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September 11, 2020

Natalie Bakopoulos's Playlist for Her Novel "Scorpionfish"

Scorpionfish by Natalie Bakopoulos

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Natalie Bakopoulos's novel Scorpionfish is a brilliantly written exploration of identity.

Bookpage wrote pf the book:

"Richly told. . . . A remarkable recognition of how language can work, how grief and love and loss can be so particular, so meaningful, so universal―and how words can make those resonances propulsive and haunting."

In her own words, here is Natalie Bakopoulos's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Scorpionfish:

We have returned again to autumn; summer / like a notebook that has tired us with writing remains / full of erasures, abstract scribblings /on the margins and question marks; we have returned / to the season of eyes that gaze / in a mirror beneath the electric light. —George Seferis, “A Word for Summer,” trans. Kimon Friar

My new novel, Scorpionfish, takes place in the summer, in Athens and an unnamed island, though its mood perhaps is more particular to the mournful limbo of late August, or even the last days of fall.

A lot of these songs deal with loss, or exile, or heartache—or moving on to something new. But this playlist is less about matching the narrative structure of Scorpionfish and more about the novel’s moods, an alternating between joy and grief and that space in between.

In the novel’s writing I was preoccupied with transitions and transience, hybridity and duality, and the collapsing of past and present. Many of the songs I’ve chosen here are mash-ups of some kind: an old song sung by a contemporary artist, or a mix of genres (rebetiko with swingy jazz, say). I’m drawn to various aesthetic and philosophical ‘mash-ups’ and not particularly interested in musical “purity,” if that is even such a thing.

The musical styles are varied, too: pop; folk and traditional; laika; and laika’s precursor, rebetika, which is described as an urban, underground folk whose songs sing of poverty, exile, and oppression, mixed in with hash dens and heartbreak. (For more on rebetika, check out Gail Holst-Warhaft’s book Road to Rebetika: Music of a Greek Subculture, Songs of Love, Sorrow and Hashish).

Of course, there’s a rather simplistic, sexist version of love and desire in so many of them, with the man as the noble, innocent guy who gets his heart broken by a free-spirited, beautiful woman. There is rarely an admission of male culpability in many of these songs; the man has been blinded and beguiled by the beauty of a woman, who has, you see, ruined his life. Well. On the other hand, I should note that some rebetika and traditional tunes also display a lot of reverence for a woman who made her own way, who were bold and daring and free-spirited, who challenged social norms, and this was also reflected in rebetika culture. Often the songs are self-referential, aware of the song being song and the I who sings them, and I like to think about this in conjunction with first-person narration.

But let’s not overintellectualize it! I chose some versions sung by women, even when the lyrics were meant to be a man singing to or about a woman, and I like this complication, and the songs are also about life and death and exile, too. The melodies, the moods, the pain in the voice, the harmonies—all these things I find really resonant.

Like all musical histories, the history of Greek music is complex and multifaceted, and this annotated playlist is really just a sampling of some favorites, with a few notes. I tried to include some of the giants of Greek music, and tried to modulate the list to match the novel’s emotional and tonal shifts.

Σαν απόκληρος γυρίζω / Like an Outcast I Return
Performed by Sotiria Bellou and Vassilis Tsitsanis

At the opening of Scorpionfish, the narrator, Mira, arrives back in Athens, the city of her youth, months after the deaths of her parents, and the first mornings in the apartment she awakes jetlagged and a bit disoriented.

Here is Sotiria Bellou as I love her so: serious, vulnerable, powerful all at once. This was one of her favorite songs to sing. It’s about living in exile, away from those you love. Performed with Vassilis Tsitsanis, another great.

Sotiria Bellou’s life defied all expectations of what it meant to be a woman in Greek society, and was suited to the mood and lyrics of rebetika. She participated in the Resistance against the Nazis in World War II. She gambled. She was openly gay, flirted openly with women. She dressed in a masculine, no-frills way, and was often the only women performer in a world of men.

Το μινόρε της αυγής /Minor tune of daybreak
Performed by Gadjo Dilo

Scorpionfish also has a second narrator, Mira’s neighbor, a ship captain who has recently been suspended from his post. He has certainly seen a lot of sunrises at sea, but is now living in the center of Athens. Mira and the Captain begin having long conversations on their adjoining balconies, separated by an opaque pane of glass.

I think this is one of the most beautiful Greek melodies. Wake up, dear one, listen to this minor song of the daybreak, written for you by someone’s crying soul. (Okay, be warned, the Greeks approach heartache with a big dose of melodrama). This version is by the band Gadjo Dilo, and I love it, but you can find more traditional adaptations too.

Θα Φύγω, θα με χάσεις / I’ll leave, you will lose me
Performed by Ioulia Karapataki

I’ll leave, you will suddenly lose me, I’ll leave the keys to your house. And so on. You get the picture. Another song of heartbreak and rejection. This is one dates back to 1950, sung by Yiorgos Mitsakis, but this version was performed in 2018 by Ioulia Karapataki, whom I just discovered, and her voice captures everything I love in a voice: a particular mix of power and compassion and lament.

