By Jonathan Shifflett

Alexis Zoumbas78-rpm collector Christopher King has a way of making old music seem new. Although he grew up listening to pre-war blues and hillbilly recordings, he focuses now on reissuing 78-rpm recordings from performers outside the American vernacular. What he finds is that the rawness, the spirit and the energy of the early American performers like Skip James or Dennis McGee is evident in ethnic recordings as well. In a sense, he curates the blues and country music of other cultures.

His most recent production, Alexis Zoumbas: A Lament for Epirus 1926 -1928 (link is to the album page at Long Gone Sound) profiles Zoumbas’ masterful violin adaptations of Greek sheepherding music, now available on a beautiful gatefold LP with artwork by R. Crumb. An immigrant to the States from the Albanian influenced region of Epirus, Zoumbas recorded for Columbia in Prohibition-era New York City. Apart from his recorded works, very little biographical information exists about the exiled performer.

King traveled to northern Greece to seek out relatives of Zoumbas. The music is so mournful and yet so rooted in tradition, he felt compelled to uncover how this connected with his exile. He discovered that Zoumbas murdered a man in Greece: killed him, threw him down a well and then fled to America, never to return home.

The energy and intensity of the recordings is owed to the performer’s emotional weight but also to his virtuosic abilities. Listen to the album's opening track Epirotiko Mirologi and hear the heartbreaking effect of the downward smears and long melismas. His ornamentation is superhuman, and his ability to mimic the sounds of clarinets, the human voice and even birdsong conveys not just the feelings in his tortured soul, but the very landscape of his homeland.

The clarity of the recordings can be attributed to King’s genius. In addition to his work as a music historian and scholar, he is a sought after sound engineer who works for County and Rebel records and runs his own historical music production company, Long Gone Sound. The recordings on Lament are almost ninety years old, but the warmth and presence of the violin and the subtle accompaniment of cimbalom and bowed bass retain their original integrity.

The songs truly are laments—don’t expect any cheerful fiddle ditties. As King said, “It’s not something that you play while you fix dinner, and it’s not something that you play to impress the girlfriend. It’s something that grabs a hold of you and it just won’t let you go.” With this reissue, as with all of his productions, King offers insight into music that is vital to a human soul, the kind that transcends language and musical style thereby achieving a near timeless quality.

Visit Soundcloud at soundcloud.com/long-gone-sound/sets/alexis-zoumbas-a-lament to hear three tracks from the album, which you can purchase from Amazon.com in CD, download, or vinyl formats. Read King’s own essay on Zoumbas in the Paris Review.

Jonathan Shifflett is a recent graduate of USC's classical guitar program, who has since seen the light and traded the guitar for a banjo. When not tracking down train car murals or searching for hobo hieroglyphics, he enjoys pretending to play the fiddle and thinking about the folk music world at large.