My 6 discoveries when traveling and studying the music of Greece
Foreword about the trip
This was not your typical tour of Greece! That's because for the first time Dore Stein, the radio host of KALW’s “Tangents Radio”, skillfully crafted a 2 week tour focusing on different styles and traditions of music from some of the most highly regarded Greek musicians. For almost four decades Dore has been playing Greek and Mediterranean music on his radio show and he continues to have ongoing relationships with many of these musicians. Through these relationships, Dore organized 12 concerts in 14 days for a group of 15 people, in addition to organizing all of the travel, finding the best traditional food and all of the accommodations. Dore sponsored each concert on this tour in an effort to support the local musicians (in a struggling economy, particularly for musicians) and provided an incredibly rich perspective into the culture for those on the tour. I was one of the lucky 15 to get to go, and this would not have happened without the support and efforts of Ron Scudder, my best friend and favorite traveling companion. Together Ron and I did our best to record audio and video from the concerts. The following are my six discoveries around traditional music in Greece .
1. Underflow is a tucked-away gem and great place to hear traditional Greek music in Athens
Underflow is a retro-style record store in downtown Athens where you can not only find an impressive library of vinyl records but also grab a drink and listen to live music in the basement over the weekend. However, the owners made an exception because Dore was able to book a live performance almost every night of the week while we were there. Dore explained before each show that Underflow was one of the few venues he could find in Athens where musicians can play to an attentive audience. Dore also expressed his passion to support traditional musicians in Greece while educating Americans about Greek culture through traditional music.
Here is a list of the groups we heard at Underflow and links for more info:
Alekos Vretos Quintet - Oud, qanun, iano, stand up bass and drum kit . Alekos blends Greek and Mediterranean sounds with a western jazz influence. Alekos and his piano player both went to Berklee College of Music.
Kristi Stassinopoulou and her partner Stathis Kalyviotis. I was amazed by the seemingly effortless blend of electronic loops, effects and sounds with acoustic accompaniment. Kristi truly captured the spirit of Greek music through theatrical performances that were both captivating and mesmerizing. This duo is definitely advancing Greek tradition through their contemporary edge which appeals to the youthful audience that filled up the venue.
Haig Yazdjian is one of the most revered oudists in Greece. This was one of my favorite concerts. I realized this after the first song played by Haig. The fretless microtonal sound and fluidity of Haig playing with his trio took you on a soothing journey where the balance of the vocals and the instruments complemented one another. The drummer was also notably reserved at times and then would transition through different feels and volume with precise accuracy.
Martha Mavroidi singer/saz- The concert was a nice blend where each player stayed close to the sheet music.
2. The Music on Crete is preserved and distinct with a rich history
If there were rock stars is Crete, these guys would be it. Each member played a variety of different traditional Cretan instruments, including various flutes, oudes, the Cretan version of bagpipes and different frame drums. It was a wonderfully blended sound that included rich, powerful vocals. This trio would take you on a ride starting from a slow hypnotic melody that would erupt into an explosive rhythmic sound including clapping, chanting and dancing.
Ross Daly with Kelly Thoma and young student percussionist.
Ross Daly is a legend in Greece. Growing up playing the cello in the Bay Area of California, he was eventually drawn to the sitar and traveled through the Middle East and India to further his studies. Later finding the sitar to be “stylistically limiting,” he moved to Crete in the 70’s and could have been seen riding a camel with a sitar and a Cretan lyra on his back. Since then, Daly continues to advance the possibilities of modal music with the Cretan lyra, has opened up a music school in Crete, and continues to bring together musicians performing all styles of music. He has invented new instruments based on the traditional Cretan ones, and some of these have gained significant popularity. Today Ross Daly rarely performs publicly, and it was a special honor to have him play for us at a private venue. After the concert, he generously shared a full hour and a half as we asked him many questions that he answered with openness and honesty. Ross Daly played alongside his wife Kelly Thoma and a young percussionist and current student of his.
3. Thessaloniki is the birthplace of Rebetika
Rebetika is music that came out of the lower-class suburbs of Thessaloniki in the early 1900’s. The style relates to the Greek underworld, hookah, hashish and other illegal activity. That's why this music could be heard and evolved out of the infamous prison-Yedi Kule, which we visited.
