The Greek bouzouki is a plucked musical instrument of the lute family, called the tamboura family, in Greek. The tamboura has existed in Greece since ancient times, and can be found in various sizes, shapes, depths of body, lengths of neck and number of strings. In ancient times, it was called the pandoura. The bouzouki is a direct descendant of the tamboura. The bouzouki is unquestionably a Greek musical instrument. The Greek marble relief, known as The Mantineia Base, dating from 330-320 BC, shows a muse playing a variant of the pandoura.
The name bouzouki, however, is a derivation of the Turkish word, “bozouk,” meaning broken or modified, and also describes a mid-sized Turkish “saz-bozouk,” which belongs to the same family. The word was modified and adopted by the Greek people for the name of their own historical instrument, over 400 years of Turkish occupation.
The current version of the bouzouki is found with either three string pairs (six strings total), called a trihordo (three course), or with four string pairs (eight strings total), called a tetrahordo (four course). The trihordo has a scale length of 700 mm, and is tuned D-A-D, while the tetrahordo has a scale length of 670 mm, and is tuned D-A-F-C (high to low). The two upper pairs are tuned in unison, and are called the cantini, while the bottom pair (or pairs on the tetrahordo) are tuned in octaves, and are called the bourganes. Other members of the bouzouki family include the tzoura, a three-quarter size instrument, usually found with three string pairs, but sometimes with four string pairs, and the baglama, a half size instrument, always with three string pairs. Within each instrument classification there are variations in size and actual shape, although the overall shape is always a pear-shaped, bowl-backed body, flat soundboard and flat (not arched)fingerboard. The instrument is played with a pick.
Originally the body was made of one piece of wood, hollowed out by carving (skafto), but today the bouzouki itself is always made of staves, shaped and glued together like a lute. For the most part, tzouras are made with staves, but some can be found carved. About half of the baglamas made today are carved, and half are made with staves. According to Pythagoras, the body was originally made of White Laurel. Today, the traditional wood is Mulberry, but many instruments are made with Walnut (and often Walnut dyed black), Rosewood and Maple. Other, more exotic, woods are now being used, as well. The neck is usually made of Bass wood (called Lime wood in Europe) or the wood of the Plane Tree. To strengthen the neck, it is laminated with one or more strips of a harder contrasting wood such as Ebony, Rosewood or Wenge. The soundboard is made of spruce and the fingerboard of ebony. Rarely, truss rods are used to adjust the neck, which can warp from string tension, but most professional players feel this destroys the tone of the instrument. Professional luthiers take pride in their ability to build their bouzoukis’ long, thin necks without truss rods, and able to withstand the tension of the strings without warping.
While the bouzouki and its predecessors existed in Greece, it did not become wildly popular until the 1920’s, with the rise in popularity of Rembetiko music. From that point on, the history and popularity of the bouzouki very closely followed that of Rembetiko music. The inherent problems with studying what is today called “Rembetkio” music are many. First, the musicians who are associated with this style of music did not call themselves Rembetes, nor did they call their music Rembetiko music (that term was first used on a recording made in the United States). Secondly, as I will discuss below, this was a sort of underground music movement, largley outlawed for most of its early period, so it is not well documented, and ethnomusicologists have only begun to research and document the history of the movement in recent years. The attempt to document the history of Rembetico music is an endeavor complicated by the fact that many of the musicians are now deceased, as well as the fact that it was largely a non-commercial, oral tradition (which makes it difficult to determine the composer of any particular song). Even among the most well respected experts in Rembetiko music and history, there is a fair amount of disagreement on the how and why Rembetiko music evolved.
