A Lavish Double Album Explores Otherworldly, Primeval, Ancient Greek Sounds

by delarue

Some of the oldest, most otherworldly and strangely compelling music in human history can be found on the Third Man Records compilation Why the Mountains Are Black – Primeval Greek Village Music 1907-60. That’s what compiler Christopher King claims, and from the sound of some of the album’s twenty-eight tracks, he’s probably right. It has the same spirit, vast historical sweep and archivist’s flair for brilliant obscurities as the Secret Museum of Mankind compilations from around fifteen years ago. The album – streaming at Spotify – is a follow-up to Don’t Trust Your Neighbors: Early Albanian Traditional Songs & Improvisations, 1920s-1930s, and it makes a good segue since most of this is  music from the interior. The majority of the material collected here doesn’t have the moody Middle Eastern microtones that made it across the water to Cyprus, the Greek islands and the Aegean coast. Instead, its dances, ballads and laments are a lot closer to the enigmatic vamps of Macedonia and deeper into the Balkans.

Many of the musicians playing these songs – eighteen of these tracks are previously unreleased – are unidentified. Like the earliest music from Africa, call and response is often front and center, between audience and musicians as well as between the musicians themselves. Every track here is at least half-improvised; some are almost completely. There are shepherds’ tunes that signal their flocks to do one thing or another; graveside laments; dirges; ballads for absent friends or lovers; requiems for cities and eras, reaffirming how relevant some of these ancient themes remain

The collection begins with the most ancient and bucolic tunes and ends with the most Middle Eastern and urban of them. Mountain dances, Aegean island bagpipe music made by expats in Florida in the 1950s, and New York immigrant zurna oboeists’ work mirror their counterparts and predecessors back in home in Athens. Romany fiddlers and Thessalonian clarinetists remind how crucial a role Greece has played in musical cross-pollination over the centuries, and for millennia before then. The lavish double gatefold vinyl release comes with fascinating liner notes and cover art by R. Crumb. It’s a trip back in time for anyone with the time and the headphones to lie on the floor and get lost in.