Obituary: George Katsaros

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The Independent Online
Hey, when I die, what will they say?

Hey, a boozer's dead!

Hey, a pot-head, a night-bird's died!

These are the opening verses (freely translated from the Greek) of the song "Greek Delight" with which George Katsaros inaugurated his recording career in America in June 1927. A serious disjuncture between the bravado expressed in his art and his behaviour in real life appears to have ensued, to judge by the generous tributes from Greek communities around the world following his eventual death, exactly 70 years later.

Indeed, since metropolitan Greeks finally discovered his music in 1987, Katsaros became revered not just for his irrepressible zest for life and indefatigable musicianship, but as a personification of a simplicity and spontaneity supposedly lost in the modern state of Greece, but apparently preserved in the time-warp of diaspora communities. His quaint linguistic usage in Greek, an engaging testimony to his long absence from the motherland, and his old-world piety, to which he attributed his longevity, completed the icon of this pristine bard of the modern Greek diaspora.

The stage-name "Katsaros" (meaning "curly") derived from his bushy black hair, which became a shock of white hair in later life and was frequently restrained with a hairnet. His real name was George Theologitis, son of Nicholas Theologitis and Anna Stoupi, and he was born at Ayia Marina on the Cycladean island of Amorgos in 1888, according to the birth certificate, which was later reissued, authenticated and translated, and which he cheerfully allowed visitors to photocopy.

The remainder of his biography is almost exclusively based on the colourful but often contradictory oral narratives of the voluble centenarian himself, and many dates and details are in conspicuous need of verification. There is, however, a more or less coherent core to the various versions of the catalogue of wanderings and notable encounters, which commence with a move from Amorgos to Athens after the death of his father, to take up residence in the royal palace - in the servants' quarters, that is, for his mother had secured employment there as a cook. Katsaros supplemented the family income by performing in various seaside taverns of Piraeus and Faliron, singing and playing the guitar, which he had taken up at the age of seven under the influence of his paternal grandfather, a noted musician and roisterer of Amorgos.

By the time Katsaros eventually persuaded his emigre uncle Dimitrios to nominate him as an immigrant to the United States (in 1909, or 1913, or 1915), he had acquired a wide repertoire of Greek songs and promptly found work in the Greek cabarets of down-town New York. He further claimed to have been recruited to record Greek songs for RCA Victor at the Camden studios in New Jersey as early as 1919, eight years before his earliest extant recording was made.

Katsaros's autobiographical narratives invariably dwelt on the veritable odyssey which he undertook between the wars around Greek communities scattered over five continents. He claimed to have entertained expatriate Greeks from Canada to Chile, Bombay to Burma, Cape Town to Cairo, and to have donated some of the proceeds of his performances to Greek church- and school-building projects, notably in Australia, whose Greek communities he recalled touring twice in the 1920s.

He would also regale his interviewers with anecdotes about celebrities he met on his travels, ranging from "Alekos Kaponis" (his name for Al Capone) to Andres Segovia, from President Roosevelt to Riorita, the Mexican dancer with whom he allegedly featured in two silent films and whom he almost married in the late 1920s. (He lost her to leukaemia during a cooling- off period, part of which he spent in Greece, and never contemplated marriage again.)

By the outbreak of the Second World War, Katsaros had recorded some 50 Greek songs in America, many of which have recently been reissued in Greece. He resumed recording sporadically in the 1940s and 1950s, but in the post- war era seems to have been upstaged by visiting musicians from Greece and by imported recordings, so that most of his claimed 120 songs appear to have been lost. What survives on gramophone records is generically quite diverse, ranging from "heavy" rebetika (Greek Blues, such as "Greek Delight") to "light" European-style popular songs, a few of which satirise contemporary American mores, such as women wearing trousers (ironically styled "pyjamas"), and the politics of the Depression period.

While stressing his versatility as a guitarist and vocalist, Katsaros most proudly declared himself to be the patriarch of the Piraeus-style rebetika. Indeed his career both antedated and survived that of the most illustrious early exponent of the genre, Markos Vamvakaris (1905-72), also a Cycladean islander, and rebetika was the genre which triggered Katsaros's belated discovery in Greece.

For it was during the early 1970s, when veterans such as Vamvakaris were dying in rapid succession, that devotees of rebetika were first introduced to Katsaros's seemingly primitive performance-style as preserved on a small number of rare American records belonging to secretive collectors and tantalisingly broadcast in excerpts on pirate radio stations in Greece. Some zealots were intrigued into fabricating a biography of Katsaros to match the suggestive recordings, for a Greek National Radio programme of 1976, which included a somewhat premature account of his demise.

In the meantime, Katsaros had put an end to 40 years of wanderings in 1958, settling in Tarpon Springs, a seaside town in Florida for which he had retained a particular affection since his first visit in 1919, because of its sizeable community of expatriate Aegean islanders and its physical resemblance to Greek island ports. He continued to entertain this community at weddings and festivals, in recognition of which he was given the Florida Folk Heritage Award in 1990. It was here that Katsaros was finally tracked down by Athenian rebetophiles in 1987, and other distinctions were conferred on him in due course. These included the medals of the cities of Athens, Piraeus and Salonica, in whose municipal theatres he gave concerts during his much-publicised return to Greece after 60 years' absence in 1988, and again in 1995 at the invitation of the Greek Ministry of Culture.

During this period Greek governments were increasingly discovering the virtues (and lobbying potential) of the estimated 40 per cent of the Greek nation resident outside Greece, and, on the eve of his 107th birthday, Katsaros returned to Greece in December 1995 to perform in a concert for delegates to the inaugural meeting of the World Council of Greeks Abroad in Salonica, which was beamed by satellite to all quarters of the globe. With a splendid sense of occasion, Katsaros commenced his medley of rebetika songs with some verses about police maltreatment of a hashish-smoker; the assembled dignitaries responded with amused indulgence.

The significance of George Katsaros to Greek culture surpasses his rhetorical value as an icon of the resilience of global Hellenism. He was the last representative of a school of Greek-American musicians who pioneered professional Greek musicianship in the age of rampant commodification of musical performance and who collectively acted as a catalyst for developments in Greek popular music such as the rise of the bouzouki and the Piraeus-style rebetika in pre-war Greece. Scholarly biographies of Katsaros and his colleagues, based on painstaking analysis of sources such as the Greek-language press of the diaspora, as well as oral history, are overdue.

George Theologitis (George Katsaros), singer: born Ayia Marina, Amorgos 22 December 1888; died Tarpon Springs, Florida 22 June 1997.