Rembetika 3: Vassilis Tsitsanis 1936-1940
Great Britain's JSP label is well known as a purveyor of great jazz and blues music and, more recently, bluegrass. Their multiple-disc sets are usually sold for a song (due to much more liberal copyright limitation laws in the United Kingdom, which are great if you're a consumer and really bad if you're an artist). That said, who would have thought that JSP would become the label for the history of rembetika in the Northern Hemisphere? The evidence is in the previous two multi-disc overviews of the music that the imprint issued in 2006 and earlier in 2008. This third entry in the series focuses on the most recorded musician of Greece's original underground outlaw music songwriter, and bouzouki master, Vassilis Tsitsanis, who was born in 1915 and passed away in 1984. Tsitsanis recorded from 1936 through the 1960s, taking a break during WWII, when he served in the Greek Army. This gigantic five-disc set concentrates only on the prewar years, 1936-1940. During that period, Tsitsanis recorded a whopping 101 sides! They range from his earliest, most youthful romantic ballads -- though his first hit, "Zembekiko," was a hashish ballad -- through more world-weary hard-luck, drinking, and gangster themes. Interestingly, many of his sides were credited to other artists, but as the liner notes explain (somewhat sketchily, it's true), often a side would be credited to the vocalist or a co-writer but scholars have determined authorship as belonging to Tsitsanis. Each track on these five discs is painstakingly detailed in the notes, though the biographical details are spare. The sound is more than reasonable considering the official source tapes. And the music itself? Timeless; its emotional intensity and the physicality of Tsitsanis' bouzouki playing are undiminished as well. These are powerful songs and should be heard by every rembetika fan. While it's true that Rounder Records spent two different entries on the prewar material by the artist and went deeper into details in their rather academic liner essays, the sheer weight of the music and its volume on this box tips the edge in its favor.