Nikos Portokaloglou
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Nikos Portokaloglou

Athens, Attica, Greece | MAJOR

Athens, Attica, Greece | MAJOR
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The Prodigal Son brings the Herodion audience to its feet!

The Prodigal Son brings the Herodion audience to its feet.
Two nights at the Herodeion celebrating Nikos Portokaloglou’s 30 years in the music business.

By Lefteris Katsouleris

And before you know it you’re thirty … it even happens to Prodigal Sons! It has been thirty years since the Prodigal Son first started roaming around the streets of Nea Smyrni. Now he is walking up the road to Herodion to celebrate the musical journey of his creator, Nikos Portokaloglou, joined by many of Portokaloglou’s other creations, good friends and fine musicians. In the always magical, Herodion Theatre, the full audience took every opportunity to show its appreciation to the honoured artist.

Nikos Portokaloglou deserved nothing less during those two nights and if someone has any doubts we would advise him or her to reconsider the facts: one does not carve out a thirty year-old career with lies. But the real proof lies in his songs: Portokaloglou is perhaps at his best combining his western influences (that range from pop and rock to reggae to soul, among others) with Greek and Eastern lyrics, sounds and rhythms. At many points throughout his thirty year-old career, those lyrics, always accessible but never cheap, managed to capture and express the mind and soul of Modern Greeks like few lyrics did: daydreaming of holidays at the office, going on night walks, merrymaking, feeling restless but also indolent. All these have made Portokaloglou the voice of the common man, our collective voice so to speak because he sings like one of us.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the Herodion Theatre was packed with people impatient to relive that journey. The programme kick-started with an instrumental “Journey”, which lost none of its well-known staccato rhythm: we are, after all, used to Portokaloglou reinventing his songs. The same happened with “On Stage”, which was accompanied by standing bass, saxophone, accordion and percussion lending it a distinct jazzy, Bossa nova rhythm. The audience started participating actively with “Hang up and Go” during which the entire band including the brass band and Vasiliki Karakosta came on stage. Next it was “The Postman’s” turn followed by the 30 year-old “Prodigal Son” himself, followed by Stone’s “Satisfaction” and Yannis Dimitriadis’ very good keyboard solo.

Immediately after the very first song of his career, Nikos Portokaloglou presented us with his latest, “The Turn,” a rock piece with a strong bass and drum line. Along with “Astropalia” from Vasiliki Karakosta’s album, these two songs made reference to Portokaloglou’s present and future. The night, however, was largely dedicated to the past: “I will not forgive us”, “It’s not too late” (with Andriana Babali on vocals), “Games with the Devil”, “On Stadiou Street” (with Odysseas Tsakalos), and an unrecognisable reggae style “River” with Haig Yazdijian on the oud.

As time was going by the stage was getting more and more crowded: Nikos Ziogalas made an appearance to sing a forgotten song titled, “The Missing” (with the drums and two timbales reverberating across Herodion) and “Make it Hard for Me”. Soul and Funk” influences were evident in “We Owe the Party” whereas “What doesn’t Kill You” wrapped up the first part of the celebration.

During the second part, the brass band was replaced by a string quartet, which led the introduction to the second part beautifully with a medley of “Burning my Ships.” Next came “I don’t Live here Anymore,” which was followed by “Where have you been?” with Eleftheria Arvanitaki and Portokaloglou on the vocals. Then it was Arvanitaki’s turn with “What is Missing” whereas during “Our lines got crossed” Charoula Aleksiou made an unexpected appearance. Alexiou went on to sing, “Close your Eyes”, “Lies” and “Just Say it and it Will be Done” during which the wind instruments returned on stage lending the song a reggae rhythm, with Alexiou and Yazdjian maintaining their distinct eastern sound. The last part of the programme turned into a party with the audience flocking to the stage. It must be noted that similar scenes have taken place at the Herodeion Theatre in the past and in particular two years ago with Solomon Burke, and last year with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, although in Portokaloglou’s case the stage extension did not leave much room for the audience. The regular part of the concert wrapped up with “Shatter into Pieces”, “Thirst”, “Counting the Waves” and “What has escaped the Fire” which brought the audience to its feet.

For the first encore Portokaloglou sang a song dedicated to his wife: “Take Care of Me.” The band returned on stage for “My Dark Sea,” whereas during the second encore, a children’s choir flooded the stage for “Summer”and “Above the Clouds.”

