The national standing of the veteran Greek singer Sotiria Bellou might be judged from the announcement by the Greek Minister of Culture following her death that she would be buried at state expense in the celebrities' cemetery of Athens. A much earlier media announcement arguably speaks more eloquently of her status: it dates from early December 1995, from the Onassis Clinic, Athens, where the prime minister Andreas Papandreou had been fighting for his life in intensive care, while his entourage fought to prolong his premiership.
The report stated that Papandreou had asked to listen to his favourite recordings of Bellou's songs. To the anxious nation this gave a potent signal that, in spirit at least, the ailing prime minister was still the robust dancer of the 1980s, when newspaper photographs depicted him at bouzouki clubs, foot poised and arms outstretched in solitary-eagle posture, while in the background the perennial owl-like figure of Sotiria Bellou, bespectacled and close cropped, beefed out the rebetika songs which had been her trademark for 40 years and had become the signature tunes of the Papandreou administrations of the 1980s.
These songs were macho, melancholic Greek blues, like "You Called Me a Bum One Night", "They've Stabbed Sakavlias" and "Cloudy Sunday", which Bellou's unadorned, butch voice rendered in a style that some described as "Doric" but others traced to the Byzantine chant she had learned from her maternal grandfather Papa-Sotiris, after whom she was named, a village priest on Euboea.
Bellou's recording career was launched in 1947 by the great bouzouki- player Vasilis Tsitsanis, after a lyricist friend had discovered her singing for small change in a little taverna behind Athens Polytechnic. She had left her native Chalkis for Athens seven years earlier on the day after war was declared between Greece and Italy, and, on her domestic front, between Sotiria and her parents, following the failure of her arranged marriage. Her grocer father, Kyriakos Bellos, had hoped that wedlock might curb the wilder excesses of her tomboy behaviour, while her mother had prayed it would put an end to her unseemly obsession with becoming a professional singer.
Bellou later attributed her survival during the great famine of the winter of 1941-42 to a guitar and to the predominantly European-style repertory which she had learned from the films of her idol Sophia Vembo and which she now performed in the grubby tavernas of German- occupied Athens. (At that stage she could only offer Vamvakaris's classic rebetika song "The Prisons Echo" to low-life clientele.)
Sheer luck also played no small part in her survival through that decade of occupation and civil war, for her belligerent nature and unbridled spontaneity earned her brief spells of imprisonment and a number of memorable beatings from German soldiers, and later from right-wing thugs when she refused to perform Royalist songs at "Fat Jimmy's" taverna. She was also injured by shrapnel from an English shell in fighting near Omonia Square after briefly joining in the Communist insurrection of December 1944.
Her poignant renderings of the censored songs of dispossession, separation, and personal betrayal which she made popular during the third round of the Greek civil war still managed to express a broader social malaise and they remained central to her repertoire in the Cold War era. Towards the end of the civil war, Bellou also played a major part in a signal event in the process of "gentrification" of rebetika, instigated by the young classical-trained composer Manos Hatzidakis.
He selected Bellou and Markos Vamvakaris, the declining patriarch of professional bouzouki-players, to illustrate his lecture on rebetika in the Athens "Art Theatre" series. She later described the audience as comprising "aristocrats and men of letters", a class of folk rarely seen in the fashionable Athenian clubs where she worked with Tsitsanis, Hiotis and other prominent bouzouki- players.
The intrepid Hatzidakis had sensibly chosen a sanitised assortment of songs for his "hierophants" to perform in illustration of his provocative arguments that rebetika were musically descended from Byzantine hymns and comparable in form to ancient Greek tragedy. Bellou described the audience response as apotheosis.
Her ascendancy continued up to 1959, when she seems to have fallen abruptly into disgrace and been ostracised by her erstwhile collaborators. She never discussed the former or forgave the latter after resuming her career, in the vanguard of the rebetika revival. Her 1966 LP The Rebetika of Sotiria Bellou was the first of a dozen albums on the Lyra label which became especially popular during the Junta years and in the later 1970s, when she also renewed her collaboration with Tsitsanis, dabbled in collaborations with younger composers, and toured the Greek diaspora as far afield as Australia.
Bellou rode the wave of cultural populism throughout the 1980s, typically without securing her financial position. Having ostentatiously withdrawn in disgust from the sordidness of Athenian night-life in June 1990, she was reduced to selling cassettes of her greatest hits on the pavements of down-town Athens in 1994 amid widespread media coverage. An ex gratia pension was hastily announced at Papandreou's behest by the then Minister of Culture, while the Minister of Health intervened to fast-track her entry to hospital for tests on her ailing respiratory system.
In the male-dominated world of Greek popular entertainment, Sotiria Bellou prided herself on having competed for half a century with the toughest and most cunning of the men, not as part of the decor in the manner of the buxom and coquettish "stage-fish" (to use the Greek term), but by virtue of her talent, resoluteness and resilience - as the rebetissa par excellence.
Sotiria Bellou, singer: born Halia, Greece 29 August 1921; died Athens 27 August 1997.
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