The 1923 population exchange between Turkey and Greece was a defining moment for both countries, with around 2 million people relocated to new lands over the border. Although many people traveled with what little they could carry, they did not leave their memories behind.
In Greece, their grandchildren have led a rediscovery of Greek- Anatolian music, and some have returned to Turkey to dig deeper into its cosmopolitan sounds. One of these grandchildren is Athens-born and Istanbul-based singer Vassiliki Papageorgiou.
Papageorgiou first visited Istanbul with the musicians from the Costas Ferris film Rembetiko (1983). This film did much to spark a resurgence of interest in the rembetiko style, which originated in late-nineteenth century İzmir and Athens.
“It was 1983 when I came the first time,” Papageorgiou told The Guide Istanbul. “I remember when we first entered to have our first rehearsal when we came from Athens, Sezen Aksu was having her rehearsal at the place. It was a big success, because at the time Istanbul wasn’t like now, when you can hear other languages. At that time, Turkey was still quite closed. It was the first time that a rembetiko group came from Greece, so it was full every night with Turkish people, Rum [Greek] people. We came for three weeks and stayed three months.”
After this positive reception, Papageorgiou decided to discover more of Turkey’s traditional music. Her meeting with Istanbul-based Greek musician Nikiforos Metaxas was a pivotal moment. “I met him when I came here and we started working together, forming new groups with Greeks and Turks. We played traditional music, but also composed our own music based on that, and I started writing lyrics. We also became a couple and moved to Heybeliada, where we lived until very recently when he passed away,” she explains. Metaxas’ research on the minority Rum, Armenian, and Jewish composers of the Ottoman Empire led to a new enthusiasm for this music across the Aegean. As the singer says, “Since then, a lot of people have become interested in this and traditional music. The kanun was fading in Greece at the time, but through Nikiforos and the group Bosphorus, we have so many people playing it now.”
For Papageorgiou, Istanbul had a special resonance, like meeting a long-lost relative who remembers you as a child. “Istanbul is an incredibly inspiring place. You can have a lot of experiences here because everything is changing. When I first came,
I used to walk a lot in old Istanbul along the city walls. Being Greek, you come home when you come to Istanbul. Of course, it’s Turkish and all that, but it contains so much of our history as well.”
The Greek population of Istanbul has steadily declined since the 1920s, but the bonds of memory are still intact. “I remember so many times saying to Turkish friends, ‘I’m a foreigner.’ And they say, ‘No, you’re from here.’ Of course, in older times it was easier because people had a lot of Rum friends and they were brought up together. Now I’m not sure that the young people even know there were Rum here. But I think we shouldn’t lose our common memory and history. These things bring our souls together. If we keep our memory alive then we realize how precious it is to be together, to share, to defend this.”
With a background in translating poets such as Rilke into Greek, Papageorgiou also translates the Turkish lyrics of her songs into Greek for her album sleeves. She and her husband Nikiforos Metaxas had worked to create a center for Byzantine, Greek,
and Ottoman music at the old Greek school on Heybeliada with the support of the Greek and Turkish governments, but the project fell through following the Greek financial crisis. When asked whether the center could be revived, she says simply, “İnşallah.” Meanwhile, she continues to work with master musicians such as kemençe player Derya Türkan, clarinetist Oğuz Büyükberber, and ancient lyrist Aliki Markantonatou.
Stay up to date with new album releases and other news at www.vassilikipapageorgiou.net