A History of the Bouzouki and its Music
John Hood, 2011

John Hood is the founding editor of Clio. This paper was written as a contribution to the National Folk Festival Museum. The author has been a teacher of History for more than forty years and also plays bouzouki in a rebetiko ensemble known as 'Barba Yianni.' The term 'rebetika' used throughout this work will appear in slightly different spellings in some of the quotes. This is due to the fact that the Greek language alters words to agree with subject and gender. Thus, 'rebetika' is really meant to be 'rebetika tragoudia' (rebetika songs). Other variants might be: 'rebetiki mousiki' (rebetika music) or 'rebetiko'. All of these terms are correct. As well as this, some scholars place the letter 'm' within the word, thus: 'rembetika', etc. This, in the author's opinion, is less correct, since Greek has no letter for the sound 'b' and uses a combination of 'm' and 'p'. Translated literally from Greek into the Latin script, a word like 'rebetika' would appear as 'rempetika'. The actual pronounciation, however, is 'rebetika'.

A new voice

In October 1932, the same year in which Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World,a twenty seven year old musician in Athens, Markos Vamvakaris, reported to the technicians in the studios of Columbia Records Greece to make one of the first recordings of the bouzouki. It was not the very first time that the bouzouki had been recorded on a phonograph, not even in Greece. This occurred in New York in the late 1920s, followed by the first recording in Athens in October 1931, a year before Vamvakaris. The recording studios were probably not interested in the bouzouki as such, but in a new musical style that had emerged from the waterfront tavernas and tekedes (hashish dens) of Piraeus in the previous decades. Often compared to the 'blues,' the new style was the creation of musicians on the fringes of society, drop-outs from conventional life, whose lyrics testified to the hardships and injustices of life and occasionally extolled the virtues of smoking hashish.
In the recording session of 1932, Vamvakaris played some of his own compositions, which may have included Εφουμέρναμε ένα βράδυ ('We got high one night') and 'Taxim Serf',' a very oriental sounding piece.


The new music of Rebetika was destined to to have a profound effect on the future direction of Greek music, and it played an important role in making the bouzouki, at least in the eyes of the world and of many Greeks, the national instrument of Greece.

The history of the bouzouki is relatively easy to trace from this moment on. Many of the early phonograph recordings still survive, and, together with all the records, CDs and movies made ever since, form an invaluable record of the rise of the bouzouki and its music. Few doubt the connection between the bouzouki and rebetika, although Tony Klein claims that: ”strangely, the bouzouki continued to be rare on American recordings until after WWII." (Klein, 2009). The strong connection between the bouzouki and rebetika music is underlined by comparison with other Greek folk music genres. Tambouris points out:

“The main instruments used in rebetiko are the bouzouki and the guitar, but also the baglamas... While the demotic orchestra (ie. The rural folk music of the villages) is mostly focused on percussion and wind instruments, these are the very instruments missing from a rebetiko ensemble, which has nothing but strings.” (2008,p.19).

It is not unusual, of course, to find certain genres of music defined by the instruments used to play them. The connection between bouzouki and rebetika was important, for it ensured that the instrument and the music shared a common development. This is not true of the era before the first phonograph recordings. The music that is now closely associated with the bouzouki began as a quite separate phenomenon. The bouzouki itself was an instrument within the family of Greek musical instruments well before this, and is in fact a descendant of instruments that originated in ancient times.

Defining the Bouzouki

The bouzouki is a stringed instrument which consists of a sounding box with a round back, a long neck, fixed frets and three or four courses of double strings. It is played by plucking the strings with a plectrum, or pick, which in Greek is known as a 'penna'. There are three different forms of the modern bouzouki. The most recent, said to have been developed in 1966 by Johnny Moynihan, is the so-called Irish bouzouki. Not so very old, either, is the modern eight string bouzouki, nowadays used extensively in Greek music of all types and created, it is said, only a decade before the Irish bouzouki. The instrument associated with the rise and re-invention of rebetika music is the six string 'traditional' bouzouki and its smaller cousin, the baglamas.

The story of the Irish bouzouki seems straightforward enough. John ('Johnny') Moynihan, a Dublin musician, is said to have encountered a bouzouki in the early 1960s and decided to adapt it for Irish folk music. Not all agree with this legend. According to the Guild of American Luthiers, 'the precise history of the instrument is somewhat lost in folklore.' Whatever the truth, the result is more akin to the mandolin or guitar, and is sometimes called an 'octave mandolin'. It bears little resemblance to its Greek progenitor, either in appearance - the distinctive round-backed shape of the bouzouki was flattened - or playing style. Ironically, if Moynihan had encountered the Greek laouto, an instrument used as rhythmic accompaniment to violin or clarinet in the folk music of the villages, he may have found this to be more appropriate to adapt than the bouzouki.

Typical modern 8 string (4 course) bouzouki

The eight string (4 course) bouzouki was created by the addition of two extra strings to the earlier six-string instrument. This change is sometimes attributed to Manolis Hiotis, one of the later rebetika musicians, who certainly gained a reputation as a virtuoso on the eight string bouzouki in the 1950s. Hiotis is said to have added an extra course and tuned this new instrument in a new way. The modern eight string bouzouki is usually tuned as C F A D, two semitones below the four highest strings on a guitar. This change has given the bouzouki greater musical flexibility, allowing the musician to play chordal harmony in the manner of a guitar. This is the most commonly used version in Greek music today.

The six string bouzouki, however, is the classic instrument of earlier times. Consisting of three double strings in unison, it is usually tuned as Dd aa dd, in a key that is very common in the eastern Mediterranean. This tuning was apparently settled upon in the early twentieth century. Vamvakaris, in his memoirs, testifies that the bouzouki and the baglama were often tuned in many different ways in order to suit certain songs. According to Gail Holst, “by the time Markos Vamvakaris dictated his autobiography, he had forgotten most of these tunings or douzenia – again the term is a Turkish one – and there are few players alive who make use of them.” (Holst, p.66). When Vamvakaris was asked to record his music in 1932, therefore, the six string bouzouki, tuned D a d, was the standard instrument of rebetika, and remained the form of the bouzouki for more than twenty years.

