Voyage 6. THE CELEBRATED “TRICHORDON”
FLAMENCO AND REBETIKO’s lead instruments have been the guitar and bouzouki respectively: their sound is the absolutely necessary condition – sine qua non, as they say – for the interpretation of the two genres. Yet, these instruments may be evaluated as rather unsuitable for such musical idioms.
In terms of melodic themes, both rebetiko and flamenco come under the category of modal music: that is, each song is based not on a simple musical scale but rather on a mode (“harmony” or “echos”) with its own character, mood and ethos, and with a variety of intervals that greatly outnumber the tempered-equal intervals of Western European music. In the accompaniment, however, both genres are dominated by the Occidental concept of chords and melodic phrases played on tempered instruments: the frets on the bouzouki and guitar’s necks are positioned according to these equal intervals, allowing the performance of just the notes of the piano. This contradiction, of course, creates various problems, imposes restrictions – but at the same time imparts a raw beauty to music when it’s been cultivated at the crossroads between distinct cultural areas. It’s as if the interpreters act like rope-dancers balancing themselves between two worlds.
In terms of melodic themes, rebetiko and flamenco come under the category of modal music. In the accompaniment, however, both genres are dominated by the Occidental concept of chords and melodic phrases played on tempered instruments.
The guitar’s development during its final phase, from the Renaissance onwards (as we have seen in Voyage 4), ran parallel to the development of Occidental music, with polyphony, counterpoint and all its other special features. Therefore, the relationship between instrument and music has been harmonious. The bouzouki, on the contrary, as a newcomer in this field, has suffered from intense split personality. Even if it cannot be played with the classical guitar techniques that have crept into flamenco, it’s also gradually moved willy-nilly on the westernizing way of rebetiko.
Radical changes in the orientation of a musical genre are clearly reflected on its instruments. Although Music never shows her own face, the transformations of an instrument are clearly visible to the naked eye. Thus we have seen the bouzouki undergoing a mutation and turning from three-string (tri-chordon) into a four-string and also electric instrument, while at the same time its tuning has changed adopting that of the guitar to facilitate virtuosities. This four-double-string… “guitarized” bouzouki was introduced by its virtuoso, Manoles Chiotes (originally a guitarist), although it was not his own invention. Note that these developments occurred while rebetiko was on its deathbed.
The bouzouki underwent two mutations before and after the rebetiko era: it was at first “mandolinized”, and then “guitarized”, turned into a four-string and electric instrument…
That was the instrument’s second mutation. The first one happened before rebetiko moved into the spotlight when the bouzouki, as a “prodigal son”, broke away from the tanbur family where it was raised, and became a… Franco-Levantine: it then lost both its tanbur-like appearance and its movable frets allowing fine tuning according to the intervals of the mode to be played. They were replaced by the far fewer fixed metal frets that enable the performance of only tempered intervals. This metamorphosis was accompanied by other structural changes also modeled on the mandolin. In short, the instrument was at first… “mandolinized”. It continued “speaking” Greek, one might say, but with a foreign “accent”…(a)
There is, however, a type of bouzouki still in use that has remained true to its origins and is proud to be a brother of the tanbur. It is the Arabic bouzouki, the buzuq or busoq, played in the area of ancient Phoenicia: in Lebanon and its surrounding area. The country of the cedars is where the greatest modern virtuoso of the instrument has emerged: the gypsy-born Matar Muhammad might turn even the “four-string” Chiotes… pale, despite the admiration he had won from the great Jimi Hendrix!(b)
It seems as a modern version of the age-old competition – but also emulation and exchange – between Phoenicians and Hellenes during the colonizing phase of the Mediterranean: the former on the southern coastline, the latter on the northern shores – without excluding reciprocal incursions. This very competition went on (and still goes on) with other protagonists: Romans and Punics, Byzantines and Arabs – until the Crusaders appeared in mare nostrum upsetting its status quo. You see how old the idea on “spheres of influence” is, where the concept of “Lebensraum” (vital, living space) recently emerged as a malignant tumour…(c)
What was the common origin of these instruments? It was obviously located in Assyria, as Pollux has already said about the pandura (see Voyage 4). And how have these instruments – or rather: the two variants of the same instrument – developed in today’s Phoenicia and Hellas, without affecting the rest of the Arabs, nor the Turks that, in the meantime, found themselves in between? We can just speculate on that; especially since the word bouzouki, according to Nicolas Andriotes’ Etymological Dictionary of Modern Greek, is believed to have been Turkish in origin (büzük). We can see in this case one of etymology’s so many oddities: an instrument’s godfather not to care much about it.(d)
Unfortunately, we do not know how exactly the tambourás was played in Greece in the 19th century. Its playing, however, should have been quite different from that of the bouzouki or (at least today’s) Anatolian saz, although there are people who try to convince us to the contrary, for they introduce themselves as “tambourás masters”, while the instrument they play is in reality the saz – i.e. a tanbur family instrument in the form it has acquired in Asia Minor. Ross Daly describes the efforts to resurrect the tambourás:
“In recent years there has been much talk in various music high schools, educational institutions, schools of music and so-called conservatoires about an instrument mentioned in Greek history, called tambourás. The instrument has not survived to this day. There’s been no ongoing tradition since ancient times that, as they say, the tambourás originates.(e) We can find old Byzantine theoreticians’ descriptions, folkloric descriptions, or references in books, we know more or less how it was tuned, what its form was; but we have never listened to it live.
