Thalassa ...and Musics of Greece

...and more details here, but the essence is "the Greek personification of the sea"

So that's our metaphor to guide these next few weeks

And today we'll begin in the Aegean:

Some stuff to work with:

Plato on Music (Plato was an old poop...) course of time, an unmusical license set in with the appearance of poets who were men of native genius, but ignorant of what is right and legitimate in the realm of the Muses. Possessed by a frantic and unhallowed lust for pleasure, they contaminated laments with hymns and paeans with dithyrambs, actually imitated the strains of the flute on the harp, and created a universal confusion of forms. Thus their folly led them unintentionally to slander their profession by the assumption that in music there is no such thing as a right and a wrong, the right standard of judgment being the pleasure given to the hearer, be he high or low. By compositions of such a kind and discourse to the same effect, they naturally inspired the multitude with contempt of musical law, and a conceit of their own competence as judges. Thus our once silent audiences have found a voice, in the persuasion that they understand what is good and bad in art; the old “sovereignty of the best” in that sphere has given way to an evil “sovereignty of the audience.” If the consequence had been even a democracy, no great harm would have been done, so long as the democracy was confined to art, and composed of free men. But, as things are with us, music has given occasion to a general conceit of universal knowledge and contempt for law, and liberty has followed in their train. Fear was cast out by confidence in supposed knowledge, and the loss of it gave birth to impudence. For to be unconcerned for the judgment of one’s betters in the assurance which comes of a reckless excess of liberty is nothing in the world but reprehensible impudence. (Laws 700)

The overseers must be watchful against its insensible corruption. They must throughout be watchful against innovations in music and gymnastics counter to the established order, and to the best of their power guard against them, fearing when anyone says that that song is most regarded among men “which hovers newest on the singer’s lips” [Odyssey i. 351], lest it be supposed that the poet means not new songs but a new way of song and is commending this. But we must not praise that sort of thing nor conceive it to be the poet’s meaning. For a change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes. For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions. (Republic 424)

The oldest notated music: Epitaph of Seikilos

(tombstone, 1st century AD, Asia Minor)
Musique de la Grèce Antique Harmonia Mundi HM1015 B:1

I am an image in stone
Seikilos put me here, where I am
forever, the symbol of eternal remembrance

As long as you live, shine
afflict yourself with nothing beyond measure
Your life is of brief duration;
time claims its tribute

Miralogia from Epirus

Greece in Music and Song Argo DA29 B:5

Where are you going, my silver one
Where are you going, my fresh sprig of basil
To lose your bloom?
You are not meant to descend into the black earth
You will repent my boy, a thousand times an hour
for the decision you made to die
There where you have gone
they call it the land of no return
Where two together do not sit
and three do not talk
and no marriages are made
and no festivities held
and there are no fields where you can play with your horse

("Three widows in black, crouching at dusk by kerosene lamplight, intoned this dirge in praise of a young man. Laments like this are heard only in Epirus, Mani, and parts of Crete. Village superstition decrees that if keening occurs and there is no death, ill-luck will befall the inhabitants. The recording was made secretly with the help of the mayor [who was not superstitious; on his advice we left the village immediately afterwards.]")

...and continuing with two Stories from the Epic of Greek Civilization: Megali Ithea/Idea and the Fall of Smyrna.

Megali Idea: "a vision of uniting all Greeks of the declining Ottoman Empire within the newly independent Greek State" ( after WW I...