The Origins of the Bouzouki

The bouzouki had been known in Greece well before the arrival of the refugees from Turkey. A pencil drawing made in 1835 by the Danish traveller Martinus Robrye, now in the Thorvaldsens museum, Copenhagen, shows the workshop of an Athenian instrument maker and is labelled “Leonidas Gailas da Athina, Fabricatore di bossuchi.” Hanging on the walls of the workshop are a variety of instruments, which include a number of long-necked lutes. These resemble not only the modern six-string bouzouki but also the modern saz, found throughout the Middle East, as well as an instrument known in Greece since the tenth century, the tabouras. The three instruments form a family, with the tabouras having the oldest recorded history. It is possible that the names bouzouki and saz both derive from the word tabouras. The tabouras itself seems clearly to be descended from an instrument well known in the classical Greek and Roman world, the pandouras.

There does seem to be a clear chronological descent from the ancient pandouras to the modern bouzouki. The pandouras is known from many ancient references, as well as a number of important depictions in art. The instrument is clearly a stringed lute-like instrument which is played by plucking the strings. It is also probably the instrument known as trichordos, or 'three stringed.'

Classical Greek figure with a pandouras, 5thCentury BC

Terracotta figure from the 'Mantineia Base', showing the pandouras., c. 330 BCE

The tabouras is a similar instrument to both bouzouki and saz, and with a longer recorded history. It is mentioned in the famous 12th century Byzantine epic poem 'Digenis Akritis', which narrates the deeds of a border warrior. At one point in the poem Akritis, “entered his chamber, picked up his tambouras and tuned it.”
Και αφότου αποδείπνησεν, εμπαίνει εις το κουβούκλιν
και επήρεν το θαμπούριν του και αποκατάστησέν το.

When he had finished his meal, he entered his chamber
and picked up his tamboura [thambourin] and tuned it.

There is a good deal of evidence for the use of the tabouras in Greece during the Ottoman period, particularly in illustrations made by European travellers. An actual tabouras can be seen in the National Historical Museum of Greece in Athens. It was the possession of General Makriyannis, one of the leaders of the 1821 Revolution. The illustrations below include a performance by Petros Moustakas on a modern reconstruction of the tabouras.

The tabouras, like the saz, has movable frets that permit playing tunes in the Greek traditional modes of Byzantium. It is perhaps the ancestor of the saz. 'Tabouras' is pronounced in Greek with a lengthened final syllable: 'tabour -as, which may have been shortened to give the word 's-az'.
Theodoros Kolokotronis, 1828.. A tambouras or bouzouki player sits on the right of the picture.

The modern sazi, sometimes played in Greece today, derives its name from the Turkish saz. Pericles Papapetropoulos describes the saz as “having the following characteristics:

"a pear-shaped soundbox and thin neck (usually made as an extension of the soundbox), movable frets and wooden, T-shaped tuning keys... three double-coursed strings.... The frets, 23 or 24 in number, are tied to the 'plaka' These days they are made of plastic, but used to be of gut or silk thread. The thread is wound around the arm four times and tied in a tight knot at the rear. These can be moved as desired in order to create the traditional intervals of Byzantine and oriental music in general.”
A modern sazi

Apart from the movable fets, these are also the characteristics of the bouzouki. Though there seems no evidence for it, the term 'bouzouki' is often claimed to be derived from the Turkish word 'bozuk' meaning not functioning, modified. If this is true, then it is quite possible for the name to be a shortened version of bozuk saz, a 'modified saz'. The fixed frets of the bouzouki could then explain the difference between the two instruments. It is a significant difference. The use of fixed frets is an indication of a tempered instrument, reflecting the influence of European music. It is not certain, however, if fixed frets were a feature of the bouzouki during the 1800s. Other writers have claimed that "around the turn of the century in Athens and Piraeus musicians adapted the Turkish saz to their needs, replacing the tied frets with metal frets like those of mandolins and guitars , and in the process abandoning the 1/4 tone system for the Western tempered tuned chromatic scale.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BouzoukiThis is an important point, since, according toTambouris, "The bouzouki is nothing more than a Turkish saz, a tambour, where the mobile frets are replaced by permanent ones. This means that the bouzouki cannot render the semitones that are so characteristic in the sound of Asia Minor. Therefore, the bouzouki is more closely related to West-influenced music rather than to music from Asia Minor." (p13)

In summary, the bouzouki is probably descended from the ancient world, beginning first as the pandouras, then changing its name at some time during Byzantine times into the tabouras, which in turn came to be also known as the saz, modified at some time to bozuk saz and then finally known as the bouzouki. The name was already in use by 1835, but what music was played upon it?

Presumably it was used, like the tambouras, to accompany the voice. It may also have accompanied the dance, as the engravings by d”Ohsson and Gironi show.

We can only assume that the bouzouki was one of the many instruments used in demotiki music, the folk music of the people and the countryside, long before its association with rebetika. In fact, it seems that the instrument and the music came together in the 1920s from quite separate origins. The bouzouki had been available in different forms from the earliest times, under various names, but the origin of rebetika music is a little more obscure.

The Origins of Rebetika

Petros Tambouris claims that rebetika was “developed by people living in Greek cities (including those cities in Asia Minor and the Bosporus region) and in other forms such as the so-called kleftika, prison songs and others.” (Kleftika are the songs of the kleftes; folk-hero bandits during the Ottoman Empire). Tambouris stresses the influence of prison songs, and states:

“The origins of rebetiko can be found in prison songs. The first reference... is dated to the mid 19th century... Rebetiko songs began to emerge in areas that experienced the first large concentrations of urban population, such as Smyrna, Constantinople and Thessaloniki. ...Rebetiko, in its earliest manifestations, arose from the first generation of internal migrants moving from the countryside to the city... The characteristic sound that differentiates it from typical popular, or demotic music is the multi-faceted nature of the social groups it lent expression to, in contrast to the demotic music which came from close-knit agricultural societies and which could be defined by local idioms, common ethnic roots, etc. If, for example, we were to study the social evolution of Smyrna, we would observe that the city had large numbers of settlers from the broader Greek-speaking region. The same goes for Constantinople, or present-day Istanbul. Furthermore, the presence of minority populations of Muslims, as well as minorities from Armenia, Jews and merchants, diplomats and military personnel from the West was more acutely felt in Smyrna. Together they formed a diverse minority group. Within this great melting-pot, all the different forms of cultural expression were given room to grow.” (Tambouris, 2008, p9)
Inmates of Halkidas prison, 1900. The man second left in front row holds a bouzouki .

