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Domna Samiou: ‘Money is no motivation; deep love for your art is.’

The Grand Dame of Greek Folk Music

Domna Samiou

October 12, 1928-March 10, 2012

One of Greece’s leading folk singers, Domna Samiou, passed away on March 10, leaving an irreplaceable gap in traditional Greek music and culture. Suffering from leukemia, the legendary folk singer had been hospitalized at Athens’ Amalia Fleming Hospital. She was 84.

Her life's work was to preserve and promote Greek traditional music, especially the legacies of rural Greece, while simultaneously creating new sounds. With her ethnographic fieldwork she systematically recorded Greek cultural activity in its natural context, and with the videos she produced she was able to document the Greece of yesteryear and preserve it forever. Her field notes and other manuscript materials, photographs, videotapes, and ephemera today promoted and maintained the melodic beauty of Greek traditional music, otherwise known as "Dimotika.”

domnaShe first began studying Byzantine and traditional music at the age of 13, with Simonas Karas at the Association for the Teaching of National Music. She was discovered and sent to Karas by the head of a wealthy Athens family in whose home Samiou was working as a domestic helper. While doing household chores, Samiou would church hymns. The head mistress took note, and sent the young girl to Karas, a master of the Byzantine musical art. As a member of the Simonas Karas choir, she also started to appear on the state radio station EIR, where she was later hired to the National Music Section in 1954 and came into contact with some of the country's greatest musicians.

Samiou was born in the poor Athens neighborhood of Kaisariani, on October 12, 1928. Her parents were refugees from Bayrindi, Smyrna. They had fled to Greece in 1922 during the Asia Minor Catastrophe.

She lost her sister and father during the Greek Depression era. With her family living in extreme poverty, Samiou took a job as a domestic in the home of a wealthy Athens family.  and due to extreme poverty, the 13-year-old was taken in as household help by a wealthy Athens family. As a young girl she would often sing the church songs her mother taught her while doing the chores. Hearing the young girl’s striking singing voice, the mistress of the house sent Samiou to Simon Karas, a leading figure in the documentation and preservation of Byzantine and "demotika" (Greek folk) musical traditions at the Association for the Dissemination of National Music. At the Association Samiou was tutored in Byzantine and folk music, and introduced to the idea of field research in music.

Domna Samiou, ‘Tzivaeri,’ a beloved traditional Greek song

Karas, discerning not only her talent but also her thirst for knowledge, became her teacher and mentor and would pave the way for what would later become her lifelong commitment.

Samiou's most important contribution to Greek and World music, is not her vocal talent--a stentorian gift of crystal clarity--but her extensive research and archive of local "demotika" music traditions, which she accumulated first as a radio producer and later as a documentary maker for Greece's Public Broadcaster (ERT). Her first professional collaboration was with the National Radio Foundation (E.I.R.), the state-run national radio station of Greece at the time, when she was a member of the Simon Karas choir. In 1954 she became a full-time employee of the station, working in the National Music Section, in effect the folk music section of E.I.R.

In 1963, Samiou started travelling independently around Greece in order to take field notes and collect music material for her personal archive. With a tape recorder over her shoulder she traveled across the country, stopping in the most isolated of Greek villages in the mainland and islands and during local feasts, celebrations, funerals or over coffee would record the locals as they spoke about the songs they learned from their parents, which they later sang.

"That's how I created my own archive of thousands of songs. I would go to the local coffee shop and ask whether they knew anyone who sang well. Usually the response was 'Kyra Maria sang wonderfully... but she died,'" she told one interviewer.

In 1971 she left her radio job entirely to focus on her own musical career, accepting an invitation by the composer and performer Dionyssis Savvopoulos to sing at a club called Rodeo, frequented by a youthful anti-junta audience.

Δ?μνα Σαμ?ου - Γιωργ?τσα, Domna Samiou

In 1981, Samiou founded the Domna Samiou Greek Folk Music Association, a non-profit organization aimed mainly at preserving and promoting Greek traditional music and facilitating the production of records and musical events to the highest standards, free from the demands of commercial record companies. Her dream was to bring traditional groups to Greece from around the world and exchange traditions and insight, but due to lack of funding it never materialized.

Samiou's work reached beyond the borders of Greece. Her records have been produced for French and Swedish labels. For some forty years she performed all over the world, in places as distant as Australia and South America, appealing not only to the Greek diaspora, but also introducing non-Greek audiences to “Greek music with no Bouzouki,” as one critic in Sweden put it.

