THEO PANAYIDES meets a local folk singer who has prowled the country to find traditional old songs
Look for the olive trees, says Michalis Terlikkas on the phone. Look for the place where the olive trees meet the side of the road, and turn right immediately after. I’m already somewhat off the grid at this point – near the village of Sia, off the Nicosia-Limassol highway – and I’d have preferred more orthodox directions, like a road-sign or something. Fortunately I find the olive grove, then drive up a dirt track to a house set a long way back from the road, fronted by a garden of carob trees and a few citrus. Standing outside to greet me is Michalis, one of the best-known – and most distinctive – folk singers in Cyprus.
He’s not tall but he’s imposing, a barrel-like man with a thick moustache, a great thatch of white curly hair and unblinking, bulging eyes that give him a permanently startled air as he sits at the dining-room table, talking in the slow deliberate manner of a valued regular in a village coffeeshop. His booming voice bounces off the walls, the same voice you can hear on YouTube singing traditional songs like ‘To Yiasemi’ (The Jasmine Bush) or ‘I Gaouritsa’ (The Little Donkey Mare). A fridge in a corner of the room – from which his wife Maria will later extract a bottle of zivania – bears a sticker invoking Kapouti, the occupied village near Morphou where he was born 60 years ago and started singing soon afterwards: he could sing entire songs before he’d even started primary school, he assures me.
“Musically speaking, I have no education,” shrugs Michalis. He’s never been a full-time singer, then again a full-time singer is precisely what he was – a man who sang all the time, it’s just that he also did other things while singing. He was nearly 30 by the time he started singing semi-pro, but before that “I’d been singing, singing, singing constantly. Back then I sang because I wanted to sing, I had a great need to sing, it was like eating bread or drinking water. I finished primary school – I sang. I finished high school – I sang. Then I went to study in Athens”. He studied Electronics – but meanwhile also sang, in the evenings with friends in tavernas, at home by himself, on his motorbike while running errands. Later he worked on construction sites, and sang while working. Later still, in 1983, he got a job at CyTA as a technician – a job he kept for 27 years, before retiring five years ago – and sang between classes during the two-month training course. “I told you, I was singing. Constantly, constantly, constantly… What I remember in my life [is that] until I was 30 I’d sing, and I’d sing, and I’d sing. It was inexhaustible.”
We’re drinking herbal tea as we talk, as a kind of prelude to the main event. “What will you have?” asked Michalis before we sat down: tea, coffee, zivania? I hem and haw (the thought of zivania sounds good) but finally plump for the tea, and he leads me outside to the back garden. The kitchen walls are adorned with religious icons plus, incongruously, a framed photo of an Alsatian (his name was Max, I discover; he died last year). In the garden, he pulls at what looks like a scraggly weed, then brings it up to my nose; it smells tart and citrus-y. This is lemon verbena, which he mixes with cinnamon and a bit of savoury. “There’s more in the pot,” booms Michalis, pouring out two cups. “And we’ll have our zivania later.”
His manner is firm, brooking no contradiction. He appears to be quite the paterfamilias; Maria sits behind me in the living room while her husband holds court and his son Constantinos, a graphic designer, also sits in a corner, tapping at his laptop (he has another son, Stavros, who works as a sound recordist). Neither says a word, but nor do they get up and leave. I suspect it’s a question of solidarity, or respect for the family patriarch – the old-fashioned village mentality.
Even in his youth, there was something unreconstructed about him. He tells me of his big break, during that CyTA training course in 1983 when another trainee turned out to be a dancer with the Shakallis folk-music troupe, and informed Michalis that they needed a singer. He auditioned for the job – and later learned that when they first laid eyes on him, “with my big moustache, and only this tall [he indicates his diminutive stature], they said: ‘Who the hell is this shepherd that you’ve brought to sing for us?’”. Michalis laughs, as well he might – because the musicians stood slack-jawed when that big booming voice finally emerged and he stayed with the troupe for a number of years, appearing onstage and on TV and finally creating his own troupe, Mousa, a few years later.
Those were the years when the music took off, the late 80s and early 90s (he also got married, in 1984). Those were the years when he worked with the famous fiddler and scholar Giorgos Averof – “I don’t know if you know him,” he says, eyeing me doubtfully, “but those who read this will know him” – and began his own peregrinations in search of Cypriot folk songs, criss-crossing the island to find obscure singers and forgotten melodies. The singers were often old men, croaking out their songs in bits and pieces; it was like musical archaeology, says Michalis, like unearthing a jar in shattered fragments and putting the fragments together. Of the 90 or so Cypriot songs in his personal repertoire, around a quarter belong in this category: songs he discovered on his travels, which no-one had known before and no-one would ever have known, had he not intervened to record them.
This was valuable work – though, it must be said, not especially lucrative (there’s a reason why he held on to that CyTA job). Michalis has been singing all his life, but only intermittently managed to make a living out of it. Even now, his country-squire appearance is deceptive: the rural retreat is purely because Maria comes from Sia, and they took out a mortgage for the house which took years to pay off (in the same spirit, the only reason he grows carob trees is because they don’t need much water). Being a folk singer must be even tougher these days, I suggest, thinking how much society’s changed in the past few years – but he shakes his head.
