Karagiozis and the musical island

Karagiozis and the musical island

Corfu is a strangely musical island.
Throughout Greece, music always seems to be there, in the background: from the singing cicadas in their heat-cocooned trees; to the dark Greek blues of rebetiko music, full of pain and intoxication, in the winter months coming from the streets of steamy ouzeri bars; to the tragoudia tis douleias work songs sung by the old ladies harvesting the olives in the fields. In Corfu, however, this Greek symphony seems even more amplified. Perhaps it all started with those philharmonic orchestras in many villages and towns in Corfu. The first places in Greece where anyone, regardless of social class, could learn music. Nowadays trumpets and drums are seen being carried around all over the island – men clutching fat gold polished tubas as they travel along, hanging off the back of coughing old broken-down mopeds. But there is a great, rough, amateur musical tradition in Corfu too. Tavernas all around Corfu Town will have a few chairs slung in the corner where a couple of bouzouki players will be sat playing Greek folk tunes. Every one sat at their tables singing along to these songs. Knives and forks laid down, food forgotten, eyes closed, heads turned up to the ceilings. Tears in the eyes as a tune like ‘Meh Aeroplana kai Vaporya’ touches the easily provoked, sensitive Greek soul – Greek emotions only ever kept behind a very thin partition at the best of times and, like a deranged dog, always eager to be let out to run wild.

Every Friday night we would head to an old taverna called Hayiati. Set just behind Kekyra’s port, Hayiati faced out with determination on the dark sea. A lit beacon on its own where, inside, a regular crowd of faces met and chatted in the accommodating chaos under the steamy windows. The patron of the taverna – the plump, aproned, Daphnie – was wildly unpredictable. Sometimes, on entering, she clutched roughly at my face and planted kisses on both cheeks, sometimes she barely looked at us, grunting and jerking her head towards a spare table, the food slung down from a great height. We would join tables with others, drink retsinas and tsipouros, and over the plates of grilled meat and tzatziki we would loudly discuss the events of the day. But the real reason for being here was the music.
Giorgos and Kostas would be in the corner – sitting underneath the black and white faded portraits of famous old Greek musicians like Tsitsanis and Bellou – swapping between themselves guitar and bouzouki. They played all night, rebetiko and the lighter laika songs from the 20s and 30s. I had heard much rebetiko from my very first introductions back in the Thessaloniki dark taverna when I had first travelled through Greece and had slowly learnt to love this world of dark-passioned Greek songs. However, Corfu doesn’t really have a great tradition for Rebetiko. As the island was never conquered by the Ottomans – and so always aligned themselves towards the Italian influence of the Venetians rather than looking to the East – this music, along with raki or Turkish cuisine, doesn’t predominate as in the rest of Greece. But the Hayiati crowd here were real devotees to rebetiko and Greek folk music. As if in loud defiance to the modern skiladiko cheap music pumping out from the other bars around town, the congregation here sang throatily together. Everyone was word perfect to these arcane strains of Island music, Turkish, Balkan: songs all coated in a thick cloud of hashish, poverty, lost love, exile. In Greece’s mood of modern-age suffering, an instrument like the bouzouki – smashed by the fascists during the time of the dictator due its strong rebellious symbolism – gave an edge to these songs.

Giorgos was good, but his voice always seems a little too polite for some of the songs to me. Kostas was perfect though – heavier-set and with a voice – in between glugs of tsipouro and with a strifto, a dirty roll-up cigarette, permanently dangling from his lower lip – of real rebetiko: thick and guttural, straight from the street. The evenings stretched on long and late into the night, song after song. I felt battered about the head with music, bouzoukis and eastern scales all around me. A violin was then produced and handed over to Giristroula to play along with the folk tunes. A man got up to dance as she played. He danced with slow, heavy gravitas: arms held in the air, falling with a genuflecting knee, a dramatic prop handkerchief displayed in his hand as he planted his feet here and there, rhythmically. Then lighter music and a lighter dance. A group of women held each other, circling with a known routine of steps: back and forth, behind and to the side. A routine picked up as children, never forgotten. And then, at the very end, amongst the debris of glasses and plates, the guitar was handed over to me to play, with nods and expectant eyes. Flustered, I hammered out some old Beatles tunes, ashamed of my playing and, suddenly, of my culture. Afterwards, overly kind, the musicians clapped me on the back as they took the instrument off me and placed it back into its case.
“You must come and join our group,” they said. “We’re practising on Tuesday. We’re going to play music for a Karagiozis show. You know Karagiozis of course… Yes?”