Pireus style music of the pre-1923 era, sometimes called Teke Style (Hash Den Style), developed in the urban underworld surrounding the docks of Pireus (the port of Athens) and other port-side cities. It was a heavy, “urban blues” style of music of a class of displaced refugees, laborers, and people living on the fringe of society and the law. During this period, Greece was undergoing a great urbanization, and many previously rural inhabitants were flocking to the cities, looking for work. At the same time, refugees were pouring into Greece from around the world, and nearly doubled the population of Athens. The topics of the songs often involved crime, drug use, smugling and gambling, prison, and persecution. Those who performed the music and danced to it, were mostly men. The bouzouki and baglama were the main instruments. The main dance rhythms were the Hasapiko (Butcher’s Dance) and the Zeimbekiko. The songs were often based loosely on the melodies of old Greek folk tunes, which were modal in nature. The other influence was urban song, which was mainly tonal (i.e. based on the tempered Western major and minor scales), which was gaining popularity in major cities in Greece, where the people wanted to be more cosmopolitan. It is difficult to determine the composer of particular songs, as noted above, due to the fact that performers heard songs, and copied them freely (A practice continuing today, in Greece, where multiple performers will record a song, once it achieves popularity). The leading composer was Markos Vamvakaris. Vamvakaris was from the Island of Syros. At the age of fifteen he stowed away on a ship to Pireaus and worked at various odd jobs, including shoveling coal, and in a slaughterhouse. He was introduced to the bouzouki by Old Nikos of Aivali. From that point on, Vamvakaris vowed that if he did not learn to play the bouzouki within six months, he would cut off his hands.
Smyrneika style music of the same era, sometimes called Cafe-Aman style (Aman means mercy, and was often sung as a filler while the singer extemporaneously created new verses) was the Greek cabaret tradition of the cosmopolitan city dwellers of Smyrna and Constantinople. Smyrneika involved intricate melodies and sing-along refrains in Middle-Eastern modes, which were based on the modes of Ancient Greece. The songs were sung to more Middle-Eastern rhythms, such as Tsifteteli and Karsilamas (which is the genesis of the tsifteteli exposion in Greek music of the 1980’s and 1990’s). The instruments used in Smyrneika style were the outi, santouri, violin, clarinet, doumbeleki and zilia, and the musicians were often virtuoso performers. To perform in this style, the singer had to possess superb vocal skills and be able to compose lyrics while performing. The songs involved themes of love, nostalgia and celebrations. The singers and performers were both men and women, and Roza Eskenazi and Rita Abadzi were among the best known performers. The popularity of Smyrneika can be traced to the influence of the Greeks from Asia Minor, who fled to Greece after the Greco-Turkish War of 1922, the slaughter of Greeks in Smyrna and the ethnic exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 (an ethnic cleansing called, The Catastrophe, by Greeks). The Asia Minor Greeks were well educated, and affluent enough to enjoy music as a hobby. When they were forced to relocate to Greece, they were forced to reside in Piraeus and other slum areas, in abject poverty, having left their successful businesses in Asia Minor. They brought with them their love of music, performing, and the Cafe-Aman. They established nightclubs and taverns, where they gathered to enjoy their music.
The term “Rembetiko” itself was not used by performs to describe their music until their music became quite popular. It was first used on a 78 rpm recording in the United States. The music that came to be called Rembetiko was the original Pireus style with the influences of the Smyrneika style. After The Catastrophe, both the Pireus style and Smyrneika style existed in Greece, and there were clubs dedicated to each. However, due to the increasing popularity of the Pireus style and the bouzouki, some recordings of extremely popular songs and the competition between clubs of the different styles, many Smyrneika style groups were playing Pireus style music. Club owners suggested that musicians switch over to bouzouki from guitar or outi, and these talented performers quickly learned the new instrument. As the music became more popular, club owners began hiring musicians out of the low-class clubs and paying them more money, making them more respectable. The performers were then able to record their music, which increased its popularity among the people. Clubs dedicated to Smyrneika style decreased in popularity, and many of the musicians and performs ended up playing in the new Rembetika clubs, side-by-side with Pireus style performers, bringing in elements of their music.