Interestingly, Tambouris also claims that rebetika was influenced by the music of the Orthodox church, which:

“... shared the same theoretical musical forms that predominated among Muslim populations in the Balkans and the Near East, and all the way to the Middle East...based on ancient Greek musical models.... There were a number of melodies which, irrespective of their origins, were used equally by Turks and Greeks and which then went on to become incorporated in the rebetiko songs of the regions.” (ibid, p11.)

Dr. Lambros Liavas, on the other hand, places more emphasis on the waterfront cultures of the Aegean islands. According to Liavas:

“rebetiko was born and matured by the waters of the Aegean, giving expression to the aspirations and woes of the lower and middle classes in the harbour towns. Looking into the background of its outstanding figures, we see that all of them... are connected with the islands and seaboard of the Aegean.... The Aegean Sea rebetiko is a product of the taverns, coffee-houses and cafes-aman. 'The taverns of Smyrna and other ports are constantly filled with men dancing, drinking and singing...' - so wrote the traveller Bartholdy at the beginning of last century.” (Liavas, 1987, p.46)

Liavas also points out the extent to which the origins of rebetika lie in a blending of cultures from all over the Mediterranean.

“As early as 1702 Tournefort observed that in Smyrna 'the taverns were open all hours of the day and night. Inside, they played music, ate wholesome food and danced a la Franga, a la Greca, a la Turka..' The meeting of East and West in the territory of the Aegean, found one of its finest expressions in rebetika songs and dances. The harbour towns were the places where Italian, French, Rumanian, Serbian, Turkish, Persian, Armenian, and Romany influences were filtered through the age-long musical tradition of the Aegean... Greek musicians playing in cafes-aman before an audience that represented all the races in the eastern Mediterranean accompanied Armenian singers and gypsy dancers.” (ibid). This 'melting pot' of musical styles is evident in Smyrnaika, the music of Smyrna.

Smyrna, 1820, a Greek city on the western coast of Turkey.

It is worth remembering that this 'blending of cultures' was nothing new. The Ionian coast of modern Turkey had been Greek-speaking since the seventh century BC. The Byzantine empire, preceding the Ottoman by some eight hundred years, had been a multicultural entity for centuries. After the Ottoman conquests of the fifteenth century, Greek and Turkish speakers lived side by side for over four hundred years, within the same communities. The extent of cross-cultural influences should not be under-estimated.

The city of Smyrna, now modern Izmir, was destined to have a particular influence on the development of rebetika. Situated on the western coast of Asia Minor, in modern Turkey, it was throughout antiquity one of the leading cities of Ionia, and even claimed Homer as a citizen (Gates, 2003). According to Florence Fensham, who visited the city in 1908 when it was still part of the Ottoman empire, Greek influence was so strong in the area that the Turks called it "Smyrna of the infidels" (Gavur İzmir). According to Tambouris, Smyrna was “perhaps the first major city in the East that assumed the characteristics of major urban centres in the West. Its population... was 300,000 at a time when Athens had no more than 100,000.” (2008, p.11).

“Smyrna is a very musical town. I have never observed so many barrel organs anywhere else,” observed Bourgault-Ducoudray, who collected about 30 Smyrna melodies in 1875. In the last two centuries of the Ottoman empire, Smyrna was the largest center of subjugated Hellenism. Despite its multi-ethnic character.. Greeks formed the majority of its population, comprising up to 60 percent of its total population.” (Tambouris, 2008, Songs of Smyrna, p.9).

The influence of this sophisticated urban population on the development of music in Greece itself seems to have been considerable. According to Tambouris, musicians from Constantinople and Smyrna travelled to the newly free Greek state in the 1850s. Their influence resulted in the establishment of music cafes (Kafodeia, santour or cafe-aman) which were “embraced by the broad working-class... despite the outcry from European-minded intellectuals who feared the return of a Turkish cultural occupation.” (ibid, p13.)

Gail Holst identifies this 'Smyrna music” as one of the forerunners of rebetika, and most scholars would seem to agree with this view.

“Towards the end of the 19th century... musical cafes appeared in towns like Athens and Piraeus, Larissa, etc. The standard type was called the Cafe Aman.., a cafe where two or three singers improvised on verse, often in the form of a dialogue with free rhythm and melody. As they used the exclamation 'Aman, Aman' to give themselves time to improvise new words, the songs were called Amani One of the earliest forms of rembetika song was, in fact, the amane... a semi-improvised song in which verses are interspersed with long melismas on the word 'Aman'." (Holst, 1975, p20).

Though the Smyrna style of music was a unique style, it influenced the development of rebetika on many levels, one of which was to provide rebetika with a repertoire of dance types. According to Holst, “two of the Cafe Aman dances, the zembekiko and the tsifteteli, and a third dance which was common in Greek communities in Turkey as well as Greece, the hasapikoor 'butchers' dance', became the principal dances associated with rebetika. (ibid, p67). The video clips below illustrate these dances. First, an original version of tsiftiteli music, paired with a recent performance in Lavrio, Greece. Then, second, an original zeibekiko followed by a modern and rather unusual performance from the film "To Minore tis Avyis", which shows the dance in a rebetika setting. The third row of video clips illustrates the hasapikos.

The Smyrna style of music may have influenced the dance styles of rebetika, but this influence does not seem to have extended to the instruments employed by it. As we have seen, the bouzouki appears on the recording scene by the late 1920s. By the mid 1930s, it had become intimately linked to rebetika. It does not feature, however, as an instrument of the Smyrna style. Dimitris Archigenis, a Smyrna doctor and researcher of contemporary folk customs, described the Smyrna musical ensemble of his day as consisting of a santouri (or dulcimer), a violin or mandolin and a bass. With these instruments were one or two singers. (Dimitris Archigenis, The Tribes of Smyrna, quoted in Tambouris, 2008, p23).

Typical Smyrna ensemble: Oud, violin, santouri, clarinet and laouto.

