Born in Piraeus in 1949, the son of a rembetika musician, George Dalaras could not have come from any place closer to the crucible of Greek rembetika than this Athenian port. And even if the pungent flavours of rembetika – its earliest lyrics dealt with scoring drugs, getting stoned and the inevitable visits to prison – had been toned down by the time that Dalaras was old enough to pick up a baglama (a little lute, typical of the genre), there was still plenty of life left in the music.
Rembetika has had an interesting history in Greece: reviled, rediscovered and reinterpreted. Dalaras is certainly one of its modern advocates. Deserted Villages is an album that follows in the footsteps of tributes to Mikis Theodorakis and an entire album dedicated to the work of an original rembetis, Markos Vamvakaris. Made in tandem with the Albanian accordionist/composer Dasho Kurti, the 11 songs on Deserted Villages offer a broad palate, and not all of it mournful. ‘Erima Choria’ (‘Deserted Villages’) opens the album with wide, lingering accordion glances – one can feel the wind whip around the notes – before Dalaras’ lightly toned voice repopulates the village for a short space of time. Dances are danced, a church bell tolls, and then the song is consigned to memory as the musicians leap into virtuoso territory – the speed of ‘Fyllo sto Nero’ (‘A Leaf on the Water’) with guest vocals from Valbona Mema; or the slithering lines of ‘Ponos Zontanos’ (‘A Living Pain’). However, it’s Kurti’s take on the traditional tune of ‘Deka Cheimones’ (‘Ten Winters’) that really makes this album: stately, open-hearted and with a vocal line that stretches the chords to their limit, it’s glorious.