Greek Dance and Music
By Athan Karras
Greece, comparatively speaking, is a modern nation. Less than two hundred years old, Greece was not liberated from her last oppressor, the Ottoman Empire, until 1821. The northern provinces, as well as several islands, did not become part of the new nation until 1912. Even as late as 1945, parts of Greece were beginning repatriated. As a result, Greece and other countries in the Balkan peninsula did not take part in the Western European Renaissance. They became the forgotten part of Europe and were discriminated against politically, socially, economically, and culturally.
The struggle for the Greeks to maintain their identity during those oppressive years may, strangely enough, have served them well from a cultural point of view. By insisting and persisting in holding on to their traditions language, music, songs, and dances they kept alive the wealth of their folk customs which otherwise might have been assimilated into the revolutionary course of progress.
Today we are privileged to witness a belated renaissance of these folk customs and traditions; an immense variety of colorful idioms that have been kept alive throughout the ages. They are the lasting proof and testament of their ancient forebears who devised a glorious civilization 2,000 years ago.
Each province in Greece is culturally distinct from the other due to the isolation-imposed natural boundaries of mountainous terrain and the distant shores from island to island. Transportation was neither easy nor prevalent until the turn of the century. Though all the Greeks played to the same god, spoke the same language, and shared a common view of life, there were significant differences in dialects, in songs and dances, and various aspects of folklore.
Macedonia, Thessaly, Epirus, Roumeli, Morea, Thrace, and the myriad islands expressed a unique approach in their folk arts, which left no doubt as to the place of their origin.
Within these provinces and islands, the people enjoyed and expressed their vision of life through these folk arts, fulfilling the need to be creative in a structured society. Even the various villages within Greece began with the seafaring people who sailed to different shores. They brought with them their songs and dances, but were also keen on learning new ones.
Traveling on land was limited to horseback or mule and for hundreds of years most of the significant exchanges were with the wandering bands of gypsies. They were the cultural nomads all over the Balkan peninsula, and also happened to be the musicians who performed at most festivals and weddings. They carried with them a depository of music and were instrumental in influencing dances and dance steps. The numerous Balkan wars that ensued at the turn of the century, and the liberation that followed, brought about many shifts in population that resulted in an influx of disseminating folk traditions.
Therefore, each province observed an aspect of folk music that was unique to its domain. This body of music is referred to as Demotiki Mousiki (folk music) as opposed to Laiki Mousiki (popular music) which came about much later. Demotiki Mousiki was played on local folk instruments, accompanied by an appropriate song and dance which represented the villager's outlook on life. This continued for many years until 1921, the year of Greek independence, when the division between the "folk music" and "popular music" began. Until that time, the provinces and islands seem to have remained culturally autonomous.
The "folk artist" whether he be a musician, dancer or craftsman, functioned in his own environment, be it the village fair, wedding, or any such celebrated event where these "folk" could collectively express the traditions handed down to them generation after generation. This spontaneous and innovative art was the process through the ages. Today the reverse is true. With the advent of the phonograph, radio, and television, we are seing predetermined events frozen in time. They are no longer experienced in their own organic process in the framework of human expression.
In 1922, Greece was involved in a major Balkan war that resulted in a considerable population exchange. Great numbers of these new refugees were streaming into the newly founded urban centers, which were slowly becoming the mainstream of Greek life. The urban communities in trying to keep up, began imitating the musical and dance forms of Western Europe. This became known as "light music." The gramophone and the radio soon were major influences. But growing numbers of displaced Greeks were pouring in from Asia Minor into these new cities, seeking a new life. With them they brought their instruments and their songs, reaching for a way to mellow their sorrows in the New Greece.
The bouzouki instrument, with its wailing "amanethes," remnants from their Anatolian Greek sectors, and descendants of ancient Ionia, produced in these urban centers and harbor towns the Rebetiko song. These Rebetika appealed to subcultures, to little groups of misbehaved cultists who were involved in petty crimes, to dock workers, and the new hangouts or dens of iniquity which were associated with hashish and narcotics. They glorified and wailed in gloomy, fatalistic attitudes of life through which they released their impaled 'doom' in order to achieve a positive result.
The "light music" was foreign to these newcomers, and at its emergence, the establishment frowned upon the trend to the Rebetica. Even political leaders and archons of culture sought to ban it.
Nevertheless, it became the voice of the people in these growing urban centers. It is easily paralleled to the birth of the blues, and the early beginnings of jazz in America. By 1940, the bouzouki was well ensconced as the instrument in these cities, and immediately after World War II, the Rebetica songs and dances spoke directly to the very heart of the anguish, and the gloom, and the despair that needed to be healed, not only from a terrible war, but the even a more disastrous civil war that followed.