The contribution of Smyrna style music to the development of rebetika is exemplified by the collection of early recordings by Charles Howard. These recordings, the earliest made in 1908, contain both Smyrna style Arabian taxims, tsifte-teli and amani as well as songs such as 'In Sygrou Jail', “The young hashish smokers,' 'hasisi' and 'I shook the dice,' the undoubted subject matter of rebetika and the prison songs of the era. Howard's collection of early recordings is further evidence that the bouzouki was not a common instrument in the Smyrna ensembles. No bouzouki is featured on the recordings before 1933. Instead, we find the violin, lyra, oud, mandolin, mandola, accordion, santouri, guitar and even a banjo (Howard, 2008, Discs 1,2).

There is at least one interesting exception to the spread of Smyrna style music and the prison songs of the underworld at the turn of the century. According to Kostas Mylonas:

“In Athens during the 1880s the first attempts were made to create a genre of song distinct from the Italian melodrama popular at the time... This was the beginning of the period that laid the groundwork for and inspired later composers of Greek songs. It also coincided with the beginnings of the movement promoting the use of the demotic Greek language. Choral groups made their first appearance, accompanied by guitars and mandolins. The music included serenades originating in the Ionian islands and recorded by Athenian mandolin ensembles during the 1920s." (The Greek Archives, Athenian Songs, 1920-1930,F.M. Records, Athens.) Here is a small sample of the "Songs of Athens, 1920-1930, which include Στης Πλάκας τις ανηφοριές, Παλιά Αθήνα (old Athens) and Παλιά ταβέρνα (the old taverna):

Such music, so very different from rebetika, was destined to fall out of fashion. It does not seem to have any connection to either the rebetika music of the 20s and 30s nor modern laika, and it now seems more Italian than Greek. Nevertheless, some of the songs recorded in this style, such as 'Barba Yiani' remain popular and well known works.

There seems little doubt that the union of urban prison songs with the sophisticated music of Smyrna gave rise to the rebetika of the 1920s and 30s. This union was a result of the 'Asia Minor Disaster' of 1922. In an attempt to gain territory after the defeat of Turkey in the Great War, the Greek army landed on the coast of Asia Minor and marched on Ankara, only to be repulsed by Kemal Attaturk. Most authorities link the rise of rebetika with the arrival in Greece of more than a million refugees from Greek Asia Minor, the result of an enforced population exchange. The population of Greece increased in 1923 by twenty five percent. The exchange of people was carried out on the basis of religious identity, so that many of the refugees who flooded into Greece, in particular to Piraeus, the harbour town of Athens, were Christians in their religion but otherwise Turkish in language and customs. One of these refugees, who became a rebetika musician, was Yiorgos Rovertakis. Writing of his experiences as a child, he said "We lived for six months in someone's yard – like dogs. Then we were put into huts built by the state.”

Gail Holst encapsulates the influence of the refugees in this way:

“In the years following the exchange of populations, a series of shanty settlements grew up in a belt around Athens, settlements with names like New Ionia and New Smyrna. The refugees brought a style of music with them that was already enjoying some popularity in the Cafe Amans. Now the emotional ornamented 'Smyrna' style began to be talked of, and new cafes sprang up where musicians from Turkey and particularly Smyrna played and sang in the new style. The most famous of these cafes was the Microasia, on Piraeus Street, which was to become the headquarters of the first association of popular musicians in Greece – the Association of Athenian and Piraeus Musicians, formed under the initiative of one of the Smyrna refugees, Emmanuel Chrissafakis. The refugees may not have been part of the underworld, but they were living on the edge of Greek society, competing for jobs in poor urban areas, segregated by language as well as customs from the bulk of the Greek population. It was not surprising that many of them joined the rembetes or manges in their loosely organised sub-culture, or were attracted to the hashish-smoking tekes, to which they were accustomed in Turkey. Nor was it surprising that the rembetika musicians should have been attracted to the technical skills and professionalism of the Smyrna musicians.... Just how important the influx of refugees was to the development of rembetika is hard to say, but ten years after their arrival, rembetika had moved out of the private world of the tekes and was becoming popular music.” (Holst, p.26, 27)

The bouzouki was still relatively unknown at the beginning of the 1930s. Despite the interest being shown by the recording companies, rebetika at this time was still the music of a minority, regarded with suspicion and hostility by respectable Greek society. Rebetika music was the music of the rebetes, a word difficult to define but which meant essentially a 'rebel' or 'outlaw.' The rebetes also referred to themselves as 'manges.' There are many other contemporary terms used to describe this sub-culture on the fringes of society and the law, words that appear in writings of the time as well as in the lyrics of many rebetika songs, but rebetes was the term that became attached to the music. The rebetes congregated in the small shops that offered hashish to smoke. Gail Holst gives a vivid and imaginative description of the scene in one of these tekedes in the 1920s.

"Men with fine moustaches would be sitting on rush-bottomed chairs, playing with their amber worry-beads and talking of the difficulty of finding a job, or of their lost houses and lands in Turkey... From one of the nearby shops you might hear the faint sound of music, and if you asked Crazy Nick or Marino the Moustache, they might take you to hear Batis playing the tiny baglama to his friends in a teke. There the manges would be sitting on the floor around a charcoal brazier while a boy filled the narghile with Turkish hashish and passed it around. Batis might begin to play an improvised taximi in the mode of rast, and then break into a song of his own... Unless you were a mangas yourself, you would find it difficult to understand all the words because they would be largely slang – rather like the jive you might have heard on a Harlem pavement at the same time... During the song, one of the manges, already very high, might get up slowly to dance. As he circles and sways, the others smoke and sing, and Batis plucks sad sweet notes from his little instrument, while the harsh life of Piraeus in the 20s is forgotten in a rembetika dream.” (Holst, 1975, pp 19, 20).

Another recreation of a Piraeus teke can be seen in the adjoining YouTube video from the film "Rembetiko," produced by Costas Ferris.