In her work she has collaborated with the most renowned Greek and foreign musicians, musicologists, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists. In 1994 she began teaching traditional folk singing to adults at the Museum of Popular Musical Instruments of Athens. She also initiated, taught and promoted many young musicians, and actively and selflessly undertook numerous initiatives to improve musical education in primary schooling.

Her work has been recognized both within and outside Greece. In 2005, the former President of the Hellenic Republic, Costis Stefanopoulos, presented her with a medal of honor for her overall contribution in preserving the cultural heritage of Greek rural music.

Samiou served Greek traditional music for over half a century with undying commitment. She performed everywhere from the tiny villages of Greece nestled in the mountains to the prestigious international festivals across the globe. Her example is one of dedication, determination, constant yearning, learning and love.

Asked in a 2002 interview what advice she would give to young people interested in singing demotia: "Money is no motivation; deep love for your art is."



Domna Samiou In Her Own Words

On the Kaisariani neighborhood of her youth:

We lived in a hut near the unassuming church of Agios Nikolas. Things were much simpler and humble back then. Every Sunday my father would take me to church and it was my greatest pleasure. I would wear the only dress I had and run to hear the mesmerizing hymns. Whenever I saw a wedding or even a funeral--because back then everything took place in the streets--I would join the procession just to chant along. I couldn't wait for Apokries (Carnival Season) and the Easter period. I'd go to church and I knew all the hymns by heart. A child is like a sponge. To this day, now that I'm old, I know all the hymns word for word. The only thing that upset me was that I couldn't join the boys and chant in church and I would always complain to my mother: "Why didn't you make me a
boy so I too could sing with the others?"

Yehudi Menuhin accompanies Domna Samiou on a traditional song from East Thrace

On her childhood influences:

My father was a chanter at church and I remember when I was a child there was a small kafeneio next to our hut where the men would gather every night to have an ouzaki--a sardine, an olive or two. At around eight or nine they'd go home singing and I clearly remember Kyr Vangelis who had a horse and carriage and sold vegetables--he would pass in front of the house always in a merry mood, he was a meraklis (enthusiast). My childhood years were very poor but there was kindness and compassion, people knew each other and they all helped out. They felt your pain and were happy in your joy. Things were different. In summer people would pull out footstools and sit in the road singing and speaking while kids played ball. We didn't know that in Kolonaki--a stone's throw away--things were different. And kids don't care. When you know that everyone eats the same thing, wears the same shoes, does the same things you don't feel different.

On meeting Simon Karas:

In 1941 during the Depression, which was a very gloomy period, I became a domestic helper at a house in Kolonaki because I would starve. I was only 13 and had already lost my father and sister. While I was doing the chores I sang hymns. The mistress of the house heard me and told her brother-in-law. He took me to Karas, who took me under his wing immediately. I am grateful to this woman. Karas taught me many things. I learned about the demotika [Greek folk song] and that each region has its own musical style, rhythms, instruments and dances that accompany the music. I stayed by his side for 20 years. I think my teacher [she respectfully calls him daskalos meaning master] tuned in to the passion I had and noticed that I loved to sing. I also had an ability to learn fast and was able to mimic the idiomatic styles of each region whether it was a song from Pontos, Epirus, Cyprus, Crete, mainland Greece or the Peloponnese.

My relationship with the teacher was a milestone in my life. Karas had a profound knowledge of Byzantine music and by extent demotika. The fundamentals of demotika are deeply embedded in Byzantine music. When Karas taught us a plagal mode, underneath the church hymn on the blackboard he would add an example of a folk song that was based on the same sound.

On major turning point:

In 1960, an American came to EIR offices and sold me an Ucher recorder. I didn't have all the money. It cost 6,000 drs and my monthly salary was 1,000 drs. But I borrowed and bought it. And in my teacher's footsteps, I set off for the rural villages of Greece with the recorder hanging from my shoulder and started chronicling on tape traditional songs unique to each region. That's how I created my own archive of thousands of songs. I would go to the kafeneio or village council and ask whether they knew anyone who sang well. Usually the response was "Kyra Maria sang wonderfully... but she died."

On the the future of Greek folk music and her advice to young people interested in singing demotika:

When I saw the participation of hundreds of students during the education ministry-backed student song competition a few years back, I couldn't help but be optimistic. Demotika are respected particularly in rural Greece. Many young people love it--just look at the group that accompanies me. I would recommend they take it seriously. It's difficult to interpret the demotika and they should not expect an easy profit. Money is no motivation, deep love for your art is.

Visit Domna Samiou’s website

Athens News, Dec. 6, 2002

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