Eleftherios Venizelos is the name to hang onto... and the curious might explore Steven W. Sowards' Greek nationalism, the "Megale Idea" and Venizelism to 1923 and

The Paradoxes of Nationalism: Modern Greek Historiography and The Burden of the Past (K. E. Fleming)

Modern Greece, the burden of the past and national consolidation
I woke up with this marble head in my hands;
it exhausts my elbows and I don’t know where to put it down.
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream
so our life became one and it will be very difficult
for it to disunite again.
George Seferis, “Mythistorima,” pt. 3.1
The poet, George Seferis (1900-1971), like many other modern Greek writers before and after him, was preoccupied with the idea--and burden--of the so-called ‘Hellenic Ideal’; that is, the belief that the modern Greeks are the direct successors to, and inheritors and guardians of, Greek classical tradition.2 The modern nation’s claim to be heir to the Athenian ancients posed vexing problems, which Seferis portrayed as akin to the weight of the disembodied head of a classical statue, the burden of which he found unbearable, but which he nevertheless could not let go. He wrote also of the insupportable heft of the dead past, a past which threatened to drag him down: “These stones sinking into time, how far will they drag me with them? . . . /I see the trees breathing the black serenity of the dead/and then the smiles, so static, of the statues.”3 Even at the moment of its birth--as the state, to use Seferis’ metaphor, “woke up”--Greece found itself already saturated with, even deadened by, the dream of the past and the weight of its own ancient history. Thus, the life of modern Greece is lived, particularly at the level of national discourse, as a palimpsest of imagined past and actual present, and it is, indeed, “very difficult” to untangle and “disunite” the one from the other.

The invocation of an ancient past--be it mythic or historical--in the discursive and political consolidation of modern nation-states is not, of course, unique to Greece. Israel has the Abrahamic covenant; Persian nationalists the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian past; Albanians the mythic tales of Scanderbeg. These are but a few examples among many. The case of Greece, however, is unique, both in the extent to which its own claims of national continuity with an ancient past are accepted by the rest of the world and in the degree to which the entirety of its modern history and culture have been suffused with the sense of the ongoing, living presence of the ancient past. Greece’s brief modern history has been shaped entirely by the socially-constructed belief that it enjoys an unbroken link with the classical past and its contemporary nationalist proponents understand Greece to be nothing less than the font of Western civilization as a whole. Arguably, it is Greece which, more than any other modern nation-state, is understood to be the resurrected form of an ancient polity, rather than a wholly new construct.

This notion is expressed in what, in Bakhtinian terms, would be called a ‘chronotope’4 --an intersection of spatial and chronological meaning. Ancient Greece, in modern Greek nationalist discourse, is both spatial and temporal; modern Greece is both a place on the map and a site on the timeline. That is to say, to speak of ‘Ancient Greece’ is not merely to speak of an historical moment--it is also a way, in the here and now, to discuss the modern state and, particularly, to present it as the unbroken successor to classical tradition. Greece, by definition, is always ‘ancient.’ The brochures of the Greek national tourist board, for instance, invite one not to visit so much a place, but a time: “Come visit an ancient world,” they trumpet, “Come back to the past.” “The past lives in Greece.” This mode of expression, of course, has generated much gain for Greece: the state likely would not have been founded without the assistance of European outsiders who bought into the Hellenic Ideal, the current tourism-based economy of the country depends upon it, and even the fact that Greece, an EU country, has never been urged to adopt the Latin alphabet of the other European nations is due, in part, to the Greek alphabet’s special status as the supposedly enshrining form of the Periklean past.5

The point for our exploration is that there had always (or anyhow long) been Greek (or anyhow Greek-speaking) peoples scattered along the coasts of Asia Minor... and in the interior as well. Other peoples have occupied the same territories and interacted with 'Greeks' and with Hellenic civilization(s) for many thousands of years. The Great Tragedy of the more-or-less Modern Era was the loss of what Greeks still think of as Poli, THE City, Constantinople... to the Turks in 1453. They want it back.
Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks'
(Ellen Bernfeld's version --original Words by Jimmy Kennedy and Music by Nat Simon)

There are many Greek songs about Poli, some explicitly about the loss, and others more metaphorical or just plain nostalgic. Here's one: When Angels Were Laying the Foundations (of Poli... a "table song" from Roumeli)

But the second story, of the loss of Smyrna, is more to the point for our musical explorations. The term "ethnic cleansing" had a certain late-20th century vogue in the former Yugoslavia, and in Rwanda... but it labels a recurrent horror repeated many times in history. The Armenian Genocide(s) is/are another famous and controversial example.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the period 1894-1923 saw the extermination or expulsion of most of Turkey's ancient Christian populations (Greeks and Armenians), and the emergence of the completely Muslim country of Turkey (with Kurdish Muslims as a persecuted minority).

