Dimitris Mitropanos died today. He was one of the greatest singers of Greek demotic music.
I haven’t talked much about how I learned Greek. Those who read regularly will know that I am fluent in Greek and translate professionally. But that wasn’t always the case. When I was 17 years old, I heard Greek spoken for the first time, in a Greek film. I started taking daily Greek classes when I was 18, but it took many years of hard work to learn the language fluently. One of the best things I did was to start listening to Greek music. In fact, by the time I was 19 and until I met S, a classical musician, I only ever listened to Greek music. I would look up the words in my Greek-English dictionary and sift through my Greek textbooks to figure out the grammar (which was usually straightforward), and sing along in my very untrained way; Greek songs formed the backdrop of my life for a decade.
Greek music of every type contributed more than any other one element – even more than the classes I took every single day for years – to learning the language. From the very beginning, Dimitris Mitropanos was my favorite singer. Back in those days, you couldn’t just download songs off the internet, so I made trips to New York City to buy his CDs from the Greek Music & Video shop in Astoria. When I went to Greece, I never went home without at least 20 new CDs. I even had cassettes of Greek music!
As the years passed, I matured beyond the silly Greek pop music that was the soundtrack to my junior year abroad in Athens, but I never stopped listening to Mitropanos. His songs are mostly sad love songs, mostly stories of being hurt but still loving. I can’t remember a single time of personal despair in my 20s that wasn’t somehow soothed by his voice.
I consider myself very lucky that I saw Mitropanos perform live, though only once. He played a concert in an outdoor theater in Thessaloniki in 2008, and I was thrilled to be there.
S always teased me for my Mitropanos addiction. When I would insist on playing his CDs in the car, S would point out where his voice went off key (constantly according to S), and would always put up a fight when I tried to switch from Bach or Tchaikovsky (S’s two faves) to Mitropanos. But even my diehard classical musician can and does appreciate the soulfulness and special vocal color to his voice.
Despite a long battle with kidney failure, he continued to perform right up until his death of a heart attack at the age of 64. Although his death was premature, he left behind a massive discography and the legend of one of the most unforgettable modern Greek voices.
Here are a few of his perhaps not quite so famous songs but among my personal favorites, translated by me.
Το the Deeper Reaches of the Soul
Beaten in yet another battle, beaten at my weak points
I have no more fairy tales, neither fairy tales nor jokes
yet another night tied up in dreams
to how many mistakes am I still indebted?
The truth is an empty platter to me, and I jump into the air
to the deeper reaches of the soul, to the further stretches of the mind.
Years that slid by, a fistful; gone just like a fistful of air
they left no more than a single day’s cigarettes.
Friends who celebrated in my life, I am just an empty bottle;
an empty bottle in their lives.
I alone remain to my life; I always leave a light on;
and in my hands the days are fresh snow.
I still have one hope, one hope that is my salvation.
Ι will cut off your head
The eyes I awaited this evening became souls and lick my ears like hounds;
they lead me out of my way and through the darkness, softly leave a knife in my hands.
Madam you who approach me, the dead man, and see in me so much that I myself do not know,
may your wild rose wilt with drunkenness; I will cut off your head to marry it.
Cosmos, you’ve become my wound
In the heavy chain, I will search for comfort,
because what can I possibly do with this life?
In the chill of prison, find a heart to hold on.
Where are you going in the thorns and loving?
And I lose you more and more.
Cosmos, you’ve become my wound
and it’s the swift one that comes slowly
which whipped me up to drink and to get drunk to find comfort,
lest I fall to sadness.
Let me extinguish the demoness of her love,
and let me slip away.
In the clouds of Calvary, on a cross that inebriates me,
the thought of you will become a nail, and pin me to it.
And some May dawn, Mother, you will receive the white shirt
and black trousers of your son.
Tonight the neighborhood weeps
Let it be that I should die Saturday at daybreak…
All my life without meaning, my cousin, my cousin of death.
Let it be that I should die Saturday at daybreak.
Tonight the neighborhood weeps, together with my heart.
Where are you, my sweet love, to see my tears?
All my life without meaning, a lie, a great lie.
And your suffering… where will it lead me?
A few more great songs: Akou (Listen), To have my revenge on you (Mitropanos sings second), You want, Nikoli Nikoli.