Q&A with German Christian Ronig - experimented and traveled with exotic melodies, alien rhythms and oriental scales

"Music celebrates the similarity of human kind, it stresses what unites us as human beings. Love, pain, hope, grief, happiness, despair and all the other feelings are essentially human. We’re not the same – how boring is that?! We are equal, though. And in the times we live in, where they try to convince us that we are not equal, it is revolutionary."

Christian Ronig: Greece Is Mine

Musician, author, and journalist Christian Ronig discovered Greek music in his hometown Münster, Germany when he was asked to play the guitar in his friend’s rebetiko kompania. He instantly felt intrigued by the exotic melodies, alien rhythms and oriental scales. Rebetika, Smyrnaika, Paradosiaka, Neo Kima, Laika, En Techno – a whole new cosmos containing great songs more or less unknown to the audience outside the Greek community. After having failed numerous times to share his discoveries with his non-Greek friends – the rhythms, scales and the instrumentation being to strange – he decided to translate and rearrange the songs that he liked most.    Photo by Kai Kremser

His demos found their way to Violins Productions, a record company on the cycladic island of Paros. Together with some of the finest contemporary musicians they have recorded an album with ten songs that is beyond geographical, temporal or ethnical borders. Christian Ronig translated and rearranged Greek songs (rembetika, smyrnaika, paradosiaka, laika and en techna). Together with Violins Productions (Paros, Greece), he recorded his debut album "Greece is mine" (2017) which is also the title song of the record. The album is featuring Greek musicians such as Vaggelis Karipis, Giorgos Tsiatsoulis or Andreas Polyzogopoulos.

Interview by Michael Limnios    /    Special Thanks: Menta Art Events

What do you learn about yourself from the Rembetiko people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

That’s a tough one, because I can’t say how much Rembetiko is in the Greek culture and how much Greekness in the Rembetiko culture, or even how much of an individual personality is involved there?

One thing I definitely learned from the Rembetiko musicians, is how to play guitar with a burning cigarette stuck between the ring finger and the pinkie of my strumming hand.

The rest might be a bit vague. Generally, I can say that I learned that things like nationality, geography, religion, language cannot be the only defining factors of who I am as a person. At first sight, I don’t seem to have a lot in common with a Rembetis from Drapetsona who has worked in the slaughterhouse of Drapetsona and played music at night. Nor do I seem to have much in common with a black cotton-picking slave on a plantation somewhere in Mississippi. Yet, I can relate to them strongly. Exploring their music, language, culture let’s say, is like exploring and discovering new parts of myself. It seems that the Blues, may it be Greek or American, vitalizes and consoles parts of me – and it is cathartic. The Greek Blues, for me however, has more variety in rhythms, scales and topics.

What were the reasons that you started Greek music researches and experiments? What touched (emotionally) you?

About nine years ago, I joined a Rembetiko Kompania in my German hometown Münster. I was instantly intrigued by the Greek songs. They somehow strung an unknown chord within me, even though I wasn’t able to understand the lyrics. That’s the beauty of music, I guess. When words fail, only music makes sense.

So, basically, I loved what I heard. And if you love sth. you want to share it with other people. However, my non-Greek friends failed to see what I saw in the songs. It simply was too strange for them. Mainly the bouzouki and baglama put them off. Imagine a German listening to a strange instrument like a bouzouki, that is firing hard tones like a machine gun in a taksimi of a raw rembetiko song, using alien scales like Sabbach or Ousak – you should have seen their faces..!

So, after a few attempts of convincing them, I got frustrated. Then, one day, after a long night playing the rembetiko accompanied by a lot of Tsipouro, I decided to translate and rearrange some of my favorite songs into something that they could understand more easily. That’s how it started.

How do you describe "Greece Is Mine" songbook and sound? What charactirize the philosophy of album?

You can see it like a journey, if you want. It is an attempt to place some of my favorite Greek songs of the past hundred years in another context, music-culture wise. I tried to give a new perspective of the old songs for those know them. At the same time the songs should work independently for those who don’t know the originals. And hopefully we did it with enough meraki in order not to have done injustice to the originals.

