By Agnieszka Rakoczy
When I inform Antonis Antoniou, one of the three co-founders of local band Monsieur Doumani, that this interview will be appearing in today’s paper, he responds with an invitation to a demo against the government’s Akamas development plans that is also scheduled for today in Nicosia.
“Come, we will be playing,” Antonis says, and I am reminded anew of his untiring commitment to the protection of this island’s natural and cultural heritage. Of course, I think, how typical that he and his bandmates would again be out there among the activists, this time joining friends from the Save Akamas/Save Cyprus movement to protest this latest attempt to exploit one of the island’s fast disappearing unspoiled treasures.
Over the years, the 39-year-old musician has been a firm believer in the power of civic action and the responsible role of civil society. He has campaigned against tree cutting in metropolitan areas; has demanded far more public consultations and transparency to prevent hamfisted projects like the interminable revamp of Eleftheria Square; has fought against selling the old Nicosia’s GSP stadium to private developers; and led a signature-gathering drive in one Old Town area against noise pollution caused by a bar owner’s illegal and neighbourhood deafening loud speakers.
“An artist has to be politically active,” Antonis tells me over a cup of coffee. “It is impossible for us not to get involved. Yes, I know musicians who don’t have this need to express in their songs these things about their society and politics but for me it is a necessity. It is not only a source of inspiration but also the fact that you want to change things that disturb you and take you backwards. These are the things you want to talk about, bring them to the surface. An artist needs to communicate through a context surrounding him.”
Small wonder then the band, Monsieur Doumani, has been commended by a prominent international music blogger for “eschewing the bastard child of Theodorakis’ Zorba heard in Cyprus’ tourist traps and developing their own unique mix of contemporary Cypriot rap and the venerable Greek rembetiko tradition of dissident song” .
The band’s virtuosic lineup features Antonis playing tzouras, a smaller cousin of the more widely known bouzouki, Demetris Yiasemides on trombone and flute and Angelos Ionas on guitar. All three musicians do vocals.
Much of Monsieur Doumani’s music is based on local melodies, so called dromoi, but with other elements added to the mix such as rock, blues, hip-hop, or even psychedelia. The group’s lyrics, all in Cypriot dialect, often derive from older catchy phrases altered and updated to portray current realities.
“We want people to wake up and look around them and start changing things,” explains Antonis. “That is why our new album is called ‘Angathin’ which means ‘Thorn’ because we want our music to prick them so they jump and react and do something.”
Antonis admits to being a rebellious soul. He has little time or patience for conformism, something he sees too often on his island, the place “he loves deeply and wants to move forward”.
“The first time I realised how strong this rebellious streak is in me was when I was in Greece where I rediscovered rembetika,” he explains.
“I say ‘rediscovered’ because, of course, it wasn’t the first time I ever heard this music. My father listened to it, so I knew it as a teenager. But you know teenagers, they prefer rock or punk… I personally loved jazz, so I didn’t pay attention to rembetika at that time. But then, when I was studying jazz in Athens, one day I went with some friends to Crete and stayed for four days with a group of rembetika players. These people played this music 24 hours a day so it was very intense and I got hooked.”
As he recalls it, he found himself identifying more and more with the music and its style of lyrics “because it was something very close to my attitude and way of life.”
The outcome of this sudden love affair was that Antonis stopped playing guitar and moved away from jazz. “I realised jazz was not something I had inside me — it just wasn’t in my roots.” Moreover, he sensed he was playing it in a very technical way. Instead, he went out and bought a tzouras. “I started learning how to play it. And then when I came back to Cyprus I created my first rembetika band.”
Several years later and now in London where he was studying contemporary composition and electroacoustics, Antonis formed another rembetika group, called Trio Tekke.
“Tekke is a place where rembetika musicians used to meet up to play in the old days. Usually illegal because they smoked hashish there as well,” he explains.
The group, Antonis on tzouras and a fellow Cypriot on electric guitar, plus a UK-based Brit on double bass, play when they can get together and released their third album last year.
“We play rembetika with a different vibe, different rhythm and harmony. Interestingly, because I write our lyrics in Greek we have recently received quite a few critical remarks over how simplistic they appear. For me, this is all inter-related with my being from Cyprus and the Cypriot dialect being my native tongue. Of course, I am a fluent Greek speaker and yes, we Cypriots speak Greek, but we cannot communicate with the same emotions and intensity in Greek as we do in Cypriot.”
