During the time of the military junta in Greece from 1967 to 1974, Greek composer and activist Mikis Theodorakis’ music was banned.
By Bill Thomas
The road to my afternoon with Zorba began in 1968. I was in the US Navy aboard a ship whose first port of call was the Greek city of Athens, where I and several shipmates discovered a taverna in Plaka, the old part of the city, in a warren of shops and small family-run restaurants.
I ate food I’d never tasted before—moussaka, pastitsio, and taramosalata, a Greek appetizer made with fish roe—and I listened to music I’d never heard before. I was beyond ecstatic.
Al Lohmann, my good friend, said under his bushy moustache, “If I die tonight, this has been enough.”
While we ate, the musicians played melodies that opened my musical mind. They were earthy, unusual—guitar, bass, and bouzouki trading the solo while the other played counter melodies to the lead. It was Greek folk music—born from the rebetiko tradition.
Zorba came to mind, and, since it was the only Greek song I knew, I asked the trio, “Can you play Zorba?” There was no response, so I asked again, “Zorba?”
The guitarist shook his head no.
“You don’t know Zorba?”
He looked to the waiter who came over to our table to explained why they wouldn’t be playing Zorba.
It was against the law!
Against the law?
When Theodorakis’ music was banned in Greece
It turned out that Zorba, that brilliant and evocative piece of music by Mikis Theodorakis, was forbidden from being played or listened to in Greece. The phrase “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” came to mind when I heard the news.
Why, I wanted to know? Why would a song be outlawed? Okay, somebody now had my attention. Who, I didn’t know. But I wanted to hear his music and I wanted to know more about the man, the composer.
Mikis Theodorakis, the tall, bushy-haired, then forty-two-year-old famously popular composer and activist, had spoken out once too often against the ruling military junta, aka The Regime of the Colonels—the somebody and the who—which made for an untenable position, both for him and the junta.
Thus, in 1967, when the Colonels seized power, he was arrested.
Theodorakis spent time under house arrest in the mountains far from his Athens home and then was interned in the concentration camp of Oropos on the island of Macronisos when the junta realized he was a bird who would not stop singing.
In 1970, after intense pressure from an international community of celebrated artists, he was released and exiled to Paris, where he lived until the junta’s fall on July 24, 1974.
Several years after my first visit, I wanted to return to Greece—to its food, sun, people, and music. I also wanted to understand why Theodorakis, who was clearly as tough and resilient as the fictitious Zorba, the character about whom he wrote the song— identifiable merely from its first two notes—was so important to Greeks.
Hence, in 1971, I returned to Athens as a civilian carrying only a backpack and my guitar.
On my first night in Athens, I sought out the taverna I had come to love during my Navy visits. As I approached the location, I became confused. I didn’t see it. It wasn’t there.
Did I have the wrong address? No, I was sure I was in the right location.
Instead of walking into a place for which I had great affection, one that offered a feeling of family and hospitality, I was standing in front of a disco—cold and screaming the kind of change I found sad and tasteless and incongruous with the culture and tradition of Plaka.
The taverna had closed since I was last there. All the warmth that had surrounded the memories of my shipmates and me gathered around a table savoring various Greek dishes, flavors new and exotic, was gone.
Drinking Greek wines, retsina, and beer and, on our ship’s return in the late Fall, even eating turkey “because it’s your Thanksgiving” and listening to the wonderful folk melodies played by “our” trio—that had all disappeared.
I was frozen in my steps. I stood there deflated, feeling adrift and very alone. My anchor had come loose and my ship had sailed away.
Life under the Junta
I continued on, hoping to find a place that could replicate “my” taverna’s good food and music. But all I found was a small restaurant that had recorded music, hoping to appease the tourists with some semblance of the Greek experience they all fantasized about.
A quick shake of the head. No!
In the next couple of days, I connected with two young women from Canada and Switzerland and ferried out to the sun-drenched island of Skiathos. There, I met Yannis, a Greek guitarist, and his wife, Marie.
