Greek Bouzouki music. There’s something about it and nothing like it. Its uniqueness. The haunting melodies that capture the soul. The lyrics that speak of life – the good times and the bad times. But there is something more to the music of Hellas than all of this. What makes Greek music, well, Greek… is the Bouzouki. But has the Bouzouki played its last peniés?
In the old movie, “Monty Python’s Holy Grail,” which takes place during Medieval England, there is a scene where a cart of recently deceased bodies are being dragged through the street and a man is yelling out, “Bring out your dead!” A peasant comes out of the house with an old man over his shoulder and tells the man to take him. The supposed dead old man says, “I’m not dead yet.” The peasant replies, “shut up, you soon will be.” The man tells him he can’t take him because he’s not dead. The peasant asks him if there is anything he can do. He nods, hands him 9 pence, and the man, looks around, nonchalantly, hits the old man over the head and takes him away.
The Bouzouki is the old man. People are telling him he’s dead, but he keeps telling them he’s not.
The Bouzouki, which came to dominate Greek music in the early part of the 20th Century and had its “hey day” in the 50’s through the 80’s, began its decline in the 90’s when Greek music writers, singers, and the record companies began to figure out that they could make more money turning out “American” style Greek songs or European techno. You know the type… blaring guitars, hip-hop beats, techno music, little Greek boys trying to rap – that’s the funniest. If I really wanted to listen to a rock song, it’s not going to be the Greek boy with the fake tattoos. I’ll just put on some Lynyrd Skynyrd or Aerosmith – the real thing, thank you very much. I can’t blame them though. It all comes down to the all mighty dollar, or in their case, the euro. Given a choice, who would you want to sell songs to… a few Greeks in Greece or all of Europe and Asia? It’s a no-brainer. But it doesn’t make it right.
So while the over-aged Greek singers are strutting on stage in skimpy outfits, trying to act like Beyonce or Janet Jackson, to rock beats and pyrotechnics and singing, “Nai, nai, nai…ella moro mou!” the quality Greek music is slowly dying. Sure, some singers continue to use the Bouzouki, but maybe out of 12 songs on a CD, 3 or 4 may have Bouzouki and that’s because they are zembekika.
Years ago, when you went to see a Greek concert, the Bouzouki player was the lead instrument and usually the leader. Today, the guitar player is the lead instrument and leader and the Bouzouki player sits in the back, smoking a cigarette and waiting until after the singer sings all of his “new” songs and then starts playing all the old zembekika and tsiftitellia. (Just for the record, many of the Greek musicians are top notch and excellent players no matter what music they play).
Ah… “But there is no joy in Mudville.” Where have all the singers gone… Dionysiou, Kazantzidis, Sakelleriou, Bithikotsis, Dalaras, Alexiou, and many, many more? Songs like, “Dio Portes Ehi I Zoi,” “Ta Lathadika,” “Ego O Xenos,” and “Stin Allana.” Bouzouki music would have died out completely if it weren’t for some singers like Remos, Karras, Makropoulos, and Terzis, who use the instrument the way it was supposed to be used. There are a few others holding on but the list is getting smaller. Face it people, in fifty years, our kids will think of the Bouzouki like we think of a penny-farthing bicycle – see you don’t even know what that is?
But I have faith! As the old man said in the Holy Grail – “I’m not dead yet!!”
Okay, I do admit that there are some excellent “laika” songs out today. Some writers and artists have been able to blend the Bouzouki with modern style music and I implore them to keep writing and recording them.
However, no matter how many bubble-gum, non-descript, over produced, beat-driven techno, fake rap-singing songs the Greek record companies force on us, none will survive. Can you name one that was released six months ago… a year ago… two years ago? It’s the Bouzouki that makes Greek music Greek and fun. Fun to sing, fun to dance. Can you imagine trying to dance to a zembekiko with a distorted guitar? No way!
When the Greek DJ plays the disco-style Greek music, with toumperleki added to make it sound a little “Greek,” everyone walks around, kind of dances, but when the sound of the Bouzouki starts its taximi and Sfakianakis belts out the words, “Soma mou,” the entire atmosphere changes. We all become Greek. And that’s what Bouzouki music does… it tugs at your heart and at your soul and makes you, like Zorba, “Dance!”
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