During WWI, The Ottoman Empire was on the German (Central Powers) side, while Greece was on the Allied side. Smyrna was one of the few places to escape the 1915 Turkish genocide of the Armenians, and the city still retained its ancient cosmopolitan character at the end of WWI.

After being on the losing side in the war, the Ottoman Empire was vengefully occupied by the Allies. Greece occupied Smyrna and surrounds in May 1919, and began to expand their territory, immediately starting a new Greek-Turkish war.

Act of aggression this may have been, but, as is often the case in these situations, there was of course a large ethnic Greek population living in the area occupied - and it was these who suffered terribly when the Greek army was routed. The Greek army was defeated by Kemal Ataturk, Turkish nationalist leader and founder of modern Turkey, who captured the Greek hold-out Smyrna in Sept 1922. His troops slaughtered the Greek and Armenian population, and burnt the Greek and Armenian part of the city. The fall of Smyrna saw the ethnic cleansing of most of the ancient Greek population of Turkey (there was also a large ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Greek territory). The Turkish drive stopped at the sea (today, Greece controls as far as the islands just off Turkey's coast).

See a Greek version of the catastrophe, and some video clips and a photo archive. Something like 2 million refugees, Greek and Armenian, fled Smyrna and its hinterland, and from other Ottoman cities, including Constantinople/Istanbul. Fled to? Well, not many possibilities... but mostly to Athens and Thessalonika, the largest port cities. There was a less-documented flow of Muslim 'Turks' out of Greece as well. So an enormous refugee problem, since the Greek cities were essentially overwhelmed by the flood of people, most of whom had nothing... nothing but what was in their heads. And we're looking at the musical side of that...

Some good places to start our exploration:

Greek Music History has a rundown of various genres and regional traditions

Brief history of Rembetika, from The Roza Eskenazi Homepage

There's a genre or style often called Smyrnaïca, which can stand for the musics of Hellenic refugees. It's associated with venues called café amans, an array of 'Turkish' instruments, and with scales and modes that sound more 'Middle Eastern' than 'European'
saz, ney, aman, another aman ("Tell me, O Charon, [may you enjoy your black gloom!], Will my pain at last be cured in the netherworld?") , tsifteteli rhythm

...and this pair will give something of the difference in flavor between European and Anatolian Greek. The song praises a 'dark-eyed one', an eternal trope in Greek poetry: Melachrino (Ted Alevizos) and Melachrino (Smyrnaïc style). And here's a short podcast, taking apart Rita Abadzi's Gazeli Neva Sabah. You might also take a look at Introduction to greek smyrnaiika and rebetika music from

and more stuff for real enthusiasts:

Radical Movement for Rebetiko Dechiotification and Bouzouki Detetrachordization ("a powerful and dangerous lobby of Rebetiko fundamentalists")

Archive of Rebetika Research Materials

REBETIKA: HISTORY AND ORIGINS from Emery's Occasional Papers: Issue No. 13 (8 November 1999)

CONSIDERATIONS IN THE COMPILATION OF A REBETIKA CD by Marc Dubin [Hydra Rebetiko Conference, October 2004]

Rembetika: annotated bibliography (Bob Bozonelos)

The film Rebetiko does a good job of presenting some of the ambiance of the refugee settlement around Piraeus (the port of Athens) --the poverty and hopelessness of the dispossessed, and the (evolving) scene of the semi-underworld night clubs. It doesn't really show much of the gangster side of the rebetes for whom the musical genre is named (also referred to as manges), so we need some examples of that. More details:
A version of the triumphal song that opens the film

The song Marika sings when Babis leaves Thomas' club (where I stopped the film on Thursday), sung here by Maria Kariofyllidou with Salto Orientale:


When a person comes into this world
sorrow is born with him
When a war beaks out anywhere, blood flows in streams
I swear by your eyes that were so sacred to me
that I shall turn the knife-wound you inflicted on me into laughter
And from the depths of hell burst your chains
and be blessed when you draw me to your side

I am burning, I am burning
Pour oil on my fire
I am drowning, I am drowning
Throw me in the depths of the sea

And one more from the film: The Story of Michalis (Takis Binis)

One night in Amphiali
they fixed it for Michalis
They said he sold it by the ounce
and we kissed off Michalis

One and one makes two
tell Michalis goodbye

And another night in Piraeus
they set their trap once more
for he sold his stuff again
falling into their net

Whose fault is it
but Michalis' thick head
He had stashed the grass in his drawer
and that did it for Michalis

We'll be sending him sweets now
while he sits like a mummy
so that he can hit his head
on the narrow walls of his cell

One and one makes two
Kiss Michalis goodbye
two and one makes three
and that's the end of the story

Marika Ninou at Fat Jimmy's (CD review)

To Minore tis Aygis (Sotiria Bellou --contemporary of Marika Ninou, and one of the foremost 'second-generation' rembetika singers)

Before looking at a few rembetika texts, consider the instruments of this music, starting with the omnipresent bouzouki:

Demos from a tutorial series --try Song 2 and Introduction to the Trixordo

Clip from Nuit sans Lune [cached here]).

ANCIENT TONES: The bouzouki's long journey from rembetika to rock 'n' roll and beyond By Paul Kotapish

Several examples to consider:

Aiutos (The Eagle, one of my favorite bouzouki dance pieces)

Markos Vamvakaris Taxim and fancier and flashier Xiotis Taxim

Allegro Bouzouki George Zambetas ("the World's Greatest Bouzouki Player"): diamond ring on pinky, night club tourist bouzouki... what the Radical Movement for Rebetiko Dechiotification and Bouzouki Detetrachordization is out to cure

taksim and aptalikos (Vassilis Tsitsanis --one of the important innovators of the 1940s [and Ninou's accompanist], recorded shortly before he died. Much less flashy, much more intense)

The brooding flavor of rembetika is well expressed in these examples:

Dressed Like a Princess
I want you to be a mangas girl, naughty and full of fun
and whatever people say, my Maritsa, never take any notice

Dressed like a princess, you'll go around with me
and drink like a piss-pot, little doll, and smoke for kicks

You'll put on your skirt with style and care
And on your feet you'll wear, my Maritsa, the best high heels in town

You'll be naughty and smart, bothering everyone
And you'll never get the blues, my Maritsa, get inside your heart

Pixe Tzigana

Throw down the cards, gypsy woman
and tell me the truth
will the grief I have in my heart
ever be healed?

Tell me, the pain in my heart
will it be cured a little
or will my youth be wasted away
by bitter poison?

Tell me, gypsy woman,and
I'll load you with florins
the girl who rejected me
will I ever get her back?

Palamakia --and Greek lyrics and MIDI file, with links to a Web radio station for "Classic Greek music"!

Kouklaki (Little Doll)

Prépi Na Xéris Michaní (Markos Vamvakaris)

You gotta know your tricks

You've got to know how to use your tricks to attact dark eyes
because when they are turned on you they'll break you to pieces

You must be slick and really sharp, always a little tough
So that for those dark, tricky eyes you'll seem like a real hard man

You must have a heart like a mountain, a sword to strike them with
Because they are such clever eyes they'll penetrate your heart

You must be slick and cool in love, so that they don't make you pine
So that they don't make you fall for them, and your body waste away

