Fadel Shaker

Music of Greece

The musical legacy of Greece is as diverse as its history. Cypriot music has certain similarities to traditional Greek music, and their modern popular music scenes remain well-integrated.

Greek music history

Greek written history extends far back into Ancient Greece, and was a major part of ancient Greek theater. Later, influences from the Roman Empire, Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire changed Greek music. In the 19th century, opera composers, like Nikolaos Mantzaros (1795 - 1872), Spyridon Xyndas (1812 - 1896) and Spyridon Samaras (1861 - 1917) and symphonists, like Dimitris Lialios and Dionysios Rodotheatos revitalized Greek art music. However, the diverse history of art music in Greece, which extents from the Cretan Rennaisance and reaches modern times, exceeds the aims of the present contribution, which will be limited to the presentation of the musical form that the last few decades became synonymous to 'Greek music'. That is the 'Greek song' or, better, the 'song in Greek verse'.

Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, mixed-gender choruses performed for entertainment, celebration and spiritual reasons. Instruments included the double-reed aulos and the plucked string instrument, the lyre, especially the special kind called a kithara.

Music was an important part of education in ancient Greece, and boys were taught music starting at age six. Greek musical literacy created a flowering of development; Greek music theory included the Greek musical modes, eventually became the basis for Western religious music and classical music.

Greece in the Roman Empire

Due to Rome's reverence for Greek culture, Roman music continued to use the Greek notational system.


The tradition of eastern liturgical chant, encompassing the Greek-speaking world, developed in the Byzantine Empire from the establishment of its capital, Constantinople, in 330 until its fall in 1453. It is undeniably of composite origin, drawing on the artistic and technical productions of the classical Greek age, on Jewish music, and inspired by the monophonic vocal music that evolved in the early Greek Christian cities of Alexandria, Antioch and Ephesus.

Greece during the Ottoman Empire(Rum Music)

By the beginning of the 20th century, music-cafés were popular in Constantinople and Smyrna, primarily owned by Greeks, alongside Jews and Armenians. The bands were led by a female vocalist, typically, and included a violin and a sandoúri. The improvised songs typically exclaimed aman aman, which led to the name amanédhes or café-aman. Musicians of this period included Marika Papagika, Agapios Tomboulis, Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi. This period also brought in the Rempetika movement, which featured in Smyrna (Izmir), and had local Smyrnaic, Byzantine, and Ottoman influences.

Folk music

Greek folk traditions are said to derive from the music played by ancient Greeks. There are said to be two musical movements in Greek folk music: acritic songs and klephtic. Akritic music comes from the 9th century akrites, or border guards of the Byzantine Empire. Following the end of the Byzantine period, klephtic music arose before the Greek Revolution, developed among the kleftes, warriors who fought against the Ottoman Empire. Klephtic music is monophonic and uses no harmonic accompaniment.

Traditional dimotiká are accompanied by clarinets, guitars, tambourines and violins, and include dance music forms like syrtó, kalamatianó, tsámiko and hasaposérviko,as well as vocal music like kléftiko. Many of the earliest recordings were done by Arvanites like Yiorgia Mittaki and Yiorgios Papasidheris. Instrumentalists include clarinet virtuosos like Tasos Halkias, Yiorgos Yevyelis and Yiannis Vassilopoulos, as well as oud and fiddle players like Nikos Saragoudas and Yiorgos Koros.

Greek folk music is found all throughout Greece, as well as among communities in countries like the United States, Canada and Australia. The island of Cyprus and several regions of Turkey are home to long-standing communities of ethnic Greeks with their own unique styles of music.


Ikariotikos is a traditional dance and accompanying song originating in the Greek island of Ikaria. At first it was a very slow dance, but today Ikariotikos is a very quick dance. Some specialists say that the traditional Ikariotikos was slow and the quick "version" of it is in fact Ballos. Music and dancing are major forms of entertainment on Ikaria, and figure prominently in the lives of Ikarians. Throughout the year Ikarians host baptisms, weddings, parties and religious festivals where one can listen and dance to live traditional Ikarian Music.

