Panayotis League, Echoes of the Great Catastrophe: Re-Sounding Anatolian Greekness in Diaspora. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2021. Pp. 182. Hardcover $65.00.
Ethnomusicologists, in their ethnographic and historical studies of musical cultures around the world, have had many occasions to document the ways musicians use musical performance as an icon of social harmony in situations of personal, social, and political conflict. Musicians will, for example, include people of antagonistic social groups (nationalities, ethnicities, races, classes, genders) in their ensembles, so that audiences can literally hear them play together in harmony. The powerless may direct their musical performances to the powerful as if to say, “listen to us; we are here too; can’t we all get along.” The powerful might sing songs and carry guitars rather than guns into a potential confrontation as a signal to the powerless that they come seeking peace. Panayotis League’s tightly focused study of the music making of an Anatolian Greek family living on the island of Lesvos and in Lynn, Massachusetts, illustrates this phenomenon in yet another way. Though he doesn’t use semiotics for its explanatory power, he seems to regard the family’s musical repertoire as an icon of social harmony in the past and a model of sociality in the present that contrasts with the ugly legacy of ethnonationalism and irredentism that swept through the post-Ottoman Balkan peninsula during the twentieth century. This case study, he claims, is an urgently needed “diachronic, transnational example of how willing relations with the unfamiliar can result in the production of empathy and affection rather than the violence, bigotry, and exclusionary politics that are becoming a prominent feature of public discourse across borders” (156).
Throughout the twentieth-century Balkan nation-states defined their histories and politics through attempted erasures of their Ottoman legacy and agonistic relations with their external and internal neighbors. As a Bulgarian musicologist once told me, “Our historians taught us to hate one another.” Anatolian Greeks through their musical practices, League argues, harken back to and continue late Ottoman traditions of “intercommunality,” when people of different ethnicities and faiths, speaking different languages, peacefully shared common spaces and traded goods, services, and cultural practices, notably musical styles and genres, with each other.
League finds this expression of Ottoman intercommunality in a collection of musical notations for more than 200 compositions copied and compiled by Konstantinos Nikolaou Kerakoglow (1888-1974), who was born on Lesvos, educated in Turkish and European classical music at a conservatory in Smyrna, and moved to the United States in 1919. The collection includes large numbers of European music in such genres as marches, polkas, and waltzes; Ottoman dance tunes, art songs, and elaborate instrumental preludes to suites of songs; and songs in European style with Greek lyrics, in all about six hours of music. League argues that Kerakoglow’s acts of selecting, copying, and transcribing the musical material he engaged with during his life were mimetic in nature, that is, they tell the story of his social and musical values and, by extension, of harmonious relations among diverse groups of people during the late Ottoman period. Minus the many regional Greek dance tunes for karsilamas and zeibekiko that he learned in oral tradition, this collection of musical notations seems to be a record of what Konstantinos might have played on the trumpet, violin, and other instruments on the mainland and on Lesvos and provides evidence of neighborliness (komşuluk), the practical engagement with, rather than the rejection of, neighbors, during the late Ottoman period in Asia Minor.
Near the beginning of the Great Catastrophe, the slaughter and forced resettlement of millions of Greeks and other Christians of the former Ottoman Empire during and after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1923, Konstantinos, his musician brother Michalis, and other members of his band immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Lynn. The rest of the book examines the ways that Konstantinos’s and Michalis’s descendants, both in Lynn and Lesvos, have used musical aesthetics, record collecting, their own recording projects, and live performances to shape their understanding and remembrance of their family’s past and their emotional experiences and social values in the present.
In Lynn, selecting and curating examples of one’s musical taste has taken the form of record collecting. Konstantinos’ descendants and others have collected thousands of recordings (78 and 45 rpm discs) of Anatolian music from as early as the 1920s, many by refugees who resettled in Greek port cities and who perform smyrnaika and rebetika, songs describing the often vulgar and licentious character of urban life and played on bouzouki, a relative of Turkish and Levantine long-necked plucked lutes. Relatively few musical ethnographies focus on recordings (or manuscript collections for that matter) and people’s interactions with them, so this study contributes to an important topic often neglected in favor of ethnomusicologists’ abiding interest in live performance.
League calls these notations and recordings “scriptive things” that invite people to react to them in some way: listening and dancing to them and reenacting and recreating them in meaningful ways. He acknowledges that accepting these scriptive things’ invitation requires human agency. League, who plays violin with Konstantinos’s descendants, and other Greeks who love these old recordings answer the invitation by reperforming and recreating the material in these notated and recorded collections because “we have heard them . . . thousands of times before. . . . They are an integral part of our identity as a person, . . . we have a long-standing social relationship with them, [and] . . . their consumption has become central to our own . . . projects of self-fashioning” (80).
