The Hidden Treasure:
Traditional Music in Greece

By Souzana Raphael

Although it is true that long before Christianity ancient Greeks painted people dancing in a circle or line on vases and playing instruments that were forbears of some of those still played today, the Greek Orthodox Church has been a continuous and powerful presence in Greek culture since Byzantine times (almost two millenia). Not only does one see churches and chapels wherever one looks, but there are deep connections between the Byzantine liturgical music and dhimotika/paradhosiaka (Greek folk music/traditional music).

During Christian times (up through the present) instrumental music, dance and song have been important and essential elements in weddings, baptisms, saints' days, betrothals, Easter, as well as at harvest celebrations, May Day and other holidays, and at tavernas, kafeneia, private homes--wherever people gather to eat, drink and keep company.

On the island where I have been living and continuing to learn to play Greek music (as in many other parts of Greece), modern times have brought both the means to record some wonderful music that would otherwise not outlast the musicians and singers, but it has also brought electricity (which came to some of the villages as recently as the mid-'70's) and paved roads (maybe somewhat earlier) to communities that had had neither before. Now--musicians who used to play with no amplification carry sound equipment to every large event and often crank up the volume to ear-splitting levels, even in small indoor places.

A musician friend who visited my home here on a Greek island, brought some of her own equipment with her, a 'pre-amp' and an 'equalizer' in hope of demonstrating to my teacher, a well-known violinist, the potential for superior transmission of different parts of the sound spectrum. She ended up demonstrating all this to me and to my partner instead (as my teacher wasn;t interested ) hooking these things up to an amplifier in a friend's house.

She had us play with the sound settings used by most local musicians (including my teacher) and then demonstrated to us the qualitative difference with her  equipment set to include more of the sound spectrum. That difference was a revelation. We saw that the problem was not that the musicians 'gone modern' were using amplication. We too had found it very difficult and hand-destroying to play over the sound of dancers' feet, shouting, singing, etc. In some venues (especially outdoors) amplification was definitely desirable. The real problem was that the knowledge of sound systems was limited, and quality often atrocious, (or at best mediocre).  Musicians routinely cranked the volume and reverb up to levels that only destroyed the music, the natural sound of the instruments altered so much that the violin sounded like someone humming loudly under the sea and the beautiful resonance of the laouto was transformed so much that the sound resembled that of an electric guitar.  Once, we asked a local laouto player to play something for us after a gig when the the sound system had been turned off and he was sitting at a table after a meal. He played a little and it seemed that he did not know how to get a good sound out of his instrument if it were not plugged in. Of course we didn't tell him this but asked what people had done before amplification. 'Ah!' he answered, 'They listened!'

It seems from all reports that people had listened more when hearing music meant hearing live music, when one had to wait for some appropriate event to hear it. There are now many weddings where cassettes or CDs are played through loudspeakers, replacing old the hired duo or band that would play for as long as the wedding party went on--sometimes for several days.  There is a lovely large taverna in our village, with a huge garden area which seats up to a few hundred people (a number often seen here on a summer night, especially for wedding parties).  When we asked the owner if we could play there once or twice a week during the summer, he told us that he could alllow no live music outdoors because in the past he had had  complaints from villagers calling up and threatening to call the police. 

Despite his words though, there have been numerous evenings every summer since then when the crowds from Athens come (one large crowd for a wedding or many separate groups for whatever occasion) and the  sound speakers from this same taverna blast commercial nisiotika (island music), complete with drum set and electric bass, (elements foreign to the island tradition) into the night air for all the village to hear late into the night. One night I heard such music followed by rock 'n roll, the volume turned up so loud that I could hear it a half mile away up on the road. Now and then a cultural organization funds an island band who play (live) and the owner makes a lot of money on the meals included in the entrance fee.  The band is of the type mentioned above--plugged in and highly amplifed, and including bouzouki (along with violin, laouto, and voice), which plays melody with the violin.

Enough about the destruction of  'tradition'. I use quotations around the word 'tradition' because 'traditions' are not frozen, set-in-stone entities. Though in some cases alterations to a 'tradition' amounts to what I and some others think of as 'bastardization', there are some changes that can keep the integrity of the prior entity (or in some cases create a new entity springing from the older one).
This is a thorny matter best left to those caught up in the subject. I am not  an ethno-musicologist  but merely a musician who hopes to arrive at her own conclusions and practices based on both knowledge and personal musical instinct.


