Q&A with Christopher C. King, Grammy-winning producer, musicologist, and prominent 78 RPM record-collector

"Mainly I see rural folk music as a manifestation of how well a given culture resists assimilation and influence from the outside. A robust folk music can only exist if it has confidence in itself, if it esteems itself and if its purpose is embraced by the community that created it."

Christopher C. King: Lament from Epirus

Christopher C. King, is a Grammy-winning producer, musicologist, and prominent 78 RPM record-collector, has written for The Paris Review and the Oxford American. Profiles of him have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He specializes in pre-war rural American music (with an emphasis on Cajun) and various Eastern European, Balkan and Mediterranean musics. He started Long Gone Sound Productions in 1999. He won a Grammy (Best Historical Album, Sound Engineer for Charley Patton “Screamin’ & Hollerin”) in 2002 and has been nominated six times in total. The purpose of the Long Gone Sound Series is not didactic in nature nor scholarly in scope. Rather, the goal of this venture is to create a catalyst for musical and cultural transformation.

In 2009, while in Istanbul, he picked up a few old LPs and heard music unlike any he’d heard before. What he could only describe as a “dissonant instrumental played with an uncontrolled abandon” came from Epirus, a remote region straddling northwestern Greece and southern Albania. King made several trips to the area to hear more and trace the roots of this utterly unique sound, and his book “Lament from Epirus” (2018 / Illustration by R. Crumb), is a true voyage of discovery. Immersing himself in Epirus’s ancient culture, King attended festivals and dances, talked to musicians and shepherds, gradually uncovered the roots of this unique musical tradition, and answered his own most urgent question: why do we make music?

Interview by Michael Limnios        Special Thanks: Doma Books, Greece

How has the Roots (American/World) music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

It is hard for me to imagine my life without having been informed by this very old traditional music that I love. I seem to understand the world through it, as if it is a filter or a lens for my perceptions of life and culture. Many I see the parts of culture that have been lost over the progression of time. But not so much in Epirus. That is why I wrote the book--to celebrate a place where music still holds a very strong, cohesive social function and serves as part of the cultural identity.

What were the reasons that you started the 78rpm area researchers? What touched (emotionally) you?

Well, I started collecting 78 rpm discs of American folk music when I was fifteen but I didn't start serious research and work on the music until my mid 20s. The music has always touched something very deep, very emotional inside of me but I've never been fully able to describe it. Only that it makes me feel connected somehow to life, to the beauties of life. Fortunately, I was able to transform an obsession into an occupation. That is a rare thing.

What was the hardest part of writing this book? Why is this subject matter important? How do you want it to affect people?

The harest part of writing the book was of course the language barrier. I can understand spoken Greek well and written Greek but I still have a very hard time responding in spoken Greek. The subject is essential because it speaks to our deepest wants and needs--we need and want music but have we ever considered music something beyond entertainment? As something that is not optional but is essential to our human existence? If there is any one thing that I would wish the reader would ponder seriously it is that question--Could music be something healing, medicinal, essential.

"One place that I would want to travel to would be Greece in the 1820s, 1830s during the dynamism of Independence."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences?

There were so many friends who helped me with my travels and research that it would be impossible for me to single out any one person. As you will see in the book, most of my friends play a narrative role in the story. And, of course, I acknowledge many, many people at the end of the book.  

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the interactive quality of music--the intense connection that it had to idiosyncratic groups of people who treated their music as a cultural treasure.  Nowadays, I can only find this intense love in the music and people of Epirus.  I'm hopeful that the next generations of Greeks from Epirus will continue to cherish their music--to attend paniyeria (Πανηγύρια), get married there, hold glyndia (Γλέντια) and stubbornly love their music and the musicians who make it. I don't really have any fears about the music because it has existed for so long and the people of Epirus esteem their culture.

What is the impact of Roots music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

Mainly I see rural folk music as a manifestation of how well a given culture resists assimilation and influence from the outside. A robust folk music can only exist if it has confidence in itself, if it esteems itself and if its purpose is embraced by the community that created it.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

One place that I would want to travel to would be Greece in the 1820s, 1830s during the dynamism of Independence. The personalities were so rich and the history so complex, I wish that I could have immersed myself in it. I would have spent time in Athens with members of the Filiki Eteria (Φιλική Εταιρία) and then traveled to Epirus for a paniyeri. Or, if I had an alternate history, I wish that I could have moved to Greece when I was much younger so that I could have learned music at the feet of Napoleon Zoumbas and Christos Zoumbas.

Photo: Christopher C King & R. Crumb with 78 RPM records

What would you ask Kitsos Harisiadis? What would you say to Alexis Zoumbas?

I don't think that I would ask them to say anything. Rather, I would have asked Kitsos to play Skaros and Alexis to play Mirologi.

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