This early rebetika has been described as “exclusively male music. It was sung by men, played by men, danced to by men, and generally listened to by men.” (Ibid, p.43).
A number of these early rebetika musicians were destined to become popular entertainers during the 1930s, bringing the music of the tekedes to a wider audience. The most famous of these, with little doubt, was Markos Vamvakaris. Born on the island of Syros in 1905, he became known as the 'patriarch of rebetika.' First hearing a bouzouki in 1925, according to his autobiography, he was captured by its sound and soon became an accomplished performer. By the mid-1930s he had teamed up with three other musicians, all of whom were to become well known rebetika players in their own right. The group, known as the Piraeus Quartet, consisted of Markos Vamvakaris, Yiorgis Abatis, known simply as Batis, Stratos Payioumitzis and Anestis Delias, known as Artemis. They began playing in the summer of 1934 in Sarantapoulos' taverna in Piraeus (Tambouris, p 13), bringing rebetika to a much wider audience than the closed world of the tekedes. Two examples of the Piraeus Quartet are included below. The first, "The baths of Constantinople" (Mes stis polis to hamam) was written by Delias. The second example is one of the most famous compositions from this period 'Frankosyriani', by Markos Vamvakaris.

These further recordings show the nature of this early or 'classical' phase of rebetika. They are, in order: Original performance by Markos Vamvakaris, "H Satrapissa" (Arabas Perna), followed by two modern versions of the music of this era. The first is "Aliti m'eipes mia vradia" (You called me a tramp). This is followed by one of Anestis Delias' compositions, "O ponos tou prezakia" (The Junkie's Pain)

The evidence is fairly clear that rebetika was a product of these social influences and arose from the marginalised societies of urban environments, particularly in Piraeus. One of the most distinguishing features of the new style, and the instrument that came to be so closely identified with it, was the use of oriental sounding scales. These dromoi or "pathways, roads" gave rebetika its distinctive sound.

The Roads of Rebetika: Pathways to melody.

One of the most distinctive features of early rebetika is the use of modal or chromatic scales instead of the Western major and minor scales. The Greek word for these scales is dromos, plural dromoi, that is, a 'road' Perhaps we can translate this as 'pathway'. These 'pathways', unlike anything used in western music, are clearly related to the Turkish makam system. The terms used to denote each dromos are Turkish words, and the construction of each scale is based on a system of pentachords and tetrachords. Despite the similarities, the question of origination is difficult to determine.

Haralambos Pagiatis introduces his discussion of Laikoi Dromoi (Folk Scales) with these words:

The folk scales of traditional Greek music are usually envisaged as seven-sound progressions, similar to the octave scale in Western European music. The structure of Greek 'scales' is, however, completely different. …. The melodic structure of a dromos is created by the union of a pentachord and a tetrachord, or by the union of two tetrachords. It is necessary to recognise these pentachords and tetrachords to distinguish their characteristic differences. The names... sometimes vary, as do also the names of certain dromoi. This is a natural occurrence, as one would expect in folk music when one considers it is an oral tradition, taught from generation to generation, from place to place....” (Pagiatis, 1992, p. 8, translated by J.Hood.)

Pagiatis goes on to group these pentachords and tetrachords into minors, or kiourdi, and majors, or rast.. The pentachords grouped together with kiourdi are: ousak, sabax and niaved. Those grouped together with rast include houzam, hijaz and hijaz-niabed. These, when combined into an eight note series, become the distinctive dromous of rebetika.

A pentachord, as the name suggests, is a series of five notes in place of the normal octave. For example, the major tonal pentachord in western music is C D E G A. The octave in Western music is defined by its equal temperament (mathematically equal) notes. Though there are only seven letters in western music (A B C D E F G) there are also sharps and flats, giving a total of twelve different notes in the octave (A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#) . These twelve sounds are described as half-steps, or semi-tones. All major scales follow the same pattern: Depending on which note begins the scale, the other six notes are identified by the interval pattern of tones and semi-tones. Thus, C major scale consists of C D E F G A B C, which can also be described in tones and semi-tones, where a semi-tone equals 1. This system applies to tones but not notes, since it ignores the staff positions of the two notes, a position which does not always reflect the number of semi-tones between them. According to this system, the major scale is: 2 2 1 2 2 2 1. This pattern holds true for all the major scales, so D major becomes D E F# G A B C# D. Similarly, the western harmonic minor has a different pattern, which is: 2 1 2 2 1 3 1, so that, if the minor is G, for example, we have the notes G A Bb C D Eb F# G.

Using this system, we can describe the various pentachords of traditional Greek music as follows:

Tone/ semi-tone pattern
Actual notes
1 2 2 2
D Eb F G A
1 3 1 2
D Eb F# G A
1 3 2 1
D Eb F# G# A
2 1 1 3
D E F Gb A
2 1 2 2
2 1 3 1
D E F G# A
2 2 1 2
D E F# G A (D major)
3 1 1 2
D E# F# G A

These patterns become tetrachords by the omission of the last tone. They combine together, either by joining two tetrachords, to give an octave, or by joining a pentachord with a tetrachord, beginning the tetrachord on the final note of the pentachord. The musician combines these basic building blocks into a pathway, or dromos to create a characteristic colour to the music. Thus, the pathway HIJAZ combines the hijaz pentachord ( 1 3 1 2) with the ousak tetrachord (1 2 2) to produce the following progression: 1 3 1 2 1 2 2 or D Eb F# G A Bb C D.

The dromoi derived from these pentachords, according to Pagiatis, are:
Actual notes
Rast (D major scale)
2 2 1 2 + 2 2 1
but descending :
D E F# G A B C# D,
D C(nat) B A G F# E D
1 2 2 2 + 1 2 2
D Eb F G A Bb C D
1 3 1 2 + 1 2 2
D Eb F# G A Bb C D
3 1 1 2 + 2 2 1
D F F# G A B C# D
3 1 1 2 + 13 1
D F F# G A Bb C# D
2 1 1 3 + 1 2 2
D E F F# A Bb C D
2 1 3 1 + 1 3 1
D E F G# A Bb C# D

From where did these dromoi come? It is possible to say two things about them with certainty. First, they are not the modes of Ancient Greece. The interval patterns are quite different from these. Second, they are a tempered system with tones and semi-tones. They lack the micro-tones characteristic of Turkish and Middle Eastern music. The most likely explanation for their origin is that they are derived from the secular music of Byzantium. Unfortunately, so little is known of this that it is difficult to be certain. The evidence suggests that Byzantine church music, at least, is not merely the dromoi of rebetika in a different name:

"The seven standard note names in Byzantine "solfege" are: pá, vú, ghá, dhē, ké, zō, nē, corresponding to Western re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do. Byzantine music uses the eight natural, non-tempered scales called Ēkhoi, "sounds", exclusively, and therefore the absolute pitch of each note may slightly vary each time, depending on the particular Ēkhos used. Byzantine notation is still used in many Orthodox Churches. Better cantors can also use standard Western notation while adding non-notatable embellishment material from memory and "sliding" into the natural scales from experience." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musical_notation#Byzantine_Empire

It is quite possible, though, that Byzantine musical scholarship influenced the music of the Ottomans, who in turn influenced the Greek folk musicians of that empire. As one scholar says:

"Byzantine music included a rich tradition of instrumental court music and dance, as would be expected considering the historically and archaeologically documented opulence of the Eastern Roman Empire. To a certain degree we may look for remnants of Byzantine or early (Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian) near eastern music in the music of the Ottoman Court. Examples such as that of the eminent composer and theorist Prince Cantemir of Romania learning music from the Greek musician Angelos, indicate the continuing participation of Greek speakingpeople in court culture." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_music

Gail Holst makes one important point:
"Perhaps it is enough to say about the musical origins of rembetika that the melodies conform to modal types which occur in Greek folk music, Byzantine church music, Turkish folk music and Turkish classical music. The rhythms are similarly interwoven, but it is significant that the most common rhythm of rembetika, the 9/8 of the zembekiko, is unusual in Greek or Turkish music from any other region except the western coast of Turkey, including areas that were formerly Greek territory." (P64)

Whatever their origin, these non-western pathways gave early rebetika a distinctively 'Turkish' sound. This was bound to arouse resentment in a Greece which was still engaged in creating a new state after four centuries of Ottoman rule.

From Repression to Recognition: 1920 to 1941

The history of the bouzouki in the period that begins with the earliest recordings is relatively clear. The bouzouki, linked as it was with the new style of rebetika, gained national and then international prominence, carried along by the ease with which mass media was able to disseminate popular awareness of both.

This was not a smooth, unbroken path. Both before the Second World War and then later in the 1970s, the bouzouki and its music were accused by some of being 'un-Greek'. Others lamented the passing of the old rebetika and the changes that occurred in the music as it reached a mass audience. Some critics argued that “Rembetika took a sharp downturn (in the '50s) from which it never recovered” (Holst p.59). The new popularity of rebetika and the bouzouki in the post-war period is attributed by many to two particular composer/performers, Vassilis Tsitsanis and Manolis Hiotis. Ultimately, in the 1960s,the bouzouki reached a world stage with the international success of two English language films made in Greece, “Never on Sunday” and “Zorba the Greek”.

The political climate in Greece in the decades following 1922 was marked by considerable instability. The ill fated attempt to seize Greek speaking territory in Turkey led to a huge influx of 'foreign' refugees, all needing homes and jobs. The social and industrial unrest of the era was reflected in the tension between supporters of the monarchy and Venezelists, supporters of the great statesman and international figure, Elefherios Venizelos. Despite its liberal platform, the Venizelos government introduced in 1929 the “special illegal act' (law 4229) "concerning safety measures for the social establishment and protection of the freedom" (Mazower, 1992). The law, aimed at communists, anarchists and unionism, prescribed at least six months imprisonment for anyone "who tries to apply ideas that have as an obvious target the violent overthrow of the current social system, or who acts in propagandizing their application..." This legal repression was intensified a decade later under the 4th of August regime, when the democracy was overthrown in 1936 under an Emergency Decree and a fascist dictatorship led by General Ioannis Metaxas took power, a regime which survived until the Second World War.

In this climate of intense nationalism and uncertainty, it is hardly surprising that the obvious foreign influences in rebetika should be viewed with hostility. According to Politis:

... the conservative, solid bourgeoisie easily came to correlate refugees and other, non-integrated parts of the society with both drugs and orientally-influenced music. There had always been sporadic criticism in the press against “oriental” music, already from the 19th century, but there have been positive statements too. However, especially after the inflow of about one million refugees from Asia Minor into what was then still the small Greek state, the dislike among the “western oriented” establishment became increasingly pronounced as we entered the second and especially the third decade of the century. (Politis, 2005)

Neither the bouzouki nor rebetika music itself was ever banned, despite an oft-stated belief that this happened, but attempts were certainly made to control the nature of both. The most obvious aspect of this is the imposition in 1936 of government censorship:

Mandatory law No. 1619 / 1939, Art. 21:“Before any recording activities an application for record permission is to be submitted to the Directorate for Enlightenment of the Populus in the Ministry, supported by copies of the verses and the music sheets of the song to be recorded.

This censorship was a powerful influence in changing the direction of rebetika. According to Politis (2005):

This was the beginning of a new era in the rebetiko scene. It was serious; these people really meant it. And indeed, the whole scene in Greek musical life changed, as it did of course in every other aspect, too. All established artists of the time had to abide accordingly, the result being that all songs touching important social or other problems disappeared, and of course it was exactly this kind of songs that had given rebetiko the style we know so well. From now on there was only space for harmless love songs or songs of “joy” and of ideal societies with no problems at all.

One of the most important composer/performers of this era, Vasilis Tsitsanis, described the censorship in this way:

“Metaxas had gathered us there to erase bemols (flat signs) from the music sheets submitted to the committee for approval.”
Politis: What does he mean by that? As we said, typical rebetiko music was already being performed with well-tempered, Western scales. But despite this, typical oriental modes such as ussak, kurdi, even chromatic modes such as hijaz, huzzam, nihavent, etc. did not disappear. They just changed their names and were all designated as “major” or “minor” accordingly. But in order to keep the structure of a hijaz, for example, a sharp or flat sign had to be introduced so that the three-halftone interval is created. Well, it is exactly these signs that Tsitsanis claimed having erased from the musical text in order to make it look western, according to his opinion at least.

