The Greek Road to Israel

Laïkó music – or “song of the people” – emerged in 1930s Greece, steeped in a folk tradition stretching back centuries. Characterized by coupling Mediterranean influences with Greek vocals, it quickly became the engine room of Greece’s musical culture and drove it to some unexpected places.

To me, laïko music stands out for an ability to combine and convey both sorrow and joy. While its agonizing lyrics float upon contagious rhythms, you’re always half-aware that its wild solos, incorporating traditional instruments like the bouzouki, are waiting just around the corner – often to be neatly alternated with Western synthesizers and amplified guitars. If you want to indulge in sadness, or celebrate your sorrow, this genre would be my choice. To my surprise, I found that a number of people share the same opinion in Israel.

During my search for laïkó music I stumbled upon dozens of Israeli recordings, and these weren’t just obscure fringe acts: During the 60s and 70s – the Golden Age of laïkó – the Israeli music market was flooded with recordings of big-league Greek artists too. After listening to some excellent reissues of Greek-Israeli music by Fortuna Records, I decided to dig deeper and examine the roots of this strange fusion.

In 1956, Aristides Saisanas sailed from his native Greece to Israel aged 17. He settled in Jaffa, making a name as a guitarist in the Arianna – a nightclub popular among Greek-Jew emigrees. Adopting the name Aris San, the guitarist was noted for a fast-picking technique akin to players of the bouzouki – the eminent string instrument of Greek popular music. This, and an ability to blend rumba and tango styles with contemporary Western music like surf rock, gained him a popularity extending beyond Greek Jews. By the mid-60s Aris San was one of the biggest stars in Israel.

One of his greatest hits was “Boumpam”– a neat rumba jam where San’s yearning voice is paired with guitar riffs and a light-footed rhythm. If you recognize a particular melody, it’s most likely the one which San “borrowed” from “Enta Omri” – a song by the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Such musical cross-pollination and reference-making lend San’s track a unique, Eastern Mediterranean atmosphere – one which kept the taverns of Tel Aviv pumping in the 70s.

One record label that quickly picked up on the popularity of San’s sound was Koliphone. Founded in 1953 by the Azoulay brothers, it focused on producing music from so-called “Oriental Jews” or Mizrahi. These were Jews who, during the 20th century, migrated to Israel from North Africa and the countries surrounding the Arabian Peninsula, setting up an interesting cultural phenomenon.

During the 50s and 60s, with tensions running especially high between Israel and its neighbors, references to Arabian culture were particularly frowned upon – but Greek music seemed to offer a welcome loophole. While Greece’s laïkó shares common traits with Arabian music, Greek culture was perceived as “Western” enough to be socially acceptable in the tense political climate. As such, laïkó provided a way for Mizrahis to enjoy Eastern-influenced music free from fear of reprisal.

Along with San, another great “Greek” artist on Koliphone was Levitros. Although the name might sound Greek, Levitros’ real name is Levi Mu’alem, which has roots in Iraq. Levitros decided to “Greekify” his name for musical purposes, for his wish to be adopted by the community, and for the impact laïkó had on him.

Whichever way, his music is convincingly Greek. Along with the excellent tracks reissued by Fortuna Records, the song “Rubi Rubi” is one of my favorites – a killer rumba track featuring a memorable chorus and psychedelic dialogue between organs and bouzoukis.

Trifonas is another well-known artist on the Koliphone label. Real name Trifonas Nikolaidis, he was born in Cyprus but migrated to Israel to work as a musician playing weddings, parties and the many Greek bars of Jaffa. During the 70s, Trifonas built a musical career with his unique style of bouzouki-fuelled music, eventually moving to the United States to perform in the local Greek communities.

One of Trifonas’ signature songs is “Opalala”: an upbeat track with an awesome interplay between the bouzouki, lyrics and organ. Recently, Trifonas has been rediscovered in Israel, and Tel Aviv band Boum Pam even recorded several songs with the veteran.

Aris San, Trifonas and Levitros are among Koliphone’s more famous artists, but the label has released numerous other laïkó-leaning tracks. The backgrounds of many are unfortunately shrouded in obscurity, but here are some more of my Greek-Israeli highlights:


Koko – “Hopa Hopa”

It’s quite hard to find surviving Koko records on Discogs and Youtube. Fortunately though, this track is available – and it’s incredible. Hopa Hopa, wrote as a Tsifteteli (a Greek dance mainly for women) features an amazing, finger-defying guitar solo. With a technique similar to that of Aris San, his fast tremolo picking evokes a similar sound to that of the bouzouki.

Statatos – “סטאטטוס”

Statatos is another lesser known artist from Koliphone, and clearly prefers the bouzouki to the guitar. This song is a stunning tour de force of Statatos and his instrument. Note his use of both opa, a Greek word used during intense instrumental or vocal parts, and the Arabic/Hebrew yallah (come on).

Nino Nikolaidis – “Ne Sevenim Var Ne Soranim”

Two of Nino Nikolaidis’ songs have been released by Fortuna Records. “Ne Sevenim Var, Ne Soranim” is originally a Turkish song, but sung by a Greek in Israel. This seemingly odd combination again shows the various Mediterranean influences mixed together and interchanged freely. “Ne Sevenim Var, Ne Soranim” is a beautiful, quiet and melancholic crooner with sweeping guitars and organ-driven melodies.

These artists are but the tip of the iceberg of Greece’s “invasion of Israel” – equivalent to the mid-1960s British invasion of the US – and of the lavish Israeli music scene in the 60s and 70s. Many other Greek artists became famous in Israel, notably Mikis Theodorakis, Glykeria, Dalaras and Stelios Kazantzidis, the last of which was known to vinyl diggers for his song “Efuge Efuge” which featured in HBO series The Wire. Kazantzidis made numerous appearances in Israel, and many of his songs are covered by Israeli artists.

Similarly, the Koliphone label have released far more than just these Greek gems, among which the famous self-titled album from Grazia stands out. If you want to dig deeper into the music of this label, check out the mixtapes of Tutu Atresh or the reissues from Fortuna Records. Fortuna have featured myriad Mediterranean genres, ranging from Moroccan oud-music to Yemenite jazz.