An article by Hajimike
In 1995 Stavros Sideras, probably one of the most acclaimed musicians to ever come out of Cyprus, sat in front of me and offered some advice. His tone, based on years of wise experience also carried a weight of caution.
‘No one in Cyprus can live off music alone’, he said and that struck me hard because here was this creative man, with musicals that had been put on all over the world giving me probably the best advice a musician could offer in Cyprus. Reality, he then concluded, look at myself, ‘I wake up each day ‘xara ma tou fou’ (when the cockerels crow) to do a morning radio show that starts at 6am. Fact was, that Sideras also lived in Larnaca and he made that crack ‘o’ dawn drive every week day to Radio Proto in Nicosia.
There are so many other things nowadays that make being a musician in Cyprus tough but prior to any further elaboration, I want to clear up one thing; what do I mean by a musician? It may sound banal to pose such a question as many people might just say someone who plays music. But playing music is not just a technique, it’s a passion, it’s a creative process, especially for those who make their own songs, and whether we play it or you partake in it and enjoy it, we are all doing something, an activity that the writer Christopher Small called ‘musicking’. The origins of the word go back to medieval English and so many people tend to take for granted what musicking is. Performance, rehearsal, composition, production, listening, hearing, participating, even singing in the shower. Adopting this as an active, all embracing thing in our lives means we also have to consider that in Cyprus this has meant many other things, perhaps not so cherished.
‘My daughter is marrying a musician’ someone once declared. A family member at the dinner table pondered ‘En hashiklis?’ (is he an addict or something). My dear mum, and dad, both now passed away, told my bouzouki playing brother, time and time again, ‘en na bethanis nistikos an minis mousikos’ (‘you will die hungry if you choose to be a musician’) ‘mathe texni gie mou’ (‘learn a trade my son’). My brother learned his trade on and off and he did many jobs, but now in his sixties, whenever he talks to me about music scales online (he now lives in Liverpool), his eyes light up, and I can see that old fire in him, that passion, that yearning to play music live, which none of us can do in front of a live audience due to the worldwide COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Aside from the stigma attached to being a musician there are number of other painful realities.
First there’s a division between makers and players of original music (whatever sound that may be) and people playing live music as cover bands/artists. There are many people who do both, lucky people in many ways, because they have the skills to be flexible. But often, if you are an artist or band making your own music in Cyprus, being such a small market, it is hard to survive on that alone. Most bands that earn money, but even that is relatively little, are cover bands. Second, local music is always the second-class citizen of this island to anything from the Greek ‘motherland’. I don’t want to get into the politics of identity and what Cyprus is and what Cyprus isn’t and who is right and who is wrong. It’s just a fact that for decades Greek based artists got paid far more money, have far more opportunities, media coverage and all the rest than any local artist doing their own thing. Basically, we always play second fiddle. Following on from this comes the broader issue of what music you play and who plays your music in media outlets like radio and TV. It's clear in the age of the internet and social media these traditional media platforms have less influence. We are less prone today as David Gauntlett says to ‘sit back and be told’ what to listen to musically and culturally, because we are living in age of what he describes ‘as the making and doing culture’ of Web 2.0. It does all sound rather utopian but it's true there is a lot more participation online and choice than what mainstream media dishes out. However, this does not mean they should get away with their institutionalized forms of musical ‘fascism’. For a very long time, as far back as I can recall, radio and TV in Cyprus implements a musical policy of ‘Greek’ and ‘xenoi’ mousiki – Greek/mainstream - xenoi – foreign. It's ironic because Greek is not mainstream music worldwide, and the whole idea of ‘mainstream’ is wrong any way because there are some many musics, sounds and languages in the world. As Stevie Wonder said ‘music is a world within itself with a language we all understand.’ Furthermore, artists like Stevie, Bob Dylan, Celine Dione, Stormzy, Bob Marley (and any popular artist) are not a bunch of aliens that have landed from another planet that our radio and TV stations have a so-called ‘divine’ right to relegate their or anyone else’s works to a second-class status. But this is our reality. So if say you sing the Blues, I am not saying you won’t have an audience, but your songs will not be treated the same way as Sakis Rouvas, Anna Vissy and Antonis Remos. Your Reggae video song clip might get played on TV once, when they interview you, but Rouvas-Vissy-Remos will get played thousands of times. Talking of Reggae, the only band that plays large scale festivals in Cyprus, year after year, is Locomondo. They are from Greece. No other live Reggae artists from Cyprus ever get invited. I know they are seen as more commercial, and they can bring bums on seats, but at the end of the day, it's all music, and if there was any justice in the way concerts are promoted, not only would Reggae acts in Cyprus get a proper look in, but actual Jamaican artists would be invited too, after all Reggae is a crucial part of Jamaican culture and heritage. Reggae acts from Jamaica get invited to play all over the world. We rarely see them in Cyprus. And this inferiority complex is so deep that the EDON festival has more or less invited the same Greek artist for the last 25 years, none other than Vassilis Papaconstantinou. 25 years, the same songs??? Despite being a ‘progressive’ organization that kind of repetition reminds one of a bunch of evangelicals inviting the same ‘Gospel band’ to sing the same ‘Jesusu Love You’ set at their gatherings for 3 whole decades.
But perhaps you say my rant is arloumbes (wasted energy). There are no gigs in the COVID-19 age and DJs cannot play anywhere. And yes, that’s all true as well and musicians, meaning anybody who is “musicking” belongs to one of those groups of people in society suffering the most during this time financially. Culture generally is suffering, Film, Theatre, Live events, Art Exhibitions, books being published, Poetry events - everything. There has been no mention of music however anywhere in local media coverage. What are these musicians, these locals up to, how are they surviving and how will they cope afterwards, as a world economic crisis looms on a scale reminiscent of the Great Depression in the 1930s? Many are online, making music live, collaborating virtually. Some who engage in teaching, depending on their instrument, are coping, like piano teachers. And live musicians are doing all kinds of selfie videos, cover songs, their own songs, playing instruments, singing, DJ’s are mixing on Facebook live. I watch as much as this as I can and keep up to date with what local musicians are doing. Panayiotis Meraklis singing and playing live is regular breath of fresh mountain or sea air (oh how I miss that in lockdown Nicosia). He is like that Cypriot root that never dies. Like that grape vine cutting my late uncle Michalis took form his home in Kato Varosi when he fled, which still flourishes in a garden in Larnanca, even after his death. Monsieur Doumani, having won the best group award from Songlines Magazine (UK) for 2019 (hardly mentioned obviously by mainstream media) had to cancel their extensive spring tour due lockdown worldwide but they are preparing their 4th album. Producer Med Dred has just completed tracks for legends I-Kong and, Duckie Simpson, founder of Black Uhuru, from Jamaica. And last but by no means least, Lemoni Radio opened online, playing an eclectic and interesting mix of sounds with no restrictions, repetitive playlists and cultural fascism.
But I want to go back to my friend Meraklis. How come not one TV station has called him up to put him on air via Skype or Zoom to share one of these many gems he is performing online? Facebook live is his platform. There is nothing wrong with that, but when is the perception of music made locally going to change in terms of actual media coverage and promotion? The real question is how will all these people cope post-COVID-19? In France for example live mass events are not coming back till 2021. France by the way has always had an interesting policy on promoting French music, distinguishing itself from many countries in Europe and around the world. 40% of music played on Radio stations has to be French produced and in French. Just imagine if local radio stations adopted a similar approach to music made by artists that are Cyprus based?
How live music survives after this pandemic, is difficult to answer but one thing is for sure, musicians and music in Cyprus, no matter the sound, no matter the genre, no matter the language and aesthetics, need more support and understanding. Yes there will be parties after all this, even some small-scale events but surviving from music alone, will be harder than ever before for local musicians. So, without a whole shake up of the system of how music is promoted, acknowledged, and respected nothing will improve. Den thelo na pethano nistikos (I do not want to die of hunger)...I just want to play music...
Mike Haji Mike April, 2020