Some people think of it as a novelty item, hanging from a keychain, or an Ouzo bottle in the shape of a bouzouki (I think I have one somewhere in my house). Others immediately think of the song, “Zorba the Greek,” and the bouzouki starting off slow and continually building up speed until it reaches its crescendo of speeding notes. Still, others listen to it in the traditional form playing rembetiko songs, or laika and modern songs of Greece. To say the least, the bouzouki is unique and although the Irish have adapted it too, they have not captured the playing of it that makes it… Greek.
To me, a bouzouki player for over 45 years, it is the greatest instrument…ever. Well, next to the accordion, but there are not many of us accordion players left. Poor monkeys. Once the accordion went out of vogue, no more jobs for the monkeys. I had to let mine go years ago. He’s probably somewhere on monkey skid row begging for a few bananas, or did I see him in the remake of the Planet of the Apes or The Hangover II? If he made it big, he’s ignoring me. Damn monkeys!
Back to the bouzouki.
This article is not about the history of the instrument, or who turned it from a six-string instrument to an eight-string instrument (it was Manolis Hiotis, by the way). It’s not about those American rock guitar icons, Jimmy Hendrix, who visited and watched Manolis Hiotis play the bouzouki and probably got some riffs off of him, or Stevie Ray Vaughn, who mentioned in an interview just before his death, that the bouzouki was his favorite instrument. This article is just about the bouzouki and those that play it, or “Being Bouzouki.”
I do need to add one historic note, though. I read that the bouzouki comes from the Pandouris, a fretted instrument that first appeared in the 4th Century BC in ancient Greece, and was the predecessor to different lutes throughout the world. Wow! So when some misguided friends of mine insist that the bouzouki is a descendant of Turkish instruments…well, now, they’re wrong! Ha! Everything originates from the Greeks.
Back to the bouzouki.
Did you ever watch those old film clips on YouTube of the bouzouki player with a lit cigarette sticking out from between the pinky and the ring finger of his pick hand? (Actually, I do remember watching them live). In between licks, he would bring it up to his face and take a drag, or leave it in his mouth as he’s playing the solo and the smoke would be enveloping his face? Eddie Van Halen never did that! Eddie would have a lit cigarette sticking out of the guitar head between the strings. Big deal. Try playing your axe while the smoke is burning your eyes out, not to mention your lungs. Now that’s talent!
So what is it about the bouzouki? Forget the Greeks in Greece, but thousands of Greek-Americans, Canadians, Australians, and the rest of the Greek diaspora are attracted to this funny looking instrument like honey to loukoumades. They love it, especially the old rembetiko songs. Songs written for bouzouki, remind me of American country and western songs. You know those songs. My wife left me. My dog left me. The wife came back. I left my wife and moved in with my dog. In Greek bouzouki music it’s a little similar. My wife left me. I threw a party and danced a zeibekiko. My dog left me. I bought a lamb and had a party.
Actually, the old rembetiko songs were the best, like the title of this song: “Καφ’ τονε Σταύρο καφ’ τονε.” You know, they’re not talking about Stavro making you a cup of coffee? Greek bouzouki music can be funny unless you’re the lamb at a party.
The bouzouki is the greatest instrument, did I mention that before? When the bouzouki is played superbly, it’s simply superb! Players like Karantinis, Tatasopoulos, Hiotis, Nikolopoulos, Polykandriotis, Ellis, Palaiologou, Zempetas, and others, have made the bouzouki what it is today – sublime. They make it talk to you, whisper sweet nothings in your ear, suck you into the song they are playing, then blast you away exploding your emotions with each trill of the note, strum of the chord, and pluck of the string that makes you want to get up and dance, sing, and shout for joy! It’s a religious experience!
Although these professionals make playing the instrument look so easy (that’s why they’re professionals), the bouzouki is also played by thousands and thousands of average people around the world whether in a local Greek band, or sitting in a basement playing along to that YouTube video of the bouzouki player with a lit cigarette. Friends get together and play songs that were written before their grandfathers were born. Fathers pass down their bouzoukis to their sons and daughters! The bouzouki is strong and growing in popularity again and people love it. Everyone plays the guitar or piano, but there is that select group that plays the greatest instrument… ever, and they take it seriously. It’s what we call, “Being Bouzouki.”
Although there was a time I thought the bouzouki was becoming a forgotten instrument like the glockenspiel, with some bouzoukis ending up hanging on a wall of a restaurant (I do cringe when I see that), and others in their dusty cases tucked away, forgotten in some dark closet or attic, the bouzouki is here to stay. I see it in the gatherings, talked about on Facebook, the professional bouzouki players becoming icons like our American guitarists. I truly believe the Golden Age of the bouzouki is returning. It is the instrument of the people, the instrument of the Greeks. The bouzouki is like Tevye sang in Fiddler on the Roof, Tradition! And the greatest instrument…ever! Did I mention that before?
So next time you’re out and watching someone play the bouzouki, go up and tell them, “Thank you for keeping alive this tradition. Thanks, for Being Bouzouki.”
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