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Traditional Culture: Music and Dance

Music Banner: Nikitas Tsimouris
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Music

Greece has produced a rich variety of traditional, popular, and art music. Traditional music reveals historical influences from Byzantium, Turkey, and the Balkans.  Two streams of traditional music share many influences and elements: classical (Byzantine chanting) and folk, which includes both rural and urban traditions (such as rebetika and Athenian kantades or serenades). Some folk songs have roots in the akritiká songs celebrating the valor of Byzantine border guards from the 9th to 11th centuries or from paraloges, ballads from eastern Asia Minor.  Folk songs may concern daily life, the life cycle (lullabies, love, marriage, emigration, laments), or the annual cycle.  Due to history and geography, many tell of the dangers of the sea or long separations due to travel to foreign lands.  

Folk music varies regionally in style, rhythm, and instrumentation. Many areas of Greece feature large repertoires of non-metrical instrumental and vocal compositions without a regular beat, as well as vocal genres, like the amanes, miroloi, and rizitiko traditions, that use the natural textual rhythm to create a free-flowing rhythmic structure.  Mainland folk music often features unrhymed verses, musical scales utilizing microtonal intervals (smaller than a Western sharp or flat), and the 2/4 or 4/4 meters of the syrtos and 7/8 meter of the kalamatianos.  The standard kompania ensemble typically included clarinet, violin, laouto, santouri, and defi.  The islands and coastal areas favor musical scales with microtonal intervals, rhymed verses, and two-beat dance rhythms, as well as the nine-beat zembekiko and karsilama originally from Asia Minor.  Island ensembles (ziyia) often feature violin, laouto, and santouri, with lyra and tsabouna on some islands.  The bouzouki and related tambouras were widespread throughout Greece, though particularly prominent in the Peloponnese and eastern Aegean islands.

Westernized song and music arose after independence.  The popular music of the mid-20th century included laiko, or mainstream soft popular music, and trios similar to those of Spain.  Entechno (art song)—orchestral music based on folk melodies and rhythms, was produced by such composers as Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis.  Popular, art, and contemporary music are similar throughout the country, often combining traditional Greek musical elements with western forms and instrumentation. For instance, Greek MTV features singers and musicians performing a fascinating synthesis of western rock with Greek or Middle Eastern scales, rhythms, and dance. 

The Greek community has always maintained regional, religious, and popular musical traditions performed by individuals and groups in homes, church, and social organizations.  In 1939 and 1940, scholars from the Works Progress Administration’s Joint Committee on Folk Arts made 60 sound recordings in Tarpon Springs that preserved the musicians and music of that era.  Today, music and dance are still embedded in a wide range of community events.  Musicians perform popular and rural, old and new music.  Nisiotika, the lively music of the Aegean islands, remains popular. While many islands share the same tunes, they are often played so differently as to be almost unrecognizable.  It is common to put different lyrics to the same tunes.  

From 1946 through 1954, Grecophon Record Company, founded by Skevos Zembillas, issued rarely recorded Greek island music, or nisiotika. In 1946, Zembillas’ love for Greek music led him to purchase a Wilcox-Gay portable phonograph.  He recorded local musicians at his studio in a gift and record shop owned by his father on Athens Street.  Producing the records one at a time, Zembillas sold them for three dollars each. These recordings served as the catalyst for the formal establishment of Grecophon Records in 1947, when Zembillas moved to Chicago.

Instruments 

Greece is a meeting place of instruments from both western and Middle Eastern traditions.  Beginning in the 17th century, western instruments such as the violin, clarinet, and accordion appeared in Greece, where they were adapted for performance with earlier ones such as the tambouras, laouto, lyra, kanonaki, zournas, daouli, bagpipes, and flutes.  

In the Tarpon Springs area, musicians representing the traditions of the Greek islands play the violin, laouto (lute), and tsabouna (bagpipe).  Others play in popular ensembles with bouzouki, keyboard, guitar, clarinet, and/or drum sets.  Traditional instruments are becoming increasingly rare, and as in Greece the bouzouki has become the most common lead instrument.  Live music has been strongly impacted by contemporary technology: electric amplification is almost inescapable in the U.S. and Greece, and musicians frequently use the keyboard to create percussive backup or to mimic the sounds of other instruments.  

The bouzouki and baglamas—the chief instruments of the rebetika urban musical tradition that developed in Aegean seaports from the end of the 19th century to the 1950s, belong to a subset of the lute family.  The contemporary bouzouki has four double strings and may be accompanied by the baglamas, a smaller 3-stringed version of the bouzouki played an octave higher.  

In traditional mainland dance bands, the klarino (Greek clarinet) often leads.  After Turkish gypsies introduced it into Greece in the mid-19th century, much of the fingering and sounds of earlier wind instruments were transferred to produce traditional Greek scales.  

The tsabouna is played in the Greek islands.  It consists of a goatskin bag turned inside out, blowpipe, and two parallel chanters, each with five finger holes, fixed in a single tube with wax. The tube is often olive wood, the chanters and reeds are rush or cane. The musician blows air into the bag through the mouthpiece and squeezes the bag to generate sound, playing melody on one chanter and using the other as a drone.  

Dance

Greek Tarponites participate in social dancing at community events and demonstrate regional dances at festivals or competitions.  Many enjoy the regional dances of the Dodecanese islands, such as the issos, sousta, ballos, or syrtos.  Since the music of the islands tends to be faster than other regions, the dances usually consist of quick, light steps. 

There are myriad variations on basic Greek dances, but they often follow a similar structure.  Musicians follow the lead dancer so that their playing accents the movements.  In curved line dances, the lead dancer improvises on the basic steps with flips, whirls, and slaps to the shoe.  Ideally, the dancer becomes so absorbed in the music that he/she is inspired by kefi, a state of high emotion.  The second dancer assists the leader in improvisations, while the third dancer performs the regular steps and provides a model for the line.  Finally, the last dancer places the left hand in the small of the back and maintains the curve by continually moving slightly backwards.