Known for its great warriors, wordsmiths and wise men, the legacy of Ancient Greece lives on in every aspect of modern society; breathing the energy of this era into song, singer and percussionist Katerina Papadopoulou joins us to discuss her journey in creating an album that re-imagines songs of this epoch in her most authentic record yet.
“When I am a teacher, I have to be accurate. When I am a singer, I have to be free"
In September of 2021, we sat down to speak with Greek folk singer and ancient music enthusiast Katerina Papadopoulou after the release of her latest album, Anástasis: A Journey Through Old Greek Music. Through our discussions with her, and inspired by her recreations of her nation’s glorious past, we resolved to tell her tale through the medium of a Greek play… we failed. Here’s a feature we wrote instead.
Greece, 2018. Discontent abounded. Wildfires raged across the Thracian hillsides, political disputes over the naming of what is now known as North Macedonia continued to rumble on, and in Athens, our protagonist on this adventure, Katerina Papadopoulou was feeling creatively unfulfilled. Though she has spent many years producing music inspired by the folk traditions of the numerous regions of Greece, she, at that moment in time, had not achieved true musical autonomy. Swayed by the naysayers who felt aggrieved by her reinterpretations of Greek folkloric history, whilst at the same time beholden to the rigorous training she received in Greek traditional music from her masters, Papadopoulou needed a fresh start. In her view, music should be a transcendent experience. “When I sing, I really want to leave life, to leave that world, I just want to go to another dimension and when this happens, I know that everything is right. If I do not manage to do so, I think I have not succeeded in that.”
Papadopoulou’s relationship with music and history have been years in the making. Since her early years, she has been fascinated by her country’s rich traditions and almost unfathomable history. In her childhood, she grew up with music all around her. She recounted memories of her mother singing to her traditional songs from the Peloponnese, as well as songs and dances she learned as part of a youth choir. “Greece has a very great gift, let’s say, because we have a great civilisation from the past from far away, and the great thing about this is it never stopped existing, so, indeed, from the antiquity we have songs coming from there.” She continued, “[it is] a civilisation that never stopped, passing from Byzantium and coming through to nowadays. So, this is very special and actually we do not know what a great gift this is.”
This great gift of immense cultural patrimony is something that must be both felt, but also understood with deep academic rigour. For most of her musical output, intense archival research is required, particularly to understand how the music was performed, particularly at feasts. Despite the fact that, in contrast to the theatrical, political, scientific, and philosophical traditions of Ancient Greece, where much was written down, the folk music of Greece, which stretches back to classical times, has remained a largely oral tradition. As Papadopoulou notes, the Greeks want to keep it that way, but that also means her job requires her to learn not just from archives, but from the Greek people themselves. She told us that in the many islands and villages of Greece, there is a wide variation in the relationship that the villagers have to music, when compared to city-dwellers. “We have people in the islands and the villages that they sing and dance and play instruments and they don’t think this is important”, said Papadopoulou, pointing to the fact that music is more of a part of their everyday lives in those villages, and they do not have to think so much about its preservation.
This knowledge of music was not only gleaned from her many travels across the Hellenic peninsula meeting the locals, but was also shaped by her interactions with many other musicians, stating “the more you have to do with other musicians the more you learn,” mentioning the different methods of singing and playing that are found in every region. Though the perspective of contemporary folk musicians from other regions served as an endless font of knowledge, it is perhaps musicians and scholars that have come before her that inspired her the most. One teacher she heralds as a great influence was Domna Samiou, who “devoted her life [to] travelling all over Greece and collecting songs from the old”, compiling a large archive of her own, as well as recording her own songs. What Papadopoulou felt most galvanised by from Samiou’s extraordinary career was her immense dedication and devotion in giving herself to her music, which was felt through the way she used to sing.
Samiou’s passion for her art inspires Papadopoulou not only creatively, but has also influenced her ethos in the way she wants to work and the way she sees other musicians. “People that give themselves to music inspire me. Everyone that does so, everyone who is true about it. I don’t like lying and I don’t like people who lie in music. When a singer lies, I cannot listen to him, when a musician lies when he plays, I stop listening to him, I go to another room.” When pressed on what this meant, she elaborated that she responds only to musicians that are true to themselves. “When I play music, I have to feel myself, I do not need to do things for others, not for any audience. So for me lying is when you sometimes want to exaggerate, to show off, to show that you know many things… My need is to listen to musicians who can play music in the way that he feels, I want to see him.”
