I first heard Marika Papagika’s haunting voice carve out melodic ice sculptures in the air when I bought Black Mirror- Reflections in Global Musics 1918-1955 a few years ago. Her song Smyrneiko Minore completely blew my mind. And then, like many amazing songs, I forgot about it for a while. Until my good friend Meara O’Reilly invited me to join on David Garland’s show, Spinning on Air. I was invited to play an incredible instrument that she made out of horsehair and silver, while she played the guitar and sang. It was a very spontaneous show so it wasn’t until our on-air performance that I realized the melody Meara sang was incredibly familiar. But who was it? Marika Papagika! How could I have forgotten?
Marika was born in 1890 on the island of Kos (a small Greek island that is actually much closer to the mainland of Turkey) and lived there, playing in cafe’s, until she relocated to New York City, possibly at the behest of the Victor recording company, in 1918. Though not much information is available about her, or recordings of her music for that matter, she seemingly did well in New York, playing music often with her husband accompanying her on the hammer dulcimer. She recorded about two hundred performances of café-aman styled songs. In the early-mid 1920’s Marika and her husband opened a club on 34th street between 7th and 8th avenues (if you’re in NYC go see what’s there now!) but sadly lost it when the Great Depression hit.
You do not have to be an expert on Greek music to appreciate Marika’s astounding command of her voice. Meara’s interpretation of Smyrneiko Minore is an amazing homage to the way Marika pays extremely close attention to the “notes between notes” as Meara has once referred to the microtones that are woven into many of Papagika’s songs. I highly recommend tracking down more of her music (and letting me know when you’ve found it.) And if you’re lucky you can catch Meara playing as Avocet on the west coast at the end of this month.