Yannis and I played music during much of the week we were there. Each time, I would ask him for a song by Theodorakis, and, each time, he would politely refuse.
Other Greek composers, such Manos Hadjidakis, were very popular, but none elicited the responses Theodorakis inspired. He was the only one who dared defy the Germans in WWII and the junta during its reign.
He was also the only one for whom Greeks would risk their own lives—like the woman who would swim out into the sea at night just to sing his songs or the man who blasted Theodorakis’ music from his apartment balcony until the police came, trashed his speakers, and arrested him.
Even Theodorakis continued to put himself in danger; after he had been released from house arrest, he couldn’t resist poking his finger in the eye of the junta by playing his music one night to an excited crowd in Plaka, resulting in his being arrested once again.
The week went by faster than I wanted with every passing day bringing something I’d never experienced before. The last day broke dark and dreary with a light rain falling over the island. It was the beginning of September, and I could feel autumn in the air.
A familiar melancholy took up residence in me as often happened at that time of year during the changing of the seasons. My friends and I rushed to catch the morning ferry back to Athens only to watch it leaving as we arrived at the landing. Standing nearby were Yannis and his family.
Yannis suggested we return to the house where they’d been staying. We would wait out the rain until the afternoon and await the only other ferry back to the mainland. We climbed the narrow, wet streets of Skiathos and made our way over the waterfront. There were sun-bleached stucco houses on either side, their rain-soaked window boxes spilling over with the last blush of colorful, summer flowers.
The occasional residents sat at their windows watching us pass by, our unsmiling, sun-etched faces locked in their memories.
We arrived at a small stone cottage, owned by an elderly woman who rented a room to tourists. Unlike Yanni and Marie, she spoke no English. She didn’t need to. Her kind, toothless smile spoke for her.
The years had carved themselves into the woman’s face, and I couldn’t help think this old woman must have compelling stories to tell—some joyful, some still raw and hurting.
Little goats peeked in an open window as she welcomed me and my companions to her home and brought out mezze—simple, small plates of food, for us to eat.
The power of Theodorakis’ music
We had several hours to wait, so we did what we’d been doing during the week. We played and sang, exchanging songs both American and Greek. And, of course, as I had all week, I asked Yannis if he would play a song by Theodorakis.
Rather than say no immediately, he looked over at his wife. Their eyes locked. I could almost feel them mentally ticking off the charges that could be brought against them for violating the ban. Then, a slight nod—Marie to Yannis.
I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. The old woman shuttered the windows, locked the door and lit a few candles to bring light to the now-darkened room.
Yannis began to sing. It was a soulful, heartbreaking melody under lyrics I didn’t need to understand.
I looked at Marie and the old woman. They were weeping.
Tears of joy? Tears of longing? Perhaps both. To me, they were tears that seemed to say, I am Greek, and this is my music, and I will play and listen to it. I looked around and saw my fellow travelers crying, as well. For years afterwards, I couldn’t tell this story without tearing up myself.
I would never forget that moment. It was then that I came to understand the power of music and how important Theodorakis is to the Greeks and would become to my life. As a woman once said, “Theodorakis’ music reflects the spirit of Greeks…Never give up, be strong, have hope, and keep fighting.”
Upon later reflection of that day, it came to me that that song and candle lighting up the darkened room that day joined the many singular acts of courage to eventually bring light back to a dark, shadowy, cheerless country.
I heard Theodorakis’ music in the junta’s Greece when it was forbidden. I now want to hear it in the people’s Greece where they are free to listen to whatever and whomever they want. And, while it may have not been Zorba I heard that day, it may as well have been. I felt his presence, his strength and determination, and his resilience in the song Yannis played and in the words sung by him.
Several years ago, I sent Theodorakis an email, telling him about these events and received a reply requesting permission to publish my letter on his website, where it is still posted today.
Of course, I would love to meet the great man; however, he turned ninety-seven this year, so that seems unlikely. But then, all this hasn’t been about a destination; it’s been about a journey.