Karagiozis is a shadow-theatre puppet. Greek shadow theatre spread to Greece from the East with the plays from Asia Minor and the Turkish Empire being brought over first in 1852 by a wandering Greek sailor. The Karagiozis puppet is the main protagonist in this type of theatre. But there’s far more to it than that. Lying deep within Karagiozis is also the embodiment of the whole Greek character… Comically huge headed and bald, bulbous nose, mischief-eyed, moustached, Karagiozis wears raggedly patched-up old Eastern clothes and trudges about his business shoeless. He is the impoverished and downtrodden little man. The everyman Greek. But eventually Karagiozis will get the better of the world, if nothing else, then just by the pure force of his sheer cunning. He is forever hungry but permanently lazy. Caring but quickly, violently, angered. Hilariously foolish, but impishly clever. Quick to fall in love, quick to break into song. He is a coward, a cheater, but – picaresque to the core – he always keeps the audience on his side, and Karagiozis will end, ultimately, valiant. Or if not, he’ll have at least taken the pompous and the bloated down with him as he falls.


The figures and stories are centuries old, but this shadow-theatre is still played all over Greece today. Although perhaps a dying art, all children will have seen a Karagiozis performances. I myself stumbled across what initially seemed to me a very strange gathering, one summer night in the main square of Corfu. A square tent was set up underneath the the old Victorian iron bandstand that the British put up when they patrolled this island. I was unsure what was happening at first, but the crowd’s laughter, the preposterous characters cavorting on the lit screen with the comic voices from behind the canvas tent, and the up-tempo orchestra – bouzoukis, tablah drums, fiddles – striking up after every scene, drew me in. I joined the audience and sat on the ground and watched an hour of tumultuous entertainment in the hot night. The speeches and the songs utterly bewildering to me, but at the same time the comedy and the messages perfectly clear.
This was the Koum Kou Art group. And my first taste of Kariagiozis.


The Koum Kou Art group – a play on the ever-present bright orange kumquat fruit grown here in Corfu – had been formed over 10 years earlier by a group of school teachers who wrote and performed this marginally forgotten old Greek art of shadow theatre. Musicians from the unique music university based here on the island – established centuries ago – plus the rough tavern bouzouki players had joined. Now the group had a fixed ensemble in place and were playing to bigger and bigger crowds on the island. My introduction to this group took place, squeezed into a tiny primary school chair, at one of the regular meetings at the school. Underneath the students’ childish drawings and blackboard scrawls, countless cigarettes were smoked, tsipouro and food brought out from hidden cupboards, laughter, long stories and sudden bursts of protracted activity on the instruments – nothing but eating, drinking and singing happened at all the meetings I turned up to, week after week. But then one evening, without warning, Ilias, the head teacher of the school who had originally formed this group and was, nominally, the leader clapped his hands and announced that they were going to play a big show at Corfu’s Carnival in a few days, and that we should have new figures made especially for the occasion. So everyone was roped into turning up on Sunday to make and paint new Karagiozis characters.

Karagiozis puppets are thin, two-dimensional figures – always in profile and with sticks and joints to move the body and limbs. They are painted in bright colours and with idiosyncratic costumes to show up behind the screen of the shadow theatre tent. I was handed the task of making a new Nionios figure myself, and spent my Sunday grudgingly copying and cutting and painting. But I saw it gave me a chance to find out a bit more about the characters in these plays, and the pantomime actors behind these Greek marionettes.

Nionios, my character, is a ludicrous dandy figure. He wears a top hat and tails, has a sculptured pointy beard and talks with an exaggerated lispy Italian-influenced accent. He is meant to come from the Venetian-influenced island of Zante. He is hopelessly unlucky in love and incompetent in nearly everything he undertakes. On the small desk low to my left the main Karagiozis puppet itself was being painstakingly drawn, and next to him was his friend Hadjiavatis, with his old fashioned boots and waistcoat, clutching at his beard. Unlike Karagiozis, Hadjiavatis actually works for a living, but always ends up embroiled in Karagiozis’ ridiculous schemes anyway. Hadjiavatis has his plots and plans too, often pretending not to understand what is going on around him while at the same time conniving some trick of his own, but of course all his plans fall on him like a straw house, and the last sight the audience usually has of Hadjiavatis is him receiving a beating from Karagiozis and fleeing the stage, wimperingly. Over in the corner, near the students neatly stacked up learning-to-read books ready for the next day, the grand figure of The Sultan was being prepared. A lot larger than the other characters, turbaned, brightly painted, the Sultan represents the despotic rulers from Turkey, from when Greece was under the Ottoman Empire. The white screen, which is the stage of a Karagiozis performance, is always decorated on either side with images of the Sultan’s imposing minoretted palace on one edge, and Karagiozis’ shack on the other.
The Sultan’s lordly, lofty authority is continually mocked by Karagiozis and is used as a frequent prompt for the comedy.

