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Interpretation of “Always smiling” by Dimitris Mitropanos

For this entry I have picked one of my favourite songs from Greece’s laiko (λαϊκό meaning “popular”) genre, performed by the inimitable Dimitris Mitropanos (Δημήτρης Μητροπάνος). Always smiling has the instrumentation of the powerful zeibekiko style and the lyrical profundity we typically encounter in the alternative rock scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rDp6vg5nf-k.

Below are the lyrics in Greek, my translation of them, and relevant philosophical commentary.

Πάντα γελαστοί

Εμηνεία:  Δημήτρης Μητροπάνος
Στίχοι:   Άλκης Αλκαίος
Μουσική:  Θάνος Μικρούτσικος


Της νύχτας οι αμαρτωλοί και της αυγής οι μόνοι
θέλουν βαρύ ζεϊμπέκικο και νευρικό τιμόνι
Σε τόπους τριγυρίζουνε, σβησμένους απ' το χάρτη
για μια σταγόνα ουρανό, για μιαν αγάπη σκάρτη

Όσοι με το Χάρο γίναν φίλοι
με τσιγάρο φεύγουνε στα χείλη
στα τρελά τους όνειρα δοσμένοι
πάντα γελαστοί, πάντα γελαστοί
πάντα γελαστοί και γελασμένοι

Τα νιάτα μας διαδρομή Αθήνα-Σαλονίκη
μια πόλη χτίσαμε μαζί κι ακόμα ζω στο νοίκι
Έπεσα να σ' ονειρευτώ σε ψάθα από φιλύρα
κι είδα πως βγάζει η νύχτα φως και τ' όστρακο πορφύρα

Όσοι με το Χάρο γίναν φίλοι
με τσιγάρο φεύγουνε στα χείλη
στα τρελά τους όνειρα δοσμένοι
πάντα γελαστοί, πάντα γελαστοί
πάντα γελαστοί και γελασμένοι
Always smiling

Singer:  Dimitris Mitropanos
Lyrics:  Alkis Alkaios
Music:   Thanos Mikroutsikos


The night's sinful and the dawn's lonely
need heavy zeibekiko and angry wheel
In places they wander, faded from the map
for a drop of sky, for an obsolete love

Those who befriended Charon [loosely "Death"]
leave with a cigarette on the lips
given to their crazy dreams
always smiling, always smiling
always smiling and beguiled

Our youth a trip from Athens to Salonica [Thessaloniki]
We built a city together and I still live on rent
I slept to dream of you on mats of lime tree
and saw how the night produces light and the shell porphyry [deep purple]

Those who befriended Charon
leave with a cigarette on the lips
given to their crazy dreams
always smiling, always smiling
always smiling and beguiled

Let’s start with the unknown word in the first stanza: zeibekiko. This is a type of dance that would historically be performed by a drunk late at night or in the early morning hours. The dance is supposed to express one’s frustration and sorrow. It is not a stylistic dance and should, conceptually, look drunken and feel spontaneous. In modern days, zeibekiko is taught in dance schools as a type of ballet for dummies: it has a lightness to it that does not capture the complex mental state of the original. The “heavy zeibekiko”, then, encapsulates one’s justified, even if poorly expressed, indignation with the state of their life and the world at-large.

Those who perform such a dance, the titular protagonists who always smile, are the stray souls of our society. They have no credentials, no accolades to pamper their social standing. Misfits who cannot tolerate the odious conditions they labour in and who would rather traverse uncharted territories as lonely wolves than be someone’s inert lapdog. The “drop of sky” symbolises the modicum of freedom such souls live for: a love affair that is rendered obsolete by an unjust establishment predicated on the control of human by human.

Such control is made manifest in the political realities of our quotidian life, where our work and the wealth of the globe in general is appropriated by a tiny minority. Inequality is not an intermediate side-effect on some inexorable path towards economic optimality. It rather is the innate propensity of a system of interventionism that is designed to prop up a demistate that privatises profits while socialising debts. We labour for long hours, “building a city together”, only to have the overlords threaten us with immiseration and homelessness.

To befriend death is to not tolerate the hubris of this order; to point at the fact that no euphemism, no amount of polish, can obscure its cruelty.

The smiling ones are dead inside. Alas! They always smile because they responded to hypocrisy with honesty, knowing that it was the right course of action despite the losses they incurred in the form of social marginalisation. While noble in their disposition, the smiling ones are beguiled in thinking that one’s martyrdom can suffice. It might give the impetus for thoroughgoing reform, though concerted and sustained action is required; action which rests on the conservation of all available forces, as no-one is expendable.

It is fine to be a dreamer and to die alone in the middle of nowhere. Know, though, that more will find the same gruesome fate unless someone sets a new paradigm by no longer being the smiling one. It is about channelling one’s vitality towards the kind of cause that ensures we live freely amid the superstructures that environ and condition our collective experience. This requires responsibility and a sober mind instead of a daredevil’s reckless appeals to Death.