It was not, of course, all perfect on Monday night at the Herodion. “Lies” did not turn out to be as good as one would have expected and “Close your Eyes” would have worked better with a more traditional orchestration. None of this matters, however, because the celebration achieved its purpose, as befitting the artist. We hope that in thirty years from now we will be able to celebrate the second part of his career (which according to “inside information” received by Eleftheria Arvanitaki, will be even better) and see for ourselves that many things will have “escaped the fire,” which is exactly what happened on Monday.

PS 1:
Is it unreasonable to ask for something that is taken for granted in other countries, namely for public transport to extend its hours during the Athens Festival so that people will not have to resort en masse to taxis?

In 1976 when Portokaloglou was starting out as a musician, The Band became the first rock band to celebrate their career by inviting friends to sing with them for one last time. For the record, the celebration took place in the San Francisco Ballroom, with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Van Morrison, among others, as guests. In 1978, it was made into a film by Martin Scorsese.

PS3: The musicians (copied here from the press release) deserve special praise:

Keyboards, Accordion: Yannis Demetriades
Saxophone, Ney, Percussion: Tasos Photiou
Electric bass guitar, double bass: Michalis Kalkanis
Cymbals, Percussion: Nikos Christopoulos
Percussion: Vangelis Karypes
Trombone: Antonis Andreou
Trumpet: Manos Theodosakes
Saxophone: Yannis Papanastasiou
1st violin: Yorgos Panagiotopoulos
2nd violin: Laertes Kokolanes
Viola: Elias Sdoukos
Cello: Michalis Porphyres

The journey is here!

Nikos Portokaloglou is celebrating thirty years in the music business at the “Glass Music Theatre,” with a musical game revolving around different guests and an alternating programme.

If not every day, at least every week, each live performance is set up differently from previous ones, from start to finish. The guests taking part in the celebration of Nikos Portokaloglou’s “30 years of journeying” in the music business play a substantial role in the show imbuing the performances with their own style. As a result, most of what is happening on stage at the “Glass Music Theatre” is built around them. This is what differentiates these live performances of Portokaloglou’s from past ones. His meeting on stage with new and old friends does not start on a blank page; Portokaloglou’s musical oeuvre, which has been loved by all of us and therefore demands a place in our lives, lends itself to redefinition, restructuring as well as internal and external reexamination. This in itself gives new life to Nikos and his guests’ music and helps create new forms of tension, as the group of musician friends rocks uncontrollably and the audience restarts the journey under a new emotional perspective.

More precisely on Saturday February 17, Panos Mantzourakis’ presence acted as a catalyst: the idiosyncratic troubadour (very much in the style of a subversive Dylan) reinvented with Nikos “The Prodigal Son” in the form of the perfect urban blues song. Before that, the two of them had performed “Maybe”, “I don’t live here anymore” and “Kiss me.” The always excellent Nikos Ziogalas was an equal catalyst. He managed to elevate his own and the audience’s mood with songs like “Make it hard for me”, “Hang up and Go”, “Vasiliki”, and “Cinema Star” as well as other songs that both he and Portokaloglou shared that night.

In an almost three hour performance, rock takes center stage, its inherent “risk” in perfect harmony with our own musical tradition. Portokaloglou and his guests play with the new and the old but the sounds are definitely contemporary and do not evoke nostalgia or memories. Portokaloglou used the same team of musicians as last year but has enriched his cast of singers with Nana Binopoulou and Sophia Sarri, making a new departure in tradition and innovation, and producing different sounds each and every time.

Coming out of the tunnel

Now that “We are no Longer Champions” and the “Summer” is yet to come, Nikos Portokaloglou celebrates thirty years in the Greek music business and tries to find out what exactly happened in the land of the “pseudo rebels” now that “daddy’s money has run out.” Surprisingly, he is optimistic.

Interview by Dimitris Theodoropoulos
Photographs: Nikos Katsaros

Instead of giving answers he started off with questions. After all, news from the outside world cannot reach easily the depths of a dark isolated studio with its flashing sound consoles, guitars, piano and the acoustic foam of soundproofing. There had been news, albeit vague, of dealings between politicians and loan sharks in Thessalonica. Known names and a scandal had been mentioned in the form of informative gossip, followed by fatalistic nods of the head; the classic gesture Greek citizens use when faced with the abyss of Greek reality. Then, everything went back to normal. “So, are we all suspects?” he asked somewhat rhetorically, in a tone of playful seriousness. The question was definitely rhetorical; most of what Portokaloglou says appears to have been thought well beforehand. As if he has observed from a privileged and detached position Greece’s journey during the famous post-junta period, especially in the last thirty years. A period, which concerns him for personal reasons too, as he has now decided –“yes, why not now?”- to celebrate his thirty year presence in the Greek music business with old and new songs in a new record with new collaborators in a series of live performances. These thirty years are a whole era. For an observer of life, like himself, it was an interesting, tough, unjust but necessary period. Our discussion alternated between music, observation, psychoanalysis and criticism. It started with Portokaloglou talking with pride about his new song, “Work”, a kind of gospel; a hymn to work. But, why work of all things?

