On Sept. 20, 1926, the Greek violinist Alexis Zoumbas recorded one of the most devastating bits of music I’ve ever encountered. The song, “Epirotiko Mirologi,” is a pentatonic lament — mirologi — that, for millenniums, has been sung beside fresh graves in Epirus, a historically contentious chunk of land on the Greek-Albanian border. The performance is a little over four minutes long, instrumental and largely improvised against the low anchoring drone of some unnamed accompanist dragging a bow across a double bass. Zoumbas was a technically proficient musician, even virtuosic, but his real gift was in effectively articulating disintegration. There is a palpable hysteria to his playing; each note trembles, as if he has recently suffered an emotional collapse of unknowable magnitude.
Who or what knocked him so askew? In 1941, his wife, at least one of his daughters and two of his grandchildren would be killed in Axis air raids, but that was still 15 years off. At the time he recorded “Epirotiko Mirologi,” he had been a naturalized citizen of the United States for 16 years. He enjoyed moderate success as a professional musician, recording several dozen 78 r.p.m. records (either as a solo performer or as an instrumentalist for a few popular Greek singers), enough that he was able to return to Epirus in 1928, for a daughter’s wedding. The narrative of the song is clear — loss — but all the details are missing.