Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The NRR Project: 'Smyrneikos Balos'

Smyrneikos Balos


Performed by Marika Papagika; accompanists unknown

Recorded 1928


It took a while for ethnic music to be represented on American recordings. Frankly, at the beginning record companies wanted popular hits; for a few decades they maximized mainstream music production, putting out whatever they thought would catch the fancy of the widest possible audience.

But gradually it came to be realized that there were smaller but markedly more enthusiastic groups of folks that would buy ethnic music, specifically music from their homeland. The pangs of assimilating into American culture were tempered by an adherence to and affection for old, traditional cultural creations, helping to maintain the identity of the immigrants.

Marika Papagika was among the earliest Greek-American artists to be recorded. She was born on the island of Kos in 1890; she began her recording career in Alexandria, Egypt in 1913-14. Soon after that, she and her husband Kostas (Gus) immigrated to America. Over the course of 1918-19, she began to record for both Victor and Columbia. The subset of ethnic music fans snapped up her recordings, making her famous in the context of the Greek-American community.

In 1925, she and her husband opened a nightclub (and speakeasy), Marika’s, at 34th and 8th in Manhattan. There, the Greek-American, and migrants from other regions near the old country, settled in for food, conversation, and entertainment. \

It is estimated that she recorded at least 232 sides during her American recording career, 1918-1929. All were songs from the old country. She was accompanied by her husband on the cymbalom, and by others at various times on violin, cello, and clarinet.

Her soprano voice is clear and vibrant, keening at one moment and slurring into a note-quaver the next. Smyrneikos Balos is a dance tune, but it is also a lover’s lament, and even those of us with no Greek can catch the energy of longing she puts into the song.

Marika’s closed in 1930, and Marika more or less retired. Still, her 78 r.p.m. slices of sounds from home comforted its listeners.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Next up: the Standing Rock Preservation Recordings.



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