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Maria Farantouri Brings Songs Of Resistance To Carnegie Hall

Greek singer Maria Farantouri, performing in Berlin in 2013.
Frank Hoensch
Redferns via Getty Images
Greek singer Maria Farantouri, performing in Berlin in 2013.

For generations of Greek music fans, two names have come to symbolize the country and its social and political struggles: the internationally acclaimed singer Maria Farantouri and the composer whose music she took to the world, Mikis Theodorakis, whom most Americans know primarily through his score for Zorba the Greek.

This weekend, Farantouri will sing some of Theodorakis' songs in a rare Carnegie Hall performance — her first in nearly a quarter century.

Now 70 years old, Farantouri met Theodorakis when she was just 16 and training to be a classical singer. He was more than 20 years her senior — but they both immediately knew that she was to be his muse.

"I had the opportunity to sing one song solo," she recalls, "and he asked me if you know that you were born to become a singer for my work, my priestess? I knew. I knew, and I said 'Yes, I know.' From then, I was on this big journey."

Four years later, in the spring of 1967, a group of right-wing army colonels seized power in Greece, and the brutal junta lasted seven years. Theodorakis, who has always been politically active (although his views and alliances have changed over the years), had been imprisoned and tortured — even buried alive — for his left-wing views during Greece's civil war, right after World War II.

Under the junta, he was imprisoned again, and his music was banned again. He and his family were banished to a mountain village, and eventually sent to a prison camp. But Theodorakis managed to send Farantouri a message, written on a gum wrapper, telling her to leave the country. She went into exile in Paris and later in London, where she became part of the social unrest sweeping the world.

"At that time it was also May of '68, you know, in Paris," she says, "so everything was changing, or in our minds — it was a dream. We were dreamers, to change the world."

She was only 20 years old then, but she says she wasn't intimidated: "No, no, I was very, very strong."

Theodorakis managed to smuggle out manuscripts of his music hidden in wheels of cheese and cans of honey, and with reels of recorded tape wound up tight and disguised within buttons of clothing. And Farantouri made his work part of the protest canon that was inspiring students and demonstrators globally.

Her smoky contralto was the perfect vehicle for Theodorakis' music, says Gail Holst-Warhaft, who published a biography of Theodorakis in 1981 and has translated his poetry into English.

"She was the person who could carry his music to the world and not only spread his beautiful songs," Holst-Warhaft says, "but because of the political situation when Greece was under a dictatorship, she was able to use his songs in the way he would have used them himself, as a form of protesting the situation in his own country."

What Theodorakis did with lyrical, romantic poetry was also revolutionary. Gail Holst-Warhaft says that he made the high art of Nobel prize-winning poets like Odysseas Elytis and George Seferis accessible to everyone through music.

"That's not something you expect to find in popular music," she notes. "But when I first went to Greece, you could go and put some money into a jukebox and you could hear the finest poets of Greece set to his music."

One of Farantouri's signature performances is the song cycle The Ballad of Mauthausen, with music by Theodorakis and a text from Greek poet and novelist Iakovos Kambanellis — a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp called Mauthausen, in Austria, who wrote about his experiences there. Farantouri has performed the Mauthausen songs all over the world, including in Israel and multiple times at Mauthausen.

She says that when Theodorakis gave her the song cycle, he told her that he already knew it would be a classic.

"I remember when he first asked me to listen," she says. "He told me, 'Maria, I will give you something that I'm sure you will sing throughout your life. And so, write down the date today, and the month, the year, that I give you these four songs."

When the dictatorship finally collapsed in 1974, Theodorakis and Farantouri returned to Greece and played a televised concert in Athens. And even though their recordings had been banned, everyone knew their songs — and what they stood for.

Farantouri, who was born in a working-class suburb of Athens in 1947, when the country was struggling to recuperate from the Nazi occupation, was struck with polio as a toddler, and quarantined. After her initial success with Theodorakis, she began collaborating with other influential Greek composers, including Manos Hadzidakis and Eleni Karaindrou, and other international musical giants, including South African singer Miriam Makeba, jazz musician Charles Lloyd, and Australian classical guitarist John Williams. Joan Baez and Nels Cline have covered her songs.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Farantouri was even a member of the Greek Parliament; her husband, Telemachos Hitiris, is also a politician — and a poet. These days, she says, it's sometimes hard to hold onto the idealism that has propelled her career. Hard-right politicians and nationalistic ideas are on the rise all over. And her country is still struggling with the economic crisis and the massive influx of refugees.

"Everything today is a spectacle," she says. "I remember when I first saw the first Syrian child drowned in the sea — like with Vietnam, with that photo of the naked girl. Then, everybody was in the streets, we had demonstrations, we had for some days shock. Now, we're used to seeing on television this spectacle."

"Every day, boats of refugees, dead people, dead children — this is something that is very deep," Farantouri continues. "And my thinking is how to face, because the system — generally the whole system is like that. That after one minute, you change, and so it's something that doesn't concern you. The other person is killed, not you, and you are safe. And everybody — left, right, all the parties, all the people, are under this new technology. Everybody's on Facebook, and they think that they make revolution writing, or insulting somebody. It's very strange."

Maria Farantouri has spent her life trying to change society through song. She is still singing — and hoping that others will add their voices to hers.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.