Saturday, 7 June 2014

Roots and Culture

I'm a big Bouzouki fan. It never ceases to amaze me how much variety of music and sound can come out of this instrument. OK, so it's not quite the six-stringed orchestra that is the guitar, but it's a pretty close second. Many years ago I went to the Music Live exhibition in the NEC, Birmingham (UK) with a close friend of mine from South Wales and we were privileged to watch the guitarist Doyle Dykes playing close up. He blew the audience away with a rendering of a U2 song from the Joshua tree; can't rightly remember now, but I think it was "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For". Whatever, with just six strings he produced the entire song with all its parts, vocal, overdubbed guitars, drums and bass and it all came from that one guitar.

Photo courtesy of

Well, the Bouzouki isn't quite so versatile, yet it is capable of wringing an incredible amount of emotion out of the listener. One of Greece's greatest exponents of this instrument was the late and much revered George Zambetas (another link about him here too). Many of the songs and instrumentals that he wrote have become Bouzouki "standards" and often crop up on those Greek music CD's you buy in tourist shops, the ones that attempt to give the listener a true taste of Greece.

When we were in Naxos back in April, wandering around the old citadel above the Old Town Market area we passed a building that houses a very intimate venue for live performances. It's a very old building and one enters the performance area from the rear and above to see rough stone walls and an arena that probably doesn't even seat an audience of 100. It's a very interesting building and also serves as a museum, which has a website, here. The banner photo collage at the top of that page gives you an idea of the performance area.

The museum's curator was at the door and offered to show us around, ostensibly to get us to come to a musical event that was scheduled for the following evening. Had we not been seasoned Greek music-o-philes, we'd probably have gone, but the recital in question was very much for the kind of tourist who doesn't already know the dances and history of the Greek Rembetiko movement, which revolves around the Bouzouki as an instrument, plus they wanted 20 Euros a head. Now I'm not saying that it wouldn't be worth it for someone wishing to learn about this stuff, but all we needed was a knees-up. We found something along those lines at the Maro taverna a few nights later...

What we were on the hunt for was a bit of real "action", so to speak, but I was nevertheless pleased to pick up a piece of paper whilst looking around the place that explained very concisely the history of Bouzouki music in Greece. At the risk of boring you (but I'm kind of thinking that you're reading this because you love all things Greeks, yeh?) I'll reproduce part of the text of that leaflet here (the italic bits), augmented with some of my own research too...

"The roots of Greek music lie in the Ancient Greek and Byzantine periods. During this time a very complex system of scales and rhythmic structures was developed, which still form the basis of traditional Greek music today." Much of the music known as 'Rembetiko' is heavily infused with influences from Asia Minor, since many Greeks lived there until the great Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923. During this fraught time, many ex-pat Greeks came back to the country of their origin, often forcibly and with only the clothes they stood up in, yet they brought with them many musical ideas steeped in Asian rhythms and scales.

Despite the origins of the term "Rembetiko", it's nowadays generally understood to apply to the Bouzouki culture of Athens and - even more so - Thessalonika, the region where most of the Greeks from Asia Minor resettled. 

"Concerning the Bouzouki as an instrument, it can be said that in its present shape it's a relatively new instrument. It was developed in the 1920's using the traditional shape of much older string instruments such as the Tamburaz (which strongly resembles an Indian Sitar) or Saz, but with changes to the tuning. Instead of using the oriental system of fine tuning, that includes microtones, it uses the Western system, which cuts the octave at even intervals. This is what the name refers to. "Bouzouk" means "broken" or "gone bad" in Arabic.

The Bouzouki, with its full, clear sound, offers to a good musician  the possibility to express himself freely through a wide range of rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements."

Bet you'd been wondering for ages about all that stuff, eh? All those nights you've lost sleep wondering where the Bouzouki came from, yea? 

See, never let it be said that I don't make the occasional effort to raise the tone a little (there's even a pun in there. Sometimes I just can't help myself) ...

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