One of the core questions ethnomusicologists face in writing book-length musical ethnographies like this one is how much of themselves to put into the account. This matter is of some import because it goes to the question of the epistemological status of the knowledge in the report. At one extreme, authors say little to nothing about themselves, except perhaps to relay an anecdote or two to confirm that “I was there,” a narrative tack implying that the author’s role in gathering the information is irrelevant to what is being reported about the subjects of the ethnography. At the other extreme, authors are fully present and major actors in the story, suggesting that the reported knowledge was created in dialogue with other actors in the story and is anything but an objective report. League is fully in the latter camp. Much of his book is about his acceptance of the invitation afforded by the Kerakoglow collection and the thousands of recordings of Anatolian music. When the collection was brought to his attention—it had been lost to the Kerakoglow family “in a suitcase in the attic for years” (38)—he was filled with wonder at the range of styles Konstantinos so meticulously copied. He hopes that in the book he has written “a story that sufficiently conveys my wonder at the beauty and power of this tradition” (33).
That a research project might begin with a sense of wonder at the marvels of a musical tradition is pretty typical for ethnomusicologists. In this regard, League puts me in mind of the ancient Greek concept of theoria , which starts with seeing something wondrous (thaumazein) like a religious festival or a marvelous feat of athleticism.1 In Plato’s view the affective, emotional, reverential “viewing” or “theorizing” (theorein, a composite of thea “a view” and horan “to see”) of the theoros (the spectator, the theorist) leads from the act of viewing/contemplating (theoria) to a report to citizens about what was seen and felt (poiesis) and then to civic and political action (praxis). League, as theoros, reports at length on his wonder at the Kerakoglow collection. His reverence led him to try to bring the collection back to life by performing it with his friends from Lynn, a civic action (praxis) of the kind that has been called applied ethnomusicology. To do so, he played the notations on his violin and recorded them so that those who could not read musical notation could experience the collection. “Several of Konstantinos’s melodies immediately enchanted us, pulling us by the ears into his sonic world” (67).
They decided to use the collection as the basis for a concert at Yale University in 2016. This mimetic act by these young musicians retold the story of Ottoman intercommunality in a world in need of such stories, as evidenced by the attendance at the concert of Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Armenians, Arabs, and others from the Ottoman diaspora, including those who remember the forced removal in 1923 of nearly 4000,000 Muslims from Greece and more than a million Christians from Turkey. Of the concert’s civic and political impact, League writes, “It is a document dedicated to pluralism, to defining artistic and social personhood through a playful and committed engagement with alterity—and a monument to a world where such an engagement was not only normative but sometimes explicitly celebrated” (69). We get a sense of the history of a tradition in its manuscripts and recordings, but League uses the performance of the collection to a civic end: to reshape the experience of those living in the present. Such performances “gives us the opportunity to make them a part of our own” personhood (72).
League argues that he and others who answer the invitation of these collections in praxis (as Plato thought a theoros should) shape their understandings through mimesis, the “imitation” or “performative reenactment” of stories that they are telling themselves and their audiences about their values and their truths. While such stories are normally told in words, often accompanied by action and acting, League extends the concept of mimesis to creating written musical notations, sound recordings, and live musical performances. In effect these nonlinguistic performances do the same kind of social and cultural work as verbal performances, that is, the work of conveying what people in a society actually do or what they should be doing. Ethnomusicologists have often made similar claims about what music does for people using the explanatory power of the phenomenological hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur or the semiotics of C.S. Peirce. League’s recourse to the ancient Greek concept of mimesis for its explanatory power is a welcome and important addition to these lines of thinking about the ability of music to tell stories, generate emotion, and create senses of self at the personal and social level. Musical mimesis, he claims, allows those who engage in it to continually “recompose” and retell their stories, their truths, and their values as the circumstances of their lives change and as they need to renew their sense of who they are and where they came from.
Ancient Greeks citizens sent their theoros outside the city to “foreign” (xeni) places to view the wonders there. League mimics their pilgrimages when he travels to Lesvos, where Konstantinos’s brother Michalis, who returned there from Lynn, and his sons, Michalis and Stratis Kyriakoglou, continued the family’s traditions. League writes a description that conveys a sense of wonder at what he saw there. The brothers describe how they used to play intercommunal Anatolian repertoire until the 1980s. Since that time, they lament, young people on Lesvos have lost interest in that repertoire’s European-style dances and songs, which “even the shepherds,” presumably the dullest and least cultured of the villagers, “sang” once upon a time (113). Their feelings of loss of a sophisticated late Ottoman musical culture leads them to complain bitterly about the music and the behavior of people and their horses at a summer panegyri in another village. From their point of view, rooted in Ottoman Anatolian aesthetics, the too-loud music and the drunken behavior of the riders—they careen recklessly through the streets, bring their horses into the coffeehouses, and even “make them dance karsilamas and zeibekika – the epitome of festive Anatolian Greek sociality” (105)—ridicule the social order that they and their families have lived for more than a century.
