The Preservation of Greek Folk Music

by Micah Hendler:

The Whiffenpoofs reunited in Athens last week after a much-needed break.  After a day of sight-seeing, I decided to explore the city by myself. I set off toward the Acropolis and ran across a man who was selling buzukis in his crafts shop (a buzuki is a Greek traditional long-necked lute of sorts). Naturally, I stopped to ask him about the buzukis, which he had made in his own workshop, and after about ten minutes of conversation, he told me, “You know, there is a museum for traditional Greek music right down the street – you should take a look at it.” I was thankful for his advice and directions (it was hidden quite well around several corners – there’s no way I would have run across it in the course of my own wanderings) to the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments: The Fivos Anoyanakis Collection and Centre of Ethnomusicology.

The city of Athens sprawls out beneath a heat haze. (Bruner/TYG)

The Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments was small but very well laid-out and packed with useful information. Its organization alone belied its deep academic grounding in the discipline of ethnomusicology, as the rooms were assigned on the basis of German musicologist E.M. Hornbostel’s foundational classification of musical instruments into idiophones (instruments whose bodies you hit to produce sound – bells, spoons, jangle-coated headdresses, etc.), membranophones (instruments with a membrane that vibrates to produce sound (drums, mainly), aerophones (instruments that create sound through the movement of air – clarinets, flutes, shawms, etc.), and chordophones (instruments that have vibrating strings that create sound (lyres, violins, buzukis, etc.). Each room had cases filled with old instruments used in Greek traditional music, and alongside each case was a field recording featuring that case’s instrument in the context of a song. In addition, each case had a well-translated explanation of how each instrument worked, and where it originated from. This last part was the most interesting to me, as the instruments in the traditional Greek zikiya ensemble — the shawm and the daouli drum — go back as far as ancient Greece, but some instruments like the clarinet, which are now seen as integral to a traditional Greek sound in the kombania ensemble, actually originated elsewhere and were imported to Greece as late as the mid-19th century. Greek music shares much with the melodic Arab and Turkish musical traditions from the Eastern Mediterranean, yet also much with the harmonic traditions of Balkan and other European folk musics (some Greek folk music even sounds Irish!), and it was fascinating to see which instruments originated where and whether I, with relatively untrained ears, could detect any of the original region in the resulting sound of each sample recording. The track I selected, from a collection of folk music from all over Greece, is a particularly interesting example, I think, of a combination of Eastern melodicism and Western harmonic structure. Listen here:

09 Track 09

Almost as interesting as the museum itself was the story of its founder, Fivos Anoyanakis. According to the educator who was working at the museum during my visit, Anoyanakis was a man who felt that Greek folk music was an important tradition that needed to be preserved against the forces of modernism and popular culture that were overtaking the world in the first half of the 20th century. So for 50 years between 1940-1990, he and several of his companions traveled all over the country collecting traditional instruments and songs from the Greek countryside and cities. The Museum was his lifelong dream, and even though he was exiled from Greece at one point for being an accused communist (“people’s music” can be a dangerous tool…), Anoyanakis bequeathed much of his collection to the Greek Ministry of Culture to create the museum before he died. His one stipulation was that the museum be free of charge, as the music inside was Greek national patrimony which belonged to everyone. So I got to experience the whole thing for free!

According to the educators who worked in the museum shop, the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments is the only museum of its kind (of a national folk music tradition and its instruments) in Europe, and is a hub for European ethnomusicological conferences, a concert venue for traditional performances (with over 50 well-attended performances a year), and a school for traditional Greek music with hundreds of students and an ever-increasing enrollment. I would call Fivos Anoyanakis’ mission to preserve Greek folk music a resounding success.