"It's unbearable to live as a stranger and to be unwelcome in your country."
Kostas Theodorou - or Dine Doneff, to call him by his true name, on the occasion of the Balkan opera Rousilvo - Echodrama like History (Ηχόδραμα σαν Ιστορία) staging in Onassis Cultural Center (9-10/03/2016) speaks to Popaganda about Rousilvo, his childhood’s sad paradise, and also about what he lived through in trying to keep alive the memories from his homeland.
George Voudiklaris - 06.03.2016
Rousilvo, the title of both the performance and your cd is the name of a village which no longer exists. What happened to the village? What happened to its inhabitants? And how did you come round to deciding to talk about it?
Rousilvo is one of dozens of deserted once Slav speaking, Macedonian mountain villages within what is modern Greece. It lies somewhere between Edessa and Florina. The first historical mention of the village goes back to 1481. In 1986 it was totally devastated. During the Civil War, most of the men of the village became guerilla fighters. When the war was over, almost nobody came back. Those who had survived, either crossed into the “socialist countries” as political refugees, or were exiled and held captive on some remote islands. According to the testimonies of the remaining inhabitants who survived, for decades the village was pervaded by a feeling of grief. Women used to sing laments in their backyards which, from the ravine where the village lies, echoed around the entire mountain; I was there too. It is my mother’s village and my childhood was haunted by those sounds. It was my childhood’s sad paradise. A paradise that even celebrated with laments. I was also there when it died, as I turned from boyhood into manhood. You ask me about the reasons, but it’s such a difficult thing to explain to you… maybe if I was able to sing you some of the improvised laments of the mothers who never had the chance to bury the bodies of their children. With no graves to grieve over, they sang their laments working on threshing floors, in the fields, beside the water fountains… And whenever two or three of them met together; then the whole village wept with them. Then, in your soul, you would realize the reasons all by yourself. Yet they are in another language, which unfortunately, even today, nobody can be taught in Greece because there is no school or cultural organization there to teach it. It would be time consuming, but you could try to gain the trust of a native speaker to enlighten you. The best way would be to cross the border a couple of kilometers to the north and to let the first citizen you met of the country-whose-name-must-not-be-uttered become your interpreter. This mother tongue used to be a ceaselessly singing presence inside me. No matter how much I tried to reject it; Hellenize it, coerced, and inhibited, by a mistaken sense of wanting to belong to what was accepted as decent and respectable. Later, with a wiser and more mature understanding of the misleading significance of borders and flags, I surrendered to my inner voice and was automatically healed from the illness of being forced into the pretense of being something I was not. The outcome of this process is Rousilvo.
In other words, a part of yourself and of the things you grew up with are in the eyes of the Greek state and also for some of its citizens “officially” nonexistent. What did that experience feel like?
Automatically, when you mention the word experience, it conjures up some incidents that happened: At about the age of four to five I had, along with all the other village children, to attend the so called “infant nursery”. These “institutions” were created in the middle 60’s and, as I later found out, existed only in Slav-Macedonian speaking villages… There was an all-day program including a mandatory midday nap. During one such nap, I woke up, probably from a bad dream, and upset as I was, I looked round for a slightly older cousin of mine who was sleeping in the neighboring dormitory. As I called out my cousin’s name a teacher rushed towards me and started slapping me about the face, screaming, that there was no Lijka and that she never wanted to hear that name again. If I wanted to see my cousin, I should call her Eleftheria (that was her Greek name..). I, who had never heard this name before, became confused and thought that something terrible must have had happened to Lijka. I sobbed inconsolably until I got home in the evening. Years later, while attending the primary school at Skydra, I remember how we were taken, as an obligatory part of our lessons, to watch movies about the so called brave “Macedonia fighters” who were fighting against the “Barbarian” Slav speaking komitadzijs. The film about Pavlos Melas I watched three times. During the same period something else happened: My grandmother came to see us on one of her rare visits. We were sitting in the yard and, knowing no Greek, she asked something from my mother in our own language. I automatically jumped up and covered her mouth with my hand. I told her to be silent and that if she wanted to say something she should say it inside the house, not to be overheard by our Greek neighbors… Later, in the army, I had to serve in a special division for the unwanted. They used to treat me as if I was a criminal. Nevertheless, up to the end of the 1990’s I submitted to this situation and remained silent until… My life allowed me to travel a lot around the world for concerts. During those trips I discovered the two thirds of the family of my father, himself a Slav-Macedonian speaker from Ostrovo, today’s Arnissa, who had been lost to us for over fifty years. Scattered all over the world, but with some nearby in neighboring Balkan countries, they explained to me the reasons for their disappearance, telling me their stories and the efforts they had made to visit their country. They had been denied that right because they were not considered to be “Greeks by descent”. So I promised an elderly aunt of mine, a famous painter, that I would organize an exhibition of her work in Edessa. In 2001, when I had to prepare the invitation for her visit, I found myself in the director’s offices of various police stations. They all kicked me out… After a period of deep depression and reflection lasting several months, I decided to keep my promise, not the one about an exhibition, but to arrange a short visit. So, after much effort, I found myself obliged to falsify travel documents for her entry into the country, with fancy stamps and signatures and (this is the first time I have mentioned it in public) was able to fool the authorities and to satisfy her lifelong yearning to visit her family village for the first time (she had been born in exile) something we accomplished only months before she died. This all happened in 2001; if you want something more recent, let me mention that in 2010, just after Rousilvo was published, I started having big problems with the state security forces, until one day they grabbed me off the street in front of astounded onlookers, as if I was a criminal and drove me to the station for four hours of interrogation.
Your decision to live in Germany for the last few years has something to do with this experience, with the economic crisis, or with both?
