Christopher King :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Why The Mountains Are Black collects “Primeval Greek Village Music” from 1907 — 1960 for Third Man Records. 28 tracks are culled from the 78 rpm collection of Christopher King, a life-long collector and expert set of ears based in the small community of Faber, VA.

Mountains is an excellent point of entry to the world of Greek demotika (rural folk music) from Epirus, the liminal region where northern Greece and southern Albania kiss in an intractable swath of mountains. The people that inhabited this rugged land developed an enduring culture in relative isolation, despite being nestled in the heart of the Ancient World and a hosting a bloody vortex of pagan, Greek Orthodox, and Turkish Islamic influence. These black mountains’ history runs deep, and the earliest recordings of its musical traditions sound beguiling, hypnotic, and alien… difficult to place, yet timeless and familiar.

King describes this demotika as a “tools for survival.” The songs present include shepherds’ calls, funeral laments, wedding and feast day dances. The source 78s are aural documents of a culture that existed before the insidious and widespread sublimation into a “Monoculture of the West.” They sound outside of a modern recording industry that molded music-making into a commodity. This music is vital and intense, and King says it serves “an existential function within the community.”

Demitrios Halkias :: Selfos (Nightingale)

This is the sort of music King lives for (and it should be noted that he abstains from listening to much else). Whether it’s country blues, string band, gospel, Cajun, or Epirotic, if he hears that raw, unhinged beauty, the music reveals itself as a transhistorical vessel to ponder and discuss the nature of humanity at its purest and most conflicting. He’s a prominent collector with a knack at sourcing the best copies of the rarest music, and he specializes in the subtle craft of engineering that fragile shellac for reissue. Technical expertise aside, King is a thoroughly charismatic producer, curator, and historian… an indispensible tour guide through the primordial sonic backwaters. His poetic liner notes are deeply human and thought provoking, informed by parallel loves of literature, cinema, and philosophy–essential companions to the music.

Regulars at AD will certainly recognize some of his past work–his Long Gone Sound label has partnered with Tompkins Square includes Imaginational Anthem, Vol. 6: Origins of American Primitive Guitar, the unparalleled Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone: The Complete Recordings of Amede Ardoin amongst others. He won a Grammy for his work on Revenant’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton, and was featured alongside his copy of “Last Kind Word Blues” in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s deep NY Times investigation of the mysterious Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas. Chris King has played a part in many intoxicating trips into the past and sports an enlightened perspective on the strange market of reissue music.

Elias Karathimos :: Mirologi-Epirotiko Makedoniko (An Epirotic-Macedonian Lament)

Yet King’s relatively recent interest in music from Northern Greece has generated a massive project. Why The Mountains Are Black is in fact the fourth of a seven-part serialization of Greek/Balkan music. Its predecessors are Don’t Trust Your Neighbors: Early Albanian Traditional Songs & Improvisations, 1920s-1930s, Five Days Married & Other Laments: Song and Dance From Northern Greece, 1928-1958, and Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament For Epirus 1926-1928. That last one, released in 2014, is a dizzyingly beautiful portrait of a mysterious, mythical, expatriate violinist. I dare one to listen and not have the soul shaken! Each collection posits a philosophical inquisition, introduced by King’s accompanying writings that brim with his singular personality. In addition to the three remaining serializations, he’s also working on a proper book on the music of Northern Greek for W.W. Norton & Co., a “musical travelogue through the eyes of a 78 collector.” While waiting on King’s book, check out Amanda Petrusich’s excellent ride-along piece in the NY Times, where she attends the panegyri (marathon village festivals) with King for a present-day glimpse at Epirotic music. Needless to say, this deeply traditional music is still alive and well despite the obscurity of these earliest recordings. There is much to appreciate in that corner of the Earth for the musically curious and adventurous.

Aquarium Drunkard caught up with King over the phone to discuss just what’s going on in those Mountains.

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