Nikos Xylouris was born in Anoghia, Crete, on the 7th of July, 1936. At the age of five he witnessed the burning of his home and village by German soldiers during the Occupation. As a boy Nikos was very fond of music and he had a gift for singing and playing the mandolin with his friend Giorgo Kalomiris. Enthralled by the music of a skilled player of the Lyra (Cretan fiddle), Leonidas Klados, he convinced him to take him on as an apprentice for two years. He began to ply his craft at village weddings, baptisms and other celebrations throughout Crete.
At the age of seventeen he got his first job in a small cabaret in the city of Heraklion named the "Kastro" or Castle. The adjustment to city life was a difficult but life changing experience. As he later related: “...The changes taking place in the cities could not have been experienced by the people living up in the mountain villages of Crete. In the city, the people were listening to European music and dancing the tango, waltzes, the rumba and samba. We were obliged to learn those tunes so as to play them at weddings and festivals to earn our living. We began to try to make people change, to love Cretan music again, little by little...”
While playing at one of those festivals he meets and later marries Ourania Melampianaki, daughter of a prosperous Heraklion family. On the 21 November 1958 he recorded his first 78 RPM record, a song named “Kritikopoula mou” (My Cretan Girl). Two years later a son is born followed by a daughter six years later. Xylouris eventually finds himself in Athens cutting 45 singles in order to pay for medical care for his seriously ill child. He is forced to churn out records for a pittance, even by the standards of the time.
In 1966 he has a huge break. Leaving Greece for the first time in his life, he travels to and participates in a folk festival in San Remo, Italy and wins first prize. He subsequently opens the first Cretan music hall, “Erotokrito." His popularity rising, he begins to draw huge audiences. In 1969, a hit record “Anifantou," hits the top of the charts and he returns to Athens to sing at the Konaki Music Hall. There he meets Erikos Thalassinos who introduces him to the composer Yiannis Markopoulos. Signed by Columbia Records, he agrees to sing popular songs but holds out for two albums, to be composed entirely of Cretan music, which the company agrees to. As a result Cretan music was introduced throughout Greece, something that his predecessors on the Cretan music scene were unable to accomplish previously.
Xylouris and Markopoulos worked together to create a series of songs that re-examined the relationship between tradition and the present. These songs, known as "Rizitika" were released under his personal direction in 1971 and were introduced in a live performances at “Ledra”, a well-known Athens club of that period. During this period many Greeks opposed to the military regime in power adopted songs sung by Xylouris and they became emblematic of the resistance movement. In the summer of 1973, Xylouris sang in a landmark performance staged by Jenny Karezi and Costas Kazakos at the Athenaion Theatre. The subject matter of that performance was the recent history of Greece. It was entitled “To megalo mas tsirko” (Our Grand Circus). His songs expressed the tense political climate of that period which culminated in the uprising of the Polytechnic students, the invasion of Cyprus and the fall of the Military Junta.
the years of tumultuous changes in Greek politics, he interpreted some more songs by
other noted composers such as Christos Leondis and Stavros Xarchakos. At the same time, he recorded the
“Antipolemika” (Antiwar songs) by Linos Kokotos and Dimitris Christodoulou as
well as George Seferis’ poetry, set to music by Ilias Andriopoulos. He was once more engaged in singing folk songs originating
from Crete, while he also interpreted popular songs by Stelios
Vamvakaris. With songs such as “Argalios”, “Mia padremeni agapo”
(Filedem), “Pramatevtis” and “Mesopelaya armenizo”, his voice was back
to singing “songs of life”.
Nikos Xylouris' brilliant musical career was cut short by his premature death from cancer at the young age of 44. He died far from his beloved island, in a Piraeus hospital, on the 8th of February in 1980. May the example of his life and his haunting voice serve to awaken all Greeks from the slumber of the present to relive the glory of the past in our own lives. Thank God Hellas gave us Niko and his music. May his memory be eternal