Composers like Manos Hadzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis were busy adapting the Rebetica style with the bouzouki at its helm, and were creating new music that was being inscribed for the Greek people. With the advent of "Never on Sunday" and "Zorba the Greek," Greek music was now spreading to other shores and gaining a helpful ear. The bouzouki mania had begun to spread, and in Greece everyone was participating in this new music accompanied with the dances, snapping their fingers to the Hasapiko beat.
Internationally up to this time, the only piece of music or a Greek folk dance known was Misirlou. It was a popular hit song of the Forties originally recorded by Xaviar Cugat, which caught the imagination of the popular dance scene and which was later set to the style of the Haniotiko Syrto by folk dance aficionados. The songwriter, Nicholas Roubanis, would never have dreamed that his song would be abandoned by the Cha-Cha faddists and immortalized to the Syrto from Crete. Now it has returned to Greece as an 'authentic' Greek dance, and other ethnic groups like the Israelis and the Armenians are adopting it as part of their current folklore.
The rage of the Hasapiko continued to gather laurels and was badly named a Syrtaki by commercial interests to boost their record sales.
In Greece, bouzouki parlors, joints, and nightclubs were sprouting like mushrooms, with the subtle silvery sound of the bouzouki turning into an impersonal blaring, void of any expression. The electronic age moved in and this new sophistication spread to conquer not only the cities, but the Greek countryside as well. Recordings, tapes, radio, and television carried it to the remotest villages, displacing the traditional folk songs in the process.
The villager riding side-saddle on his donkey on the way to till the soil of his vineyard, often sang his longing out with his favorite folk song, or even created a new one while musing with nature. But now the transistor radio has taken hold of this age-long oral tradition.
The seat of the folk song was in the village, and was disseminated to the larger towns and cities. Now the reverse is true. The authentic songs and dances which the Greek peasant enjoyed in the countryside are no longer readily available, and what is even more devastating is that Greece has greater musical and dance resources than those found with the very popular bouzouki music and the Rebetika style which has now become fashionable. Despite this, much emphasis has been put on bouzouki music of late, either by commercial recording interests, or the quick response given to it by emerging musical and vocal artists. However, there are still some singers and musicians to be found in remote villages keeping the traditions alive, and clearly indicating the diversity of music and dance which can still be traced to various provinces. This points out that Greece has survived influences from the hordes of invaders over the last 200 years.
Through the aid of researchers and ethnographers, folklorists and the others who have been touched by this great diversity of cultural tradition, efforts are being made to document this 'language' of all the folk arts, particularly that of music and dance, to encourage its perpetuation. Since the cities of the world have fostered a kind of anonymity among its inhabitants, there has been a resurgence among some of its dwellers to begin rediscovering their roots. This could be the start of recreating the folk arts to take a significant place in society and become a viable part of our new social structure.
The bouzouki aficionados, responsible for the prolific outpourings in the last forty years, have now reached an impasse and are concocting mixtures of pop, rock, infusions of jazz, and even turning to folk music for some new inspiration and direction. Except for several ambitious experiments, the new music makers have not been able to capture the imagination of major audiences and their new compositions are explosions in rhythm and electric sound lacking the essence and purity that is so basic and direct in the old folk music. The constant conglomeration and mixing of diverse musical styles and heavy instrumentation, are indications of the way music impressarios have continued plugging away their sole commercial interests.
It remains then, as the task for all those who have a vested interest in Greek culture to become aware of the full breadth and scope of the richness to be found in this complete comprehension of Greek folk music and dance. We can hopefully seek out an atmosphere where the original styles can continue to be expressed, and make them part of our daily experience not to look at them merely as a collection of rare museum pieces, but as the ultimate achievement of folk study with the aim at 'participation' which will continue to evolve in this spontaneous art.
Learning dances will be no different than learning to sing a folk song or even playing a folk instrument, for the emphasis is the collective involvement and in the virtuoso. Once having understood and applied the basic movement technique, the ultimate experience and goal in keeping with the true folk tradition is to gain the freedom to feel free, and allow the natural organic process to develop within the imposed structure of the dance that is dictated by the musical form and rhythm. We have then achieved the continuance of the folk traditions and have appreciated the 'creative' element.
Reprinted from "An Overview of Greek Folk Music & Dance" by Athan Karras
Viltis Magazine, Sept-Nov 1985, Volume 44, Number 3, V. F. Beliajus, Editor.