Cretan Music

Crete is an island that is a part of Greece. The lýra is the dominant folk instrument on the island; it is a three-stringed fiddle similar to the Pontiako kemençe. It is often accompanied by the Cretian lute (laoúto), which is similar to both an oud and a mandolin. Nikos Xylouris, Antonis Xylouris (or Psarantonis), Thanassis Skordalos and Kostas Moundakis are the most renowned players of the lýra.


The "tabachaniotika" (sing., tabachaniotiko) songs are a Cretan urban musical repertory which belongs to the wide family of musics, like the rebetika and music of the Café-aman, that merge Greek and Eastern music elements. This genre represents an outcome of the Cretan-Minor Asia's Greek cultural syncretism in East Mediterranean Sea. It developed mainly after the immigration of Smyrna's refugees in 1922, as did the more widespread rebetika.

Various conjectures are advanced to explain the meaning and origin of the term "tabachaniotika". Kostas Papadakis believes that it comes from tabakaniotikes, which may mean places where hashish was smoked and music performed, as in the tekédes of Piraeus. But a quarter named Tabahana existed in Smyrna and the name had a Turkish root (Trk., tabak: tanner; tabakhane: tannery). In Chaniá too, there was a quarter with the same name, where refugees from Smyrna lived after the 1922 diaspora. Tabachaniotiko was also the name of a song of the amané genre, which was popular in Smyrna in the period before 1922, together with some other songs called Minoré, Bournovalio, Galata, and Tzivaeri (Kounadis 1993: 23). Compare the performance of Greek-Turkish ballos by a Greek ensemble in New York City in 1928, included in the online article on Mediterranean music in America by Karl Signell.

This detail might be critical for the history of Cretan tabachaniotika, since Cretans frequently had contacts with the people and music of Smyrna during the nineteenth century. Cretan musicians believe that the further development of Cretan tabachaniotika took place mainly after 1922, as a consequence of the refugees' resettlement. The genre was popular until the 1950s.

  • Music

Dromoi, modal types designated by Turkish names, like rasti, houzam, hijaz, ousak, niaventi, sabak, etc.

Instrumental introduction before the song (taximi, pl., taximia), where the player explores the dromo

Tsifteteli rhythm, as in the Turkish "belly dance" music example heard in Signell's article.

Musical instruments like bouzouki, boulgarí (the Cretan version of the Turkish baglama, similar to the earliest forms of the bouzouki), and baglamás

  • Poetic text

The rebetika and "tabachaniotika" often share the political verse, that is, fifteen syllable lines divided into two hemistichs (8+7), generally realized as couplets. In Crete such couplets are called mandinades, as are extemporary texts sung to the music of dances, mainly the syrtós, and kondilyés.

They focus mainly on the themes of existential grief and lost love, also common to the rebetika. Songs making fun of Turks, narrative songs, and other songs in dialogue form also belong to this repertory.

Unlike the rebetika, the "tabachaniotika" did not typify the underground and was only sung, not danced, according to Nikolaos Sarimanolis, the last living performer of this repertory in Chaniá. Only a few musicians played the "tabachaniotika", the most famous being the boulgarí player Stelios Phoustalierakis "Phoustalieris" (1911-1992) from Rethymnon. Phoustalieris bought his first boulgarí in 1924. In 1979, he said that in Rethymnon the boulgarí was widespread in the 1920s: in every tavern one could find a boulgarí, and people played and sang love songs. He said the boulgarí was then also the main accompanying instrument of the lyra, together with the mandola. The laouto began spreading in Rethymnon not before the 1930s. Phoustalieris played for years as accompanist of the lyrist Antonis Kareklás in feasts and weddings and performed any kind of repertory (syrtós, pendozalia, pidichtá kastriná, taximia, kathistiká--lit., "sitting-down music," i.e., music for listening, not for dancing--and even rebetika). Later, he began playing the boulgarí, also as a melodic instrument, with the accompaniment of guitar or mandolin. He played also in a group with musicians refugees from Asia Minor, who played the outi and sandouri. Phoustalieris composed also many songs and recorded them in Rethymnon. In the period 1933–1937 he lived in Piraeus and played together with famous rebetes, like Markos Vamvarakis. He may be considered a musician who merged the musics of Crete, Asia Minor, and Piraeus (see Liavas 1988). Notwithstanding the dearth of performers, "tabachaniotika" songs were widespread and could also be performed at domestic gatherings, according to bouzouki player Nikolaos Sarimanolis (born in Nea Ephesos(Kuşadası), Asia Minor, in 1919). Sarimanolis also took part in the group founded by Papadakis in Chaniá in 1945 (see Papadakis interview).

