Δόμνα Σαμίου dies at 84 and traditional Greek music loses a major champion

23 Mar

Any person growing up in Greece in the last fifty years would have heard of Domna Samiou, a tireless promoter and researcher into traditional Greek music. She presided the in depth research and archiving of oral history for public radio. Charting the tempestuous  modern Greek history from the Balkan wars, the loss of Asia Minor to Turkey and the bloody civil war, Greece has always been in upheaval and flux. All the hardship found its purest expression in traditional music forms. Most of them based on Byzantine and ancient Greek motifs became the language of a nation struggling for self definition and to build anew its cultural presence.

Domna alongside her teacher Simon Karas started recording refugees from Asia Minor (her parents have been such themselves) as a way to preserve a quickly disappearing form of musical storytelling. The developments of modern recording media were her helper in this extensive journey but also the main reason the process was necessary. The influx of recorded foreign music and the lack of support for traditional music in Greek schools, meant this living tradition was slowly dying. Her determination over the past half century meant, that while I was at school our  choir would sing during celebrations some traditional Greek music. She normalised that genre for anyone without a direct route to the living exponents and kept it as relevant as possible. She was not some bland researcher/ethnomusicologist but a dedicated performer and campaigner.

Most of my readers will hopefully not have first hand knowledge of popular commercial Greek music and I truly envy you. It is the cheapest most rubbish laden genre imaginable. All the subtlety and heartfelt meaning squeezed out of the music and the artists on the contrary are overflowing with silicone.

Domna and her many collaborators fought a noble fight against the might of the record companies and the disgusting mush of middle eastern music with Greek lyrics the execs tried to pass on as true Greek pop music. Millions of us are grateful to her zeal and determination but also to her numerous recording projects bringing together strands of our living tradition and safeguarding it for posterity. I hope that a lot of fellow Greeks will find her example a great inspiration and a guide to live one’s life. A great woman that lived and died while upholding the highest standards in a country that rarely took too much notice of the important work she was doing.

Was  lucky enough to have spent my childhood’s school holidays in Thace, the most Northern part of Greece, where my family comes from. There I came in direct contact with moiroloia (ritual lament songs) and the local music that expressed the pains, anxieties and difficulties of a hard working farming community. The music and words came from the heart without any mediation by branding experts and trained musicians. Being present at day long sessions where the older women of the village mourned the loss of a family member while the body is near them on display, was one of the most raw and unbelievably affirming experiences of my life. This traditional music linked the world of the living with the dearly departed, a melodic goodbye woven with fond memories and devastation. When my Granddad died my Grand Mother and her dearest friends mourned his passing with floods of tears and moirologia. It was her way to express sorrow and a cathartic musical performance almost beyond musical content. In retrospect it is moving but also a clear connection to the mourning rituals of the ancient Greeks and that is such an amazing tradition to be part of, no amounts of exposure to European music can quite match.

Closing this very inadequate tribute with the speech by George Seferis against the military Junta. Allow me the slight indulgence of having it in its original Greek language. And of course a video of Domna, at work,  in Thrace.

A 1998 interview, Google Translated

Her Wikipedia entry

Her website

An interview in French to Yannis Kanakis from Cahiers d’ethnomusicologie

Translated article on her funeral with tributes by colleagues

Translated article on her funeral on Greek newspaper Ethos’ website


5 Responses to “Δόμνα Σαμίου dies at 84 and traditional Greek music loses a major champion”

  1. Definitely the Opera 23 March 2012 at 9:45 pm #

    Thanks for this dandy tribute, I haven’t heard of her before.

    As for this…
    >>>Most of my readers will hopefully not have first hand knowledge of popular commercial >>>Greek music and I truly envy you. It is the cheapest most rubbish laden genre imaginable.

    Wait till you hear the Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin turbo folk.

  2. Definitely the Opera 23 March 2012 at 9:48 pm #

    PS: One of these days you may even write about rebetika? I had a prof in uni — one of the coolest, a Classics scholar — who couldn’t stop talking about rebetika.

  3. Mirto_P 23 March 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    What a beautiful, heartfelt tribute. (“Inadequate”?? Hardly, geez!) As you know, “social media,” Twitter et al, get a fair bit of criticism (“waste of time,” etc.), but there’s probably no other way I – and no doubt many others – would have ever heard of this truly remarkable and *important* woman (e.g., I have yet to see any mention of her death in the U.S. press). So you’ve done her life’s work a good turn in spreading the word.

  4. avinishri 4 April 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Thank you very much for the tribute to Domna Samiou. I am a non Greek fan of Greek Music, but I admit that I heard vey little about her till she passed away. After that I read a lot and I realized how great she was.

    Avi Nishri

    • George aka OperaCreep 4 April 2012 at 5:57 pm #

      Never too late to be thankful for great people like her. Who followed her heart and tried to preserve what she could for the rest of us. Glad you enjoyed by my awkward tribute to Domna.

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