Unfortunately, Rembetiko music, which dealt with the underworld, crime and drugs, was considered socially unacceptable, and banned by the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, in 1936. Many musicians were arrested, persecuted, beaten, jailed and exiled. Their instruments were confiscated and destroyed. Due to the bouzouki’s close relationship to Rembetiko music, many people in “polite society” considered the bouzouki to be a low class instrument, and both the bouzouki and its players were looked down upon. However, as the Greek composer, Mikis Theodorakis, stated, in reference to the bouzouki, “Look, with the knife you are killed, but with the knife you also cut your bread. It is how you use the instrument.” The bouzouki’s earlier ancestor, the tamboura, was considered an excellent teaching aid, and suitable to teach Byzantine music in the church. Chrysanthus, Archbishop of Dyrrachium, in his 1832 publication, The Theory of Music, wrote that, “Of all melodic instruments, the pandhouris lends itself most easily to teaching, and upon it one may the more clearly acquaint himself with the tones, semitones, and indeed every kind of interval. It is also known as the pandhoura or phandouros; among us it is called the tamboura or tambouri.”
Due to the inhospitable music climate in Greece, many musicians traveled to the United States. Many early Rembetiko recordings were made in the Unites States and distributed from there (due, in large part, to the closing of all the Greek recording companies during the Nazi-Fascist occupation of Greece). These musicians helped to spread the popularity of the bouzouki and Rembetiko music to the Diaspora (Greeks living in foreign countries), who easily identified with the subject matter of the music, and did not hold the same prejudices against the music or the bouzouki.
In the early days of Rembetiko, the bouzouki’s body was more lute shaped, in that the cross section was almost a semi-circle. Due to the production of many Greek rembetika recordings in the United States, many Greek bouzouki players traveled to New York and Chicago. In New York, the Greek luthier Anastasios Stathopoulos started an instrument company that he called Epiphone (now part of the Gibson family of brand names), catering to the needs of Greek musicians. One of the instrument makers at Epiphone was an Italian named Henry Capielo. Stathopoulos and Capielo created, what they called, “Stathopoulos bouzoukis”. These new bouzoukis borrowed several important aspects from the Neapolitan mandolin. Geared metal tuning machines replaced the wooden tuning pegs. The body no longer resembled a semi-circle, but had a bowl shaped back, which met with straighter “sides,” which were placed at an angle less than 90 degrees to the top to increase the strength of the body, and better withstand the tension of the long steel strings. To further strengthen the body, a wide capping strip (called the kolantza, in Greek) was added around the edge of the body. These new style bouzoukis returned to Greece with their owners and began to change the construction methods of Greek bouzouki luthiers.
The height of rembetiko music was between the two World Wars. However, it was not yet socially acceptable, due to the content of the songs. Slowly, however, the theme of the songs changed, and many later rembetika songs left out the mention of drugs and crime. One rembetiko singer, Vasilis Tsitsanis, is credited with changing the acceptability of rembetiko music, and with it, the bouzouki. It is said that Tsitsanis is responsible for bringing bouzouki into the living room and out of the hash den. His song, Synefiasmeni Kyriaki (Cloudy Sunday), whose melody mimicked that of the famous hymn to the Virgin Mary, Ti Ypermacho, (written in the 7th Century to the Virgin Mary in thanks for helping the people of Constantinople drive off the attacking Avars), has become the de facto, second national anthem of Greece. The song tells the story of a man whose heart is heavy, when, on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, he sees a neighbor dragged from his house, and shot to death on the street in front of his children (there is some debate as to weather the shooters were Nazi soldiers or Communist soldiers from the Greek Civil War).
After the end of the Greek Civil War, Rembetika music became wildly popular, with the opening of expensive night clubs, which came to be called The Bouzoukia. The music was loud, the bouzouki became electrified with pick-ups, and the clientele was wealthy. The gritty edge went out of the music, and it took on more European flavor. The banning of songs related to drugs was (and still is today) in effect, and that, along with a desire to be more cosmopolitan, led composers to incorporate the Italian and Spanish styles of rumba and romance (“romantza”) style of music into their compositions. This led the way to Greek popular music, called laika (urban folk or popular music). Along with the popularization of Rembetika, came the superstars of Rembetiko music clubs (archorembetes), probably most identified by Georgos Zambetas, one of the best known and most talented bouzouki players. These superstars traveled in limousines, wore expensive clothes and made huge sums of money, both in salary and “hartoula” the money thrown at their feet as they permformed (the hartoula could be in the thousands of dollars per night).