“There is an instrument played in Turkey that is considered closely related to the tambourás: it’s the saz. Some say it is one and the same instrument. First of all, it is not – and this can be clearly shown by a simple comparison of the two instruments. Moreover, the style, the music an instrument plays, its construction – everything – are all in one. You cannot separate one thing from the other.
“What we have now as a result is a whole army of young people who have learned how to play the saz in recent years not through some kind of training or tradition, but completely self-taught and offhand. They present themselves as tambourás masters though it’s obvious they have not the slightest idea. People here know nothing about the saz, tambur, ney, not even the oud, although the Greeks have participated in the development of Anatolian culture. There have been numerous excellent Greek oud players; the best example may have been Yorgo Bacanós [Badjanós], the leading oud player in Istanbul in the mid-20th century: every Turkish oud player now drinks water to him. But, unfortunately, this tradition did not take root in Greece and there was no follow-up.
“After this tradition had died out for some decades, with the revival of rebetiko in the early 70s, and even more around the 80s when people became interested in the Smyrnaic style,(f) every bouzouki player bought an oud, as well; and started tinkering with it as if playing a bouzouki. This is one thing; another thing is to be initiated in the living tradition of this instrument in Turkey or Arabia where the oud is played now.
“I cannot consider all these bouzouki players that were suddenly interested in the oud as successors of the tradition carried by Bacanós, Agapios Tomboules, Lambros [Leontarides], the lyra player, or Lambros [Sabbaides], the qanun player. All these musicians carried a living tradition but, unfortunately, while they were alive, no one was interested in it; that’s why they left no successors.
“One could say, of course, that the tambourás survived in Crete through Stelios Foustalieris’ bulgarí. Yet, Foustalieris changed completely his instrument; and was seriously influenced, mainly through his contact with rebetiko. Foustalieris’ playing may be helpful; but it’s not enough to revive an entire tradition. Let’s utilize whatever we have at our disposal; but without all that nationalist hot air specifically about this instrument that has become a symbol: ‘the tabourás of Makryiannes!’ Some persons use it like a gun”…
Crete’s exchange with Constantinople and Smyrna, as well as with the wider area of Anatolia and the Balkans, was continuous until the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922. That’s how several tunes, and also the bulgarí, an instrument closely resembling the cura (tzurá), arrived there. But which cura? Here, too, the terms are confusing. The tzurás for the Greeks is the middle-sized instrument of the three that make up the bouzouki triad, while the smallest of the family is the Lilliputian baglamás, a typical prison instrument: due to its size it can be easily hidden. However, the smallest of the Anatolian tanburs is not the bağlama but the cura! Quite a mess-up…
Different terms, it’s obvious, indicate differences not only in terms of dimensions, construction in general, but also as to the origin of either the instruments or their users. Settling in Anatolia, the Turks should have had instruments of the tanbur family, as we can presume based on the origin of these terms. But the peoples of Asia Minor had already been using similar instruments, such as the pandura, since time immemorial: at least since the time of the Hittites and the Assyrians. The tanburs, therefore, have been autochthonous there and their tradition has been Anatolian rather than Turkish (Central Asian)(g).