Popular music

Being largely unaffected by the developments of the European Renaissance, due to the almost four centuries of Ottoman occupation, the first liberated Greeks were anxious to catch up with the rest of Europe. The flourishing Greek culture of the Ionian islands, which were under the Italian rule and influence, was in sharp contrast to the Ottoman cultural poverty. It was through these islands that all the major advances of the European music were introduced to mainland Greeks. The songs of the islands known as Eptanissian, became the forerunners of the Greek modern song, influencing its development to a considerable degree. For almost a century all later musical attempts had to borrow elements from the Eptanissian music.

Early popular song

The most successful songs during the period 1870–1930 were the so-called Athenian songs, the serenades and the songs performed on the Athenian stage in revues and operettas that dominated the Athenian theatres. The serenades were operating by definition in an autonomous way, whereas the "Athenian" songs, despite their original connection to a total dramatic work, also achieved to become hits as independent songs. Italian opera had a great influence on the musical aesthetics of the Modern Greeks.

After 1930, wavering among American and European musical influences as well as the Greek musical tradition, the Greek composers begin to


Laïka is a Greek music-culture. The word "Laika" means that it is the music of the people in Greek, though "Laika" right now is the most popular kind of music for Greece.



Laika is similar to the Serbian Turbo-folk, they have the same sort of Etno-Ambient Underground Dance-melodies, but the Laika differs from turbo-folk, since Laika originates from Rebetika.


Rebétiko evolved from traditions of the urban poor. Refugees and drug-users, criminals and the itinerant, the earliest rembétika musicians were scorned by mainstream society. They sang heartrending tales of drug abuse, prison and violence, usually accompanied by the bouzouki, a sort of lute derived from the Byzantine tambourás and related to the Turkish saz.

In 1923, many ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor fled to Greece as a result of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922). They settled in poor neighborhoods in Pireás, Thessaloniki and Athens. Many of these immigrants were highly educated, and included songwriter Vangelis Papazoglou and Panayiotis Toundas, composer and leader of Odeon Records' Greek subsidiary.

However, one Turkish tradition that came with the Greek migrants was the tekés, or hashish dens. Groups of men would sit in a circle and smoke hashish from a hookah, and improvised music of various kinds was common. With the coming of the Metaxas dictatorship, rembétika was repressed due to the uncompromising lyrics. Hashish dens and bouzoúkis were banned. Many songs from this period were composed in prison, where musicians made instruments out of scavenged equipment.

After World War 2, rembétika had become a calmer form of music, Out of this music scene came two of the earliest legends of Greek Oriental music, like the quartet of Markos Vamvakaris, Artemis, Stratos Payioumtzis, and Batis. Vamvakaris became perhaps the first star of rembétika after beginning a solo career.

The scene was soon popularized further by stars like Vassilis Tsitsanis. His "Synefiazmeni Kyriaki" became an anthem for the oppressed Greeks after it was composed in 1943, though it wasn't recorded until 1948. He was followed by female singers like Marika Ninou, Ioanna Yiorgakopoulou and Sotiria Bellou. In 1953, Manolis Khiotis added a fourth pair of strings to the bouzoúki, which allowed it be tuned tonally and set the stage for the electrification of rembétika.