Yedi Kule Prison
This music is characterized by erotic, sorrowful, and repetitive lines that continue like a mantra. Similar to blues music, rebetiko was used to numb the suffering through music and dance. The dance was also done alone and represented internal sorrow and catharsis. The barzooka is the traditional instrument in rebetiko that has evolved, and today rebetico is commonly played on the guitar with accompanying instruments including the violin, accordion, oud, or santur.
Dimitris Mystakidis is Greece's foremost rebetiko guitarist. We were privileged to see him in yet another concert personally sponsored by Dore, in a famous mosque in Thessaloniki. His album tells his story of traveling from Greece to New York and how he blended his music with American Blues music. During the performance there was a documentary further illustrating the story, projected onto a screen behind him during the songs. One memorable clip explained that the Greeks in New York were the very best - at crime - and their guns exceeded even the Italian Mafia’s.
Although this next group is not Rebetiko, I wanted to include the info here because it was another group we saw in Thessaloniki.
Violinist Kyriakos Gouventas Trio includes a singer who also plays sandouri as well as an oudist. Kyriakos is a founding member of Savina Yannatou's Primavera En Salonico and one of the most well-known traditionally based violinists in Greece. He is a master of all styles from the islands to the mainland. This lively show was a stark contrast to the sorrowful Rebetika style we were just submersed in. Played in a small taverna, this upbeat music completely packed out the venue and got our group up smiling, singing and dancing until early hours of the morning. It could easily be imagined how this has become longstanding tradition.
4. A new-found friend, percussion teacher, and rhythmicologist - Kostas Anastasiadis
Dore was hoping to schedule a live performance with one of Greece’s legendary percussionists, Kostas Anastasiadis, but it ended up falling through. Fortunately for me, Dore connected Kostas and I so we could meet for a private lesson.
Kostas opened up a whole world to me including how to conceptualize rhythm. Kostas in renowned for developing a concept known as the ‘cycles of rhythm’ and even relates it to the rhythms of life. We also got into the more spiritual side of how to prepare to practice both physically and mentally. Kostas ended up knowing one of my Berklee professors, Casey Scheuerell, as well as some other in-common musician friends. This has been a wonderful connection as I still continue to talk and take lessons with Kostas through skype. It was a very special encounter, one that only Dore could have created.
Below is a great interview where Kostas talks about his journey in finding and conceptualizing rhythm.
5. Discovering Bells in Ioannina
One hobby of mine is to collect musical instruments or found sounds representative of the various places I travel, particularly percussion instruments.
Greece, as we found out, has a fascination with bells. Especially wearing suits full of them and doing ancient dances at festivals such as the “Bell Roads” festival in Thessaloniki. Traditionally used for cattle grazing, we learned that the best bells were manufactured in Ioannina.
Getting a tip from our hotel owner, Ron and I found a hardware store in downtown Ioannina that sold not only bells but also all kinds of iron and farming equipment. The challenge was that the owner did not speak any english and he was obviously confused as to why we were in his shop looking at all these sheep and cow bells. Initially we found a butcher around the corner who helped translate, but the owner continued to think that we wanted bells for our heard of sheep or cows. He finally got his wife to come to the store to translate, and we all broke out laughing once the connection was made that we were musicians looking for bells to use for music rather than for farming. Come to find out the owner was a clarinetist and his son was a percussionist. We all shared hugs and pictures as we purchased a nice set of traditional bells both for cow and goat.
Here is a recording I captured of farmers grazing cattle in the Pindos Mountains were you can hear these bells used in their most traditional form. The bells have a spectacular ring.
6. Greek Circle Dances are a unique tradition that accompanies the music.
This clip shows an example of a traditional circle dance (aka Kalamatianós) at the small village Ano Pedina in the Epirus style. This was a community concert put on by the villagers who cooked traditional food, played games, poured wine, and danced a lot. After talking to a few of the locals, I learned that the circle dances are mix of tradition and improvisation. The dancer to the farthest right is the featured dancer, who sometimes will tip the band. The band in return plays music that best represents the personality and style of the dancer. The rest of the circle supports the featured dancer by staying in step and following the leads direction.
Thanks for reading and I hope you learned something about Greek music, culture or maybe you are even inspired to go. If you want to hear similar music or learn more about future tours, check out “Tangents Radio.” The next Tangents Greece tour is in October, 2018.Check back here for updates as I’m further editing some videos, sign up to my newsletter...and feel free to leave a comment below.