D.R. Ransdell writes from Tucson, Arizona, but she travels as often as possible. She moonlights in a mariachi band. Last weekend the band was invited to play in Cleveland, Ohio. Today she joins us to talk about her love of Greek music and how it influenced her mystery series. Learn more about D.R. and her books at her website.
Bouzouki Nights: One Writer’s Paradise
I never meant to fall in love with Greece. The process was so natural that I didn’t notice the dangers until it was too late. On a university-sponsored trip, my professors explained all about the myths and the stylobates, but what I fell in love with was the sound of the language via the beauty of song.
I was on a bus listening to the driver’s favorite tunes when Dr. Solomon shook his finger at me. “Greek music is easy to understand. All you have to know is s’agapó and m’agapás, I love you, you love me. You’ll hear it over and over in every single song.” Once I started paying attention, I heard just that.
When we reached Athens, we asked Dr. Solomon for dining suggestions. He sent us to the top of Mnissikleous Street in the heart of Athens’ Plaka. At a taverna called The Old Man of Moria, I became so enchanted with the bouzouki band that I couldn’t concentrate on what I was eating. I was mesmerized by one song after another.
I also marveled at the contrast. Back home in Arizona I played in a mariachi group. We performed five nights a week, and we were so tight that we communicated whole sentences with a word or a glance. These musicians did the same. They entertained us while gossiping with one another. Most of the other patrons weren’t paying attention. I was. I thought: Had I grown up in Greece, I would have been playing with them. Their group was much like ours, but their rhythms were more syncopated and their songs more replete with minor keys. The spirit was the same. They were dedicated to their craft, but they had fun with it at the same time. They worked from nine p.m. to two a.m., but they didn’t seem tired. They lived the nightlife of the musician. I loved them for it.
On that university trip we also visited Rhodes and Crete, but for me, each Greek island was the same: archaeological sites in the morning, beaches in the afternoon, and bouzouki clubs in the evening. The groups played the standards such as “Zorba the Greek” and “Never on Sunday,” but then they branched out. There were pop songs that had been written in the last decade and island tunes whose origin was unknown. Each night as the tourist crowd thinned and the locals trickled in, the repertoire changed. The musicians played requests, mostly for, sirtaki, which were cheerful dance tunes, and rembétika, which were the Greek version of the blues.
Despite the language barrier, I felt a tremendous kinship with these musicians. While the other patrons laughed and drank, I appreciated how hard the players were working. I appreciated how many songs they knew. I appreciated how they deftly handled requests from the crowd but were equally unfazed when no one listened. Most nights, in mistake-ridden phrases, I tried to explain that I was a musician as well.
When I got back to the US, I took Greek 101. Later I spent a year teaching on Rhodes. Whenever I travel to Greece, my experience is the same. I love going around to see all the sights, and an avid swimmer, I adore the beaches. But the nights are paradise.
My first novel, Amirosian Nights, describes the experiences of a mariachi player on vacation in Greece. (This fall look for a reprint titled Greek Mambo.) In the meantime, I started writing a murder mystery series featuring mariachi musician Andy Veracruz, Andy’s second adventure, Island Casualty, takes place on a Greek island. Naturally, he spends most of his nights listening to music at the nearest taverna! He travels to Greece for a relaxing vacation, but instead he winds up getting chased off a moped and labeled a spy by the local newspaper. With the help of a fellow musician, he tries to uncover some of the island’s best kept secrets.
In Island Casualty, the second Andy Veracruz mystery, Andy accepts the invitation of a friend who is working at a taverna on a Greek island. He’s hoping Rachel can help him forget the one he could not save, but life on a small island is much different from life in Squid Bay. Instead of a relaxing vacation, Andy finds secret engagements and crazy islanders. As the savior of everyone except himself, Andy is soon involved in it all, but justice is not always black and white.