Many of those who know the music of Mikis Theodorakis first came to hear it in the soundtrack to Zorba the Greek. The power, charisma and virtuosity of the playing took the world by storm and rightly so. I didn’t see the film till I got to college in the early 1970s.
Then, my college roomate introduced me to the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote the novel Zorba. In 1972-72, I spent a junior year studying Judaica in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University. That was when I was blessed to hear Theodorakis perform live with the incomparable Maria Farantouri. To hear these geniuses live is to witness a memorable event to be treasured your whole life. At these two Jerusalem concerts, I first heard the music from Ballad of Mauthausen.
Iacovos Kambanellis, author of the book which inspired the music, describes how the music and book came to be born simultaneously in 1965.
Kambanellis, like Simon Wiesenthal, was a survivor of Mauthausen, the Austrian concentration camp at which 240,000 Jews and political “undesirables” were murdered. This was his memoir. As he was a close friend of Theodorakis, his publisher suggested that they publish their respective works together, which is what happened. Mauthausen–Thirty Years Ago describes the Greek political and cultural milieu in which the music was born. It notes extraordinarily that the performance of Mauthausen was so incendiary within Greek political life that all Theodorakis’ music was banned from Greek state radio only two days after it was first performed. And within two years, the military junta stole power and silenced Theodorakis and his political allies for seven long years.
How many times can we say that music so embodies a political moment that its very performance galvanizes history for good or ill? This is how important Theodorakis is to contemporary Greek history and culture.
I next heard Theodorakis and Farantouri perform around 1974 at Lincoln Center. I don’t believe the junta had yet been toppled. The hall was filled with Greek exiles loyal to Theodorakis’ progressive vision and it was electric with excitement. The only other time I remember hearing another such powerful musical experience in this hall was for a concert by another incomparable female vocalist and former political exile, Mercedes Sosa. And there is much in common between songs like Gracias a la Vida and Asma Asmaton (from Mauthausen).
That night neither Faranatouri nor Theodorakis disappointed. The Ballad of Mauthausen brought every member of that audience to its feet cheering. They cheered the majesty of both the music and its powerful performance. They cheered the heroic resistance to tyranny represented by the Mauthausen survivors. They cheered Theodorakis’ own heroic resistance to the tyranny of the junta.
In honor of these beloved musical memories, I offer you Asma Asmaton (hear it).