Alexis Zoumbas's Nearly 100 Year Old Fiddling Draws New Fans

R. Crumb’s cover illustration first drew me to this record, which recently arrived with others sent by Third Man Records. It opened to a triple gatefold that provided a fairly complete backgrounder on the folk violinist Alexis Zoumbas who was born in Ioannina, the capital of Epirus the Northern Greece region adjacent to Albania between the Pindus Mountains and the Ionian Sea. The notes by producer Christopher King suggest listening to the opening track “Epirotiko Mirologi” with undivided attention, which means stopping reading the extensive annotation.

No problem. A few seconds into the mournful, yearn-fest and you’re not only not reading, you’re close to weeping or at least running through a list of that which you’ve wanted but been denied. In my case, that meant an old college friend also named Christopher King who I’d lost contact with and I eventually found out had passed away some time ago. I idolized the kid, who seemed to have it all going on, but I think he died an impoverished alcoholic. That’s where music took me. But enough about me.

The living Christopher King, obsessed by Zoumbas and his music, assembled a set of 78s, digitized them and produced this record first released for Record Store Day 2014 on the Angry Mom label. It quickly sold out. Apparently, many record buyers back then wanted to wallow in tuneful, mournful despair. Not to be (too) political, but this record comes at just the right time! Zoumbas fiddled around his hometown pretty much a vagabond, but one who had money mysteriously as needed and whose fiddling reputation was already solidified.

He left home for New York City in 1910 at age 27 and shortly thereafter became a naturalized citizen by the end of the year. He began playing in Greek and “oriental” and Greek clubs and restaurants and if that sounds odd, when you hear the music you’ll better understand the Greek and “oriental” connection. I’m not going to continue the history here other than to write that his most vital period is covered in this set, which Mr. King says reflects emotionally his fear that he would never return home, though he did in 1928 to attend his daughter’s marriage. He returned to America and in 1941 moved to Chicago where he played at the Oriental Café on Halsted Street. He died of pneumonia in 1946 at age 63.

So what accounts for the continued interest in this obscure Greek fiddler’s music? You’d have to listen to the album’s first tune to begin to understand what appears to be a cult-like following. A good way to describe the feel of Zoumbas’s music and playing would be to compare it to the Armenian duduk music found on Djivan Gasparyan’s Melodiya album I Will Not Be Sad in This World reissued by Brian Eno on his Opal label (9 25885-1). Despite the album’s title, the music has a soulful, mournful quality roughly similar to much of Mr. Zoumbas’s music on this album.

Despite the age of the recordings, the sound is not “scratchy 78rpm” quality, in part because of Mr. King’s careful mastering that removes surface noise while leaving the music intact. The recording quality is remarkably high considering the age. Of course, it’s not “audiophile” quality but it will directly connect with your innards, especially in terms of touch and texture, both of which are remarkably well-communicated.

I’m not saying this is for everyone, but certainly if you’re familiar with and appreciae Mr. Gasparyan’s album, you’re sure to like this one, which includes a bonus 45 with an alternative take of “Epirotiko Mirologi” and one other tune.

Muddying up the waters somewhat is that more recently another label, Mississippi Records, has issued its own Zoumbas album, which it claims use “the original recordings…recently uncovered in pristine condition..” and includes unreleased takes and stunning solo improvisions.” It’s cover is a photo clearly used by R. Crumb for his illustration for this release. If you’re thinking this all sounds like some kind of Greek Robert Johnson story, you’d be on the right track. This music will touch you in similar ways.

volvic's picture

As a lad my father had 45's and 33.3's of Zoumbas' music, I used to listen to them through his built-in console and Sylvania headphones. I don't know whatever became of those great old records but I think it's time I started my own collection of Greek music starting with this Zoumbas record.

ChrisM's picture

TMR did a great job with this release, my copy is flawless without any clic or pop straight out the sleeve, the little 45 is also well made and good sounding. The comparison with Robert Johnson is true, I felt the same kind of emotion while listening to Alexis Zoumbas enchanting music.