"Since my musical cosmos suddenly broadened, I guess my personal horizon broadened as well. Life is much more complex then straight majors or minors and four beats to the bar. There are fifty shades of scales, if you want. It might have made me a more complete personality. On top of that, this and the acceptance of our album, made me abandon my old job to seek a newer world in Greece. So, the influence of Rembetiko or Greek music is life changing – at least for me." (Photo by Kai Kremser)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

The most important acquaintances are probably those you run into by accident in everyday live. You suddenly meet kindness, wisdom or courage where you least expect it.

In Greece, one of my most memorable acquaintances I had on the Elektriko in Athens. It was 3 days before the referendum in 2015. I boarded the Elektriko in Kifissia to go Piraeus in order to catch the ferryboat to Paros. I had my luggage and my guitar with me since the first recording session was about to start. The wagons started to fill up quickly from station to station. There was a tension in the air. People looked stern and tired.

At Eirini a chubby little lady hopped on the train. She seemed a bit older but had a mischievous girlish giggle. I liked her instantly. took my guitar from the seat opposite me, hugged it and offered her the seat. She smiled and nodded at me in recognition.

The train rattled on a few stations until a musician entered the wagon. He sang a song while he played the guitar. Afterwards he asked for money. I dropped him some change in the little sack he had attached to the neck of his guitar. He looked at me and said something in Greek I didn’t understand. I told him in English that I didn’t speak Greek. He said: „Ah never mind, my friend. Musicians are family“, and walked on.

A moment later, into the silence, the little chubby lady asked me smilingly: „Tell me, where are you from?“ The question you definitely wanted to avoid as a German just 3 days before the referendum. My mind was racing, what should I do? Say Netherlands? No, Dijsselbloom is not more likable than Schäuble. French? My French is really bad. Since I couldn’t wait to long for an answer without arousing suspicion, and since I never had any bad experiences as a German in Greece, I went for the truth. I said loud and clearly in Greek: „Eimai apo tin Germania.“ The wagon went dead quiet. 20 pairs of sunglasses turned towards me, around them stony expressions. I reflected hectically my decision. Suddenly, into the pause that lasted hours, the chubby little lady said: „But it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the bankers and the politicians.“ And then she told me of how the people in Greece had lost their dignity, about the many many who committed suicide and about the people who died in the hospitals because there was no medicine, and that a lot of people couldn’t afford important operations anymore. Tears were running down her face. We sat and talked and that cleared the air - the sunglasses didn’t sit in stony faces anymore.

At one point she asked: „What is your name?“ And I told her. She said: „Christian, I have two nephews in your age and I always pray for them. And I will pray for you, too. So, that you can live the life you want to.“ This stunned me completely. She said: „I have to go now, you see. It was nice meeting you“. I asked her: „But what is your name?“ She replied: „Kalomoira, my name is Kalomira.“ And then she disappeared in the crowd.

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

I fear I am too strict on some of today’s music, since only the good songs stand the test of time. So maybe there was a lot of mediocre music in the past as well.

However, what I feel about the music of the past is, that there was a unity of melody, arrangement and lyrics. The songs had clear and discernible melodies, they had arrangements that were virtuoso and at the same time serving the melodies and the lyrics. Today, I sometimes think songwriters are afraid of melodies, especially as a clear line of a musical argumentation. The arrangements have mostly become soundscapes of long notes that fill up the song. And a lot of today’s lyrics, and I can only talk about what I hear on the radio in Germany, are self-referential and whining or a blatant appeal to stand firm. And sometimes I fear, we are pretty far in the Orwellian process of cleaning our language: There are so many lovely words we have abandoned. That means we narrow our perspectives on life and lose concepts. This leads to our world becoming smaller and therefore lyrics become less poetic.

Maybe most of us are more afraid today than the composers and lyricists in the old times, I don’t know. Maybe this is why we go, me included, for the safe option of cover versions. Maybe our inspiration is blocked. Maybe we are too much distracted by the optical impulses of our smartphones or media in general. We don’t let ourselves get bored anymore. However, you need a certain amount of boredom to be creative.

Sound wise it used a bit rougher around the edges. If you listen to older recordings, you will hear that they weren’t recorded perfectly in a technical sense but rather in a atmospherical sense: there was a room, there was a little bit of dirt. And sometimes, what you would consider technical flaws today, might have even been the key to a unique recording.

Today, most of it seems too smooth and shiny for my taste. There is too much emphasis on a technically perfect recording. And there’s too much going on. Every space is filled with something as if they are afraid of the void. However, you need the spaces between the notes, that’s where the music lives. It’s like a woman with too much make-up on. All the fancy stuff hides what’s really there, with it’s rougher edges. Flaws make something interesting – perfection is a bit dull.