Though Papadopoulou nowadays can proudly declare that she practices what she preaches, there was a time when she felt unable to do so. Speaking of the fidelity to ancient music, she told us that she felt fettered by the strictness of some of her masters and their unwavering and scrupulous adherence to rigid traditions. In feeling this way, Papadopoulou herself was falling victim to the same problems she identified earlier, inasmuch as her music was not truly an expression of herself. Being authentic in art is something that is the driving force of most creatives when they begin their career, however being overly influenced by external figures, be it masters, record labels, or mainstream audiences, is a trap that many fall into, including Papadopoulou at one point. This creative rut is what later motivated her to create two albums that she calls “really Katerina”.
However, Papadopoulou was not only trying to flourish away from the watchful gaze of her masters, she also has come under fire from critics who view reinterpretations of Ancient Greek music to be diluting their glorious past and as untrue to their cultural heritage. While Greece has been part of the global public consciousness in recent years due to their economic crises, there have been plenty of other debates about many aspects of Greek life that have caused a real sense of division within society on the ground. From the debate over the admittance of refugees, to the relationship with Greece's various neighbours, many of Greece's problems have been related to a confusion over how to either protect their distinguished history or how to make it flourish.
This argument extends to what to do with art, which the Greeks feel so immensely proud about, in the sense that its historical weight leaves some feeling left overwhelmed by the prospect of introducing it into the modern world. “We have these people that want to preserve and put in a museum and close the window”, Papadopoulou said to us. In response to these audiences who do not appreciate her work, she stated that her work is not that of cultural preservation, and that she loved her country and its past, “but the fact is not to preserve, because if you want to preserve, you put in a museum, and you close the door and the window, and you say ‘oh, wow, what a civilisation!’ but what is real is to take it and so this is yours, and then to explore and give. This is the way. Otherwise, you are the one that kills that.” Thus, for her, despite also reckoning with the shared history, her music is a resurrection of sorts.
However, despite the conflict, Papadopoulou does not regard her work as political, though one cannot deny the irony of this statement when she then goes on to say, “I don’t think that music is politics or traditional Greek music belongs to Greece”, when considering her previous views on cultural preservation. She further elucidated that, in her view, “music is for everyone and actually I don’t know exactly what was happening aeons ago, so I don’t know where I could be from, my ancestors, I don’t know.” She continued, “I was born in Athens, I live in Athens, I claim to be Greek, but who knows what happened!” As she correctly states, “Greek music is not mine, I am just the means.”
Just like Papadopoulou has gone on a journey of her own, with her reactions, perceptions, and understanding of her artform that constantly evolve, so too have the audiences’ responses. When beginning her career in the 1990s, she noted that “people then were even more closed” than they are now. The youth thought that the music was “for the old people” and therefore “forbidden”, but now “they can feel truth, they can feel that this is alive.” There is a thriving traditional Greek music scene that only more recently has started attracting younger people, though Papadopoulou told us that traditional folk has become the flavour of the month in alternative music circles. Though one might assume she appreciates this inclusion of folk in other styles, she in fact disparages it, calling it “not in-depth”, stating that “they do not want to study, they do not want to make archive work, they just want to use a little bit from this flavour, this topping”, and that this use of music “without knowing what is hiding behind all that” barely penetrates the surface.
However, Papadopoulou acknowledges that there is a difference to her work when she is performing, versus when she is teaching. During the latter she understandably sticks to the facts and teaches with historical accuracy, but when she is performing, all that plays second fiddle to how she feels in the moment. “It’s like you dive into the sea, and you just leave it and you are free in there. It takes you. It is powerful, eh? You are just an object.” This is reflected in the international make-up of her music, most notably a series of collaborations with Catalan composer Jordi Savall, as well as her inclusion of the Spanish lute, which she acknowledges would not have been used in ancient times but is still included in her latest works because she likes the sound.
