The Hidden Treasure:
|By Souzana Raphael
Although it is true that long before
Christianity ancient Greeks painted people dancing in a circle or line on vases
and playing instruments that were forbears of some of those still played today,
the Greek Orthodox Church has been a continuous and powerful presence in Greek
culture since Byzantine times (almost two millenia). Not only does one see
churches and chapels wherever one looks, but there are deep connections between
the Byzantine liturgical music and dhimotika/paradhosiaka (Greek folk
Despite his words though, there have been numerous evenings every summer since then when the crowds from Athens come (one large crowd for a wedding or many separate groups for whatever occasion) and the sound speakers from this same taverna blast commercial nisiotika (island music), complete with drum set and electric bass, (elements foreign to the island tradition) into the night air for all the village to hear late into the night. One night I heard such music followed by rock 'n roll, the volume turned up so loud that I could hear it a half mile away up on the road. Now and then a cultural organization funds an island band who play (live) and the owner makes a lot of money on the meals included in the entrance fee. The band is of the type mentioned above--plugged in and highly amplifed, and including bouzouki (along with violin, laouto, and voice), which plays melody with the violin.
Enough about the destruction of 'tradition'. I use quotations
around the word 'tradition' because 'traditions' are not frozen, set-in-stone
entities. Though in some cases alterations to a 'tradition' amounts to what I
and some others think of as 'bastardization', there are some changes that can
keep the integrity of the prior entity (or in some cases create a new entity
springing from the older one).
The lyra played in Crete now is an alteration of the earlier
Dodecanesian lyra played there up till the 1930s. Examples
of the stages it passed through can be seen at the Plaka museum, as well as all
the types of lyras played by Greeks. Violin is also played in Crete. There is an
extremely resonant lyra called 'Politiki' lyra, which is named for the
'Poli' (city) which Greeks still call 'Konstantinoupoli'
(Constantinople), most of them refusing to use its modern Turkish name
(Istanbul). This very difficult lyra is played in Turkish
classical ensembles but was previously a folk instrument played in some of
the very extradordinary music of Asia Minor Greeks in the 'Poli' and in Smyrni
(now Izmir). It is enjoying a revival now in recordings of Greek music from Asia
The various tsambounas (and related flutes and pipes) have
been played on the islands of Greece for at least a millenium, some of them in
what is now Turkey. There is purely instrumental music for this bagpipe, though
it is also played in accompaniment to songs. On many islands a smallish
two-headed drum held with a strap around one shoulder and struck with straight
sticks (toumbaki) is played with the tsambouna. I have seen such sticks
made of ram's horn and ornately carved by the owner. The skins used for the bags
of these pipes and for the drum heads are usually from the torsos of goats, and
the pipe reeds are made of a kind of cane. These are shepherds'
instruments which were banned by the dictator Metaxas in l936 as being
'backward' as well as by the 'junta' (a military dictatorship backed by the
CIA from 1967-1974). When presenting a concert of holiday music from all over
Greece with musicians a few years ago, my partner and I were told that though
the pipes could be played for pupils in the schools where we also gave musical
presentations, they could not be played in the large Orthodox church where the
concert was to be held. 'Why not?' we asked, and were told that the
tsambouna was considered a 'street instrument'. One can only wonder at the
deeper reason, perhaps having more to do with the pagan
times that preceded Christianity. Instruments so obviously made from animal
skins suggest a connection with the earthly realm as no others do. The tsambouna
(and, in some islands, tsambouna and toumbaki), though still played, are heard
less often in recent times than the violin and laouto on most Greek islands.
They are played especially at Apokries (the Greek version of carnival),
where pre-Christian forms of revelry are still observed, including the wearing
of animal skins and large belts of heavy goat-bells.
On the islands (except for Crete with its larger, deeper-pitched laouto) the laouto is used mainly as a chordal instrument played with the violin. It is played with a long, narrow pick, traditionally made from the carved feather of large birds like vultures, but now most often made of plastic. The older style of playing (still practiced on islands such as Kythnos but which has died out in Naxos) was/is very percussive, very punchy. On most islands very few chords were/are played--the emphasis being on rhythm. This percussive use of a stringed instrument is something that I, as a violinist, have found most wonderful to play with because intense rhythm is combined with the fullness of chordal sound.
An older recently -deceased island player combined the percussive chordal sound with frequent melody notes, though most players now have gone in the direction of clipped, staccato chords (and incessant chord changes) as well as electronic distortion of their instruments' basic sound as described above. The player whom I mention here was an anomaly both in his use of melody notes as well as in his playing of improvised solos known as taximia--more common to the music of mainland Greece, Crete, and Asia Minor.
