In the early 90s Nicosia based band To Marazi Tis Fotoulas built up a cult following. 24 years after they first formed they are back for a few gigs. ALEXIA EVRIPIDOU takes a step back in time
With their quirky sense of humour and their balanced egos in check, the alternative Indie/Rock band To Marazi Tis Fotoulas (Fotoula’s Grief) are suprisingly level headed and approachable. Never missing a beat to crack a subtle joke to two, the four men, now somewhere in their late 40s and 50s, banter with the ease, the kind of comfort that comes only with familiarity.
After an absence of 21 years, and to the excitement of their loyal fans, the band has finally decided to reunite for four gigs. It seems that most things get decided with ease among them. So, for the love of music, Mike Zachariades (bass guitarist), Andros Kyriakou (guitarist), Panayiotis (Pan) Meraklis (guitarist and singer) and Spiros Kyriakides (drummer) have united their talents again, 24 years after they first started out.
To Marazi tis Fotoulas is an original Cypriot band formed in 1990 in Cyprus. Their first ever professional gig was on December 28 1990 at the old New Division pub in Ayios Andreas. The band claim that their songs deal with ordinary subjects such as work and love. However, I would suggest that they are more than that. That they satirised the socio-political climate of Cypriot society at a time when society, possibly, wasn’t ready to look at itself square on. “Culture and society hasn’t changed much, it’s the same old story. Some of the themes are timeless,” say Pan and Spiros finishing each others thoughts and sentences. This form of exchange happens frequently between the four of them, often unable to catch who started the sentence and who finished it.
They met when they were young. Mike and Pan were at school together and then Mike met Spiros in the army. Eventually they found Andros and created To Marazi Tis Fotoulas. They wrote songs and sang about the system, political parties, corruption, ‘diplogambina’ (double cab cars), ‘briges’ (dowries given to husbands, brought by the bride’s parents), and how everyone seems to be everyone else’s ‘koumbaros’ (a Cypriot tradition of being a best man at a wedding, except some people have countless best men). Through their lyrics and music, they satirised the ways of the Cypriots, inspired by their passion for music and the socio-politics of their island.
Sitting in the studio before the band embarks on rehearsals, Pan explains the band’s title: “it’s about the grief of Fotoula but Fotoula also means light. So it’s about looking towards the light and finding other ways to see things”. And that’s what they did, parodying Cypriot everyday life, people and the culture, a progressive move back then. “People at the time were a little shocked, they didn’t know how to understand what we were offering,” Mike said. “Some looked at us as if we were UFOs,” laughs Spiros. “It was something new, and like with most new things, it was difficult for people to accept, time needs to pass before people begin to think ‘ah, this band has something to say, we appreciate what this band is doing’,” finishes Pan.
Being Cypriots themselves, the group was adamant about singing the songs in their own language – Greek and Cypriot dialect – which at the time was rare. Most bands then enjoyed singing rock songs in English. They were then the odd ones out who brought something different to the table. Their uniqueness shines through still, as they prepare to hit stages again, nearly two and a half decades since their first official gig at a time in their lives where many would be getting ready to hang up their instruments and pick up their gardening tools not hit the stage as a rock/indie music band.
At this point, while sitting in the studio before the band began to rehearse, it seemed right to query what they would like to see as a result of their comeback. One jumps in saying “the solution to the Cy Prob”, another jests “a fall in petrol prices”. This refreshingly, is one music band that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Their biggest hit Esira to Milo (I threw the Apple), a traditional song that they covered in their own unique way, had airplay in Cyprus and even LGR (London Greek Radio). They were fortunate, and in 1991 the music company All Records offered them funds to help make an EP called To Marazi Tis Fotoulas. The EP, which consisted of four songs: Esira to Milo, To Diplogambino, “which was then the national car in Cyprus” Pan giggles, Erotas and Doulia I Doulia, sold out in 15 days. 500 EPs were made and 500 were sold. Most of the songs were written by Pan, some others by Spiros but the music was created together, feeding off each others’ ideas.