There is a fine collection of folk instruments from all regions of Greece (including areas where Greeks lived in Asia Minor until 1922) in a little museum in the Plaka, the old section of Athens below the Akropolis. It is well worth a visit for those interested in Greek folk music, as recordings accompany each display of instruments, with headphones provided. There is also an adjoining store with cassettes, CDs of Greek music and books as well. Their telephone/fax numbers are: 32 50 198/32 54 119/32 54 129. See

Note: The following is a detailed description of some of the instruments and techniques used in older Greek folk music. If you find this too esoteric, scroll down to the end of this article to find out about MY AGENDA.

The chief melody instrument played at present on most Greek islands is the violin, which arrived in Greece by the late 1600's and which gradually pushed out an older instrument called the lyra except on the islands of Crete and Karpathos and a few others where they are still played occasionally). There are several kinds of lyras but they are generically either pear-shaped or oblong, light-weight fiddles held upright and bowed with an underhand bow-grip (ie. the bowing hand held palm-up rather than palm-down). This family of instruments was played widely on most Greek islands, as well as in mainland northeastern Greece (Macedonia and Thrace). It was also played in what is now Turkey, in the regions of Kappadokia (often spelled Cappadocia) and the Black Sea region (Pontos) where Greeks lived for many centuries before they were evicted from the new Turkish state in 1922/3 in what is euphemistically called the 'exchange of populations'.

The lyra played in Crete now is an alteration of the earlier Dodecanesian lyra played there up till the 1930s. Examples of the stages it passed through can be seen at the Plaka museum, as well as all the types of lyras played by Greeks. Violin is also played in Crete. There is an extremely resonant lyra called 'Politiki' lyra, which is named for the 'Poli' (city) which Greeks still call 'Konstantinoupoli' (Constantinople), most of them refusing to use its modern Turkish name (Istanbul). This very difficult lyra is played  in Turkish classical ensembles but was previously a folk instrument played in some of the very extradordinary music of Asia Minor Greeks in the 'Poli' and in Smyrni (now Izmir). It is enjoying a revival now in recordings of Greek music from Asia Minor.

There are fine CDs available now which present examples of music played on the violin in Greece as well as the various lyras--some of them on a series called 'Greek Folk Instruments'. There are  also CD series of the related Smyrneika and Rembetika traditions (1920s through 50s) which became intertwined after the Greeks were evicted from the new Turkish state in 1922-3 and flooded into Greece. Much knowledge can be attained from the notes on these CD's.

Whereas the Smyrneika/Rembetika traditions were urban ones, the violin music of the Greek islands and of many regions of Greece was a village/rural one. First a word, though, about some other older instruments played on the islands: the tsambouna, or island bagpipe with its double chanter (ie. there are two reeds side by side set into a wooden base with varying numbers of holes to be stopped by the fingers, providing for the possibility of chords and /or a drone note without the presence of a separate drone pipe (as with the gaida of Thrace in the north-easternmost region of mainland Greece).

The various tsambounas (and related flutes and pipes) have been played on the islands of Greece for at least a millenium, some of them in what is now Turkey. There is purely instrumental music for this bagpipe, though it is also played in accompaniment to songs. On many islands a smallish two-headed drum held with a strap around one shoulder and struck with straight sticks (toumbaki) is played with the tsambouna. I have seen such sticks made of ram's horn and ornately carved by the owner. The skins used for the bags of these pipes and for the drum heads are usually from the torsos of goats, and the pipe reeds are made of a kind of cane. These are shepherds' instruments which were banned by the dictator Metaxas in l936 as being 'backward' as well as by the 'junta' (a military dictatorship backed by the CIA from 1967-1974). When presenting a concert of holiday music from all over Greece with musicians a few years ago, my partner and I were told that though the pipes could be played for pupils in the schools where we  also gave musical presentations, they could not be played in the large Orthodox church where the concert was to be held. 'Why not?' we asked, and were told that the tsambouna was considered a 'street instrument'. One  can only wonder at the deeper reason, perhaps having more to do with the pagan times that preceded Christianity. Instruments so obviously made from animal skins suggest a connection with the earthly realm as no others do. The tsambouna (and, in some islands, tsambouna and toumbaki), though still played, are heard less often in recent times than the violin and laouto on most Greek islands. They are played especially at Apokries (the Greek version of carnival), where pre-Christian forms of revelry are still observed, including the wearing of animal skins and large belts of heavy goat-bells.

The laouto differs from the outi (oud) (an instrument played in Greece as well as in Turkey and North Africa) mainly in that though both have large rounded, gourd-like backs, the laouto has a long neck, metal (instead of gut or nylon) courses (pairs) of strings, four courses instead of six as on the oud, frets (moveable ones) and a different tuning.

