Songs of Longing: Xenitia, strangers in a strange land… features songs from the verbatim theatre show Taxithi - An Australian Odyssey, performed to great acclaim during two sold-out seasons at fortyfivedownstairs in 2016, Alexander Theatre in 2018, which has come back to Melbourne fresh from the Adelaide Cabaret Festival this year. This new concert guise Songs of Longing focuses on the emotional highs in the theatrical piece – the songs. The curated music material looks onto new horizons by exploring repertoire beyond the Entechna (art song) and Laika (folk/pop music) songs from the Greek migration eras that were presented in the show to encompass other genres such as Dimotika (old traditional songs), Nisiotika (island songs) and Rebetiko (urban popular songs). Featuring renown composers Stelios Kazantzidis, Manos Loïzos, Stavros Kougioumtzis, Manos Hadjidakis and Mikis Theodorakis and lyricists Lefteris Papadopoulos, Errikos Thalassinos, Leonidas Malenis, among others, the concert version is a celebration of a repertory that is rarely heard on the Australian stage.
If you were embarking on a journey, the Greeks would bid you farewell by saying Καλό ταξίδι! (Kaló taxídi). The plot of the original theatre piece focuses on women, starting from the stories of Helen’s late grandmother and the material Helen gathered by interviewing Greek women who came to Australia in the 1950s and 60s for different reasons to re-join their husbands but also to enter into arranged marriages or even as child brides. Songs of Longing is about a journey ξενιτιά (xenitiá) that is intermixed hope and sorrow and is more painful than joyous. It does not finish upon arrival at the destination but continues with the search for oneself in a new and strange land away from the familiar sensations of the homeland and warm safety of a family.
The titles of the songs give away the strong emotions associated with migration: Ένα Πιάτο Άδειο Στο Τραπέζι [Ena Piato Athio Sto Trapezi – An Empty Dish At The Table], Το Παράπονο Του Ξενιτεμένου [To Parapono Tou Xenitimenou – The Lament Of Those Longing For Home; Το Ψωμί Της Ξενιτιάς [To Psomi Tis Xenitias – The Bread Of Foreign Lands], Φεύγω Με Πίκρα Στα Ξένα [Fevgo Me Pikra Sta Xena – I Leave With Bitterness], Μη Μου Θυμώνεις Μάτια Μου [Mi Mou Thimonis Matia Mou – Don’t Be Angry My Love] and Της Ξενιτιάς [Tis Xenitias – Of The Exiled].
Songs of Longing is also Helen’s story of a second-generation migrant immersed in the culture of her parents. These are encapsulated childhood memories of listening to her father’s records, her grandmother’s stories and the stories of the aunties from the Greek community she grew up in Melbourne as well as the interviews she transcribed. “It’s incredibly cathartic when you’re performing the soundtrack of your life”, she revealed in an interview for MLive from 10 May 2018. Unexpectedly, it was an intense feeling also for me – a first-generation migrant from Bulgaria – sitting in the audience swamped by a strong sense of longing and the opportunity to partake in the collective expression of it.
Helen Yotis Patterson bestowed her audience with a voice full of lived experience and raw emotion. Her open-hearted performance was amplified by generous gestures and a rich and full-bodied voice that is now velvety warm then probingly sharp, a voice capable of subtle dynamics and gushing phrasing that enchants and excites the listener. Jacob Papadopoulos’ bouzouki created immediately a profoundly Greek soundscape either with delicate strums on the strings or virtuosic fill-in melodies. Attila Kuti came in for the second half of the concert, his violin despondently adding an extra voice of yearning for the urban repertoire. Andrew Patterson’s piano, although not usual for this repertoire, offered percussive rhythms, melodic interludes and poignant harmonies, leading the ensemble into riveting highs and lows of the music drama that underpins the lyric.
Reverent to the musical traditions and yet with a renewed understanding of the material, the ensemble’s renditions transcended time and space to keep alive the feelings of loss that thousands of Greek immigrants suffered when embarking upon a journey into the unknown to escape poverty after WWII or the repressive conditions in Greece during the Military Junta of 1967–1974. Lost in the music and their memories, many in the audience joined in to sing the familiar songs. During the last song, a man was compelled to get up and dance with movements of national pride and acknowledgement that totally fulfilled the aesthetic experience for me.
Helen supplanted the lyric the narrative by using patter between the songs and projections of images of places and people to support her and their stories. Using the effect of melodramé, her recitation of English translations of the lyrics over instrumental accompaniment created suspense and emotional climaxes in the narrative arc of the piece.
In an age of global mobility, migration occurs not only from continent to continent, but also between neighbouring countries or from city to city. Migrants are not deserters of their homeland but rather people seeking better professional realisation, education opportunities or moving to join their families. Today, the very fabric of nations is woven with the diversity, energy, enterprise and hard work of its people, including those that come to stay. The Taxithi Project and their Songs of Longing encapsulate the contribution of these precious people and their stories, the emotional toil upon leaving one’s homeland, the compassion that flows from experiencing these stories, and the gained knowledge of how difficult it is to make sense of a new self in a new place.
The Taxithi Project presents
Songs of Longing
Helen Yotis Patterson
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane Melbourne VIC
Dates: 9 October 2019