We tend to forget this fact since we are under the impression that the erudite Constantinopolitan tradition’s origin, on the one hand, has been Arabo-Persian (and Byzantine, of course, but we also forget!) and, on the other hand, that the Anatolian folk music is “purely Turkish”… Would you expect anything else? It’s more than obvious that these advocates of “purity” – in sound and also race – are a global phenomenon. If in this case the “purists” are Turks, OK (so to speak). But what if they are foreigners?
“At the court of the Ottoman sultans”, said Alain Gheerbrant, who recorded and released songs by Âşık Veysel, “the official arts were so encumbered by flowery Arabo-Persian art poetry as to become less and less understandable to the common people. At the same time, the ashiks, often illiterate itinerant folk poets, maintained a tradition of poetry in song on Turkish soil. Since the 12th century, their poetry, worded in rigorous language and free of foreign influences, could be heard from the shores of the Mediterranean as far away as China.
“The Ottoman Empire disappeared; the popular tradition did not. Although there may no longer be any ashiks in Khorasan, they are still present in Anatolia. Âşık Veysel was not only the most brilliant of them all, he was also one of the greatest contemporary poets of the Turkish language. The tradition from which he drew his inspiration dates from the great semi-legendary figures of yesteryear, such as Yunus Emre (13th century) and Pir Sultan or Kaygusuz Abdal (16th century). His work shall remain, alongside that of his predecessors, in the collective memory of the rural peoples of Anatolia.
“His influence is also plain to see elsewhere, for the ‘Kemalist’ revolution has placed Turkey on the road to recovering its identity. A reconciliation was needed for that to take place: for the literate to abnegate their caste, set apart by jealousy, and recognize and hear the illiterate élites. Today’s Turkey has reached that understanding: one needs only to open a novel by Yaşar Kemal or view a few scenes from a Yilmaz Güney film to understand that Âşık Veysel, the aged, sightless bard, opened the eyes of all contemporary thinkers and artists, those who have carried the voice of their people beyond their nation’s borders eliminating the barrier of misunderstandings, preconceptions, and platitudes that impede all positive interaction between cultures.
“Veysel, like all the ashiks, was of the Alevi–Bektashi faith, and therefore voluntarily alien to the rigid code of the Sunni Muslims. His philosophy, a fusion of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks of Asia Minor and the generous warmth of his Central Asian ancestors, was one of tolerance and freedom. He preached unity, understanding, and equality between all men and women, based on a religion that was turned inwards towards the earth, rather than outwards towards the sky…”
What a “flowery” garden… Had we not known Turkey, we would have thought it’s a heavenly land of the angels! Was the French researcher really serious, or did he tell one white lie after the other winking meaningfully at us? After all, why should he mention two prominent Kurds, such as Yaşar Kemal and Yilmaz Güney, who were jailed by the “‘Kemalist’ revolution”? And they were not the only ones. The most important men of arts and letters in Turkey have been treated collectively as subversive elements. Let alone how the Sunni state dealt with Alevis and Bektashis.(h) What is the use of such texts, except perhaps to serve diplomacy and personal gain?
One would expect that the Balkan leaders would take advantage of the Sunni–Bektashi conflicts, given that the vast majority of the Balkan Muslims have been Bektashis. Yet, acting stupidly as bigots in power, they too turned against them…
Let’s go back to the tríchordon-pandura and its long history in Asia Minor. There is ample evidence that instruments of the tanbur family have been played by Anatolians since very ancient times. Christian Poché says:
“Asia Minor was from earliest antiquity the favoured land of the long-necked lute, as shown by the Hittite archaeological finds… Long before Arabic Spain, this geographical area served as a link between Orient and Occident, and as such transmitted through the ages these types of long-necked lutes that in classical Europe gave birth to the pandura, colascione, mandora…
“In Turkey, these lutes take on different names according to their dimensions, the populations who use them and the way they use them. The Turkmen term Baglama or Baglamaq, literally ‘tying’ (of strings around an instrument) is the one found most often, as opposed to the other widespread term, Saz, a Persian word which designates the music, the act of playing it on any instrument, especially the long-necked lute. A third term, of probable Indo-Iranian origin, also serves in support of the musical vocabulary: Tambura.(i) Like the preceding ones, it designates a fretted instrument of six strings in pairs, whose terminology finds more favour among the Kurdish populations.”