A hymn to work at this day and age;
Yes, why not? I think that for many years “work”, like “education,” had only negative connotations for us. Both ended up being hard labour: a chore. We were only claiming holidays and benefits or organizing sit-ins. In other words, we’ve been avoiding it. At some point we stopped talking about love or quality of work, we forgot about it. So I decided to celebrate it with a song …

Yes, but all this is relative. You are lucky to be doing a job that you love and which you chose yourself but this is not the case with everyone …
My job was not a gift from anyone; I earned it and had to fight for it a lot. On top of that, it has never offered me security or any warranties. The other day an accountant friend of mine was telling me that he is worried about the crisis, that he is loosing customers, that companies are going bust, the usual. And I told him that I’ve lived with this for thirty years. I know nothing about the future; I can only plan three months ahead. I might not be able to write songs, or be able to do live performances in the future. I might get bored, which is worst of all. No, no, I’m lying. People might get bored of me. That’s the worst thing of all …

So uncertainty can be motivating. In that sense, we are full of motivation in Greece these days …
I wouldn’t want to idealize artists; see them as special. Uncertainty is a good thing depending on the situation, and always in moderation. Everyone feels uncertainty: civil servants, discredited civil servants, primary and secondary school teachers and doctors. If these discredited professions loose their significance, we will sink. If a teacher with a monthly salary of 500 euros walks into the classroom with no motivation whatsoever, things are not going well at all. So, there is a difference between uncertainty and absurdity. It’s just that in Greece this attempt to rectify things was done, once again, in an unjust, chaotic and mindless way. Most people I talk to see conspiracies and dubious plans behind political decisions. What I see in front of me are incompetence, laziness and stupidity, and not conspiracies.

Do you partake in this collective psychoanalysis and self-flagellation of the Greek nation? Do you feel part of that game of assessing everyone’s guilt?
I analyze things too, as everyone does, I suppose. I am neither a sociologist nor an economist. Obviously, psychoanalysis can help up to a point. Creativity and music is another form of psychoanalysis but it wasn’t enough for me. On a personal level, I have had actual psychoanalysis …

I find it strange that you mention it. It’s a bit of a taboo still, especially for men.
Once I wrote the following song lyric: “Take care of me because I have sunk low.” So obviously I am not your typical Greek man who appears to be fearless, cannot be harmed by anything, is always strong but in reality is tied to his mother’s apron strings …

Did psychoanalysis help?
Yes, of course, it did help a lot. I went through a strange phase of introspection seven or eight years ago and I think this was reflected in my work too, which became a little darker. Now that we are all deep into this crisis, I am coming out of my own personal crisis and as a consequence I am feeling a little peculiar about it. It is for this reason that I chose to celebrate my anniversary at this particular point in time.

Do you feel guilty for not being devastated by the crisis?
No, I do not. Sometimes I think that we needed the crisis. I think that if you were to ask many of our fellow “indignant” citizens at Syntagma Square if they would be satisfied with someone announcing from a window in the Parliament building, “Guys, this has all been a bad dream, let’s go back to how we were in 2006,” most of them would be satisfied. I wouldn’t. We need something more drastic than that.

You’re right. Still, injustices have not been rectified despite the fact that we are in a flux now. Quite the opposite perhaps …
I refuse to believe that good things will not happen. There will certainly be losses, however. Sometimes it feels strange not to be able to feel rage for what is happening now. What prevails, instead, is my rage for what had been happening until now. I believe the fact that in this catastrophe, in this storm and destabilization –you can call it whatever you like- there will be reforms, can only be optimistic. There are no easy solutions, though. It takes time …