Pondering the differences, Antonis ventures that “Cypriots are more reserved and Greeks are more open but have other issues”. He is quick to add, however, that “one is not better than the other – just a little different”. He harkens back to when he and all the other kids at primary school had to start speaking pure Greek – “it was very traumatic” – and suggests that the double-language approach led to “some kind of [linguistic] schizophrenia” because the formal structure of the learned language – “learning to act in certain ways” – came with a set of behavioural inhibitors.
“It is as if somebody is recording you with a camera so you immediately have to turn to a certain part of your brain and start talking in a certain way that does not really express your true feelings. It is like acting and trying to be correct and trying to say correct things whereas, with the Cypriot dialect, you just express yourself as you do every day of your life.”
This affinity with his own culture and “dialect” – a contentious word for those who insist Cypriot is a “language” – galvanised Antonis on his return to Cyprus to form Monsieur Doumani, a band firmly rooted in local traditions but also answering to the musical language and concerns of contemporary times.
“After coming back, I realised that I wanted to write and compose about Cypriot society and what is happening here. I wanted to look into the roots of my island, something that would be very strange to express in a language other than Cypriot,” he asserts. “What I wanted was to discover the authentic Cyprus – not some stupid folk songs that our radio and TV shows are full of.”
Easier said than done, as it turned out.
Antonis and his fellow musicians started digging into various archives and discovered that, unlike Greece, Cyprus possessed almost no recordings of local songs from before the 1960s.
“What is more, when people did start recording some traditional songs in the 60s and 70s, it would be their own version or interpretation of what they had heard from other people. In a place like Cyprus, where everything was passed down and on through oral tradition, the way to pass music was via travel. People who moved around the island would hear music in one village but while travelling back might forget some of it and change it accordingly. When they finally arrived home, what they would repeat might be different from the original they’d heard. So what we consider nowadays as original is not original at all. It is just how it was repeated, back in the days when the first recordings were made,” Antonis cautions.
In like manner, he says, this is also what Monsieur Doumani has done with some of its songs and arrangements.
“For example, in our new album there is a traditional song that says ‘I will take my gun and kill the guy who stole my girl Maritsa’ and we left the melody but changed the words to: ‘I will take the gun they gave me by force and throw it down the cliff to break it because I want peace’.”
Antonis says the band increasingly is finding its own style. “Our first album consisted almost entirely of traditional songs rearranged by us. The second one was half-half. Now, the latest is mostly our own stuff with two exceptions”.
Yet, underlying all, Monsieur Doumani tries to “keep the connection with its Cypriot roots in most of its songs, either through the lyrics, style of singing, melody or rhythm.”
Not that the group ever stands still. Respect for the traditions yes, but never to the point of settling for the status quo. “We listen to a lot of new music, different music, every day so every time what we do goes in a different direction and we take it a bit further. We see the band as a vehicle, as project to develop and see where it goes and where it takes us. Every year that passes, we change as well and take in other information and try to proceed with other stuff. I think it is a healthy way to go. Otherwise it would be just a repetition.”
This does not mean forgetting or foregoing what went before. If their public requests they repeat old favourites and songs from older albums, they oblige.
Almost certainly today’s protest will feature requests and a rendition of one of their earlier hits “Akamas Dragons” with its rousing refrain: “When the money starts to smell/dragons gather, come to suckle/Come to pounce and to suck the barrel dry”.
Sadly, and a touch sardonically, Antonis sees this verse as symptomatic of Cyprus politics today.
“Nowadays priority is to destroy everything, sell properties, sell land, make more money. Our civil society is very weak, our education is weak. The only reason why people go to demonstrate is when they are afraid they will lose money. This has to change and this what we are trying to do.”
Doumani is a word describing the atmosphere in a room where a lot of nargile pipes are being smoked. The band’s new album, released last month, has been nominated for the prestigious German Record Critics Award 2018 and listed as No 1 in the Transglobal World Music Chart for April and currently stands as No 2 in the World Music Charts Europe. The band is booked to perform in many festivals in Europe this summer including Rudolstadt in Germany and FMM Sines in Portugal
The Save Akamas/Save Cyprus protest starts at 2.30pm this afternoon at the EU House in Vyronos Avenue, near the Ministry of Interior, and ends at the square of the Old Town Hall (Municipal market) in old Nicosia. Others performing additional to Monsieur Doumani, include Ross Daly and Kelly Thoma, Averta Liberta and Windcraft Band.