The bouzouki changed along the way, as well. At some point, and nobody is really sure exactly when, or who came up with the idea or made the first one, but a forth set of strings was added to the trihordo bouzouki (Hiotis, Stathopoulos and Stefanakis are usually credited. Stefanakis was allegedly a “banjo” player, however, it seems implausible that there was a banjo player in Greece. It is more likely that Stefanakis played a cumbis, which is a Middle-Eastern instrument with a skin face and four strings, similar to a banjo). Manolis Hiotis, the one of the greatest virtuosos of the bouzouki, popularized the four string bouzouki, and its guitar-like string tuning intervals (although one whole note below that of the guitar’s first four strings). This innovation allowed players to play much faster, and to easily create chords for back up to the singer. On the trihordo bouzouki, the players hand moves continuously up and down the fingerboard. The melody was concentrated on the upper two strings, with the third string being used mainly as a drone or lower octave accent to the upper string. With the forth string and guitar-like tuning of the tetrahordo bouzouki, the players hand is much more stationary, being able to play longer runs without motion. This enabled players like Hiotis to achieve incredible speeds. For a while, the trihordo almost disappeared, but now, many players favor it for playing traditional Rembetika songs.
The hallmark of a bouzouki virtuoso, either trihordo or tetrahordo, is the ability to play the taximi. A taximi is an improvisational solo, usually at the beginning of a song, but sometimes between verses. It is meant to portray the inner most feelings of the player. Some players are criticized for overly fast, complicated taximia, in preference to a slower, more meaningful and expressive passage. It is not uncommon to hear statements along the lines of, “That bouzouki player ripped out one thousand notes, yet he didn’t say anything.” While a well loved taximi might be commented on with, “He played 5 notes, and I saw into his soul.” One of the most respected masters of the taximi is Yiannis Papaioannou, an early Rembetiko, trihordo player.
After the release of the 1960 film, Never on Sunday, starring Melina Mercouri, the bouzouki became recognized the world over as the sound of Greece. Tourism escalated, and tourists were hungry for the Greek bouzouki nightlife. Scores of low-quality recordings were made of bouzouki music for the tourist trade. The syrtaki dance was developed just to entertain foreign tourists. All of that is turning around now, and better quality music is being produced, along with the recording of many long lost Rembetika songs. The trihordo bouzoukis is making a comeback among enthusiasts, and Greek bouzouki luthiers are busier than ever. The wait for a custom bouzouki can be up to two years from top makers.
The Greek bouzouki even influenced Irish music. In the 1960’s several Irish musicians heard the Greek bouzouki, and thought its sound would be the perfect accompaniment to their music. They began incorporating the bouzouki in their songs. Eventually, a separate instrument developed, which some call the “Irish bouzouki,” although it should more correctly be called a mandola or octave mandolin, as it only marginally resembles a bouzouki. The Irish instrument has a much wider, rounder pear shape and has a flat or arched front and back, unlike the bowl shaped Greek bouzouki. The sides of the Irish instrument are set at a 90 degree angle to the front and back, and the scale length is shorter than that of a Greek bouzouki. While it has four pairs of strings, the instrument is tuned in various different intervals, and is generally used for chords, rhythms, basslines and some counter melody work, rather than the lead melody line, like the Greek bouzouki.
Traditionally, the bouzouki was a man’s instrument. However, in recent years, young people began taking up the instrument as a hobby, and many women are learning to play. The Internet has allowed a great exchange of information related to the bouzouki and how it is played. Today, you can find an instrument from a top professional luthier on-line, you can buy strings, sheet music, CDs, and even take lessons on-line from famous players and teachers.