Though the lyrics that she chooses to sing are of course incredibly important to her, with each change to the text of the folk songs painstakingly pored over, she only does so if it is in service of her own musical feelings and how that will be conveyed to the audience. Her audiences’ understanding of those lyrics is by the by, as Papadopoulou delights in introducing the sounds of Ancient Greek music to listeners across the planet, stating that she “[doesn’t] make music for Greeks, [she makes] music for people.” In fact, proof of the international scope and appeal of her music is twofold; her latest record Anástasis, though self-funded, was picked up by the Dutch record label Saphrane for international release. Furthermore, the editors of this site, who gained a great interest in and appreciation of Papadopoulou’s music, are not Greek speakers.
Anástasis, which translates to English as resurrection, was released earlier this year, and it marks something of a “personal resurrection” for Papadopoulou herself, a process that began in earnest with the recording and release of Notio Toxo in Karpathos in 2019, an album recorded in a secluded monastery named Agios Georgios on the pristine island of Karpathos. She reminisced, “[this was] something I cannot forget in a way, something very strong emotionally, and I intend to do so in the future, to go to another remote island in Greece, another remote, forgotten place and record there, not in a studio.” This musical freedom spurred her on to record Anástasis: A Journey Through Old Greek Music, alongside her band Anastatica. The album is immensely beautiful due to its soft tones that take the listener on a journey across the former Hellenic Empire, however there are some more lively tunes, which one can imagine dancing raucously to, such as Croon – Mary’s Embroidery, which come in stark contrast to tunes such as Aspro e to Charti and the beautiful opener, Rise, which utilises a stripped-back lyre accompaniment. She even sings in different ancient dialects, such as on the song Yiannes and The Dragon which is sung in Pontic, and adapts a Hebrew lullaby on Numi Numi or Rose of Jericho. The inclusion of the track with the name rose of Jericho is rather fitting, not only due to its status as a resurrection plant, but also because Papadopoulou’s backing band takes its name from the Latin nomenclature for this particular plant.
According to Papadopoulou, this personal resurrection “also affected my music and the way I see music.” Her rigidity when it came to sticking to the laws laid down by her teachers was something she felt was holding her back, and as such, for this album she let the emotions of the music engulf her during the live recording, and she was less concerned with the technical details and minutiae of the historical accuracy. As she put it, “one of my resurrections was to leave this all behind and be free to do music like I feel it.” It seems like her personal resurrection almost comes to a peak during the song Romana, which, as a homage to womanhood from ages gone by, feels rather fitting as Papadopoulou has seemingly used these women as an inspiration for her own journey, setting herself free from the shackles of her previous creative inhibitions. The way in which she sings on that track feels almost cleansing, as she sets forward a new future ahead of her. The resurrection theme may appear to be present in the very substance of the album itself, as she is reviving and recording ancient songs, yet Papadopoulou does not see it that way. She told us, “this is alive for me. This is something that never stopped and never died.” As such, she is traversing down an ancient, yet vibrant, musical “tunnel”.
One other way in which this is fully Papadopoulou’s own endeavour is in the fact that, international distribution of the album aside, she self-funds all the research and musical work, only making a living from her live performances. Though some of the aforementioned critics may scold her for reinterpreting ancient Greek music, one cannot fault Papadopoulou for her evident passion in this travail, as she does so totally unsupported financially. This self-motivated study of Greek history and music has strengthened her own Greek identity, in some way feeling the weight of her nation’s immense cultural heritage on her shoulders. “I feel Greek because I carry this. I seem to carry one part of a great civilisation, I don’t think about that, but I feel that this is very important and I feel that in a way I am under that.” However, in keeping with her views on music making, she does not feel the need to keep it immutable. For her, culture is marked by change. “If it is alive it changes, it needs to change to be alive”, she said sagely.
In terms of the future, she feels confident that the lustrous allure of Greek folk music will endure in the years to come. “I think this is so powerful that it is difficult to stop… it will not stop when I go away.” Papadopoulou hopes that not only will her own freer interpretations of Ancient Greek culture attract younger audiences, she nonetheless understands that the stories themselves are timeless and will continue to fascinate and inspire audiences across Greece and around the world. Having come through the other side of her “resurrection” feeling liberated creatively, she hopes to continue making albums that are truthful to her own musical impulses, and as such has plans on fulfilling her desires to create an album of Byzantine music. “I have to be free and take this that I have studied, and let it pass through me, so this is the way I give my opinion, my musical opinion: after study, but letting it pass through me.”