Greek Traditional Music

Greek Traditional Music ENGLISH CONTENT

When we use the terms “Greek traditional”, “Greek folk” or “Greek demotic” music today, we mean songs and tunes coming from the past, from areas that were home to Christian farmers, shepherds and sailors during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods. Mostly – though not exclusively – Greek-speaking, these populations lived, as was normal then, in close proximity with other ethnic, linguistic or religious groups. In these areas, some of which now form modern-day Greece, the oral tradition of folk song and ecclesiastical music were the only available forms of musical expression. Throughout the Balkans, though above all in Greece, which was alone in not experiencing a communist regime, “traditional” – meaning orally transmitted, pre-modern, pre-national, pre-Christian – conceptions and practices of self-organization and religiosity, coexisting alongside modernizing conditions, retained their vigour until recently. One could say they live on to this day on several psycho-social levels, and not purely as nostalgia. The same is true of their associated musical forms, which have been continually renewed through ongoing interactions. 

Folk music was never played to be listened to by an audience, in the contemporary sense. It always served and accompanied social events or manual work: enacting magical acts of worship, bidding farewell to those who have died, celebrating the initiatory rite of marriage, raising and socializing children, coordinating and accompanying tasks, strengthening communal cohesion through ritual dances, passing on social conventions and unwritten rules of conduct to the members of the community, preserving historical memory as conceived by the group. No distinction was made between performers and listeners: everyone would sing, everyone would dance, everyone would listen, everyone would judge, everyone would remember. Most songs were local, composed to be sung a cappella or accompanied by a simple handmade instrument (lyre, flute, bagpipe), and spoke of specific people and events which would have been recognizable to their original audience but grew increasingly indecipherable as the songs moved further away in time and space from the context that gave rise to them. Still, this did not prevent some of them from becoming popular throughout the Greek world.

In the vast majority of cases, folk songs were created by anonymous musicians. The words and the tune were passed on orally: each new performance was a recreation of elements which gradually solidified as variations, tried out by multiple singers over time, were rejected or immortalized. The songs moved from place to place with itinerant musicians and craftsmen, with mariners and brides, and in each new area, they adapted to their new natural and social environment as well as the local musical idioms, which often closely resembled those of neighbouring populations. This is why we find the same songs sung with melodies and rhythms, in different linguistic idioms, even with different references in their lyrics, in geographically distant locations. We could say that the vast range of local variations evident in Greek traditional music as it has reached us today is inversely proportional to the relatively limited area in which it is encountered – at least now. It was the awakening of national consciousness in the 19th century – an awakening that was particularly intense in smaller nations, like the newly-formed Greece – that stimulated both interests in folk music and the first research conducted into it. The “nationality” of music had not been an issue prior to the emergence of the philhellene movement and the establishment of the Greek state, when an attempt was made to connect the folk culture – and, by extension, the modern Greek nation – with the civilization of Ancient Greece and thus to establish racial continuity between Greeks ancient and modern. As such, this was both a response to then-contemporary theories presenting the Greeks that emerged out of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire as wholly Slavified and an attempt to mould a unitary national consciousness for the Greek people.

As was only natural, the ideological criteria adopted by these historians and folklorists influenced the way in which the songs were approached and collected. Songs sung in a language other than Greek, even those sung in the dialects of major population groups (Albanian, Slavic, Turkish) were excluded on principle and would never appear in subsequent anthologies of Greek folk songs. From the very beginning, therefore, the academic interest in folk songs of Balkan Greece, a poor but astoundingly fecund country in musical terms, would have a major impact on that same musical tradition, which remained very much alive. The almost exclusively philological and highly censorial approach to the Greek folk song, a complex cultural phenomenon, and a dynamic process of artistic expression and communication consigned it to virtual obscurity – and this is a country in which oral culture remained the very cornerstone of social reality. However, the most dramatic change in the history of folk song would be brought about by the phonograph and the record industry, which would record this musical tradition in exhaustive detail, first in Istanbul and Izmir in the early 20th century, then in the US in the 1920s and 1930s, and later on in Greece. These early recordings, and especially those made in the US, preserved established tunes and songs in performances featuring authentic singers and musicians – immigrant farmers in the main who had brought their musical experiences with them to America as these had come down to them through the rules of oral transmission. Nonetheless, the new technology still wrought enormous changes on the material, as lengthy songs traditionally sung a cappella had to be orchestrated and pared down for recording in order to fit onto the few minutes available on one side of a 78 rpm disc. The old saying “songs have no master” no longer held true; their legal owner from then on was the professional musician. The anonymous singer now had a name, links to commercial interests and royalties.

Moreover, the popularity of the gramophone, and later on the radio, would turn the bearers of the Greek musical tradition, no matter how far removed they were from the centres of power, into increasingly passive consumers of music, transforming the originality and creativity they originally brought to the folk tradition into imitation and repetition. And a little-known, badly misrepresented musical tradition, which had only survived down the centuries thanks to its instinct for daring renewal and improvisation, came to be weighed down by a millstone of staid conservatism which, while attractive to researchers and rulers, was repellent both to the new bourgeoisie, eager to put their rural past behind them and mainly to a literate, politicized and restless younger generation. In the years which coincided with the return to democracy in Greece after the junta, some academics and artists sought to change the way in which folk music was received and perceived and decouple it from the vapid picturesqueness it had come to signify following its misuse by the Colonels. Domna Samiou would prove to be the most effective and popular figure in this new wave. Domna was the first person to teach the difference between tradition as high art and tawdry folklore, and she was hugely influential, especially – as time would tell – among the young. Today, an ever-growing number of young artists who have studied folk music and been creatively inspired by it are proving that “tradition”, that much-abused concept, is anything but dead; rather, it remains a force that inspires and instructs the present. By rejecting the museum and its pseudo-reconstructions, by getting out there into schools and colleges, bars and music venues, Greek folk music has achieved again the position it deserves. And its subtle charm continues to win new converts, even among new and increasingly Western-oriented generations. 

Photo: Nikos Economopoulos

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