The music of Maeandros bandleader Mavrothi Kontanis, a Greek-American oudist and singer from Jersey City, revisits the era before World War I, when the diverse cultures around the Aegean Sea were much better integrated and Turks, Greeks, and Armenians coexisted more or less peacefully. Kontanis makes a specialty of “Smyrneika,” a term usually used to refer to the repertoire that emerged from Turkish cities like Constantinople (Istanbul) and Smyrna (Izmir). Those communities purged their Greek and Armenian populations when Kemal Ataturk consolidated power and formed the Republic of Turkey, and many of the people resettled in Greece, particularly in Athens and Salonika; in the 20s singers like Roza Eskanazi, Rita Abadzi, and Antonios Dalgas began recording these beautiful songs, which ruminate on love, death, and the travails of exile, laying the groundwork for the rougher sounds of rembetika. Kontanis’s faithful renditions on the self-released Sto Kafesli Sokaki, where he’s accompanied by violin, clarinet, kanun, and kemence in various combinations, make the common Ottoman roots of Greek and Arabic music audible, and the superb instrumental material on Kyslini Kardia (“Wooden Heart”) further underlines the connection. These aren’t musty re-creations, though—the arrangements are lively, the
performances are vigorous, and Kontanis’s singing glows with soulfulness and sorrow.
He’s joined here by violinist Megan Gould
and percussionist Timothy Quigley. —Peter Margasak