Now we can turn to a specific case where Tsitsanis recalls, many many years later, an example of his work. It is registered in a TV production of the year 1975, signed by Costas Ferris, the famous film director. The production is centered on Tsitsanis and Costas Ferris puts some questions regarding Metaxas' regime and the censorship. I have of course to officially thank Costas Ferris for letting me refer to the episode. Well, Tsitsanis openly admitted, in this production, that he was acting as a “censor” of music at that time. And he gives the following example (I cite):

“Look, Costas, this Metaxas censorship was really necessary after all, it was positive for the music. My job was to help my colleagues correct their melody, by rubbing off the flat signs, so as to pass from the censorship.

“What exactly was this, Vassilis?”

Grasping his bouzouki, Tsitsanis continued:

“Markos (Vamvakaris) had submitted a song for approval, by the name of ‘Alaniara’. In a specific passage he was singing ‘Kathe brady tha SE peRImeno’. This SE (and RI) was one half tone sharper than it should. So I corrected it, rubbing off the sharp sign, and the song was granted the approval.”

“So you are saying that the Metaxas regime wanted to make the songs more western influenced, “European” so to speak.”

He smiled and answered:

“More Greek, I would say.”

To Tsitsanis, the “Greek” way was the Western minor scale, not the chromatic one. Lowering the pitch of this critical note by one half tone makes the mode a minor rather than a nihavent, since it turns the chromatic tetrachord into a diatonic one. Neither Tsitsanis nor Markos (who simply obeyed) were aware of this theoretical background but both knew exactly what they were doing." (Politis, 2005)

The 'Kalamata Group, 1948.

The repression of the Metaxas era was destined to be repeated during the 1960s and 70s, with the imposition of a second autocratic regime, the military regime of the Colonels, known simply as 'the Junta.' In this later period, however, the repression was aimed at those who opposed the overthrow of democracy and at left wing parties such as the Communists. Rebetika and the bouzouki were not particular targets of the regime. The music had already changed to reflect a much greater western influence, along with the nature of the bouzouki itself.

Post war development.

Two important musicians dominated the new direction in Greek music. Vasilis Tsitsanis, who began his career in 1936, was quite unlike the earlier rebetika musicians. Born in the northern Greek town of Trikala in 1915, Tsitsanis came from an educated background, at one time a law student at the University of Athens before becoming a full time musician. According to Petros Tambouris: “Tsitsanis single-handedly transformed rebetiko from a marginalised genre to a popular one. He was embraced by the vast majority of the artistic world as well as by the Greek people.” (Tambouris 2008, p65). Tsitsanis composed over 400 songs, many of which remain popular and well known. Gail Holst writes of his work:

“Tsitsanis... wrote song after song in the new style which was partly his own and partly influenced by the popular songs from Europe which were flowing into Greece. Most of the songs he wrote at this time were love songs. Hashish songs virtually disappeared from the repertoire of the rembetika after the war, together with jail songs, and even songs dealing with the life of the manges seemed like nostalgic revivals of a world which no longer existed. Rembetika was now public, respectable entertainment.” (Holst, 1975, p.55,56)
Vassilis Tsitsanis

Tambouris describes the influence of Tsitsanis in this way:

The history of rebetiko took a turn (during the Metaxas dictatorship) thanks to Vasilis Tsitsanis, who was summoned to make it more refined and to cleanse it of all things vulgar and base. What Tsitsanis succeeded in doing, by bringing rebetiko out of the fringes of society where it had been relegated for its anti-social and eastern elements, was to incorporate it into the new social status quo, into the rising new order of post-war Greece, towards a western cultural orientation.... Other than adding a more European style to his use of the scale, which he combined with the European method of tuning his bouzouki... Tsitsanis also introduced a new style of playing by using quick stokes and slides. This style stood in stark contrast to the skilled, simple and sharp strokes of Vamvakaris' ensemble. Tsitsanis also played a significant role in enlarging the orchestra with new sounds (even piano) and also introduced the accordion as an ensemble instrument. In short, he added musical instruments that highlighted and marked the passage into a blended and harmonic musical idiom.... With Tsitsanis, rebetiko became an art and the genre's break with tradition became audible.” Tambouris, 2008, Songs of Smyrna, 1923 – 1940, p17.)

This is no doubt true, but Tsitsanis remained within the rebetika tradition for many of his compositions. Perhaps his most famous is the zebekiko Sinefiasmeni kiriaki ('Cloudy Sunday'), here sung in accompaniment with the famous singer Sotiria Bellou:

The second figure to promote the bouzouki was Manolis Hiotis, who was born in Thessaloniki in 1920 and, like Tsitsanis, began his career in 1936. (Pennanen, 1999). According to the anonymous author of Wikipedia, Hiotis
took Greek popular music in more radically new directions. Chiotis was a bold innovator, importing South American rhythms such as the mambo, and concentrating on songs in a decidedly lighter vein than the characteristic ambiance of rebetiko songs. Perhaps most significantly of all, Chiotis, himself a virtuoso not only on the bouzouki but on guitar, violin and outi (oud), was responsible for introducing and popularizing the modified 4-course bouzouki (tetrahordho) in 1956. Chiotis was already a seemingly fully-fledged virtuoso on the traditional 3-course instrument by his teens, but the guitar-based tuning of his new instrument, in combination with his playful delight in extreme virtuosity, led to new concepts of bouzouki playing which came to define the style used in laïki mousiki and other forms of bouzouki music which could no longer really be called rebetiko in any sense.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebetiko).

Manolis Hiotis

Gail Holst, in Road to Rembetika, echoes the judgement of many such writers towards the new style. Describing Hiotis, she says:

He had begun playing before the war but only emerged as a star in the 50s, particularly after he added a fourth string to his bouzouki and changed the tuning, enabling him to play faster, and to supply full guitar-like accompaniments. He was soon followed by the great majority of bouzouki players, and it is now rare to find a three stringed bouzouki in the clubs. The electrification of the bouzouki completed the transformation..” (Holst, 1975, p.59).

The new style, both in music and instrument, has been criticised as much as it has been accepted. Holst clearly believes the new form of bouzouki was anything but an improvement:

What had been a delicate, lightly strung, undecorated instrument that could be played with a fingernail, was now as vulgar a piece of pop art as you could wish to see. Inlaid with mother of pearl... amplified to an almost deafening pitch and accompanied by the ubiquitous electric organ, the bouzouki had become Greece's answer to the electric guitar.” Holst, 1975, p.59).