"You can see it like a journey, if you want. It is an attempt to place some of my favorite Greek songs of the past hundred years in another context, music-culture wise. I tried to give a new perspective of the old songs for those know them. At the same time the songs should work independently for those who don’t know the originals. And hopefully we did it with enough meraki in order not to have done injustice to the originals." (Photo by Kai Kremser)

What has made you laugh from your trips in Greece? Are there any memories which you’d like to share with us?

One of my nicest memory of Greece, that makes a lot of people laugh when I tell it, happened on Crete. I was visiting a friend. Eva, her mum Anastasia and me were in Iraklio, when Giannis, the father, phoned. He was at a kazani to buy some raki. He said we had to come immediately, because they had a glenti and we were invited.

We drove for almost an hour through the hills south of Irakleio. When we arrived, Giannis greeted us. I heard three, four people screaming from the kazani and I thought there was a domestic fight going on and that’s why Giannis greeted us outside. When I asked him he said: „Why?! No, no, no. They are having a good time.“ 

In the kazani there were four men greeting us: A farmer, with a broad smile and very little teeth, his son, a local butcher in a black shirt, black boots and jeans and an old shepherd dressed in black, with a black bushy mustache and a black mane, looking stern and saying nothing.

We had to sit down. Nikos, the farmer asked for my name, and probably never heard of such a strange name: „Krist, ratshi, krasatshi?! When I looked startled, Giannis said: „Raki or krasaki? Try both, they make it themselves - it’s good!“ So, I tried both in turns, again and again. After twenty minutes I was already getting drunk. Then the women came out of the kitchen, bringing arni, salad and cheese. The farmer grabbed a piece of meat, shoved it under my nose and said: „Fai, Krist, fai!“ Then he grabbed some cheese: „Fai, fai!“ It was great! Everybody talking, laughing, drinking, and I didn’t understand a word while being on a dangerous road of getting drunk.

Suddenly, Nikos hushed everybody and screamed something I didn’t get. I turned to Giannis and he didn’t really know what to say: „Well, now we have a specialty“. „What“, I asked. He said: „Well, let’s call it a special meze.“ And then their brought in the head of a lamb on a plate.

I never had a head of any animal. And this one looked at me in a very sullen and defeated way. But the eyes of the farmer, his son, the butcher and the shepherd lit up with joy and love for the ‚tschefalatsch‘. I was trying to hide my shock. My thoughts began to race around my head. What should I do?! I didn’t have enough time. Nikos, the host, broke the jaw of the lamb shoved it under my nose and screamed joyously: „Fai, Krist, fai!“ I could see that this was really something special, and it was a sign of their hospitality. They wanted to share it with me. „Fai, Krist, fai!“ If I declined I would hurt their feelings and their hospitality – this wouldn’t only reflect badly on me but also on their friends who brought me here. So, I went for it. And, of course I had to taste the tongue.

Then the butcher took his knife, placed the point on the lamb’s head, hit the handle hard with the palm of his hand and cracked open the skull. Nikos took a fork, dived it into the brain and shoved in directly into my mouth. He looked at me pleased and full of genuine curiosity: „Kalà, Krist?!“ By that time the ratschi and krasatschi had taken its toll and I slurred something like: „Nai, pely-o-ho-raio, Niko.“ And, afterwards, with bated breath, to my friend: „Hopefully, they don’t make me eat the eye as well.“

Eva, apparently well in the game, yelled: „Christian wants to eat the eye!“ The air exploded of cheers and cries of appreciation. I looked in horror at my friend’s mum, in desperate need of help. But I only saw her collapsing in her chair with tears of laughter running down her face. So, I thought, I went this far, I mustn’t stop here. I yelled: „Ratshi! Chriasomai ratshi". My glass was filled up to the brim. I took a big gulp and then I ate the eye. The taste wasn’t weird, it was rather the texture that was odd. However, everything can be cured with raki, they say.

When we parted, Nikos, the farmer, grabbed me firmly by my shoulders, hammered two kisses on my cheeks, gave me his very broad and almost-toothless-smile and cried: „Tin alli fora, Krist“, tin alli fora“. Staggering to the car, I thought by myself: „This afternoon was so genuine, raw, pure and full of love for life and people, – you will remember it on even your deathbed, Krist“.