The truth is that I had hesitated a lot before publishing the album. Judging from my experience, I was positive that there would be some hostile reactions. The album was recorded in 2004, but not released until 2010. All the mean time was spent between decisions and withdrawals of the decisions… Towards the end of 2007, totally by accident, while I was “googling” Rousilvo, I came across a quarrel, laced with insults and threats, between some neo-Nazis and some guy from Rousilvo, where, in the peak of madness I read the following: “…we also know some fake musician who is preparing a trilogy about your allegedly unjustly lost village…”. Apart from trusted friends close to me, nobody knew what exactly I had in mind. After thinking about it a lot, I came to the conclusion that there must be some people staking out my phone calls. I became very upset and begun acting carefully. My partner was also upset. In 2008 we started thinking that leaving the country would be some kind of solution. Nevertheless, the album had still not been released. I also realized that the album was more dangerous (for us) in the drawer than as a known work. So we started the process for the publication. Due to the fact that we financed it ourselves, it took us one and a half years. Later on, in 2011, and after the incident with the state security agency, open “visits” of “units on duty” of our well known neo-Nazi political organization (Golden Dawn), with their accessories: t-shirts, leaflets, shorn heads, well trained muscles. At one concert, half of the mob surrounded the concert hall while the other half entered the foyer, terrorizing the audience right about to enter the auditorium. That happened in April. Later on, whenever I found myself in the prefecture of Western Greek Macedonia, I realized I was being watched. Sometimes there were state security guys without uniforms (gradually I started recognizing them, some of them spoke to me in an ostensibly friendly manner) or Neo-Nazis, in changing shifts. The situation was suffocating, so I decided to reduce, as far as possible, my performances. After I came under criticism and abuse from nationalistic circles, some from among the staff of the University, I cancelled the concerts I was organizing in Thessaloniki, feeling a responsibility for my collaborators as well as for the unsuspecting audiences which continued coming to the theaters or the clubs I used to perform in. Leaving seemed by then the only sane option. It is unbearable to live as a stranger, as a persona non grata, in your own country. Exactly then, whilst I was thinking when and where to I was supposed to leave to, in 2012 I was unexpectedly granted a scholarship in Bavaria. In the summer of 2013 another one, even longer, followed. The outcome was that in the beginning of 2014 I settled down in Bavaria. I cannot claim that life in Central Europe is easy. One has to make big efforts to be able to exist. I live in the kingdom of the cruelest capitalism, in which one has to foresee the slightest detail. This kind of mentality which almost totally excludes everything spontaneous is brutal for every newcomer from the Balkans. On the other side I am free to risk my own self and to be accepted for what I am. I miss my own people and friends, but I have started again playing and writing music.
Before we start talking about music, I would like to ask you one more relevant thing: the Greek nationalist outbreaks I know very well as a citizen. And yet, on the other side of the border, on the side of the “no-name” country, do you know what happens? I know nothing, and I would like to know.
I started talking to you about my own experiences and have not generalized or talked about matters I have heard or read about. About the problem you mention, I know what one can find in the internet, i.e. what everybody among us knows. In the circles where I have friends, I have not experienced something similar that I can report about. Of course, the same as in Greece, in the “no-name” country, people with whom I have contact, belong to artistic circles, most of them are anarchists. They certainly are not the right example for comparisons.
How did you become acquainted with music? Apart from the laments of the old ladies you mentioned in the beginning, what other music did you hear? And how did you decide to dedicate yourself to it in your life?
Again and again the enduring sorrow was interrupted by weddings and various festivals.
We had our own orchestra with cornet (trumpet), clarinet, trombone, accordion and grankassa with a cymbal on the top plus a snare aside. It was a miracle to hear it. I used to stick close to the grankasa for hours. So near that I used to feel my inside trembling. My mother used to wipe of my slobber because out of excitement I forgot to swallow. We used to go to the various festivals of the area, so that by my adolescence I had heard all the music bands in the prefectures of Edessa and Florina. A big role in my “meeting with music” as you expressed it, was played by my father knowing a lot of the traditional songs of the area. He never took the risk of singing the words in public, but used to whistle the tunes all day long at work, at home, in the field… incessantly (perhaps to comfort himself). When he got excited, a frequent event, he could imitate the trumpet in an astonishing way. At the same time he had a special ability in playing the percussion instruments, rattling his fingers with dexterous virtuosity. All this went on, until one day my parents, returning from Thessaloniki by train, brought with them a guitar, which had cost them only a thousand drachmas. This happened because my mother had made a connection between the last thousand drachmas she had with her in her pocket and a price tag for the same amount she saw hanging near a guitar somewhere on Egnatia street. I remember that that same evening I started scratching at it and singing my own melodies which came out of the sounds I had heard; something I still do today. My devotion to this ritual was so intense, that I had no more time to devote to school work which now seemed devoid of real interest and relevance, so I only went to meet with my friends. When the first grades came out, and my marks had dropped from 18 to 13, my father became totally enraged. A turbulent period of terrible trouble began which ended a year later with his ultimatum “either school or guitar”. My answer made him so mad, that he threw me out. Just 16 years old, I left both home and school. My ceaseless fight for survival meant I had to accept any kind of job I could find. There was never any opportunity to go to music school or for other studies.
The album from which we got to know you is called Nostos. I do not think that the choice of this title for your first personal album can be accidental. What about do you feel nostalgia Kostas?
The word Nostos does not include any feelings. It means simply the homecoming. Only when pain is added (-algos in Greek) does it become a feeling. It is related to Nostos because an intense longing to return home is in itself a form of pain. I did not speak about nostalgia, I described the return itself. Remember that home can also be our memories, our childhood, even our language…
Translated by Alexandra Ioannidou & edited by Jonathan Smith.
Published in English: November 19, 2016