Experienced: Toronto on a Table (Greek Bouzoukia Night)

Urmi Desai in Real Toronto

Editor’s Note: “Experienced” is an occasional column that reveals hidden bits of Toronto – not so much the trendy underground, but rather the comfort food that keeps so many of us whole. More Scarborough strip mall, less burlesque-men’s-travel-lounge-and-sushi-bar-of-the-moment. If you have an experience that you would like to share, I’d love to hear from you. Please email me at urmi@realosophy.com

Here’s a resolution for Toronto in 2011: less multiculturalism, more cosmopolitanism. The difference? Multiculturism looks like a grade school pantomime and sounds like a CBC radio navel-gaze about “My Canada”. Cosmopolitanism means sourcing out the best life has to offer. It means eating what the folks did in the old country simply because it tastes so damn good. Asking your grandfatherly neighbour, the “informal backyard economy” bee keeper, about honey. And befriending people who dance on tables.

So here's an overdue report on a gathering I’ve dubbed the “Greek Bouzoukia for a Night” where Toronto banquet halls swell with passion. No, it’s not a wedding. At the bouzoukia (Greek night club), fans of laiko music come to worship the song. There is no pretense, no need for a special occasion, the reason is the music.

The scene.  It’s November 12th 2010. A Markham banquet hall is transformed into a bouzoukia featuring Thanos Petrelis, a top singer from Greece, along with a band of 10 musicians. You have shelled out for this: $150-200 for dinner and the show. Tables of 10 fill the room at right angles to the main stage. Friends order wine and spirits by the bottle. The dancing starts before plates are cleared. There is no dance floor. You dance around tables, on tables, on stage, on chairs, in fire exits. There is a thick carpet of flowers on stage, on the floor, everywhere. It's easy to lose sight of the singer among dancing crowds. Visiting Greek musicians love this type of show (in Greece, top acts play in big clubs for month long engagements). Pity the singer I saw at Roy Thompson Hall who made this confession to his nice, quiet, seated crowd: “I’m just not my best outside a bouzoukia.”

The music and dance. At the bouzoukia, patrons indulge in a living tradition of urban folk music, laiko, which emerged in the 60s after the popularization of rembetiko, the “blues” of Greece.  It’s a large tent with an emphasis on songwriting as musicians reinterpret old classics and introduce new ones. (Fans of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) will find this familiar.) Each rhythm has its dance. Tsifteteli is casual belly dancing among friends – a far more charming cousin to the ultra-staged stars and spangles variety. But Zeibekiko is most striking. Here, a soloist (traditionally men, women now hold their own) dances a beautiful contradiction – free, intoxicated movement to a stately rhythm.

Kefi. A feeling state. High spirits, joyful, passionate, free. The right mix of music, hospitality and parea creates kefi.

Parea. A group of friends. Also a feeling. With the right parea, you feel light, happy, young. Friends celebrate each other with great hospitality and admiration for individual style - dancers kneel, clap and shower flowers on each other.

The excess. There is copious drinking, dancing on tables, sequined dresses and smoking. All good. But there’s more. First reaction of my fellow non-Greek lover of the bouzoukia, Cara, to girls selling plates of carnations: “do these people have money to burn?” End of night: Cara is in the running for highest consumption of flowers per capita. Flowers are showered on the singer by patrons, by the singer on patrons, on friends, on crushes. At 10 to 20 bucks for a plate of carnations, only the hard core indulge in the second best grown up way to be a child: flower wars. (Snowball fights are first.)

Made in Toronto.

Room for improvement. Many say the serving of a full dinner is a North American thing. In Greece, it’s mezedakia (tapas) style or even lighter. And perhaps due to our reality tv and social media obsession, it's more common to see North Americans getting on stage to take pictures with the singer rather than dance.

Why we do it best. Toronto is a big venue on the overseas bouzoukia circuit so we see the best acts. And there is nothing like warming up a bitter winter night at the bouzoukia.

Where to go. Hit the Danforth, but don’t wait too long. Some restaurants have regular music nights, but sadly these events no longer draw crowds like they did 10 years ago. There are a few night spots – Romeo (630 Danforth Ave., downstairs) and Avli by Night (401 Danforth Ave., upstairs). If you want to shell out the big bucks to attend a show, seek out friends or colleagues who like modern laiko music and ask if you can join their table. Greek City Music and Books (452 Danforth Ave.) usually has concert info. The next show is coming up in January and features Nikos Kourkoulis, known for his earthy bouzoukia style. 

Urmi Desai is editor of the Move Smartly blog and is responsible for Realosophy’s business development and marketing. Realosophy Realty Inc. Brokerage focuses on researching Toronto neighbourhoods to help their clients make smarter real estate decisions. Email Urmi

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