Rembétika was revived during the 1967–1974 coup, which banned the music. Ironically, the banning meant that the dispossessed of Greece were attracted to the music and its messages of subversion. Revival groups included Opisthodhromiki Kompania, Rembetiki Kompania, Agathonas Iakovidhis and Ta Pedhia apo tin Patra.


Drawing on rembétika's Westernization with Tsitsanis, éntekhno arose in the late 1950s. Éntekhno is orchestral music with elements of Greek folk rhythm and melody. Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis were the most popular early performers; however there are also other significant Greek songwriters like Stavros Kouioumtzis and Manos Loizos. By the 1960s, innovative albums made éntekhno mainstream, and also led to its appropriation by the film industry for use in soundtracks, often watering-down the music in the process. The music theme which appears in the Hollywood 1964 movie Zorba the Greek remains the most well-known Greek song abroad.


Laïkó was the pop music of the 50s and 60s. Laïkó is similar to Turkish Fantezi music. The influence of oriental music on laïkó can be most strongly seen in 1960s indoyíftika, Indian filmi with Greek lyrics. Manolis Angelopoulos was the most popular indoyíftika performer, while pure laïkó was dominated by superstar Stelios Kazantzidis and Stratos Dionisiou. Among the most significant songwriters of this category can be named Akis Panou, George Zambetas, Apostolos Kaldaras, Giorgos Mitsakis Kostas Papaioannou and many others.


Tsifteteli is a type of music that was bought over by refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s. Basically, it is Greek belly dance music. The Arabic and Turkish influence on this type of music is very clear, and adds to the cultural similarities Greeks have with the Middle East. This is an extremely popular form of Modern Greek music, and played almost everywhere in Greece. Some popular modern popular artists who include tsifteteli in their music are Katy Garbi, Anna Vissi, Despina Vandi, Eleni Karousaki, Yiorgos Mazonakis, and many others.


Greek Arabesque music.

Other popular trends

Folk singer-songwriters first appeared in the 1960s, with Dionysis Savvopoulos's 1966 breakthrough. Many of these musicians started out playing néo kýma, a mixture of éntekhno and chansons from France. Savvopoulos mixed American musicians like Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa with Macedonian folk music and politically incisive lyrics. In his wake came more folk-influenced performers like Arletta, Mariza Koch and Kostas Hatzis.

Another of Savvopoulos' pupils was Nikos Xydhakis, who revolutionized laïkó by using orientalized instrumentation. His most successful album was 1987's Konda sti Dhoxa Stigmi, recorded with Eleftheria Arvanitaki.

Due to the considerable influence much Greek music has from Turkey and the Middle East, there have been exchanges of music and duets with singers from these areas. Greek singers like Sarbel have translated songs from Arabic to Greek and these have become extremely popular. Also, with Greek-Turkish relations warming, there are songs that are the same and sung as a duet in both languages. A good example of a song crossing these three cultures is the song Anavis Foties by Despina Vandi. This song has been made into Arabic by Fadel Shaker and called, Dehket Al-Donya, and a Turkish-Greek duet entitled Aşka Yürek Gerek was done by Mustafa Sandal, a popular singer from Turkey, and Greek singer Natalia Doussopoulou.


  • - "Amaxas" Greek song from the Library of Congress' Florida Folklife from the WPA Collections; performed by Charles M. Brown, Louis Peronis (fiddle), Charylaos Perris (santouri) and George Kafezio (mandola) on August 26, 1939 in Tarpon Springs, Florida


  • Dubin, Marc and George Pissalidhes. "Songs of the Near East". 2000. In Broughton, Simon and Ellingham, Mark with McConnachie, James and Duane, Orla (Ed.), World Music, Vol. 1: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, pp 126-142. Rough Guides Ltd, Penguin Books. ISBN 1-85828-636-0
  • Folk dances of the Greek regions

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