Mira has a close group of friends in Athens, including an artist named Nefeli, who was once the partner of her late, beloved aunt; a couple named Dimitra and Fady, and their daughter, Leila; they are also caring for a preteen boy named Rami, whom Leila sees like a cousin.The setting in this clip is the sort of place I imagine the characters in one of the early scenes in the book, when Mira and her friends go to a small café to hear one of them perform in this style. My approach to love in Scorpionfish is I hope a bit more open-hearted and not so proprietary. I hope, anyway.

Τα τρένα που φιγαν / The trains that left
Performed by Dimitra Galani, Haris Alexiou, and Vicky Moscholiou

The trains that left (and took my loves away).

Here, three great Greek voices: The harmonies!

Με πλάναψες μποέμισσα / You misled me, bohemian woman
Sung by Sofia Karivalis and George Dalaras

You misled/seduced (?) me, Bohemian woman, with your crazy eyes; as in, you seduced me just to mess me up. This is the message of the song. But look out—you’re going to lose your bloom.
The original of this was by Markos Vamvakaris, the patriarch of rebetika, with Sophia Karivalis, a rebetika singer of the 1930s and 1940s, born in Smyrna in 1918 and settled in Piraeus in 1922, as a refugee. The original is from 1940, but the clip I include is from 1988, when Greek music icon George Dalaras visits her at home (clip taken from a documentary on rebetika, one I’ve only been able to find in clips on Youtube).

“We all get old,” she says at the end. “If you only knew the things I’ve been through.” There’s something melancholic but nearly apologetic in her tone, though, as if she’s both accepted becoming old, gained a wisdom, but also nearly apologizing for no longer being “beautiful”—or as if the performance itself made her remember her lost youth.

I was talking with my friend Joanna Eleftheriou about these lyrics—thinking about the translation (seduced, misled, beguiled, bewitched), and, well, it’s a little misogynist. I’m drawn to this version in particular because I’m moved by the proud and plaintive way Karivalis sings, her body language, her talking to Dalaras in the middle, asking which verse to sing next. (The clip is from a documentary on rebetiko, one I’ve only been able to watch via Youtube.)

I chose this version because we seem to only celebrate so many female artists when they are young, and I love seeing her as an older woman, talking about life, and age, singing her heart out. Much of Scorpionfish is about being seen, about invisibility, and various ways we assert ourselves by taking up space. We grow old, yes, but that doesn’t mean we need to disappear—or apologize for it.

Original version:

Μάντισσα / Fortuneteller
Marina Satti

This song from 2017 was a huge hit in Greece, and the wonderful NPR journalist Joanna Kakissis did an excellent piece on it.

Marina Satti’s father is from Sudan and her mother is from Greece, and she lives in Athens. Watch the video: it’s pure joy, dancing through the streets of Athens, and I love the badassery of the dancing women. The crowds watching from the shops, the streets, is one of the highlights! I watch it when I’m feeling down; you cannot listen and watch and come away feeling worse.

Όταν σου χορεύω/ When I dance for you
Rena Morfi

A saucy, sexy song, and probably one of my favorites of the last decade—Greek or otherwise. This acoustic version is particularly lovely. This one makes me jump from my chair.

Θα μπλέξω μ' άλλη και θα κλαις / I’ll get mixed up with another and you’ll cry
Performed by Sotiria Bellou and Marinella

Not much for subtext in these songs. Though the lyrics suggest a man talking to a woman who he thinks has made a fool of him, my favorite version is this one, sung by Marinella and Sotiria Bellou. The song has a bit of a look what you’re missing, lady, spite to it (“I don’t give two shits since you were unfaithful”)—but somehow sung by two women it takes on a wonderfully ironic, playful stance. (Thank you to musician Konstantinos Revelas for first pointing me to this version).

In the version I link here they also go into a second number, a tsifteteli, which is a more raucous, sexy, joyful dance—this one about a guy overwhelmed and tormented by the beauty of a woman. What else to say?

Ζεϊμπέκικο (Μ' αεροπλάνα και βαπόρια) /Zeibekiko (By plane and steamboat)
Performed by Sotiria Bellou and Dionysis Savvopoulos

This is an actual mash-up: Sotiria Bellou sings this song with Dionysis Savvopoulos doing a second set of lyrics that complement them. Sometimes Savvopoulos echoes Bellou, sometimes it feels like a call and response, and other times he’s adding another line of narrative to the song. It’s haunting, really. I love the texture of this, and it seems fitting to go with a novel that is, in a sense, a sort of call and response—two people talking to each other, and also to another, unnamed audience.

Να παιζει το τρανσίστορ / While the transistor radio plays

This song! When I was a kid, the Detroit Greek hour used to play it, and I loved it then too: the transistor radio plays American songs while you walk down the road, your coat thrown over your shoulder, your short-sleeved shirt. I mean, just watch the video, it’s fantastic and campy. In Scorpionfish, it’s a song the narrator, Mira, remembers from her childhood, her parents dancing to it.

