Ethnic City: tribute to a Grecian poet | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Ethnic City: tribute to a Grecian poet 

"The deep voice was heard in the deeper night," wrote Yannis Ritsos in his poem "Toward Saturday." "Then the tanks went by."

Ritsos is describing the 1967 coup that brought Greece under a right-wing dictatorship that lasted till 1974. The dictatorship brought suffering and oppression to many Greeks; to others, such as Ritsos, it brought imprisonment or exile.

Vasilios Gaitanos, a merchant-marine officer, emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Chicago. Now 45, he remembers meeting Ritsos--who died last November at age 81--after the junta fell. It was 1979, and Greece was buzzing about another poet, Odysseus Elytis, who had received the Nobel Prize for literature. Ritsos, well-known for his committed Marxist beliefs and his wry sense of humor, took a philosophical attitude about not receiving the award. "He said, 'I don't care,'" Gaitanos recalls. "'I've got the Lenin prize.'"

Since 1934--the same year his first volume of poetry was published and he joined the Greek communist party--Ritsos had been recognized as that rare breed of artist who upheld high formal quality while remaining accessible to the general public. His poems fused references to ancient history and legend with contemporary political upheavals, expressing a leftist view through images of the daily lives of peasants and workers. His political engagement was no mere radical-chic gesture. He fought with the communist guerrillas during the civil war of the late 1940s and over the years was imprisoned and exiled by several governments.

Ritsos's memory and work will be honored next week at a concert organized and headlined by Gaitanos, who has won a large following with his singing at the north-side nightclub and restaurant Deni's Den. The performance, sponsored by the Hellenic Cultural Organization, will feature musical settings of Ritsos's poetry.

Any such program must inevitably double as a showcase of work by Gaitanos's old friend Mikis Theodorakis, the Greek composer best known in this country for his scores for such films as Zorba the Greek and Z. "There's a lot more to Greek music than 'Zorba the Greek' and 'Never on Sunday,'" says Gaitanos, and certainly Theodorakis is a far more accomplished composer than the average American might realize. Like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, Theodorakis has composed symphonic works, choral oratorios, art-song cycles, and incidental theater music as well as movie scores and popular songs. Almost from the beginning his career was linked with the work of Ritsos, an older man who was already famous when Theodorakis began composing. It was Epitaphios, a song cycle set to Ritsos's poem about a mother's grief over her son's slaying during a labor strike, that gained Theodorakis his first wide recognition, in 1960. With fame came controversy; even critics who shared the poet's and composer's political sympathies were offended by Theodorakis's application of a populist musical sensibility to "high art" such as Ritsos's poetry. Theodorakis proclaimed his work "art of the masses," and turned to Ritsos's texts again for his 1965 Ballad of Romiossini (a celebration of the independent Greek spirit's survival through decades of fascist oppression) and his 18 Little Songs for the Bitter Homeland in the mid-1970s. These works--whose distinctively muscular and complex rhythms and rapturously fluid modal melodies communicate a feeling at once sorrowful and ecstatic--will be featured at Gaitanos's concert next week, along with other Ritsos-inspired work by such composers as Christo Leontis.

The son of a Greek government official, Gaitanos earned his living as a dishwasher when he first came to Chicago. One night in 1970 he dropped by Deni's (then on Western Avenue) and sat down at the club's piano at the urging of his friends. "When the owner found out I could play a little piano, he asked me if I could fill in for a couple of weeks for the regular piano player, who was having visa problems. I'm still waiting for that piano player to show up," he says with a laugh.

In the early 1970s Gaitanos spent about half of each year at Deni's (which relocated to Clark and Wellington) and the rest of the time on tour with Theodorakis and his ensemble as pianist and eventually bandleader. Their tours, which lasted until Theodorakis returned to Greece after the junta fell, took Gaitanos to venues ranging from London's Albert Hall to Chicago's McCormick Place to refugee camps in Cyprus.

"Theodorakis is my musical father. I believe the meaning of his songs. They don't say 'I'm communist' or 'I'm fascist.' They sing about universal feelings--about love and freedom," Gaitanos says. "It's a very big honor to work with Theodorakis. But he's so big, anyone with his own personality must eventually leave him."

So Gaitanos returned to Deni's, where he and his band now play five nights a week. These days his repertoire includes his renditions of music by Theodorakis, Leontis, Manos Hadjidakis, and other contemporary Greek composers as well as his own compositions, some featuring his own lyrics, others the words of such poets as Greece's Constantin Cavafy, Germany's Bertolt Brecht, and Ireland's Brendan Behan.

Leading a band consisting of electric bouzouki, guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard, the trim, bearded Gaitanos sings in Greek in his gently husky voice to a mostly Greek-speaking audience, and they join in passionately, dancing and singing along with the beloved melodies of romance and resistance.

Vasilios Gaitanos and the Deni's Den Orchestra will perform at 7:30 PM on Wednesday, February 6, at the Wellington Theater, 750 W. Wellington; tickets are $15. The group generally appears Wednesday through Sunday from approximately 8:30 PM to 4 AM at Deni's Den, 2941 N. Clark; there is no cover or minimum. For more information call 549-3315.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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