With the exception of the Kurds, by the way, the term tanbur is avoided in Turkey in relation to this long-necked lute because a related but very different instrument, called tambur, is used in the erudite Arabo-Persian music of Constantinople. There are two variants of this instrument: plucked (the older version) or bowed (yayli tambur), depending on the way it is played – with a plectrum or a bow. In Greece, of course, the term baglama in relation to the same long-necked lute is also avoided for the same reason, so as not to be confused with that well-known homonymous small instrument, the bouzouki’s little brother.
Unfortunately, the etymology of the terms relating to the several variants of the tanbur does not explain what the origin of the word bulgarí may be. If we exclude the possibility of a Bulgarian origin,(j) there must be only one alternative: the word vulgar, referring to the common people, the “lower” classes – something “debased”. This possibility, together with the characterization of the Greek demotic as “vulgar”, shows how class, racist, or sexist language may sometimes be – well, not language but man, the one who uses it…
Anyway, that “vulgar” bulgarí played by Foustalieris, together with the instruments used by Iannes Eidjirides (or Etseirides), the famous Iovan Tsaous, have been the only kinds of tambourás that Greek discography managed to record. But what a pity! These instruments seem to have little in common with those played by fighters of the Greek War of Independence: the bulgarí is a Cretan peculiarity, while Iovan Tsaous’ instruments have been Anatolian – hence unsuitable in the attempt to restore the Greek tambourás and its sound.
Iovan Tsaous, i.e. Sergeant John, was born in Pontus and worked with famous musicians and singers, playing even in the Sultan’s Court, as they say. On the contrary, when he fled to Greece after the catastrophe of ’22, “he never played on stage because he seemed to disagree with the way the musicians functioned: he remained an ‘edutainer’ of his friends.”(k) At least this is what Panaiotes Kounades says; which means that he did not like at all the role of an entertainer, as he was used to a different situation in Asia Minor where musicians functioned otherwise:
“Arabo-Perso-Turkish music,” the qanun player Nikos Stephanides said, “was performed in earlier times by musicians playing saz, bouzouki and tambourines in folk songs; while serious music was performed by an ensemble called ince saz (fine instruments) consisting of the following: tambur (pandura), psalterium [psaltery] – qanun in Greek, Arabic and Turkish – violin, oud, ney (reed flute). The ensembles had singers called hanendes. They had fine voices and played tabors – tambourines – keeping the various rhythms of the melodies being performed.
“When the ensemble played and the hanende sang, everyone was silent in the club. Even the waiters did not move from their positions. Only during the breaks when the ensemble stopped playing, the public discussed or ordered the waiters whatever they wished for. If they wanted the ensemble to play a song, they put a card with the order and a corresponding tip inside an envelope, and the waiter carried it to the artists so as to perform the piece he wanted. Such was the order inside the clubs, which in those old times were equipped neither with loudspeakers nor with amplifiers and, although the musicians played with a natural sound, the audience were able to listen even in the large clubs where they oftentimes numbered more than 500-1000 persons because they were completely silent”…
When you are accustomed to such an environment – playing high standards music with such partners and in front of such an audience – how is it possible to restrict yourself to the role of an entertainer? Iovan Tsaous, therefore, chose to open a… tailor’s shop, which he later turned into an ouzo tavern, playing for his pleasure and not for the entertainment of the patrons of an establishment. Luckily, he met Panaiotes Tountas, artistic director of phonographic companies and the greatest composer of the Smyrnaic style; so he recorded a number of his own songs and some other compositions, mainly by Tountas. These few recordings (about twenty all in all) took place in just two years, 1935-36, because when the Metaxas dictatorship imposed censorship on lyrics and music (and music!), Iovan Tsaous abandoned the idea to continue, as some others did, as well, such as Vangelis Papázoglou, Giorgos Bates, and Anestes (Artemes) Deliás.
