The arc of southern islands compromising Crete, Kássos, Khálki and Kárpathos abounds with folk music. The dominant instrument on these islands is the lýra, a three-stringed fiddle, directly related to the Turkish kemençe. The centre string is a drone and the player improvises on the outer two. Cretes undisputed lýra master was the late Kostas Moundakis. One of the finest living lýra players is Andonis Xylouris, who performs under the name Psarandonis. You can see a video of Psarandonis below performing a song called, ‘O Dias’. Another traditional Greek instrument visible in the video is the lauto, a lute which is similar to the Turkish/Arab oud.
The folk songs of mainland Greece are known as dhimotiká tragoudhia. Their typical instrumentation consists of the klaríno (clarinet) accompanied by kithára (guitar), lauto, lautokithára (hybrid lute and guitar), violí (violin), toumberléki (lap drum) and perhaps a défi (tambourine) as well.
Many mainland tunes are dances and are divided into categories by their rhythms. One such dance is the syrtó, the quintessential circle dance of Greece. Here is a clip of various traditional Greek dances performed by the famous folkloric group, the Dora Stratou Dance Group in Athens.
Stalwart vocalists to look for on old recordings include Yiorgos Papasidheris and Yiorgia Mitaki. Clarinettists Vassilis Saleas, Yiannis Vassilopoulos, and Yiorgos Yevyelis are remarkable. Here is an audio clip from 1948 of the great Yiorgos Papasidheris accompanied by a clarinet and violin.
Presently Greece is undergoing turbulent economic times and a new generation of artists are striving to represent urban life via their music. For many of them traditionally played folk music no longer fully represents their experiences, and they are finding new and innovative ways to express themselves by reinventing the old music.
Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis’s 2012 album, Greekadelia draws inspiration from demotikasongs of old, mixed with a psychedelic flavour – their music shape-shifts, twisting and turning their listeners’ expectations, and plunging them deep into a new world of expression. Their head-turning approach of playing old demotika songs, mixed with quirky samples, Kristi’s vocals, a traditional Greek lauto, an Indian harmonium and various frame drums, all underpinned by live looping, is sacrilege to some conservatives on the folk scene. Undeterred, Kristi and Stathis are keen to break awa from the preservationists and explore something fresh and, importantly, resolutely Greek.
Rembétika began as the music of the Greek urban dispossessed. It has existed in some form since the beginning of the twentieth century, but it is difficult to define or get to the origins of as jazz or blues.
Rembétika songs tell of illicit or frustrated love, drug addiction, police oppression, death – and their delivery tends to be resignation to the singer’s lot, coupled with defiance of authority. Musicallyrembétika is bound in with the bouzouki – a long-necked, fretted lute.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, in the Asia Minor cities of Smyrna and Istanbul, music-cafés became popular. Many of the cafés were owned and staffed by Greeks, Jews, Armenians and even a few Gypsies. The cafés usually featured groups consisting of a violinist, a sandouri player, and a vocalist. The songs were improvised and became known as café-aman.
In the tekdhes of Athens and its port, rembétika developed rapidly. By the early 1930s, several key musicians had emerged Foremost among them was a Piraeus-based quartet compromising Markos Vamvakaris, Artemis, Stratos Payiomtzis and Batis. They were a remarkable group and Vamvakaris is often described as the ‘grandfather of rembétika’. Here is a great, though grainy, vintage clip taken from a German documentary of Vamvakaris singing with his son and band in a tavern during the 1960s.
The golden age of rembétika was short-lived. The association of the music with a drug-laced underworld would prove its undoing. After the imposition of the puritanical Metaxas dictatorship in 1936, songs with uncompromising lyrics were censored, anti-hashish laws were enforced and police harassment stepped up. In Athens, even possession of a bouzouki or baglamás became an offence. Soon World War II with its harsh Axis occupation of Greece, and the subsequent 1946 – 1949 civil war, put everyone’s careers on hold. When Greece emerged in the 1950s, its public were eager to adopt a softer music and new heroes.
The major figure of post-war rémbetika was Vassilis Tsitanis. He obliged the traumatised public with love songs and Neapolitan melodies. Here is a great clip of Tsitanis performing live in the 1970s. He begins to sing at around 1.00 m/s in to the clip.
Alongside folk and rembétika, post-war Greece developed its own forms of art and pop music, and since the late 1970s the scene has broadened to include roots-minded rock and fusion experiments, and even new explorations of Byzantine forms.
Étekhno music of the late 1950s encompassed an orchestral genre where folk instruments, rhythms and melodies would be interwoven into a symphonic fabric. Its first, and most famous practictioners were Manos Hatzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis. Their music combined rembetic and Byzantine influences with Western ones, but – more memorably – fused Greek music with the country’s rich poetic tradition.
Nikos Xylouris was a Cretan singer who lent his golden voice to étekhno endeavours and accompanied himself on the lyra. This rare clip sees a young Xylouris playing and dancing in a Greek taverna circa 1960.
Diametrically opposed to étekhno was the authentic laïko, or popular music of the 1950s and 1960s. It was gritty tough style was a direct heir to rembétika.
The most infleuential laïko performer in the 1960s was Stelios Kazantzidhis, whose volcanic, mournful style was often imitated but never matched. A trio of other rising stars in this period were Yiorgos (George) Dalaras, Tiannis Parios and Haris Alexiou. Here is a video of Stelios Kazantzishis performing, ‘Tis Gerakinas Gios’.
Today, many artists still perform the rembétikarepertoire and put their own spin on the historical tradition. Dimitris Mistakidis can be heard on Introducing Dimitris Mistakidis intoning his own brand of the gritty subculture song. Most of the songs on the album date from the 1930s, the creative zenith of rembétika.He is originally from Thessaloniki and sings with a rough and gravelly vocal tone that sounds older than his years. The album highlights his masterful guitar technique and is an important reminder that guitar, and not just bouzouki and baglamás were always part of the tradition.
Here is a video of Mistakidis performing ‘To Pedi Tou Dromou’ on Greek television.