Sultan: Karagiozis, is this really your home?
Karagiozis: Yes sir.
Sultan: But how can you live without a roof?
Karagiozis: Oh we don’t mind, we get lots of fresh air this way.
Sultan: But what happens when it rains?
Karagiozis: Oh when it rains we go outside.

Our group of workers continued the figure crafting. Making Stavrakas – the tough guy from the port of Piraeus, a magas with his thick moustache bristling with tricky hostility – but Stavrakas can of course never live up to his boasts of bravery, always let down by cowardice at the crucial moment. Karagiozis’s wife, the nagging Aglaia, and his three urchin children who are all miniature versions of himself: Kolitiri (pest), Kopritis (loafer) and Skorpios (wastrel). The unruly family fight, spar, mock but ultimately support Karagiozis. As does his honest uncle Barba Giorgos, with his thick accent from the mountain villages. Moustached, always carrying a farmer’s club, and wearing the villager-style fustanella skirt. By the trays and plastic mugs for the primary school lunchtime tomorrow, the puppet of Morfonios was being created by Aphrodite, the teacher who would later be manoeuvring him behind the lighted screen, giving him life and his ridiculous voice. Morfonios is a terrible mummy’s boy who, for some reason, believes himself to be stupendously good-looking and attractive to everyone. In reality he’s another ludicrous-looking Karagiozis figure with a huge melon-shaped head and vast comical nose producing his high-pitched nasal voice and pronounced ticks and high “whit..whit” noises at the end of his every sentence. Aphrodite handled him as she painted with a gentleness as though he were her own child. Karagiozis himself was controlled and voiced by Giannis. Just as they say dogs start to look like their owners, the features of Giannis – though one of the younger teachers – seemed to me to have metamorphosed to look just like his old-man stooge: both of them with big comic proboscis nose and moustache. Giannis didn’t really know of Karagiozis before Ilias introduced him to the shadow theatre group. But, like a talent spotter, Ilias saw the potential in his young teacher, coercing and goading him into attempting the voice of Karagiozis. He was a natural: the deep nasal gnarring voice with the “hyakk hyakk hyakk” laugh. Although Giannis insisted on hiding his face behind a book when I asked for a personal demonstration.
“I can’t do it if people are looking at me…”
Another teacher, Pavlos, was responsible for the voices of Stavrakas, the Sultan and Barba Giogos. I met Pavlos and congratulated him on what a remarkable performance he gave when I first saw them play. What a ridiculous, scabrous, voice he produced for his puppets. We both looked rather embarrassed as he then spoke to me in his everyday voice – utterly identical to these horribly spoken characters.
As Ilias and his gang of puppeteers got ready for their performance, we, the musicians, gathered in a classroom to run through the Greek songs we were to play.


We had a repertoire of 14 songs on the night. Starting with the traditional fast, whirling Karagiozis overture which we played over and over again, the playing getting faster, stirring up the feeling in the crowd as they took their seats. It was a warm night under a black sky in Lemon Tree Square in the centre of Corfu, surrounded by the Italianate buildings, women watching down from high open-shuttered windows, Souvlaki sellers with their stalls set up in the corners. Men clutched glasses of wine, kids cross-legged in the front rows eating pastelli and drinking Loux lemonade. Karagiozis began the performance with his usual long greeting to the crowd.
“Tonight we will eat and and we will drink…and as always, we will go to bed hungry…” – poverty, desperation, grim humour and resignation ever present, even in the midst of a good time.
Then Karagiozis gave the customary rambling speech as to what they will see in the performance. It was strange to be sat with the orchestra and to be staring out at the crowd, their faces lit up by the brilliantly bright shadow theatre screen. I got a view of faces as you would see if you turn round in a cinema: faces un-self-consciously lost in enjoyment, concentrating solely on the performances, mouths fallen open.