They were drawn together for the love of music, not fame. They are almost shy, a quality that would not see them well on a reality TV show of today, yet has allowed them to direct their focus into what they loved most: making music. The unlikely group were invited all around Cyprus to play and picked up a cult following. “I was talking to someone who picked up our EP in a market stall in England. It went for 60 Stirling. I’ve had people asking me for them now. Apparently it’s a collectable,” says Pan almost surprised at their popularity. They’d played in Limassol, Famagusta gate, Paphos, Ayia Napa festivals etc.
With very few TV and radio stations and nowhere to gig, these kind of alternative performances were often pushed into corners. “There were many cover bands on the scene playing mainly hard rock but few playing their own music. We played our own music and in Greek, added Pan, Mike and Spiros finishing the sentence together as a whole. “We decided that as we are Greek Cypriots, when we talk to express ourselves, we do it in our own language, so why not write and sing songs in the Greek Cypriot language? But the normal thing was to sing in English so we looked a bit strange singing our own language in our own place” says Spiros.
“A lot of ‘Egomania’ existed then,” continues Spiros with Pan finishing the sentence, “we were like the Bank of Cyprus advert ‘100 years in front’”. At that time, there wasn’t much influence coming from Greece, they felt isolated. “A lot of people wanted to become famous and go to Greece but we decided we wanted to make our base here in Cyprus, not Greece,” continues Mike. “Now bands come from Greece to play here, but then it was different, it was total isolation”. They refer to a time, where to have made it as an artist one would have needed to make it in Greece.
This did not stop them. “Some people laughed at us but there were others that liked what we were doing. We had fun,” starts Andros. Pan continues laughingly “we laughed then, saying ‘then mas birazi na boume to marazi’, unfortunately it loses its poetry and irony when translated into English ‘we don’t mind talking about the griefs/heartaches’. The band chortle together at the memory of being outcast yet happy to be able to sing their songs the way they wanted.
The gang breaks out in laughter when questioned about screaming fans or loyal groupies, “were married now, we can’t say,” jokes one. “We were very involved in our music then, we played and we didn’t know what else was going on,” explains Andros. The conversations and banter between the band mates eases on throughout out the meeting but it seems that with all their apparent different tastes in music, they all loved playing their own music and enjoyed working on the lyrics they created. Pan continues; another burst of giggles at the memories “sometimes we only had two or three people in the audience but in Famagusta Gate, there were 10,000. It was May 1 and a big cultural event was organised. That was in 1991”.
However, even though the EP was a success and the group had a cult following, in 1993 the boys split up. Not through a dramatic fallout but rather the humdrum of normal life, financial needs. The band was not bringing in enough money for them to live on. The split took them in different directions but all remained in the music business in some way.
Then as if no time had passed, Spiros came across their music by chance on You tube and thought it a pity the band weren’t still playing together. He put in “that” call to Pan which the band got rolling together again and rehearsals began in September. This time, they enlisted the voice of the talented Marianna Kofterou as a support singer. And together with a repertoire of about 50 songs of their own, including some covers, the band are ready to get back on stage and rock the house, although not without a case of nerves to complement the excitement.
Marianna walks into the room and later whips an excellent rendition of the jazz/ rock song Nicosia Blues, a deliciously catchy song that moves between jazz and rock effortlessly. It was a song that Spiros had written while stuck in the army as a frustrated young man.
The band begins polite conversation while teasing Marianna about taking Echinacea to ward of an oncoming cold. Some of band members choose to bring their beer to practice as their medicine. “We weren’t the rock star style, but we were into alcohol,” jokes one of them. Voices are flowing and names are getting jumbled. All of them talk with humility and slight self depravation. Marianna interjects “every time I mention these guys’ name, everybody knows them. People are excited that they are getting back on stage again and want to see them, so I think they are more popular and famous than they think”.
It is energising sitting among these artists, who are not all about image or talk, but are genuinely about the music. There is a silent agreement of integrity. It seems that for the fans that appreciate the music; that’s great, but the band will not change who they are or what they believe in order to impress the masses. It’s organic, it’s not in what they say but rather in what’s not said, or implied that one can see who they are. They are just about the music and more importantly the four Christmas gigs (although only two remain). What happens there after “we will see; one step at a time,” says Pan.
To Marazi tis Fotoulas
Remaining gigs on December 22 at Svoura in Nicosia and January 5 at Enallax, Nicosia.