The laouto is played in larger ensembles in northern Greece
(mostly as a chordal instrument, though taximia (unmetered solos)
are played on it as well) with such instruments as violin, clarinet,
sometimes santouri (an instrument that resembles the hammer dulcimer
and is played with cotton-tipped sticks) and either defi (tambourine)
or the lap-drum known in Greece as toumbeleki
(known also as dumbek or tarambouka). There is a laouto
CD on the Greek Folk Instruments series and several CDs with Christos Zotos
(who comes from Epiros) and who teaches in Athens. His style and repertoire are
mostly from Epiros in northwest mainland Greece, though he is knowledgeable
about all styles in Greece. He has his own method for moving around easily on
the instrument and is a true virtuoso. ).
For more information on Greek music and instrumental styles, see my articles on music in the 2002 editions of the Rough Guide to the Greek Islands and The Rough Guide to the Dodecanese & East Aegean Islands. To read about the incredible and varied dance tradition in Greece, read Yvonne Hunt's Traditonal Dance in Greek Culture. She can be contacted at the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org .
To hear older-style Greek music live while travelling
depends on being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to look
for. Check this website (the one that this article is on) for Festivals. If you already have a planned
destination in Greece, ask around when you get there if there is any
paradhosiakee mousikee (accented
syllables in dark print) or traditional music. This might or
might not get you to the real thing (as many modern ensembles call themselves
traditional, even if they include bouzouki!) The best thing if you are really
interested in finding older style music is to read up on it a little, listen to
some recordings and find your own way. Learning some Greek also helps a lot.
I first heard and danced to Greek music at the week-long Balkan Music and Dance Workshops (held annually for almost three decades in the redwood forest of northern California and for almost as long on the U.S. East Coast as well). At these week-long workshops (commonly known as 'Balkan Camp') there are daily classes where the songs, dances and instruments of all the Balkan countries are taught by a staff that includes both Americans and musicians from those countries. The staff plays for long dance parties every evening. I attended this camp first in 1982 where I first began learning to play a Bulgarian folk instrument known as gudulka (a northern Balkan lyra-type instrument with sympathetic strings).
I had played the violin for years (Baroque music, Irish fiddle music) and in 1985 travelled to Bulgaria where I studied for two months with a member of the Bulgarian State Ensemble. Later, I taught at the same camps and played with a band in the San Francisco Bay Area (with all Bulgarian folk instruments). We played for several years at the camp and at various folk dance events in northern California. I arranged events as well in my local area for folk-dancers, for which I and my partner played music. He played the Bulgarian folk instrument known as tambura).
In 1990, two musicians from Boston
came to teach at the camp and changed our lives-- a woman (American) who
taught Greek music on violin, and the man a superb Greek
singer-instrumentalist. I took the violin classes at the camp every
summer, and worked all year on what I had learned, having no other available
teacher. I also copied much music onto cassette from collections of those
who played and taught Greek music at the Camp. My partner bought a
bouzouki and tuned it like a laouto so that he could play chordal accompaniment
to my violin (it not being so easy to find a laouto at the time).
I did not find the teacher I was looking for at this time, though I did record two fine older players--from Lesvos (Mytilini) and from Sifnos. My partner and I travelled together to Greece in '98 and stayed for six months--on the islands of Sifnos, Kythnos, and Naxos. We studied with fine players on the latter two islands and he found first a cheap laouto, and later a much better one. We returned to California for a year and then came back to Naxos where we rented a village house and performed at various events on the island: name-day parties, paneyiria (saints-day celebrations), baptisms, a village celebration for Apokries, presentations sponsored by Greek cultural organizations, at public schools, tavernas, and at a church concert (as mentioned above).
Since November of 2002, I have continued my life and study of Greek music alone in Greece, performing with Greek musicians for many events, including concerts, weddings, baptisms, saints'day celebrations, name-day celebrations, parties, festivals and tavernas on Naxos and Aegina islands and in Athens.
For those visiting or residing in Greece, I offer the following musical services:
Music for Events
Concerts, presentations, weddings, baptisms, festivals, name-days, openings, parties or any event where traditional Greek music is desired.
Repertoire is from the Aegean islands, Asia Minor, Thrace and the Peloponnese, with violin and other instruments such as laouto, oud, santouri, kanonaki, clarinet, percussion, voice. It is possible to put on a music event with just two instruments, with one of the players also a singer. This is, in fact the tradition in Greek island music, with laouto and violin the “ziyia” or “pair”, though sometimes santouri has been a third instrument. Music from Asia Minor can also be performed with just an oud and violin, or with other pairs of instruments. Larger bands can, however, also be arranged.
The house party is a fine and affordable option, with food and drink provided by hosts and guest donations. Such parties need at least 15 guests to cover costs.
Arranging of lessons with Greek teachers
I can set up lessons with Greek
musicians, and translate from Greek to English during those lessons.
Music talks in the schools, for
tourist groups, cultural organizations
Note on translation:
I am also available for translation of material written in Greek into English. Interested parties should look at my translation of the website of one of Greece’s finest traditional musicians, violinist Nikos Oikonomidis: oikonomidis.gr.
Please contact me at: email@example.com