Holst is equally critical of the wider audience that now appreciated the bouzouki and its music.

It became not only fashionable to go 'to the bouzoukis' , as it came to be called, but also prohibitively expensive. Audiences before the war had often become excited, especially when there was a good dancer on the floor. Now the excitement was extravagantly displayed. Plates and glasses were thrown at the feet of the dancer, and customers were happily overcharged for the breakages. The style of dancing had also undergone a marked change. The hasapikos,.. which was performed by pairs or occasionally a group of three male dancers, had been danced with a minimum of movement. It was a precise, smooth dance, the attraction of which lay in the synchronised footwork of the dancers. Now that so much attention was trained on the dancers, young men began introducing new, flashy patterns of steps, which they would practice together for hours..” (ibid).

It is clear that the development of both rebetika and bouzouki was defined by the changed social conditions of the new decades. The music had broadened its horizons and adapted to the tempered and harmonised music of Europe. It was no longer performed by the grouping of stringed instruments that had characterised early rebetika – bouzouki, baglama and guitar – but now included many other instruments. In short, the music and its performance had become more complicated and sophisticated to suit a much wider and more complex audience. Beginning in the 1960s, it was destined to reach a wider, international audience, an audience with little knowledge of the details of the Greek cultural experience, through the medium of the cinema.

Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadzidakis were both classically trained composers rather than folk musicians or bouzouki performers. Born in 1925, both men incorporated elements of rebetika in their compositions, which formed the soundtracks to two English language films made in Greece. It could be said that Hadzidakis' Never on Sunday' (1960) and Theodorakis' 'Zorba the Greek' (1964) brought the bouzouki to world-wide attention.

Their work represented “a new and exciting style of popular music” but both music and bouzouki were considerably different from the classical age of rebetika. Gail Holst argues that rebetika as an original and distinct form “was a historical phenomenon by the end of the '50s.” (Holst, p61). The musical soundtracks of so many films made in Greece in the 1960s, if studied systematically, would probably support this view. For example, it was Greek cinema that created the syrtaki, a modernised version of the syrtos and hasapikos dances of the past. The video below is a good example of the change in musical style. It features in the 1966 film, "I kori mou i sosialistria" ('My daughter the socialist'), starring Aliki Vouliouglaki.

Also from 1966 is another song by Aliki Vouliouglaki and her fellow performer Dimitris Papamichailis, "kanei ipomeni" (Have patience). Their performance illustrates both the fantasy of cinema and the wider musical role of the bouzouki.

The history of the bouzouki and its music culminates in the present day, when the instrument itself is strongly identified with Greece, despite the many other different folk genres of Greek music. Many different styles of music are now played on the bouzouki. Despite this, there has been a revival of interest in rebetika since, according to Gail Holst, the end of the military dictatorship.

The Revival of Rebetika

The bouzouki is now an instrument that represents Greek music, regardless of the genre. The three examples below will show how varied is the music now played by the bouzouki. The first example is indicative of the modern interest in original rebetika, whilst the second features Haris Alexiou performing at the Herodes Atticus in Athens, with bouzouki accompaniment. The third example "Play bouzouki" speaks for itself. From its origins in the mists of history, the bouzouki has become a symbol of Greece today. To paraphrase Liavas, it symbolises the preservation of the musical language of the Greeks, "treating the new with imagination and inspiration and conserving the old out of instinctive respect." (Liavas, pl38)


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Holst, Gail, 1975, Road to Rembetika, Anglo-Hellenic Publishing, Skoufa 15, Athens 136, Greece.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth et al, 2008, The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies, OUP, Oxford.

Liavas, Lambros, (ed), 1987, Music of the Aegean, Published jointly by the Greek Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of the Aegean, Athens.

Mavromoutakis, A., 1984, Praktiki Methodos yia Baglama kai eksachordos Bouzouki, NTREMI, Thessaloniki.

Mazower, M. (December 1992). "The Messiah and the Bourgeoisie: Venizelos and Politics in Greece, 1909–1912". The Historical Journal 35 (4): 885–904.

Nikos Politis, //Censorship in Rebetiko from 1937 onwards, and a specific case involving Vassilis Tsitsanis and Markos Vamvakaris//, talk at Hydra Rebetiko Conference, October 2005.

Pagiatis, Haralambos, 1992, Laikoi Dromoi (Folk scales), Fagotto Books, Athens.

Risto Pekka Pennanen, Westernisation and Modernisation in Greek Popular Music. Doctoral thesis, Acta Universitatis Tamperensis 692, Tampa, 1999. Bouzouki first recorded, 1929.

Tambouris, Petros, 2008, The Rebetiko Songs, 1932 – 1941, FM Records Publications, Athens.

Tambouris, Petros, 2008, Songs of Smyrna, 1923 – 1940, FM Records Publications, Athens.

Fensham, Florence Amanda, 1908 , A Modern Crusade in the Turkish Empire, Woman's Board of Missions of the Interior, London.

Gates, Charles. 2003 , Ancient Cities: The Archaeology of Urban Life in the Ancient Near East and Egypt, Greece, and Rome Routledge, London.


Howard, Charles, (ed) 2008, Rembetika 2, More of the secret history of Greece's underground music, JSP Records, London. (4 disc set.)

Ioannis Ioannidis, voc, Manolis Karapiperis, bouzouki, Toutoi Batsoi Pourthan Tora, NY Jan 1929, mat. W 206147-2, released on Col. 56137-F.

Tony Klein, Mortika – Rare Vintage Recordings from a Greek Underworld. ARKO CD008, CD & book, Arko Records, Uppsala, Sweden, 2005; Mississippi Records, 2009 (vinyl). First bouzouki solo.

Papapetropoulos, Perikles, The Greek Folk Instruments, Vol 8: The Sazi, FM Records, Athens.

Tabouris, Petros (Production Manager), The Greek Archives: Athenian Songs, 1920 – 30, FM Records, Athens.




Listen to an example of Rebetika from Australia on australianscreen online

Kritikos, L.H., 1996, http://home.comcast.net/~lisakritikos/index1.html. This is a brief but well written account of the history of rebetika.
See also http://home.comcast.net/~lisakritikos/index1.html for a discussion of the dromoi or Greek scales of rebetika.