How has the Rembetiko and Greek music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Rembetiko or any other Greek genre was a challenge for me, musically. I never played 9/4 or a 7/8 before. And it did my head in not being able to play it straight away on the guitar – there was always one beat missing or one too many. It was the same with the scales. If you are only used to straight major or minor scales, you will be in for a surprise when you are facing a Sabbach or Husam. And then all the songs with different scales mixed up, like „Kokainopotis“ by Tuntas. Last but not least the lyrics. By learning another language you have no chance but to get another perspective on some parts of your own life. That is, if you use different expressions for a known phenomenon or new expressions for unknown phenomena.

So, since my musical cosmos suddenly broadened, I guess my personal horizon broadened as well. Life is much more complex then straight majors or minors and four beats to the bar. There are fifty shades of scales, if you want. It might have made me a more complete personality. On top of that, this and the acceptance of our album, made me abandon my old job to seek a newer world in Greece. So, the influence of Rembetiko or Greek music is life changing – at least for me.

"Today, most of it seems too smooth and shiny for my taste. There is too much emphasis on a technically perfect recording. And there’s too much going on. Every space is filled with something as if they are afraid of the void. However, you need the spaces between the notes, that’s where the music lives. It’s like a woman with too much make-up on. All the fancy stuff hides what’s really there, with it’s rougher edges. Flaws make something interesting – perfection is a bit dull." (Photo by Kai Kremser)

How does the underlying philosophy of music impact you? What is the impact of music to the socio-cultural implications?

What I love about music is, that it is the great shortcut and benign leveler in human relationships. For example, every time I played a Greek song in a parea of people that I didn’t know, something shifted immediately and dramatically. We skipped all the things that were supposed to separate us, – nationality, religion, ideology, politics, class, age etc. – and we met as human beings. Mistrust turned into interest. Music celebrates the similarity of human kind, it stresses what unites us as human beings. Love, pain, hope, grief, happiness, despair and all the other feelings are essentially human. We’re not the same – how boring is that?! We are equal, though. And in the times we live in, where they try to convince us that we are not equal, it is revolutionary.

Do you consider the Rembetiko a specific music genre and movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I’m afraid I know too little about the genre rules of Rembetiko or the Rembetes’ state of mind. However, I suspect it is, to some extent a bit of both.

At the beginning I wasn’t able to differentiate the genres of Greek from each there. I didn’t know where Rembetiko ended and Laiko started, for example. For me the edges weren’t sharp enough. Rembetiko has so many influences from everywhere: Minor Asia, the Balkans, mainland Greece and its islands and even Europe. For me, already Vamvakaris, Tsitsanis and Chiotis are so different to each other.

For Greeks, Rembetiko is a specific genre, even though experts themselves seem to struggle with the definition sometimes, as the story of Dionysis Savvopoulos and Sotiria Bellou – I hope it’s a true one – proves. When Bellou recorded „To aeroplano“, Savvopoulos was happy to have finally composed a Rembetiko song. However, when Bellou exited the recording booth, she said in despair: „Dimitris, why do you let me sing a pop song?“ So, even if they differ, how should I know? It probably has not only got something to do with the instrumentation, the melodies or how you play it, but also with the attitude and the way the lyrics are written.

At the same time it is also a state of mind. And here the Rembetiko shares some things with the American Blues, I believe. First of all, there is the stoicism and the notion that the world is like it is and not like you want it to be and it never will be. This unromantic view might be one reason why the leftists had problems with both genres for quite a while – they don’t lend themselves to revolutions. Since the musicians of both genres were considered social outcasts, they in return didn’t belief in the system and it’s promises and were highly suspicious of the political or social elites. They applied their own rules and lived regardless of what or in spite of what was regarded opous prepi by bourgeois standards. So, although I doubt that most of us would appreciate or even  survive the life of a true Rembetis/ Magkas or Blues musician of the old times, parts of this philosophy let’s say, has trickled down and is pretty valid in my opinion.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I don’t know if a day would be enough, but I’d like to spent a day in Berlin in the late twenties. Musically and culturally it would be fascinating to see what was going on there. At the the same time I would like to get a closer look at it socio-politically. If the reports of historians and eye witnesses are correct, then a lot of similarities are existing between the end of the Weimar Republic and nowadays.

Christian Ronig - Home

(Photo by Kai Kremser)

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