Years ago, I read a long essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan about his discovery of the music of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Finding their records after they were lost for decades sent Sullivan on a quest to find out who these women were, where they came from, and where they went. The essay sent me on my own dive into early blues and hot jazz, a dive I still haven’t really come up from yet. So reading about Christopher King’s moment in which he discovered Epirotic music, preserved on 78 records from the 1920s and 1930s. In Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Music, King tells us about his dive into a strange music that captured his soul.
King found out about Epirotic music on a trip with his family to Istanbul. On the Asian side of the city, he found the Street of Gramophones and luckily stumbled on 78s from before World War II, rare ones that he’d never heard of and in a language he couldn’t read. When he got home to Virginia, King put on record and it changed his life. This music offers a connection to the mystical, the ineffable, and the past—so King argues in this freewheeling and erudite book about the history of Epirus and its music. There are parts of King’s book that lose me. I was only in band for a few years and I barely learned how to read music. When King talks about scales and majors or minors and such, I have to skim because I have no idea what he’s saying.
Kistos Harisiadis is one of the Epirote musicians King chases.
In the first chapters of Lament from Epirus, King draws connections between Epirotic music and Delta blues. Both genres express deep sorrow in a way that no other music can. Their ability to tap into that emotion comes from centuries of hardship and violence, but also faith and tradition. Later in the book, King writes about how music is not an aesthetic, philosophical experience—at least not in Epirus or in Mississippi. Instead, this kind of music can heal. It can also connect us to our pre-Christian past, remind us of our ability to wordlessly commune with each other over potent alcohol and cathartic dance moves. For King, music is a religion and he tends to get a bit poetic about it.
What I found most compelling about Lament from Epirus is King’s argument that music and culture are inextricably tied together. Music can be enjoyed without its cultural context, but it’s missing something. Epirote Greeks have been listening and dancing to their laments for centuries. Because the music is so tied up with religion, mythology, and local history, there are levels to it that outsiders will never fully understand it. It’s like the way white people can enjoy Delta blues, even love it, but will always know that the music is not really for us.
I enjoyed Lament from Epirus even more than I expected when I requested it from Edelweiss. King wanders from musical theory to anthropology to Ottoman history to the proper methods for making tsipouro, in just the kind of interdisciplinary mishmash I love. Like the laments he has come to love, King repeats little details—like the time he lost all the skin on his right forearm at a festival—before launching off on another tangent that becomes relevant after a few pages. This book is very well done.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 29 May 2018.