REVIEW: The Famous Quartet of Piraeus (2021)

A graphic novel by Giorgos Skabardonis & art by Dimitris Kerasidis

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

Greece had a rough time for a number of years, being invaded by Fascist Italy in 1941, then invaded again by the Axis Powers during WWII itself, and finally rule by a right-wing military Junta. During times like this, the arts always have a tough time thriving, unless the artist is willing to entirely sell themselves to the state and become a mechanism of propaganda. This graphic novel tells the story of a case where four men basically say “no” to this and do what they want no matter the consequences.

“The Famous Quartet of Piraeus was formed in 1934 as a café band. It was the first group featuring the bouzouki and the baglama, and consisted of frontman Markos Vamvakaris, Giorgos Batis, Anestos Delias, and Stratos Pagioumtzis. Markos’ fiery love for Zingoala, his first wife, is the main and painful source of inspiration for the founder of rebetiko music. Starting as a skinner at a slaughterhouse, Markos becomes a pioneer who paves new paths for traditional Greek music and entertainment, running constantly afoul of the musical mores of the era—as well as the police, his wife, and the dictatorship of Metaxas. And all the while, war is approaching in the background like an inevitable chorus…”

The “main character” of the story is Márkos Vamvakáris, a man that is self taught on a Greek bouzouki, a small stringed instrument. Being that he is not trained classicly, he forges his own path and makes the instrument his own, drawing comparisons to other musicians like Jimi Hendrix. His home life is not the best, having a loveless marriage with a wife that he is always trying to avoid, instead falling for other women on the road. Vamvakáris is not painted as a hero, but a complicated man that does his best to survive in a time just before all hell breaks loose in Greece. It’s interesting to see the Government start to overstep their boundaries more and more as the story progresses – corruption, censorship, and even false arrests run rampant. There’s even an attempt for the men use to use their bar to “rat out” drug dealers, something they refused to do.

I know basically nothing about Greek folk music, but this book is an interesting look at a time period that most probably have no idea about in America. I enjoyed the story, and liked the art-style despite it’s occasional simplicity. The book is bookended with essays talking about the band and their significance, something that did a great job helping me understanding what was going on. If you are a history buff, this is an unlikely solid choice to read about a period of time right before WWII, to see the slippery slop Greece was heading towards.

If you would like a copy of this for yourself, click HERE.

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