“For me, the worst time – ” he begins, then suddenly shifts in his chair. The tea’s almost finished. “Missus!” he calls out. “OK, bring us please – my mouth’s gone dry –” he explains, half to himself, “bring us a couple of olives, some anari, two shot glasses – and some zivania, because enough is enough! Oh, and cut some lountza”.
Maria scuttles off to get things ready, and Michalis goes back to talking – telling me of the worst time, the 20 years from independence to the early 80s: those were “the Dark Ages” for folk music in Cyprus, because Cypriots developed “a mania” for all things foreign. It’s a subject on which he has much to say, and does so in between issuing more instructions (“Have you warmed up any bread, missus? Put some in the toaster for a bit, but only half-toast it”).
“Our country has a very serious problem,” he asserts in that booming voice, “and has done for many years, maybe 200. Basically, others have created in us an inferiority complex. A low-self-esteem syndrome. And what this says is the following: ‘Nothing of yours is important’.” What’s important is what comes from outside, implicitly from above. “You [Cypriots] are a nothing. You’re peasants, you’re coarse”. Our dialect is deprecated, being allegedly inferior to ‘proper’ Greek. “Anything foreign that we’re offered must be good, because they’ve given us a complex. This is still the case today.”
The zivania arrives. We clink glasses, and I take a sip. It’s moonshine, of course – from the village of Vasa, up in the mountains – and very strong; it burns my stomach, and I like zivania. “The only way to cure yourself of this disease – and I believe I am cured, in fact I’m sure of it – is to devote yourself to your homeland,” says Michalis, warming to his theme (‘homeland’ is the untranslatable Greek ‘topos’, meaning literally ‘place’). “To local culture, to the homeland – even to the last dry rock in this country. Visit every corner of Cyprus, meet the people, love your homeland AS IT IS,” he urges, laying emphasis on the last three words. “I wrote a poem about that: ‘The rocks, the dry thorns, the grasshoppers / Our legends, our songs, that’s the true meaning of nation’ [the lines rhyme in Greek, obviously]. The rest is hogwash – the flags, the speeches… I’ve seen all of Cyprus, so as to write my songs and use our dialect and write in dialect, and I love my homeland, and now no-one can make me feel inferior to anyone else in the world. But, at the same time, I’ve learned to have total respect for the culture of others,” he adds pointedly, making clear that love of nation isn’t the same as nationalism.
That snatch of poetry isn’t a one-off, by the way. Michalis writes prolifically, not just songs but also stage plays and especially poetry (he’s thinking of publishing a book this year). Partly it’s a function of retirement, having time on his hands and not much to do – “Just before you came I took a little stroll with the neighbour, and picked a few mushrooms” – but he also has a gift for vivid turns of phrase, on the page as in conversation. He even writes haikus, like this one for instance (the 5-7-5 metre works in Greek):
“I turn off the lights
The better to see
My own blindness.”
“Let’s have another,” he offers hospitably, and pours out another shot of zivania – though his glass is still full some time later, when I ask if he has any regrets in life. “Look,” he replies, “I’m not one of those people who say ‘If I came back, I’d do it all the same way’”. He’s made mistakes, he admits – and one big regret is not having taken better care of his health and his God-given gift, i.e. his voice. In what way? “Generally. I’ve over-indulged.” ‘Over-indulged how?’ I ask – and he indicates the bottle in front of us.
Michalis Terlikkas may have a dark side. All artists do, after all – and he must have his demons, which music only partly alleviates. He tells me a story of sitting in the CyBC canteen with a friend many years ago, and the friend asking why he drank so much: “Well, do you see anything around you that could make you feel happy, unless you were drunk?” Michalis replied half-jokingly – and one shouldn’t read too much into a joke, but one can still read something (admittedly, sitting in the CyBC canteen would make anyone a bit depressed). He has a temper, he says – though it flares up only briefly, and he doesn’t bear grudges – and he’s also the kind of man who, “unfortunately, according to most people, always calls things like I see them”. He’s direct, perhaps to a fault.
Brutal honesty isn’t really a Cypriot thing – yet he is very Cypriot, in the old-school way that’s become less pronounced in our globalised age. Cypriot folk singers sing differently to those of Asia Minor or the islands of the Aegean, says Michalis: we’re more plain, less flamboyant. “Our people are essentially introverted,” he explains. “And their introversion comes through in the way they sing”. And there’s something else, as well: Cypriot folk songs are almost entirely about love – seldom patriotic, and almost never political. Cypriots don’t really protest; we don’t have many revolutions in our history. Michalis quotes his friend, the late actor Thanos Pettemerides: “The Cypriot sees danger coming and holds on tight to his pine tree, saying ‘I’m staying here, with my pine tree’. So that’s his resistance. He compromises. He resists by making compromises… And maybe that’s why he’s managed to hold on to his language, and his customs”.
Michalis himself doesn’t seem the type to compromise – yet there’s something of the pine tree to his cosy house, his straightforward pleasures, his love of music and Nature and a nip or two of zivania. “I don’t envy the fame and acceptance that others have had,” says the man with the lifelong need to sing. “I don’t envy them at all. I’m content with what I have. I’m happy just to have a clear conscience, and be at peace with myself that I’ve acted right”. Then we shake hands and I take my leave, driving past the olive trees and back towards the highway.