If the walls of historic venue Cavo Paradiso on the Mediterranean island of Mykonos could talk, what would they say? "That they've seen a lot of blood, sweat, and tears—of joy and of sadness," remarks longtime resident DJ Stathis Lazarides as he drives through the sand across a narrow, unlit road from the Myconian Avaton in Elia Beach to the fabled nightclub.
Just off the coast of the Greek mainland, Mykonos has had a reputation as a party destination for decades. That standing was helped as early as the 60s when celebrities like Jackie Onassis and Grace Kelly made it famous. Cavo Paradiso had its start in 1993 as a scenic restaurant on the ocean, but has since become the site of some of the best summer booking on the planet. As one of Greece's few remaining mega-clubs, following the country's slow economic collapse throughout the 2000s, it holds a special place in the Greek electronic music scene.
Forging a connection between atmosphere and landscape, the club is made of the same rock it's built upon. Situated by the edge of a 45-metre cliff, it overlooks the Aegean Sea with breathtaking views. Arriving there a couple hours before showtime, Lazarides prepares to warm-up for minimal techno veteran Ricardo Villalobos. He heads backstage to Cavo's mission control—a quiet room populated with little more than video monitors, and owner Nikos Daktylides directing traffic over a headset. Lazarides shows off some vintage photos, back before the club had C02 cannons and a VIP area. "Cavo used to be an after-party venue," he says. "People would go to Mykonos Town, have their fun, and then at three or four in the morning, they'd come up to Cavo and dance until mid-day."
The place has grown significantly since then, with more than its share of memorable nights. Lazarides recalls a pivotal 12-hour set in 2001 by John Digweed, as one such moment. "He broke all records of set time and attendance at the club. It sent shockwaves through the developing Greek electronica scene." Now, as he points to Cavo's recent lineup, it's easy to see how much things have changed: musical polar opposites Joseph Capriati and Benny Benassi played a night apart, and the likes of Bob Sinclair, Steve Aoki, Paul Ritch, and Louie Vega are scheduled for the week ahead. "We're not like a small basement in London where you can experiment and forge new artists," Lazarides says.
Greece's musical tradition is as much a part of its identity as the thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas that carve out its place on the map. The country's predilection for parties and pleasure is well-known from its mythical past—Dionysian orgies of wine-drinking and revelry lasting for days on end. Hell, the word "ecstasy" comes directly from Greek. So it should come as no surprise that there has also been a steadily growing electronic music community.
However, according to Lazarides, Cavo Paradiso now counts the overwhelming majority of their attendance from foreign tourists. And while they're thrilled to attract so many different people from around the world, at least one Cavo employee admits they wish the club had a branch in Athens, so that they could do a really cheap ticket just for Greeks.
Therein lies part of the complexity of Greece's electronic scene—despite destinations spots like Mykonos continue to thrive on foreign dollars, average citizens don't necessarily share that luxury. Particularly in the city centre of Athens, the country has seen the rise and fall of numerous large-scale clubs since the early 2000s, including Alsos, Battery, and U-Matic.
The failing of Greece's clubs overlaps notably with the country's well-publicized debt crisis beginning in 2009. However, tourism remains a relatively robust industry, and because of the country's delicate financial situation, the success of businesses like Cavo is essential—though this comes at a cost. Before the monetary union with Europe, Lazarides estimates that 80 per cent of the people who came to party were Greek. He recalls passenger boats arriving from Thessaloniki (a Greek port city on the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea) which had been traveling for 12 hours. "It was like the disco boat. There were 700 real music lovers, mostly from Athens. But because things changed with the euro, Greeks basically became poorer, and they can't afford to visit anymore."
It's strange to say, but in the heartland of democracy, clubbing may be anything but democratic. As the nation continues to face economic turmoil and austerity measures, there's perhaps nobody suffering as badly as the country's youth, though electronic music has provided them some kind of escape.
"I don't think it's a coincidence that through the years of economic uncertainty, the Greek underground audience has increased tremendously. The events are growing steadily despite the obstacles," says Lorenzo Papachrisanthou, one of Greece's leading techno promoters and founder of events company Blend Athens. "People feel the need to come and have fun. To get rid of all the bad thoughts."
Papachrisanthou has spent the last ten years introducing audiences to international superstars, as well as tending to legions of native talent. Costas Budolas, a principal member of the Default collective—a network of Greek artists, architects, designers, and musicians—who also runs acclaimed Greek record imprint Bliq with his partner Manos Mara, adds: "We are talking about a little country with a big quantity of artists."
Those artists include Mikee, who Papachrisanthou says is "the strongest representative of techno and tech house in Greece"; Dino MFU, an important figure in house; and CJ Jeff, who held an 11-year residency at Cavo Paradiso.
Despite the proliferation of its artists, Greece's worldwide footprint in electronic music has been comparatively minor. While fellow European countries like Italy, France, Spain, Germany, and Romania are all famed for their distinct contributions to global dance music, Greece hasn't fared as well.
"Probably the issue about the identity of the Greek electronica scene is that, for a long time, artists used to work on their own," explains George Peristeris, another Default member. "So there was a kind of isolation, since there wasn't a strong community for support and feedback." Also, according to Papachrisanthou, there was never a reputable booking agency or management company to represent Greek artists.
He blames the lack of global exposure on the pop and folk music industry, which hasn't left much space for the electronic scene to grow. "All mainstream media in Greece used to mainly support the typical Greek music," he claims. "People were not sufficiently informed about the more alternative and underground genres of dance." He says the majority of club owners were not willing to stage electronic events in the past, and for many years, the police prohibited the operation of clubs in Athens. "That really affected the evolution of the music."
In Greece, there is the mentality that when you have a business, you consider it a part of you—at least that's what Lazarides believes: "The club is an idea. It can't be disposable." For the team behind Cavo Paradiso, the venue represents an intersection between musical and economic philosophy. "Greeks don't see capitalism the same way everybody else sees it," Lazarides explains. "Maximizing profit by cutting corners simply because you can...Walk around the club, do you see any sponsor names?"
As in North America and elsewhere across the globe, electronic music manifests in starkly different forms. But this is particularly clear in Greece, where the big name/big money events bringing in sorely needed foreign dollars are indicative of a schism with the country's underground culture. "Electronica was always there and now it's time to put more focus on it because people need it more than ever. Our economic crisis is a big issue," says George Peristeris. "We all need to stay united to give the audience quality and to express ourselves by promoting what we feel about music and arts. It is definitely a relief. Greeks need to go out and listen to good music that will not make them think about anything."
Treading the line between industry and sub-culture, electronic music in Greece occupies a complicated, but vigorous position. As for Cavo Paradiso's continued success, Lazarides maintains that the club will always be striving for an experiential greatness, despite any economic roadblocks. What about "the memories of the people who came and fell in love on the dancefloor?" he asks. "You can't put a dollar amount on that. Not everything has a price tag."
Christopher Metler is on Twitter.