On the islands (except for Crete with its larger, deeper-pitched laouto) the laouto is used mainly as a chordal instrument played with the violin. It is played with a long, narrow pick, traditionally made from the carved feather of large birds like vultures, but now most often made of plastic. The older style of playing (still practiced on islands such as Kythnos but which has died out in Naxos) was/is very percussive, very punchy. On most islands very few chords were/are played--the emphasis being on rhythm. This percussive use of a stringed instrument is something that I, as a violinist, have found most wonderful to play with because intense rhythm is combined with the fullness of chordal sound.

 An older  recently -deceased  island player combined the percussive chordal sound with frequent melody notes, though most players now have gone in the direction of clipped, staccato chords (and incessant chord changes) as well as electronic distortion of their instruments' basic sound as described above. The player whom I mention here was an anomaly both in his use of melody notes as well as in his playing of improvised solos known as taximia--more common to the music of mainland Greece, Crete, and Asia Minor.

The laouto is played in larger ensembles in northern Greece (mostly as a chordal instrument, though taximia (unmetered solos) are played on it as well) with such instruments as violin, clarinet, sometimes santouri (an instrument that resembles the hammer dulcimer and is played with cotton-tipped sticks) and either defi (tambourine) or the lap-drum known in Greece as toumbeleki (known also as dumbek or tarambouka). There is a laouto CD on the Greek Folk  Instruments series and several CDs with Christos Zotos (who comes from Epiros) and who teaches in Athens.  His style and repertoire are mostly from Epiros in northwest mainland Greece, though he is knowledgeable about all styles in Greece.  He has his own method for moving around easily on the instrument and is a true virtuoso. ).

The laouto is one of the instruments that has died out in many places, though it is sinse making a comeback. We attended a very large celebration one summer on a major holiday (15 August) on the island of Ikaria where the band included violin, bouzouki and guitar (a common combination in many present-day bands that put bouzouki and laouto together, partly so that they can play some rembetika or laika (latter-day boukouki music), but in such bands the bouzouki often plays along with the violin on many melodies. The combination is my least favorite, right up there along with electric bass and drum set (common now on many recordings of not only Greek island music but ANY Greek music by modern players).

Violin styles in Greece can vary radically between places only two or three hours distant from each other by boat or over the next mountain. They can, in fact, vary even in the same place (from village to village) which is one of the reasons that 'tradition' is so hard to pin down. Up until recently on most islands, the violin has been played with the laouto, as stated above, with one or both of the two musicians also singing. There are instrumental interludes (breaks) between verses of songs and also purely instrumental pieces. Both the latter and most songs are set in dance rhythms and hence danced to. Those listening may also join in the songs, even initiating verses. There are also slow songs sung with or without instruments and slow instrumental improvisations which require a high degree of proficiency on any instrument. All of the above applies as well to mainland Greek music. The mastery of Greek violin styles is extremely difficult, both for natives and for foreigners. Like most traditional music world-wide, the music is learned by ear instead of from notation and the notes are highly embellished, both by use of sylistic ornamentation and also by variations of the melody notes themselves.

The interplay between the laouto and violin is especially important in the older music, the laouto not simply 'accompanying' the violin, but locking in with it rhymically,(and melodically in some cases as stated above. I speak here of sophisticated players, of which there are many still (though many have also moved to Athens or elsewhere where they work as professional musicians only). One could travel to Greece and hear less adept players and decide that Greek traditional music is something rather primitive, but then--this sort of spectrum exists everywhere in all human endeavors. In general, the sound of the violin in all Greek music is radically different from the sound of the violin in western classical music (as is the sound of Greek clarinet, which is played mostly in mainland Greece).

For more information on Greek music and instrumental styles, see my articles on music in the 2002 editions of the Rough Guide to the Greek Islands and The Rough Guide to the Dodecanese & East Aegean Islands.   To read about the incredible and varied dance tradition in Greece, read Yvonne Hunt's Traditonal Dance in Greek Culture.  She can be contacted at the following email address:  .

To hear older-style Greek music live while travelling depends on being in the right place at the right time and knowing what to look for.   Check this website (the one that this article is on) for Festivals. If you already have a planned destination in Greece, ask around when you get there if there is any paradhosiakee mousikee (accented syllables in dark print) or traditional music. This might or might not get you to the real thing (as many modern ensembles call themselves traditional, even if they include bouzouki!) The best thing if you are really interested in finding older style music is to read up on it a little, listen to some recordings and find your own way. Learning some Greek also helps a lot.