But anyway, less is more: these moments in the studio – however few – reflect the virtuosity of the musician who became a teacher of the Piraeotic rebetiko protagonists: Bates, Deliás, Markos Bambakares, Stratos Paioumtzés – the “Famous Quartet of Piraeus”. They learned from him the names and techniques of the musical “routes” (modes), the art of improvisation (taqsim), and also the several tunings, the düzenia. All the above, combined with his unusual personal style and “eccentric” instruments that were difficult to play (at least for the bouzouki players of rebetiko), created a myth around the name of Iovan Tsaous.
In modern Greece, unfortunately, the musicians have had no way out from the stranglehold of the entertainment circuit (clubs, festivals, etc). That is, there has been no parallel “edutainment” circuit on a professional basis. In Andalusia, on the contrary, at least until the 60s, there was such a circuit for flamenco artists. Up to the latest development of the genre into concert and theatrical flamenco,(l) these artists were divided into two major categories: on the one hand, the commercial entertainers worked mainly in tablaos, and on the other, the authentic “edutainers” were employed in juergas, the revelries organized by flamenco aficionados.
The musicians have had no way out from the stranglehold of the entertainment circuit. There has been no parallel “edutainment” circuit.
The other traditional tambourás master, Stelios Foustalieris or Foustalierakis, together with his regular partner, the excellent singer Iannes Bernidakis or Baxevanis, belonged to the large batch of musicians and singers who appeared in Rethymno during the interwar period. At that time, the instruments accompanying the lyra were the bulgarí and mandolin, according to Lambros Liavas. They were later replaced by the laouto. Foustalieris, however, managed to turn bulgarí into a solo instrument and worked with two Anatolian musicians playing the oud and santur. They were among those who sought refuge in the island after the catastrophe of ’22. So they should have imparted to him music elements from the instrument’s original cradle. Unfortunately, there are no recordings from this collaboration.
Later he came into direct contact with the sound of the Piraeotic rebetiko. It was during the period of 1933-37 when he lived in Piraeus and also met Bates, Markos, Stratos and other musicians of rebetiko, as well as Tountas, with whom, of course, he collaborated in discography. But here too the output was meagre: just 24 discs.
We certainly wonder if the two tambourás masters, Iovan Tsaous and Foustalieris, finally met; if there was some exchange of knowledge and experience. Having so many acquaintances in common, one would expect that this meeting did happen. However, there’s no available information about it.
Iovan Tsaous died 49 years old, in 1942, during the German occupation that “wiped out” the majority of the élite of Greek musicians and singers: the Anatolian refugees. Apparently they failed to go through a second calvary so soon. On the contrary, Foustalieris passed away fifty years later, in 1992, when he was 81. Being… “the last of the Mohicans” among the very few traditional masters of tambourás, we assume that he attracted the attention of the authorities. This would have happened in almost any other country; not in Greece…
While Foustalieris was still alive, in 1987, I had a discussion on the radio with Sakis Papademetriou and Ross Daly – who concluded the conversation as follows:
“Crete, compared perhaps with other parts of Greece, somehow maintains its tradition in a better shape, in the sense that it is renewed. But because there have been neither significant studies on music nor recordings, each passing decade brings terrible losses. In the few years that I’m there, I’ve met old musicians who in the meantime have died and with them many archives have been lost. There are very few now left.
“Foustalieris, the last bulgarí player, is still alive. He’s around 75, but no one has gone there with a tape recorder to tell him: ‘Play – and when you get tired, stop!’ However, no private individual can do such a thing because Foustalieris will be afraid he’ll be exploited. In such cases, an official agency can easily surpass any problems and Foustalieris, as a man with an old mentality, will warmly respond. At least something like that, now that there is still time”…
● Time’s passed, Foustalieris has died, the rest of the masters follow, but there have been no recordings – an undertaking of minimal expense. “Hellas, the eternal”…
● On second dispassionate thought, I wonder – as a daydreamer – whether I ask “too much” from a country that has not given a damn about the essence of Makryiannis’ Memoirs. Why then should they care about the way he used to play his tambourás? Let alone about Foustalieris and his bulgarí…
● Thus, our only hope is to see the fulfillment of a verse, albeit paraphrased, of a most beautiful old song, Staphidianós, played superbly by Foustalieris on his bulgarí, having beside him an amazing Baxevanis:
“The good old Foustalieris song, will never fade away”…