Monday, February 8, 2010

Global Greeks: The Immortal Nikos Xylouris - 'Εβαλε ο Θεός Σημάδι Παλικαρι στα Σφακιά ...

 Nikos Xylouris - The Archangel of Crete

30 years ago today God took his archangel, Niko Xylouris, the Archangel of Crete as he was called, to his side, leaving all of us in the Global Greek World infinitely poorer yet somehow also infinitely richer ...

Έβαλε ο Θεός σημάδι
παλικάρι στα Σφακιά
κι ο πατέρας του στον Άδη
άκουσε μια τουφεκιά.
Της γενιάς μου βασιλιά,
μην κατέβεις τα σκαλιά.
Πιές αθάνατο νερό
να νικήσεις τον καιρό.
Έβαλε ο Θεός σημάδι
παλικάρι στα Σφακιά
κι η μανούλα του στον Άδη
τράβηξε μια χαρακιά.
Της καρδιάς μου βασιλιά
με τον ήλιο στα μαλλιά,
μην περνάς τη χαρακιά
η ζωή είναι πιο γλυκιά...

His brilliant and almost prophetic "Evale o Theos Simadi" is the song that is especially associated with him - a particularly poignant and evocative song,

Έβαλε ο Θεός σημάδι παλικάρι στα Σφακιά κι ο πατέρας του στον Άδη άκουσε μια τουφεκιά...

God aimed at a valiant young man from Sfakia, and his father in Hades heard the shot of the rifle...

It speaks of a young man who has been 'chosen' by God but whose parents,  already in Hades, try to prevent him from taking those dreaded steps down to the Underworld to join them...  A beautiful song  indeed from composer Stavros Xarhakos and poet Nikos Gatsos.

About Nikos Xylouris

Nikos Xylouris was born on the 7th of July 1936 in Anoghia,  on the island of Crete to a family steeped in traditional music. In 1941 his family fled Anoghia  for the village of Mylopotamos after the Germans burned his village and  returned after Crete was liberated. His talent shone early, and he sang and played the mandolin with his friend Giorgi Kalomoiri. He later learnt to play the Cretan Lyra, and started to tour the villages and towns to play at festivals, weddings and baptisms.

Still in his teens, at the age of 17,  he began performing in a club called  Kastro in Heraklion. It wasn't easy for him  and very different from what he expected, just making enough money to meet his needs.

"In the city, the people were dancing tango, waltz, rumba, samba and we were obliged to learn those tunes so as to play them at feasts and festivals, in order to earn our living but also to make people get used to and gradually develop a love for Cretan music ..." he said later in one of his interviews.

At one of those dances he met and later married his beloved Ourania, daughter of a prosperous family of Heraklion, and in November of 1958 he recorded his first 78, Mia Mavrofora Otan Perna - for which he received 150 drachmas!  In 1960, their first child , a son, Yiorgos was born and 6 years later, their second, a daughter, they named Rinio. Again it wasn't easy, times were tough…

At the time, in Crete, there were two schools of traditional Lyra players, those with Mountaki (Mountakikoi) and those with Skordalo (Skordalikoi). Xylouris was somewhere in between, but with the added advantage of having a distinctive voice that he could adapt to vastly diverse music styles...he could sing everything, from the traditional Cretan Rizitika to the modern songs that were being sung around Greece. He spent several months in Athens in 1964 and in 1966 left Greece to participate in the San Remo Folk Festival, eventually winning the first prize!

Between 1967 and 1969 Xylouris played at various music clubs in Heraklion - Erotokritos, Zamania, and Oasis to name a few - with people flocking from near and far to listen to his magical Lyra and his tremendously expressive voice. In February of 1969,  he recorded Anyfantou, a song that started him on his journey to the top... He moved to Athens to sing in a traditional Cretan music club  the Konaki, which still exists today,  where he met poet Errikos Thalassinos and who, recognising his talent, introduced him to celebrated composer and fellow Cretan,  Yiannis Markopoulos.

Xylouris signed up with Columbia and collaborated extensively with Markopoulos, starting with  Chroniko, a wonderful group of songs that combined traditional and modern musical styles.

This was a troubled period in Greece. The military junta was in power and the people at all levels were resisting the dictatorship. The voice of Xylouris, whether singing Markopoulos' music or the folk songs of Crete, became synonymous with that resistance.

In the summer of 1973, Xylouris, along with Tzeni Karezi and Kostas Kazakos performed Iakovos Kambanellis' now legendary To Megalo Mas Tsirko - Our Great Circus -  at the Athinaion Theatre.

Songs and the dialogue officially referred to Greece’s recent history but were in fact cleverly disguised, satirising and criticising politicians and political events and expressing sentiments which were forbidden in the very tense political climate of that period. 

Emotions and passions ran high - the songs signalled rebellion! As the word about this 'resistance' theatre went round, people flocked in to hear them and they played to a packed theater every single night. The Polytechnic student uprising followed in November of the same year and Xylouris' presence inside the Polytechnic was catalytic, rallying the students and the people who gathered outside the gates with the depth and the power of his distinctive voice ...

His song Pote Tha Kanei Xasteria, was a call to battle, a rally to resistance against the Junta and the 7 year old dictatorship...

After the fall of the Military Junta, Xylouris went on to make major recordings in collaboration with some of Greece's most talented artists, composers and poets

Ithageneia and Stratis Thalassinos with Yiannis Markopoulos

Dionyse Kalokairi Mas and Syllogi with Stavros Xarhakos


Tropikos tis Parthenou and Akolouthia with Christodoulos Chalaris and
Kapnismeno Tsoukali with Christos Leondis, lyrics by Yiannis Ritsos.

At the same time, he recorded the Antipolemika songs by Linos Kokotos and Dimitris Christodoulou

as well as George Seferis’ poetry set to music by Ilias Andriopoulos.

His music travelled around the world and he gained international acclaim. So much in such a short time, as if he knew it was running out...

Between 1974 and 1979 he performed to packed houses in Athens at 'boites' like Ledra, Archontissa, Aposperida, Kyttaro and Themelio - interpreting many popular Cretan songs, which reflected the tremendous love for his roots, his homeland, Crete - songs such as Filentem, Pramateftis, and Argalio.

His repertoire was very diverse and he was equally at ease singing Rizitika, from the mountains of Crete as he was singing some of the most beautiful byzantine hymns.  I Zoi en Tafo, which you can watch below, is one of the most beautiful lamentations of the Greek Orthodox Good Friday service, and showcases the incredible purity of his voice.

Thirty years ago today, on 8th February 1980, at the age of 44, Nikos Xylouris left this world after a battle with cancer...  Today we celebrate his life and the legacy he left us. His voice and his legend live on in our hearts and for that we are truly grateful.

His family continue to honour their loved one's life and memory.

His beloved Ourania and his children, Yiorgos and Rinio, run the Xylouri Store in Panepistimiou Street in downtown Athens .

His brother Psarantonis a musician in his own right continues the Xylouri family tradition with his own very personal and unique musical style.

Aionia tou i Mnimi! Athanatos! Immortal!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this excellent feature. A few months back, I had the opportunity to prepare an extended radio special on the life and music of Nikos Xylouris, which aired on Austin Hellenic Radio. For this special, I interviewed several individuals including, most notably, Niky Xylouri, his cousin. Niky grew up with Nikos and spoke at length about her memories of him and what his music means to her to this day. The radio special can be heard on-demand in its entirety at


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