those are things that are both very easy to both do but also to pitch because they’re, frankly, easy to digest. They have a very straightforward story. On the opposite end of the spectrum are the things that are deeply impressionistic, that depend upon the producer’s mind and less on the actual existence of the recordings. It’s the producer putting things together to fit his mind and not the other way around.
With Third Man, I would say that their starting point is one of aesthetics. They value the creativity of the artist on the same par as they would value the creativity of a producer putting together things. So they would rather put out meaningful, thought provoking collections that may not sell so well because their concern is primarily with the aesthetics. It moves them, so therefore why not put it out?
AD: Can you talk a little bit about R. Crumb and the cover art? I know he’s a private guy and also one of the most legendary collectors of rare 78s. He does all the beautiful art for these serializations—do you know him via the trade?
Christopher King: We’re friends, but we’re also collectors. And to paraphrase Burroughs—who I tend to paraphrase or quote a lot—friendship is predicated upon a notion of exchange. And with us, yes, we’re friends, but it’s predicated upon a notion of exchange. I trade him rare 78s and he trades me beautiful artwork. And it’s just as simple as that. I mean, he does deeply dig this music, i.e. music from Epirus as well as Albania and we have talked about it quite a bit, but it’s basically like any other commerce, I give you X and you give me Y. words / a spoto