Listening to the Mediterranean through the Ancient Sounds of Epirus

I recently finished Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe’s Oldest Surviving Folk Music, Christopher C. King’s exploration of his discovery of a lost world of ancient folk music nestled in the mountains that straddle modern-day Greece and Albania. It was fascinating to see how King brought alive the musical traditions of a society that has managed to preserve its roots through song.

We Mediterraneanists often think about the Sea as a whole, but every so often, its fragmentation comes lurking back to rear its beautiful head.

This book was one of those moments. Lament from Epirus was a fun read for a lot of reasons. King’s ability to weave history, music, and his own experiences makes the book more novelistic than esoteric tome. Plus his thorough knowledge of music, both how it feels and how it actually works, lets the reader get a fuller sense of what King experienced in his travels, which took him to remote mountain villages as well as wonky record stores in Istanbul. The result is a highly readable book that is as enjoyable a page-turner as it is an erudite and informative cultural history of Epirus’s folk music.

Portrait of Pyrrhus of Epirus, the famed Epirote tyrant who invaded Italy and challenged Rome.

Epirus is probably most famous (if at all) for being the homeland of Pyrrhus, the despot of Epirus, who once invaded Italy and threatened the burgeoning empire that the Roman Republic was trying to construct.

But that was nearly 2300 years ago. Much has happened since: Rome eventually conquered Epirus. It was a part of the Byzantine Empire, then was held by numerous despots before slowly falling to the Ottoman Turks between 1430 and 1480. And it wasn’t until the early 20th century that much of it finally became a part of Greece. A lot of foreigners came and went. And on some level, that would have meant Greeks, too. Yet, as King explains, Epirus’s musical traditions endured.

But history’s invaders were not the biggest threat to the purity of Epirote mountain culture and music it produced. Rather, King’s boogeyman is globalization—more specifically, the mass recording, distillation, and consumption of music. Whereas most Mediterranean folk traditions have been commercialized and innocuously re-packaged for tourists, the Mediterranean’s ability to hide its treasures from cruise ships and selfie sticks has allowed the music of Epirus to remain essentially untouched.

King mentioned a great number of artists, but the most famous is Kitsos Harisiadis.

Just give one listen to the songs of figures like Kitsos Harisiadis and you’ll know what I mean. The emotive, atonally jarring songs are not for the faint of heart, nor are they for your pleasure. At least not in the way you might think. It’s harsh music, almost guttural, but you still want to tap your toe to it. And, if King’s experiences are any indication, drink glass after glass of the local spirits to it.

Music is a funny thing. If nothing else, it’s a community builder. It brings people together and it allows them to forge a sense of solidarity when their identity is under pressure or when scraping together a subsistence existence can be too much to bare. But it’s also a way to welcome in outsiders and make them a part of the community. King fits this bill, as his passion for the music lets him get as close as any outsider has to a people who have endured thousands of years of invasions, live in rocky terrain, and are as salt of the earth as they come.

Another group of outsiders that King discusses at length are the Mediterranean’s historic non-members, the Roma. The Roma have traversed almost all of the land that encircles the Middle Sea, but arguably their most important contribution to Mediterranean society has been through music. From flamenco in Spain to fasıl in Turkey, the Roma have always been there to make it happen. This was true in Epirus as well. And for King, their story is the story of the folk music they made, continue to play, and its role in preserving Epirote traditions.

What makes Lament from Epirus so Mediterranean for me is that it captures how the Mediterranean was as interconnected as it was a world that allowed for isolation and cultural preservation. On one hand, a string of mountains and the Adriatic isolated Epirus, which allowed its residents to preserve their way of life. Yet, the Epirotes were hardly ever isolated in the purest sense—centuries of contact with Italians, Greeks, Albanians, Turks, and Roma, and their need to be who they thought they were, illustrate that no culture ever develops in a vacuum.

The theater at Dodona, Epirus (Greece) with Mount Tomaros in the background. The city dates to perhaps as early as the second millennium before Christ. Nestled in these mountains are the many villages that King visits to discover the hidden sounds of Epirus.

This delicate balance between isolation and contact allowed the people of Epirus to negotiate a complex existence that was both uniquely theirs and typical of the crucible of cultures that continue to shape the Mediterranean. And, while I hope that bringing notoriety to Epirote culture does not usher in its demise (which would be King’s greatest fear), learning about this fascinating culture that has endured for so long is literally music to our ears.