θα κλήσω τα μάτια / I will close my eyes
Performed by Grigoris Bithikotsis

The difficulty of making a playlist, particularly of older songs, is they’ve all been covered by so many, and with so many good versions, and probably each song could get its own chapter. This song came out in 1967, its lyrics about poverty and misery and a condemnation of the social conditions of the time. After a few weeks it was censored by the military dictatorship that seized power that year—too much for the junta to handle, too revolutionary, I suppose—we know our dictators cannot stand criticism. Akis Panou wrote new lyrics for the melody a few years later, turning it into a more sappy love song (oh, the ironies!), which the singer Vicky Moscholiou made famous. Incidentally, it’s the one I knew first. I love both versions but the first, sung by the inimitable voice of Grigoris Bithikotsis, is really fabulous.

I include this song because the character of Nefeli came of age during the dictatorship, and many of the characters were affected by this time, either directly or indirectly. Much of the book, to my mind, is about the presence of history and collective and individual memory.

Δρόμοι Παλίοι/ Old Streets (I have loved and hated endlessly)
Performed by Yiannis Parios

“And I walked along the streets amid the night, not recognizing anyone, not a one, and no one recognizing me.” When I’m walking alone in Athens, particularly at night, I can’t help but sing this in my mind: it’s a little sad, a little eerie, and with such a slow build.

Both narrators in Scorpionfish spend a lot of time walking through the city alone, a bit melancholic, a bit lost. The music is composed by the great Mikis Theodorakis, with the lyrics from the poet Manolis Anagnostakis, one of my favorites. So many Greek songs are set to the lyrics of Greek poets, and I’d be remiss not to include at least one here. This version here is sung by Yiannis Parios, who is all emotion and sentimentality with no apology, never a shred of irony; I like this dissonance with Anagnostakis, whose work is so often deeply ironic. And with the orchestra accompaniment, it’s just lovely. Stick with it: it’s marvelous particularly after the 2-min mark. A slow burn.

The song was also the theme song for the film Serpico, starring Al Pacino.

Δυο πόρτες έχει η ζωή (Το τελευταίο βράδυ μου) / Life has two doors (My last night)
Stelios Kazantzidis with Yiannis Parios

The character of Nefeli is singing this early in the book, and then Dimitra performs it at a café.

This song is about time, and life, and the fleetingness of it all, and there’s a rather cynical beauty to it. On life: “All of it is a lie. Just a breath. Like a hand picking a flower, one day at dawn our life cuts short.” The clip I include is with Stelios Kazantdzidis, who sang the original, and whose voice is like no other, singing with Yiannis Parios, who seems like he’s going to jump out of his chair he’s so excited to be singing with his pal.

Οι ξενύχτες / Late nights
Dimitris Mitropanos

There are some late nights that remain undamaged, eternal lovers, clear-eyed, they remain young, the song goes.

There’s a scene in Scorpionfish where Mira and the Captain have a rare face-to-face conversation in the middle of the night, and though I wasn’t necessarily matching songs to scenes, this night exists at an angle to their individual realities, something a bit surreal, but one that will stay young and unspoiled, no matter what happens, or doesn’t, between them.

Η νύχτα μυρίζει γιασεμί / The night smells like jasmine
Themis Adamantidis

This song! Another delight. “Now what can I say, it’s my fault I love you. The stars hold one thousand sorrows and the night smells like jasmine.” What I love about it is the sort of sorrowful joy of the melody juxtaposed with the longing of the voice.

Μενεξέδες και ζουμπούλια / Violets and Hyacinths
Sung by Katerina Papadopoulou

A beautiful, bittersweet waltz with its roots in Asia Minor. The song has its roots in Asia Minor, and I’ve heard that’s where the refrain, “eiv allah” comes from. I associate this song with the end of a night, when you’ve been up all night dancing and singing and you play this before turning in.

I’m not sure what the best translation is of “zoumboulia”: I’ve seen it as buttercup, bluebell, and hyacinth. But I like hyacinth here the best. I’ve read that purple hyacinths mean sorrow, or apology, but also rebirth, and I like that interpretation here.

Μινορε του τεκε / Minor tune of the teke
Jack Gregory (Ioannis Halikias)

Just a melody, no lyrics, but what a melody it is. A teke was a sort of speakeasy, with hash. I can’t write a book about a Greek American without including a Greek American musician, particularly one so beloved and influential. Aidan Chaloumpa writes in Greek Music in America: “In 1932, Ioannis ‘Jack’ Halikias (1898–1957), a Greek American, recorded … the first bouzouki solo and probably the most influential bouzouki recording ever made.” He also notes that its recording opened the door for bouzouki to be recorded in Greece. You can read more on Jack Gregory, and other Greek American musicians, in Greek Music in America (University Press of Mississippi).

For more Greek music, here’s a longer playlist.

Natalie Bakopoulos is the author of The Green Shore (Simon & Schuster, 2012), and her work has appeared in Tin House, the Iowa Review, the New York Times, Granta, Ploughshares, and The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories. She's an assistant professor of creative writing at Wayne State University in Detroit and a faculty member of the summer program Writing Workshops in Greece. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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