Vinicio Capossela - Rebetiko Gymnastas
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Vinicio Capossela
Rebetiko Gymnastas
La Cupa/Warner Music Italia

"After the sea, comes the port." That's how the brilliant, and brilliantly idiosyncratic Italian singer and songwriter Vincio Capossela describes the relationship of his latest album, Rebetiko Gymnastas, to its predecessor, Marinai, Profeti e Baleni (Sailors, Prophets and Whales). The earlier recording, released in 2011, was a dazzling fantasia about seafaring and exploration (both nautical and spiritual) that filled two disks. Its successor is a deceptively more modest work, thirteen tracks (and one "ghost" the listener has to wait for) arranged and performed as rebetiko, the hybrid genre of Greek and Ottoman folk styles that emerged in the 1930s in Hellenic port cities and their working class taverns, hashish dens, and prisons.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, rebetiko, though rarely registering explicit political protest, became associated with popular resistance to Greece's military dictatorship.

Capossela went to Athens to make the album, and his collaborators mostly are Greek musicians. (The exceptions are the American guitarist Marc Ribot, who frequently records and performs with Capossela, and the Italians Mauro Pagani on violin, guitarist Alessandro Stefana and bassist Glauco Zuppiroli.) Most of the song lyrics are printed in Greek in the accompanying booklet. But Capossela isn't one to make a fetish of authenticity: Eight of the tracks are re-workings of his own material from earlier albums, sung in Italian; two ("Abbandonato," "Canción de las Simples Cosas") are from Latin America; and another – "Misirlou"-- though of Greek provenance, is best known in its surf-rock version by Dick Dale, which got a second life on the "Pulp Fiction" soundtrack.

But Capossela and the terrific musicians he's assembled deftly translate everything into the beguiling rebetiko idiom, with its strummed and plucked bouzoukis and rhythms derived from traditional Greek and Anatolian dances. And he throws some great curveballs at you, like "Signora Luna," which originally appeared on his album, Canzoni a Manovella. On Rebetiko Gymnastas, the new version honors rebetiko's syncretic nature, blending blues, spaghetti Western guitar fills and Greek rhythms.

"Morna," Capossela's tribute to the Cape Verdean style from his album, Il Ballo di San Vito, is one of my favorites among his repertoire, a haunting melody wedded to evocative lyrics that render the lovelorn protagonist's nocturnal reverie. From the opening sounds of Capossela's intake of breath to the exhalations at the final bars, the rebetiko remake is even more irresistible than the original. Accompanying himself on piano, with delicate bouzouki filigree by Manolis Pappos, Capossela sings with aching, erotic tenderness about "the love that blows hot and is a lament from the dark and from the sea."

"Scivola Vai Via," from Capossela's album, All'una e Trentacinque Circa, is a showcase for Pappos, whose outstanding work here and throughout Rebetiko Gymnastas is an indispensible ingredient of its success. "Con una Rosa," another track from Canzoni a Manovella that has been a staple of Capossela's concerts, also sounds even better here, with Pagani's electric violin, Stefana's guitar, Pappos' bouzouki and Capossela's piano, than in its original version.

Rebetiko, as a syncretic genre, has drawn not only from Mediterranean sources but also from Latin America, with leading figures like bouzouki virtuoso Manolis Chiotis incorporating mambo rhythms in his 1950s recordings. Capossela, whether inspired by Chiotis' example or not, adapts two songs of Latin origin. "Abbandonato" is his take on "Los Ejes de mi Carreta" by the Argentinian folk singer Atahualpa Yupanqui; "Canción de las Simples Cosas," by Armando Tejada Gómez and César Isella, was made famous by the Argentinian Mercedes Sosa and the Mexican ranchera singer Chavela Vargas. "Abbandonato," featuring Marc Ribot's dirty-toned guitar, becomes a Hellenized rumba, "Canción" a soulful bolero.

"Rebetiko μου" – "My Rebetiko" – is a new Capossela composition with lyrics that express both a mood and a philosophy. The singer wanders the streets at night, "full of retsina and sorrow," dancing by himself to his own rebetiko, as "in a parade, as in a farewell;" he and his lost lover are no longer bound together by sleepless nights, just emotions that have died out. "All that remains are your kisses on the lips of others like embers." Yes, the singer's heart may be broken, but drunk on retsina and dancing to his own rhythms, he's also loving his sorrow and his solitude.

Far from a genre exercise or an artistic change of pace, Rebetiko Gymnastas on every track demonstrates Capossela's immersion in and deep love for the music and the proletarian milieu from which it emerged. He has said that the album, though for the most part sung in Italian, is "played in Greek, in debt to Greece, which has given the world not only civilization but also one of the world's most extraordinary forms of urban music, rebetiko." Playing on the "gymnastas" of the title, he says he released it in the year of the Olympics "as an exercise in rebellion and identity," and to remind us that "we are men [sic], not only consumers, and to not be afraid to consume life." - George de Stefano

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