Modern Greek Music Finally Breaks Into American Market

Ireland has Sinad O'Connor and U2. Italy has Andrea Bocelli. And in Australia, there's newcomer Natalie Imbruglia. While these ethnically diverse artists have exploded onto the American music scene, there's still at least one genre that hasn't climbed the US charts: contemporary Greek music.

"Modern Greek music has not had a mass international audience because it has tended to remain inwardly focused, more musically apart from the rest," says Isaac Coutiyel, the head of Planetworks, a successful Athens-based independent music-production company.

"The big-name European artists tend to sound alike. [Italy's] Eros Razomotti uses the same session players as Celine Dion. The marketing is therefore easier. Greece just hasn't had that kind of exposure."

But major record labels such as Polygram, EMI, and Sony are for the first time this year pushing well-known Greek pop artists toward American audiences. Such moves have been spearheaded by EMI's international Hemisphere label and its new distribution division, Mondo Melodia.

"Greek music's first obstacle has been getting past this wrong image we have of it. What is commonly heard over here is the worst of it," says Gerald Seligman, the head of EMI Hemisphere. "But ... people just don't know how phenomenally rich Greek music is and how evolved it is stylistically."

The promotion comes after years of resistance toward what was seen as music too esoteric to cross outside of Greek borders.

Perhaps the most difficult marketing challenge has been Greek music's defiance against the hotter-selling techno-pop of neighboring European countries, cultivating instead an aloof authenticity.

Elements of plaintive ancient chants, Byzantine hymnals, turn-of the-century Greek blues (rembetika), and traditional rhythms (zembeiko) mix colorfully under a light coat of Western gloss. The result is beautiful - but undoubtedly specialized.

Leading the campaign into the American market is Haris Alexiou, Greece's reigning goddess of song, whose velvet-brushed, soul-saturated voice is regarded as the national carrier of contemporary Greek music.

As the country's most successful bridge between music that is at once ancient and modern, folkloric and experimental, she is being introduced to the United States via the redistribution of the successful 1992 Polygram release entitled 'Di Efchon' ('With Blessings') - a sleek, edgy work.

Despite the new attention and established success in France and Holland, Ms. Alexiou sees a larger challenge in selling Greek music abroad for reasons other than just obscure language or unusual rhythms.

"Greek music takes itself very seriously," she said in a recent interview. "It is the music of memory to us. All of our tragedies, all of our modern political problems run through it like its lifeblood. You find this essence as deep in the melody of the music as you do in the language, and that is not easily translatable."

Alexiou is part of that collective memory, having grown up in a musical age of the great Greek composers such as Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hadjidakis, and Manos Louitzos, during the country's politically turbulent '60s and '70s.

It was then a Greek singer's ultimate honor to be summoned by one of these titans to perform their works. Alexiou ended up working with all of them, shaping a three-decade career into an encyclopedic showcase of contemporary Greek music - from pure Greek folk to fusions of Western jazz and Middle Eastern influences.

She tops a list of artists now working their way onto the competitive stands at such US music-store chains as Tower Records and HMV.

Legends such as George Dalaras - Greece's Eric Clapton - and Eleftheria Arvanitaki - its Carole King - are also part of both EMI's and Polygram's initial promotions. Sony has signed on Anna Vissi, a Cypriot sensation.

For Alexiou, Greek music, in spite of its "difficulties," is a sure thing for anyone who ventures into it, Greek or non-Greek. "Once you listen to Greek music, you cannot help but be brought in closer and closer to it," she says. "Then you find that you can't ever leave it. It is always with you."

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