Eventually the hoard of other puppet characters joined Karagiozis and the story unravelled itself in chaos up on the stage. Periodically the dialogue would end briefly and we musicians would strike up. I found it incredibly hard to keep up with some of these ancient Eastern-rhythmed tunes, all full of 7/8 time structures, and of course many of the words were lost on me. But when the men of our group of musicians put on women’s high-pitched voices and sang to their wandering-handed lovers – “Ohi etho!” – no, not there! – or when we, and the crowd, all sang lustily together on the song “We’re all Corfiots, we sing all the day and in the evening… we swear!” – the Corfu crowd found it all agonisingly funny and all in perfect keeping with the carnival atmosphere.
The parable of this particular Karagiozis performance was based around a story where Karagiozis had got himself into the usual trouble promising the Sultan he could form a musical band. Having spent his time on the stage/screen farcically trying to rope many of the characters into forming a band with him – swindling and cheating the whole way – in the end we musicians sat here underneath the berdeh, the tent surrounding the lit screen, were indicated by Karagiozis, sadly, as the final result of all he could muster. But to cheers from the audience we played a final driving, scraping song as the puppeteers emerged from behind the screen to dance with their respective characters held up on their sticks – looking like the souvlaki kebab merchants plying their trade in the square, twirling the skewered puppets above the heads of the crowd and us players. The music went on into the night. Long after Karagiozis was left by his master, limp and lifeless on one of the wine barrels in the square, as the crowds drank and danced. Karagiozis’ ludicrously proportioned one long arm had fallen down the side of the barrel as the party continued around him, but the insolent grin remained stuck on his painted face.


I found myself sat on a heap of old sacks of potatoes on a decrepit leaking boat. We were stalled in the middle of “The Channel”, the supposedly dangerous body of water between Corfu and the small island of Paxos to the south. The old Greek skipper – dirty captain’s hat, chewing on a never extinguishing scrap of a cigarette – stood on the stern, pulling at a propeller cord and whacking indiscriminately with a spanner. I was with the Koum Kou Art group again, surrounded by boxes stuffed full of Karagiozis effects and paraphernalia – the great Karagiozis nose poking out of one. We were going to play another show.

There are some famous Karagiozis stories that have been written down and are performed often – Karigozis the Baker, Karagiozis in Love – but the beauty of Karagiozis tales is that they are permutable and the performers often author and fashion their own stories to suit the crowd or the place they’re playing. “You don’t write a Karagiozis story. You tell it…” is the axiom, and I saw this to be true as we played further performances. We were on our way now, on the seemingly doomed boat, to perform a Christmas show in the centre square of Paxos, where Father Christmas and the famous, festive, grotesque Greek goblins – the kalilajaros – were to make an appearance in this Karagiozis performance, for the children of Paxos. Kalikajaros are horrible creatures, appearing at Christmas time, drenched in wine, infamous for urinate down people’s chimneys, green and bald and hideous and always wanting to dance and cause mayhem. They were, of course, very popular in our performance when they appeared on the lit screen with Karagiozis. This is the interesting twist to the Karagiozis tales: sometimes other characters or figures, even people from history, will turn up. So you may well come across a scene where Karagiozis will be conversing with, say, Alexander the Great or other such strange situations. The folklores and histories of Greece and Greek people, played for fun, but also celebrated.
Later we would play a performance of Karagiozis and the Refugees, created especially by the teachers of the school and a commentary on the situation gripping Greece and the wider world, and it was here that I saw the true uniqueness to Karagiozis, and its complete dissimilarity from Britain’s Punch and Judy (and I was surprised to find that actually none of the Koum Kou Art group had heard of my own island’s old fashioned puppet theatre). Punch and Judy may have its anarchic clowning, as of course does Karagiozis, which makes the front rows of children howl, but fundamental to Karagiozis is its satire and its political commentary, which appeals to the radicals and the thinkers also in the audience. And in these modern times of Greek difficulties – as in the times of crisis and hardship in the centuries of Greece’s past – Karagiozis, the simple representation of the everyday Greek, is as significant and meaningful as ever as he plays in towns and villages around the country: mocking authority figures, the rich, the powerful, and commenting on the injustices forced on the people, and their cursed situations. And always with the voices of the Islanders, the Kleftes, the port workers, the harsh Roumeli dialects, the impoverished and the rebellious of Greece. And on Corfu island especially, always played out under a rare musical spell.