If you could go back and change the situation, where would you locate the problem?
I can only talk about my experiences during the ‘80s, when as the philosopher Stelios Ramfos put it, we lived through a “continuation of the civil war with peaceful means.” He’s making a very valid point there. On the one hand we had to cast off many of our bonds but on the other this led to retaliation on the part of the wronged ones, which in turn led to nihilism. Then cynicism and this obsession with lifestyle appeared, along with that shameless “why not?” attitude. They are all playing dirty, so why not me? This is probably how it all begun. As Oscar Wilde said “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” This is what happened to Greece: it was a deprived country; there was a lot of injustice, people were sent into exile, mistakes were made and then during the years of prosperity, people started getting what they wanted fiercely and greedily …

Do you feel guilty and suspect, as everyone does in this collective psychoanalysis of the Greek nation?
This is our tragedy: everyone is a suspect during this phase of general discovery. Everyone is a suspect until the opposite is proven. Then begins the atrocious process of finding “which generation is to blame for all this.” As I theoretically belong to a guilty generation, this process is atrocious because in every generation there are those who build and those who demolish.

So do you consider yourself to be an honourable citizen?
To be shouting your integrity from the rooftops is unnecessary, if not suspect, at this point in time. In order to somehow prove my integrity, I will say this: if they called me to court and asked me if I am part of the corruption system, I would tell them about my 2008 concert at Herodeion Theatre. It was a full house except for the empty VIP seats. Not a single politician came to the concert. This would be my line of defense.

There is a very apt, quite timeless (for the wrong, sad reasons) lyric of yours about “pseudo rebels with daddy’s money.” It’s as if you knew something back then …
I wrote this about some classmates and friends of mine who used to act in this manner. I did not expect this mentality to gradually become a widespread phenomenon. This is what happened to us: Greek society resorted to a revolutionary rhetoric and an individualistic attitude at the same time. So on the one hand we take daddy’s money –or in this case, the foreigners’ money- and on the other hand we accuse them. This is not about blaming this politician or that rogue but about looking into ourselves. Perhaps we can’t look inside ourselves because we fear that we might have to change. This is where my obsession with “work” comes in. Work is the antidote to everything. One must come face to face with oneself and try to exceed oneself through work.

There are jobs, however, that one cannot come to love no matter how hard one tries …
Maybe this happens because there are a lot of people out there in the wrong jobs, because we make our children do jobs for the sake of money and status only. Our society is made up of people who hate their jobs, so how can the system work? Come to think of it, though, there are some jobs I cannot imagine one doing with love …

All this sounds nice and romantic but these days work is firstly a matter of survival and then fun.
It has always been like that. My mother used to tell me, “Our contact in the bank can get you a job. You won’t have any stress or responsibilities and after work you can come home and play your guitar.” But I felt that music was my survival. Look, I am not pretending to be the poet of escapism, an artist and all that. I’ve always believed that the greatest adventure is the here and now, the daily routine. I have felt oppressed as an artist because there came a point in my career when I did not want to give concerts. I would have rather relaxed on an island. I couldn’t do that, though. I had to make a living. I don’t think that this idea of artists living in their ivory towers and not coming into contact with the mud of daily life is valid. Mud is a material. And the best dreams and fairy-tales can be found in reality. The journey is here. Do what you can do, without worrying about what people will say about you …

Isn’t (political, educational etc) assessment annoying?
It depends. One of the characteristics of the post-junta period is people’s resistance to every form of assessment. Whenever the topic of assessment came up, be it in education or the civil service, the most “progressive” political parties would be the first to oppose it in the most ferocious way. And suddenly the recent collapse has led to a deep and unjust assessment. In the light or darkness of this moment, whatever we do assumes a different meaning. I remember 20 years ago I was thinking of leaving the country for my own personal reasons. I wrote “Burning my ships” around that time. Very recently I was reminded of a particular lyric in this song that I had forgotten about: “I will continue to live in this country out of spite and folly.”

So do you think lots of people will turn up at your live performances? Because as we all know, from a practical point of view, people haven’t got much money to spare on entertainment.
Every single year without exception my collaborators warn me: “This year is going to be worse than last year.” I am aware of this, it goes without saying, but I also believe that people need entertainment as much as they need food and water. They have become more selective now, of course, but the need for entertainment has not subsided. Some theatres, bars and live music venues have been doing well. There have been successful concerts, too. I am not of the opinion that at the end of all this things will settle down and quality will eventually triumph. At the end of the day, what is quality? How does one define it? People need to let it all out, go to the Bouzoukia , have a drink and dance. Things will settle down in the sense that those who are best at what they do will stand out. This is not about an indeterminable quality that exists in the imagination of some intellectuals …

“Intellectuals” have had a strong presence in the Greek music business for years, coming up with various labels for “artistic music.” Wasn’t that annoying?
I’ve always avoided typecasting and labeling. You risk disappointing your audience, of course; but I’ve always liked disappointing my audience when they were expecting stereotypical things from me. Typecasting can be very tiring; it is a prison. Apart from the issue of “artistic music” in Greece, we’ve also had issues with a long prevailing ideology. We ended up listening only to those who we agree with, those who belong to the same political party as us. What would be of value would be to meet those who do not concern us, and in my new work, apart from the songs themselves, the most important message is the coming together of different people from different generations and worlds.