I first heard and danced to Greek music at the week-long Balkan Music and Dance Workshops (held annually for almost three decades in the redwood forest of northern California and for almost as long on the  U.S. East Coast as well). At these week-long workshops (commonly known as 'Balkan Camp') there are daily classes where the songs, dances and instruments of all the Balkan countries are taught by a staff that includes both Americans and musicians from those countries.  The staff plays for long dance parties every evening. I attended this camp first in 1982 where I first began learning to play a Bulgarian folk instrument known as gudulka (a northern Balkan lyra-type instrument with sympathetic strings).

I had played the violin for years (Baroque music, Irish fiddle music) and in 1985 travelled to Bulgaria where I studied for two months with a member of the Bulgarian State Ensemble. Later, I taught at the same camps and played with a band in the San Francisco Bay Area (with all Bulgarian folk instruments).  We played for several years at the camp and at various folk dance events in northern California. I arranged events as well in my local area for folk-dancers, for which I and my partner played music. He played the Bulgarian folk instrument known as tambura).

 In 1990, two musicians from Boston came to teach at the camp and changed our lives-- a woman (American) who taught Greek music on violin, and the man a superb  Greek singer-instrumentalist.  I took the violin classes at the camp every summer, and worked all year on what I had learned, having no other available teacher.  I also copied much music onto cassette from collections of those who played and taught Greek music at the Camp.  My partner bought a bouzouki and tuned it like a laouto so that he could play chordal accompaniment to my violin (it not being so easy to find a laouto at the time).

In 1993 I travelled alone to six  Greek islands with a list of musicians--a list given to me by a  Greek-American woman who had assisted Simon Karas with the 30-or- more field recordings he made of musicians in every region of Greece during the 1960s and 70s.  At first LPs, some of these have been reissued  in recent years as CDs. Karas founded the  Society for the Dissemination of Greek Music (SDNM) which became a school of traditional Greek music in Athens and where classes in Greek music continue being taught at present. 

I did not find the teacher I was looking for at this time, though I did record two fine older players--from Lesvos (Mytilini) and from Sifnos.  My partner and I travelled together to Greece in '98 and stayed for six months--on the islands of Sifnos, Kythnos, and Naxos. We studied with fine players on the latter two islands and he found first a cheap laouto, and later a much better one. We returned to California for a year and then came back to Naxos where we rented a village house and performed at various events on the island: name-day parties, paneyiria (saints-day celebrations), baptisms, a village celebration for Apokries, presentations sponsored by Greek cultural organizations, at public schools, tavernas, and at a church concert (as mentioned above).

Since November of 2002, I have continued my life and study of Greek music alone in Greece, performing with Greek musicians for many events, including concerts, weddings, baptisms, saints'day celebrations, name-day celebrations, parties, festivals  and tavernas on Naxos and Aegina islands and in Athens.

For those visiting or residing in Greece, I  offer the following musical services:

Music for Events

Concerts, presentations, weddings, baptisms, festivals, name-days, openings, parties or any event where traditional Greek music is desired.

Repertoire  is from the Aegean islands, Asia Minor, Thrace and the Peloponnese, with violin and other instruments such as laouto, oud, santouri, kanonaki, clarinet, percussion, voice. It is possible to put on a music event with just two instruments, with one of the players also a singer. This is, in fact the tradition  in Greek island music, with laouto and violin the  “ziyia” or “pair”, though sometimes santouri has been a third instrument. Music from Asia Minor can also be performed with just an oud and violin, or with other pairs of instruments. Larger bands can, however, also be arranged.

The house party is a fine and affordable option, with food and drink provided by hosts and guest donations. Such parties need at least 15 guests to cover costs.

Violin Lessons
Private lessons on violin of one to two hours, tailored to the experience and needs of the student, who may be of any age. Beginners are welcome, as are musicians playing other instruments who want to learn regional Greek music. Learning by ear is encouraged, as is recording of lessons so that they may be listened to again and again. Languages spoken are Greek and English.

Where: In my country home on Aegina island (one hour by regular ferry from Piraeus), or at my studio in central Athens

Arranging of lessons with Greek teachers

I can set up lessons with Greek musicians, and translate from Greek to English during those lessons.

Workshops in Greek violin styling
2-5 day workshops with group violin lessons of two-three hours each, twice per day if desired, are offered, with advance registration of 3-15 students. Individual attention will be give to each student as well, with sessions of listening to samples of recorded source material.

Where: In my country home in Aegina or at her studio in central Athens.


Music talks in the schools, for tourist groups, cultural organizations
A 1 ½ -2-hour introduction to the incredibly varied regional Greek music traditions, with recorded samples from different areas as well as videos of live music events.

Note on translation:

I am also available for translation of material written in Greek into English. Interested parties should  look at my translation of the website of one of Greece’s finest traditional musicians, violinist Nikos Oikonomidis:

Please contact me at:

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