Dhómna: Lady, Mistress (Latin original: domina – a title given to noblewomen who held a barony in their own right.)
Tradition lies heavy on my people, yet it makes us who we are – for good and ill. One of its greatest champions just left us: Dhómna Samíou, a tireless collector and preserver of folksongs who began to sing them herself in her forties, in a distinctive voice that thrummed like the finest Damascus steel.
Samíou’s parents were working-class refugees from Asia Minor; her father had been a prisoner of war in Turkey after the disastrous war in 1922. Her childhood was spent in abject poverty, in a shack without water or electricity, but also in the strong social net of mutual support that sprang up in such circumstances. Her father and sister died during the German occupation. She might have starved or been killed herself – the shacks were in a neighborhood of Athens famous for its urban resistance, which the Germans punished accordingly. She escaped the roundups because she had started working at twelve, first as a seamstress in a small tailoring establishment, then as a live-in maid in a middle-class home.
The family she worked for heard her sing constantly while she worked, so they brought her to Símon Karás, a famous music teacher and pioneering collector of traditional music. He accepted Samíou into his choir on the spot, stipulating that she should finish high school (a rare feat in that context, particularly for girls). Work in the mornings, music lessons in the afternoons, school in the evenings: that was Samíou’s life for several years. In 1954 she started working in broadcasting under her teacher. National radio (all radio was national then in Hellás) started airing traditional music, as well as making and selling records of it.
As Hellás tried to show it belonged to the First World, traditional music tottered under the onslaught of Western popular music. Samíou, like Karás, could not imagine her people’s culture without it. During her vacations she started going around the country, on her own dime, to identify and record the fast-disappearing authentic versions of folksongs. When she started becoming too independent, Karás slowly removed her from his orbit: despite his initial generosity and crucial formative role in her life, he would not brook a competitor or even a successor – especially a woman.
When the junta came, Samíou was given tenure at her job but couldn’t stomach the repression. She resigned at 43 with no safety net. At that crucial moment, Dionyssis Savvópoulos – the iconoclastic, obscenely talented enfant terrible of Hellenic music – invited her to appear in his politically and artistically daring events. That launched her career as a singer of the songs she had so lovingly found and fought to save. After the junta fell, national television commissioned Samíou to do Musical Travel, a documentary series about traditional music that is considered a classic, the foundation for all subsequent such works. Below is a part celebrating Épiros, my mother’s part of the world.
Samíou worked with all the virtuoso singers and players (usually informally taught), whether famous or obscure, who carried the songs that run in our blood. She traveled all over the world to give these songs and players an audience – not only to the diaspora communities, who drank them like water in the desert, but to non-Hellenes as well, who realized for the first time that Hellenic folk music was not just the bouzouki they heard in tourist traps. She received a huge number of honors and prestigious commissions. Yet she never behaved like a celebrity, never lost her deep connections to things that mattered or her common touch.
Samíou continued singing, teaching, recording and archiving tirelessly till her death. Others shared her love of traditional music and the effort to keep it a living, breathing concern but her knowledge, thoroughness and exactitude were unparalleled. She was a national treasure, a towering presence.
May the earth lie lightly upon you, Dhómna Samíou, Mistress of Songs.
Videos: two famous folksongs – First, Háidho from Épiros; singer/tambourine, Mánthos Stavrópoulos; clarinet, Konstantínos Neofótistos; violin, Konstantínos Saadedín; lutes, Stávros Saadedín & Napoléon Tzihás. Second, Samíou sings Tzivaéri mou (My Treasure) from the Dodecanese.