Michalis Yenitsaris

Bouzouki-player of iconic status
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The Independent Online

Michalis Yenitsaris was the last and most colourful survivor of the first generation of professional bouzouki-players, and was well known to devotees of rebetika, the genre of Greek music (and latterly world music) often called "Greek blues".

Michalis Yenitsaris, bouzouki-player and songwriter: born Piraeus, Greece 15 June 1917; died Piraeus 11 May 2005.

Michalis Yenitsaris was the last and most colourful survivor of the first generation of professional bouzouki-players, and was well known to devotees of rebetika, the genre of Greek music (and latterly world music) often called "Greek blues".

Yenitsaris was born, lived and died in the port of Piraeus. His longest continuous absence from it was the year he spent in exile on the island of Ios, under the pre-war dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas, for being a public menace. He was in his seventies before he travelled abroad, and then only for short concert-tours of Cyprus, France, Germany and Holland. By that time he had attained iconic status as the only musician left in Greece to have actually lived the wayward lifestyle of the rebetis, the protagonist of rebetika.

British fans of world music probably remember Yenitsaris best for his appearances in television documentaries about rebetika, such as the Channel 4 production The Music of the Outsiders (1988), where, having paraded his collections of Al Capone hats and rare musical instruments, he gave an animated account of beating up the policeman who broke his first bouzouki in 1934. That exploit earned him his first six months in Averoff jail and several demerit points towards his year of exile in 1938; but it also established his credibility as a bouzouki-player at a time when it was an instrument of ill-repute, and secured the success of his first recorded song, "Ego mangas fainomouna" ("I looked set to become a wise-guy").

The record was released shortly before Metaxas's censorship put a stop to the recording of unedifying lyrics and Ottoman-style music in Greece in the autumn of 1937. (On the other side of the Aegean, Kemal Atatürk had banned Ottoman music from Turkish national radio three years earlier.)

Yenitsaris performed on stage with the premier exponents of classic rebetika from 1939 onwards, but he did not resume his recording career until the 1970s, when the rebetika revival began. He had spent several of the intervening years in prison for offences ranging from affray to involvement in a black-market scam during the German occupation.

His composition "Saltadoros" ("The Convoy-Hopper"), celebrating a new type of low-life activity rife at that time, became one of the best-known songs of the early 1940s. Its oral tradition reached the United States and it was recorded by a Greek-American as his own composition, to the abiding fury of Yenitsaris, who was prevented by censorship from recording it in Greece in 1946. When he finally recorded it in his own right in the 1970s, the song acquired overtones of heroic resistance and by an even stranger twist of fortune it served as the title song of an award-winning CD produced in Germany.

Having seen his first career as a musician stall in 1952 amid rapidly changing fashions, Yenitsaris was determined to make up for lost time in the 1970s when rebetika returned to prominence and other veterans of the genre died around him in rapid succession. He lost no opportunity to remind the public of his pedigree as a rebetis and to pour scorn on those who aspired to authenticity without the requisite experience of the hashish dives and the rough houses where the first professional bouzouki-players "spent every night on death row", as he put it.

He made a point of flaunting his knowledge of now obsolete tunings for the bouzouki and he recorded songs demonstrating them. Yenitsaris contributed substantially to the land- mark LP Rebetika tis Katochis ("Rebetika of the Occupation", 1980), sung by George Dalaras, and allowed kitsch sound-effects, such as church bells, to be added to his songs. Although he again retired in disgust from regular stage appearances in the late 1980s, he continued to make recordings, releasing half a dozen albums. His later compositions comment on topical issues, such as hard drugs, nuclear weapons and pollution, from the viewpoint of the seasoned rebetis.

He also wrote his memoirs Mangas apo mikraki ("A Wise-Guy since Boyhood", 1992) to set the record straight, in a manner reminiscent of the semi-literate General Ioannis Makriy- iannis of the Greek War of Independence. Indeed, Yenitsaris explicitly likened the "heroes" of the bouzouki and the rebetika to those of 1821, inasmuch as they were both exclusive, historically defined groups, not open to latter- day opportunists.

Like his oracular utterances on contemporary issues to the press in the 1990s, Yenitsaris's memoirs are entirely innocent of political correctness and are permeated by engagingly naive expressions such as: "So I stride into the brothel like a proper gentleman . . ." In a rapidly westernising Greece, Yenitsaris stood out as a quaint exemplar of the defiantly unreconstructed levantine Greek.

Stathis Gauntlett