101 Strings
Soul Of Greece






When director Mihalis Kakogiannis’ rural/rustic Zorba The Greek flick is released in 1964, little does he and the world know that this movie would become a smash hit whose photography, wideness and presentation of both narrow-minded and life-affirming traditions severely enchants – and occasionally bewilders – the contemporary audience. Astonishingly enough, the movie has not lost anything of its magic and continues to be hailed to this decade. Success is undoubtedly further fueled by its famous soundtrack which works as a bucolic hydrazine. The eponymous title track, penned by Mikis Theodorakis, is now considered a hockey hymn and remains one of the most famous pieces of music ever written.


With such a huge impact, Alshire boss Al Sherman realizes the chance and acts quickly. In 1965, his 101 Strings orchestra unites with talented bouzouki players on site in Athens in order to realize the eleven compositions of Soul Of Greece. Since the 101 Strings brand harbors different orchestras, the process is easier than one expects; it is not that the record company flew 101 US denizens into Greece. Although this would have been entirely possible, for Soul Of Greece turns out to be a similar success in the orchestra brand’s long history. Featuring material by Greek composers – with two thematically compatible sparklers from Robert Lowden thrown in for good measure – and plenty of strings, flutes, marimbas, even accordions, Soul Of Greece has a certain charm… and materializes a convoluted atmosphere.


Harkening back to the moonlit aura of their exotic debut A Night In The Tropics (1957), the 101 Strings open the curtain with Athens By Night. Originally written by Gerasimos Lavranos and Nikos Mastorakis, the mélange opens as one would expect. Silkened string cascades run on all cylinders, but soon make room for bouzouki cataracts and the mixed choir to be in the limelight. Vibraphones and orchestra bells as well as a downwards-spiraling alto fife round off the aureate licks. Meanwhile, A Bed For Two by Mikis Theodorakis and Iakovos Kampanellis is actually the theme from Zorba The Greek in disguise! Featuring the famous bouzouki riff amid a verdured valley of sun-dried strings, accordion aureoles and one rhythm guitar, it breathes that kind of chintzy escapism the Easy Listening fan is longing for.


Up next is the tongue twister Hassaposer Vico, written by an enigmatic persona named Gagaris which may or may not serve as a stage name for one of Alshire’s in-house composers. The lure of this tune is found in its hillbilly bouzouki helixes whose Surf Rock flavors work well in-between the desiccate swaths of land comprising of whirling violins and pompous percussion fusillades. Robert Lowden’s Mykonos Sunset follows, an unexpectedly wonderful rendition whose saccharified aura benefits from the sea shanty-esque accordion placentas whose aquatic sea breeze add that important something to the mélange. In addition, all elements work hand in hand, be it the glockenspiels, rhythm guitar or cautiously melancholic euphony.


A true classic appears in the shape of Manos HadjidakisNever On Sunday, a tune which must not be amiss when such a clear-cut opportunity of a Greek album arises. The familiar melody is envisioned by classic strings and unsurprisingly a few bouzouki players. The jungular marimba blotches add tropical trade winds to the scenery, all the while the lofty flute creates a hovering counterpart to the earthen rhizomes. Side A finishes with Vassilis TsitsanisAharisti, a hammock-friendly downbeat dose of dry mountains that is only ever wetted by the languorous legato of the classic strings. Quite a bit serious and devoted more often than not, the Greek/Latin dualism works well. Even a gypsy fiddle is on board, for whatever that’s worse.


Side B starts with the song that should have kicked off side A, given the short attention span the Easy Listening genre relies on: Mikis Theodorakis’ Sirtaki From Zorba The Greek, the famous tune that led to the existence of this and several other similarly themed records. Not much can beat the original arrangement of the movie version, but the gleeful festiveness, the rhythm shifts, rising tempo and bouzouki solos are still very much integral pillars of the listening session. Gunfire-like rumbling drums put the finishing touch on this stereotyped Greek way of life. The adjacent Sorrow In Every Port by George Katsaros and Pythagoras Papastamatiou then follows suit in a different way: spawning the red flare of a sunset and many a contemplative tone in minor, it carries the faraway nostalgia of a burdensome experience. The ligneous marimba viscoelasticity makes the experience a bit more tolerable though.


While Pythagoras’ second composition Daybreak is keen on a similarly adamant fusion of withdrawal and bursts of string-fueled tones in major, Robert Lowden’s Hellena returns to the Surf Rock-evoking Middle Eastern mysticism akin to Dick Dale; the solo bouzouki is saltatory and appears all across the arrangement, making this feel like a wild ride, with the finale Departure by Giorgos Zampetas is a fitting title, for its serious modern classical approach is pretty much carried by orchestral string washes before the bouzouki players kiss the listener goodbye with dun-colored interstices and golden fanfares.


Alshire Records doesn’t neglect to mention the standout feature of this LP: unsurprisingly, it is the moirée of bouzoukis. Coupled with the mandatory pool of various classical strings, Soul Of Greece comes to life. And to be honest, the arrangements are actually working to the advantage of this undertaking, as the various valleys, hills and coastlines of Greece are powerfully realized and emanated. Additiomal marimbas and flutes round off the serration. Now admittedly, these things combined do not make Soul Of Greece an exotic album, let alone a great LP per se. It is clearly created to cash in during a short window of opportunity when the Zorba The Greek movie became a success and brought the specific tonality to the awareness of audiences all over the world. This fact alone shouldn’t spoil the fun at all.


However, the set of harmonies and textures sure could. Oscillating between joyous festivities, incidental celebrations on the one hand and sudden sunbursts of gloominess and remoteness on the other, the eleven compositions aren’t for everyone. At least they are not overly gimmicky. Granted, the bouzoukis appear in every single symphonic piece, and so do the strings, but together with the magnificently droning accordion, a certain aura unfolds that could serve the Exotica fan well. Especially the latter instrument is far from being cheesy; a curious but friendly remark that shows how multifaceted the arrangements are, their somewhat limited set of patterns notwithstanding. Soul Of Greece is available on several vinyl and CD issues complete with different front artworks. A digital incarnation is also available on streaming sites and music stores. 


Exotica Review 417: 101 Strings – Soul Of Greece (1965). Originally published on Feb. 28, 2015 at AmbientExotica.com.