Does the fact that you have completed thirty years in the music business make you feel nostalgic?
I do not feel nostalgic at all. It was at the beginning of 2011 whilst collecting material for my new songs that I realized I was completing thirty years in the music business since I first started out with my band, Fatme. My immediate thought was: “Are you going to celebrate now that the world around you is collapsing?” Then I thought: “Yes, I should. Especially now.” I will celebrate not looking back but looking forward. When you feel the need to celebrate, you do not open a bottle of champagne alone. You invite friends over. The difference is that I did not invite old friends and collaborators but new ones: the new generation of singers and songwriters. These people I have met and recorded with for the very first time. We all gathered in a studio and recorded live with the singers and the band, in the manner that old records used to be recorded. It is my homage to the very first records I have ever heard as a little boy: the Beatles or popular Greek music from the 50s and 60s, which was recorded in that immediate, warm way. The very first album that my brother brought to the house was “The White Album” by the Beatles. It is still my favourite record. At the corner of my mind, it feels as if I am making my own “White Album.”

Having described the Greek sports successes of 1987 and 2004 and Greek reality in lyrics such as “We are champions now” and “we’ve always been great players but could not pass the ball,” do you still follow sport and your favourite team, Panionios?
I haven’t followed Panionios in a while now. To be honest, I find it difficult to follow the Greek football championship considering what it has evolved into in recent years.

How long do you see yourself singing?
My idol is Clint Eastwood. He gets better with age this man. So, I’d like to think I have a lot of future ahead of me …

Nikos Portokaloglou and friends will be performing at the Glass Music Theatre from 3 February to 17 March 2012.


Fatme – Fatme (1982)
Psemmata (Lies) – Fatme (1983)
Risko (Risk) – Fatme (1985)
Vgainoume apo to tounnel (Coming out of the Tunnel) – Fatme (1986)
Taxidi (Journey) – Fatme (1988)
Palko (Stage) (Live) – Fatme (1989)
Fones (Voices) – Nikos Portokaloglou (1990)
Siko psixi mou siko xorepse (Get up and Dance my Soul) – Nikos Portokaloglou (1992)
Ta karavia mou kaio (Burning my Ships) – Nikos Portokaloglou (1993)
O asotos ios (The Prodigal Son) – Nikos Portokaloglou (1996)
Valkanizater (Valkanisateur) - Nikos Portokaloglou (1997)
Paixnidia me ton diavolo (Playing with the Devil) – Nikos Portokaloglou (1999)
Brazilero (OST) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2001)
Thalassa (The Sea) (Remixes) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2002)
Yparxei logos sovaros (Serious Reason) – (Nikos Portokaloglou + Fatme + Friends) (Best of 1982-1992) (2002)
Dipsa (Thirst) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2003)
Pame alli mia fora (One More Time) (Live 2001 – 2005) Nikos Portokaloglou
To potami (The River) (Single) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2006)
Ena vima pio konta (One Step Closer) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2006)
Ektos shediou (Out of Plan) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2007)
I strofi (The Turn)– Nikos Portokaloglou (2009)
Apopse einai oraia (It’s Beautiful Tonight (Live) – (Nikos Portokaloglou – Nikos Ziogalas – Manolis Famellos) (2010)
Isos (Maybe) (Double CD) – Nikos Portokaloglou (2012)



Nikos Portokaloglou was born in 1957 in Greece. He is a self-taught musician and guitarist. He set on his musical path at the end of the 1970s fuelled by the enthusiasm of youth.
This is when the band FATME came to life. Fatme possessed many ideas and an unusual maturity; their sound was electric; their lyrics were scathing and penetrating when dealing with public life and tender when dealing with love. In 1989 Nikos embarked on a solo musical journey. He has made great concerts at important theatres such as Herodion and Little Theater of Ancient Epidaurus.
This year Nikos Portokaloglou is celebrating his thirty years in the music business.