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Dafné Kritharas sings 'jewels of the Aegean'

By Alison Hird

Our guest in this week's edition of World Music Matters is young Franco-Greek singer Dafné Kritharas. Definitely one to watch, she talks to RFI about her new album Djoyas de Mar, a captivating reinterpretation of Greek rebetiko and Jewish-Spanish songs written in the 1920s and 30s. Songs of love ... and exile.

Djoyas de Mar means jewels of the sea and these particular gems are Greek and Jewish-Spanish songs of the Aegean.

It was here, in the 1920s and 30s, that a form of Greek blues known as rebetiko emerged.

But the Aegean region was also home to a large Ladino community: descendents of Spanish speaking Jews who'd been driven out of Spain in 1492.

Kritharas was born to a Greek father and while she had no “direct connection” to Ladino found meaningful links between the two cultures.

“I discovered that many of those [Ladino] songs were written at the same period as rebetiko: in the 1920s and 30s in Salonica and also in Smyrna [now Izmir]. So it has a quite deep connection with Greek rebetiko," she says. "And also Sadik y Gazoz [Sadik Gershon and Moshe Cazes], two composers and writers of Jewish-Spanish, took some rebetiko songs and re-wrote the lyrics in Ladino."

One such is Mi chika flor (my little flower) which Kritharas sings in both Greek and Ladino. In the rebetiko version, flor (flower) becomes kouklaki (doll).

“When Ladino people were speaking they’d use the word kouklaki, they were using the same words,” Kritharas explains.

Songs of yearning and displacement

At just 26, Kritharas is not afraid to take on Ladino classic La Roza Enflorece and do it justice, but most of the Ladino songs she reinterprets are more recent.

The song Sien Drahmas, one hundred drahmas, is a love song written in the 1930s in Salonica (Thessaloniki as it is known today), home to the world’s largest Ladino-speaking Sephardi Jewish community at the time.

“It was a period in Salonica when there was many massacres of Jewish people," Kritharas says, "so it’s a song about wanting to leave, to find a place where they could be welcomed. The idea is like ‘we are in misery but there we will [earn] money, we will have a better life. I will be able to offer you a bed’ the man says.”

On the rebetiko side, the song Kaneloriza shows how this musical form also reflects a painful period in history. Like many rebetiko songs, it came from the coastal town of Smyrna, modern-day Izmir.

“Before 1922, Smyrna was a multi-cultural city where Greek people, Armenian, Ladino people were living and in 1922 it was burned by the Turks and Greek people had to back to Greece,” Kritharas explains. “So people brought this music from Smyrna, all this oriental tones and met the people of Athens who were poor people and they built rebetiko.”

The song is also a fine example of Kritharas and Berreyre’s startling talent for two-part harmonies.

Dafné Kritharas with French guitarist and composer Paul Barreyre © Chloe Kritharas

A no-borders band

Kritharas has no formal vocal training, can’t read music, but has sung for as long as she can remember. She developed a taste for rebetiko during long annual holidays in Greece thanks to her French mother’s desire to keep the Greek connection going.

But she’s also had the good sense to surround herself by a talented band of  musicians: Camille El Bacha (piano), Paul Barreyre (vocals, guitar) and Naghib Shanbehzadeh (percussion).

“I’m half Greek singing Ladino songs, there’s an Iranian percussionist and Camille is half Lebanese. It’s a multi-cultural album,” she says, “we don’t want to put up any frontiers.”

Rebetiko revival

Kritharas returns to Greece every year and will perform at the Icaras festival on the island of Ikaria this summer.

“For sure I feel more moved when I sing to Greek people because it’s my direct roots,” she says “but French people are starting to be really enthusiastic about rebetiko too.”

Kritharas believes it’s linked to the Greek crisis.

“Rebetiko is today still very played in Greece and new songs have started to emerge from rebetiko because the meaning today is kind of strong in the context of the Greek crisis. People have to know Greece today is totally different [from Ancient Greece] and out of the chaos some art was born.”

In concert 19 June 2018 Café de la Danse, 75011 Paris.

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