League’s ethnographic description of this event, notable for its “social and sonic violence,” conveys vividly his wonder at what he saw there. League concludes that, at least from the brothers’ point of view, “the physical and mental incontinence . . . [of these drunken horsemen] is indicative of these people’s incompetence as social, moral, and even human beings” (117). In other words, playing music tastefully, singing the intercommunal repertoire of songs, engaging respectfully with others, and maintaining a distinction between humans and beasts are all mimetic enactments of the social, moral, and cultural values of this society. “These elder [Lesvian] musicians clearly consider themselves guardians of the aesthetic and moral high ground, the heirs of a richly pluralistic social and musical system that embraced a diversity of nominally separate but practically overlapping traditions” (118). Michalis likens the tradition to “beautiful vases” that have been broken on Lesvos and now lie in shards (127), a striking metaphor for the pain of losing a way of life that defined him as a human being.
Describing musical performances for what they tell us about a community’s or a person’s values is ethnomusicologists’ bread and butter. League describes in this way some of his own performances with Konstantinos’s descendants. Playing music “from over there” (130), League and his friends in New England want to imagine what it might have been like to play this music in the old days. These imaginative acts conjure a homeland, one of the defining features of diaspora studies, not as the “solid” homeland of present-day Anatolia and Lesvos, which hold no particular attraction for migrants dispersed around Greece and the world, but a “liquid” homeland, “the late Ottoman versions of those places . . . alive today in my interlocutors’ imaginations and inherited practices” (22-23). But when they play rebetika about hashish dens and the dissolute lifestyle in the underworld of 1920s Athens, part of these musicians’ imaginative homeland, some Greeks in the audience reject their invitation, embarrassed because these songs “reinforce stereotypes of Greek irrationality” (136). League argues that these songs describe a historical reality that American Greeks “need to own” (147) by answering rather than rejecting the invitation of these songs. On the other hand, when they play songs from this region for Anatolian Greek refugees and their descendants, “songs full of not just misery, poverty, and pain but misogyny and graphic violence too” (147), they get a very positive response. Members of the audience, hearing songs that index the stories their forebears told about their pain and suffering, wept, “exhibiting a profound emotional investment in the story of the Catastrophe . . . that approached the cathartic” (149). For this audience, these performances mimetically enact remembrance and generate responses that evidence the psychological and social need to continue to perform them.
When writing their book-length musical ethnographies, ethnomusicologists as theoros (spectators) usually fill them with detailed descriptions of the wondrous musical culture they are writing about and skimp on the theoria they are using to think about it and the more general truths about music that they are contemplating. League, in contrast, finds a good balance between the two, referencing one of the richest collections of theoretical writings I have ever seen in books like this. The concepts of mimesis and diaspora, as well as the writings of Foucault, Heidegger, Appadurai, Taussig, LaTour, Horkheimer, and Adorno, help him to interpret the social and psychological meanings of his particular descriptions, which vividly bring members of the community and their views about music to life in much the way a good journalist does. On the other hand, with the exception of his detailed descriptions of the Kerakoglow collection and the panegyri on Lesvos, which are marvelous, most of these descriptions are very short. They leave me “wondering” (in the Aristotelian sense of curiosity rather than the Platonic sense of awe) about some things. How, for example, do League and his friends see and hear the “sounding” of the recorded and live “invitations”? Do they hear the pain and suffering of the Catastrophe in the undescribed vocal timbre, nonmetrical rhythms, delicate ornaments, glissandi, and vibrato of Rita Abadzi and Roza Eskenazi? What do they see and what wonder do they feel when dancers “rise out of their chairs [and] spread their arms like eagle’s wings [to] dance to a zeibekiko melody” (149)? What is the current state of Anatolian Greek culture in Massachusetts (how many glendia and weddings are there in a year, what bands play for them, do they perform an intercommunal music and dance repertoire that reflects the local multiethnic milieu) and how does that compare to Lesvian weddings and panegyri that honor, rather than mock, intercommunal Anatolian traditions, if there are any? The tight focus on the Kerakoglow/Kyriakoglou family and League’s involvement with them provides telling and appealing detail and the opportunity for interesting interpretations of the social and affective meaning of this tradition, but it crops out the wider view that could have made the book an even more effective synecdoche than it already is for Anatolian Greek musical culture in diaspora.
University of California, Los Angeles
June 27, 2023
Timothy Rice, Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is a specialist in the traditional music of Bulgaria and the author of May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music(University of Chicago Press, 1994) and Music in Bulgaria: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture (Oxford University Press, 2004). He also writes about theory and method in ethnomusicology, including Ethnomusicology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Modeling Ethnomusicology (Oxford University Press, 2017). His research has been translated into Chinese, Czech, Farsi, Georgian, Italian, Korean, and Spanish.
Editorial Note: From time to time, book review editors wish to provide readers with a multidisciplinary perspective on a published work, particularly when that work traverses new terrain within Greek America. Such is the case of Panayotis League’s Echoes of the Great Catastrophe: Re-Sounding Anatolian Greekness in Diaspora . As such, we encourage our readers to read and to contemplate both reviews of League’s book that appear in Ergon.
1. This discussion of theoria is indebted to Andrea Wilson Nightingale’s Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.