Aman Doctor

...but missing are the underworld and drug references which led rembetika to be banned (and musicians jailed, along with rembetes) at various times in recent Greek history --after the 1937 Metaxas dictatorship, and during the time of the Colonels in the 1970s. Some examples, mostly in the Zeimbekiko rhythm, for solo dancing:
The king of dances is the zeibekiko. Performed in 9/8 time, it does not have steps, only figures. The zeibekiko is a solo dance for men. Each rebetis has his own figures, which are strictly personal to him and through which he expresses himself. Each rebetis dances to a specific song. the zeibekiko is a dance to be used in moderation... Anybody daring to interrupt a rebetis dancing the zeibekiko might find himself dicing with death... (Petropoulos Songs of the Greek Underworld pp 77-78)

Manolakis o Hasiklis (Manolis the Hash Smoker)

Papadzis (3-Card Trick)

Ego Mangas Fenomouna (It Showed I Was a Mangas)

TB songs

When I Die (Kostas Roukounas)
Mama, my chest hurts and I sigh
I won't survive this year
When I die, Mama, tell the neighbor girl
that I'm dying for her and descending into Hades
She should wash my body, change my clothes
and light a candle for me
and cry for me, and cry for me, and bury my body
Mama, the doctors told me that I've got TB
and the cough, Mama, will never leave me
My problem: I have vastly too much of this stuff, and I love it all...

We do need to look into some other Greek musics --regional folk traditions, for example, and some of what's now coming out of Greece...

Music of Crete

Introduction to Cretan Traditional Music


an enthusiast's site (Michael Hagleitner)

Xylouris: a beloved singer and lyra player who died young, represented here by As Steel and Iron Weigh

Mourning is just as heavy
as steel and iron weigh
'cause once I was dressed in black
for a love now far away

I had all and I was drained
I recollect and sigh
Open, earth, and swallow me
nowhere to cast my eye

Psarantonis, a brother of Xylouris: Beyond the musical notes, there is ecstasy ("Of all the lyra players and musicians of Crete, Psarantonis is clearly the most idiosyncratic. When he plays, it's impossible to know, from one moment to the next, whether the stroke of his bow will be humanly audible or explode in wildfire.") description: "Psarantoni is an acquired taste. He plays unlike any of his peers. His singing is like no one else's, ranging from mellow whispers, to low singing, from cacophonous bellowing to an incomprehensible moaning. His playing ranges from simple to beautiful from wild to painful."

Hymn to Mount Pseloritis


Sometime last year I had an email exchange with a Cretan music fanatic, and he sent me 3 CDs of his favorite laouto players... but without any information on who is playing on each of the cuts. It's hot stuff, no doubt about it, and I suspect that a lot is available only in Greece.
fine workaday accompaniment and (at the end) really hot


Horos to Sifaka (Xylouris)

Palia Mou Agapi (Zachariodakis) Cretan lyra and laoutos

Several experiments on the tradition:

Smoking in Bed (Annabouboula's take on Anapse to Tsigharo)

Diamanda Galás is surely one of the scariest voices you'll ever encounter (doubt me? look here). Here she sings and plays piano on Anoixe:

The window shut, bolted, dark
Why don't you open it, you stubborn girl
so that I can see you?
The hoar-frost has settled
I've been singing to you for hours
My heart is blazing, but you don't come out
and let me look at you

Open up, open up, I can't bear it anymore
you've tortured me enough

Stelios Vamvakaris and Louisiana Red

Agrypnia ...bits from 5 pieces

Stin ipoga (Roberto Zanisi on cümbüs)

Aristophanes' The Wasps (try Xopo, and see synopsis of the play)

Music from Greece and beyond Transpacific Sound Paradise Sunday, June 30, 2002 (quite a nice eclectic amassment... gotta find out more about Listening to this as it streams in, I begin to think that it's at least as sensible a medium to discover and appreciate musics as the standup classroom gig I've been pursuing. The liner notes are pretty good, though it would be nice to have hyperlinks to more details for them as wants.)

Mode Plagal streaming: 3 audio, one video --see III commentary and interview

Maria Farantouri

Rembetika Hipsters Web site (Canadian revival band)

Rebetiko home

and see "the only database of rebetiko songs on the Internet"