Pavlos Erevnidis - The musical technique of the rebetiko instrumentalists. Similarities and differences with instrumentalists in Istanbul - Hydra Rebetiko Conference October 2004






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by Pavlos Erevnidis [Athens]


[Hydra Rebetiko Conference, October 2004]


In the second half of the 20th century, the study of laikí (popular) music in Greece did not concern itself sufficiently with the analysis of musicians who played instruments such as the ud, the kanun, the lyra etc. This was due to the predominance of the bouzouki, with the result that the Greek musicologists, not having active instrumentalists playing those instruments, were not in a position to give due weight to the real value of the musicians of the 1930s and 1940s. Thus we heard nostalgic evaluations, such as that Nikos Stefanidis was one of the finest players of the kanun in his time. Also, the lack of understanding of the theory of maqam as a result of the westernization process of the music of Greece led people’s opinions in two directions:


a ) The main direction was the interpretation of the various different musical phenomena with the so-called “major-minor”;


b ) The other direction, which expressed itself as a reaction to the former, was the school of Simon Kará, which expressed a view of an “unbroken continuity” with Ancient Greek music. The Kará school, which was more isolated and elitist, understood musical phenomena with a terminology which was a mixture of terms from different periods of the development of the musical system of church singing (psaltiké).


At the start of the 1980s we saw a revival of the aforementioned traditional instruments. This was due mainly to the coincidence of the rise of “Ethnic” music and the other related kinds of music. This revival was a result of the work on various kinds of music, both Greek and otherwise, at first marginal, and later progressed into more popular areas such as contemporary Greek popular song, the kind which is known dismissively as “skyladhiko”, or “laiko-pop”, In the whole of this repertoire, and even in its most “pop” versions, there are examples of the ud, the saz and the clarinet, often played with great skill by gypsy and Turkish musicians, but also by Greeks. The bad examples of playing on these instruments are often the work of bouzouki performers who, since they have no models to work from, simply play these instruments with the techniques that they already know.


So, within this framework, the perspective that we should adopt when trying to analyse the playing of musicians such as Agapios Tomboulis, the two Lambroses, and all the other musicians, needs to take into account the simultaneous use of their instruments in Turkey, and especially in istanbul. The attempt to extend our analysis into areas such as Persia and Arabia would be judged as “ideologically suspect, since all these musicians, leaving aside the fact that they had family relations with their fellow-countrymen who lived in Istanbul, their musical material derived exclusively and directly from their ancestral homes in Anatolia.


It is also a very interesting fact that in Athens and Istanbul we find a multi-ethnicity as regards the origins of the musicians – one need only think of performers such as Tomboulis and Roza Eskenazi.


Our research has to bear in mind the fact that the theoretical and technical knowledge of the aforementioned musicians compared to their peers in Istanbul were relations like those of the capital to the provinces, with all the consequences that this entails. If  contemporary researchers expoit this fact, we can for example cross musical phenomena, such as the intervals that are played in different maqams, and to confirm in a wider framework the deviations of musical practice from the offending musical theories that were created in the twentieth century by Huseyin Sadrettin Arel in Turkey and Simon Kará in Greece. Within the above ideological framework I shall attempt in what follows an entirely original attempt at assessing the technical performance of instruments such as the ud, the kanun, the lyra etc. Towards the end I shall refer to the intervals that these musicians use in makams such as saba, taximia and karcigar.




So, beginning with the ud I shall examine the playing styles of the two Armenians Agapios Tomboulis and Markos Melkon.


As a general characteristic we should say that they follow the technique of the peniá of the street (?). In Istanbul there were two schools as regards the use of the pena (plectrum). One – certainly the oldest – is the one in which the plectrum strikes the strong close to the bridge (kavalári), producing a sound that is more bright and stronger. The negative aspect of this technique is that it increases the sense of the ud as a percussive instrument. The main representative of this school was Giorgos Batzanos. He was the only musician of Istanbul who did not the impression of a percussion instrument. From all the other representativ es of this school we have the impression of a “heavy” right hand, and at the same time it creates also some bad results as regards performance. It is obvious why this technique is used by all the musicians of the taverns, because it gives a greater intensity (? loudness), and at that time there were no microphones.


The other school, which has prevailed down to our own times, is represented by Turkish musicians such as Nevres Bey, and particularly by Serif Muhhidin Targan, which plays the plectrum a long way away from the bridge, somewhere between the two small holes in the top of the instrument. In fact Serif Muhhidin plays even further up, almost directly over the large central hole. The resulting sound is more bass and more senstive. It lacks a little of  the brightness which distinguishes the sound colouring of the Turkish type of ud from the Arabic or the Persian. Musicians in Greece have a clear preference for the former kind of playing, with the plectrum hitting the strings close to the bridge. And this is because they are musicians of the taverns and not of the saray or the aristocracy. It is also clear that Tomboulis has a very fine technique from the point of view of speed of playing, although at some points he lets out tome notes that are played a bit indistinctly. This can be seen in many instances. In his taximia too Tomboulis was rather original. His strong sense of rhythm should not seem strange to us, because it is due to the problems experienced with the early gramophone records, and also, mainly, to the kind of music which he was performing, which was popular music (laikó) which had strong impulses (?) in its dances.


The second person I want to consider was also an Armenian, Markos Melkon. He was certainly the finest performer of ud to be found in Athens. His style of playing (peniá) has the same characteristics that I referred to previously. He plays close to the bridge, although not having such a difference in sound from Tomboulis’s playing. From the point of view of technique he has a very clear style, with the result that all his vibratos are distinct. One interesting thing that we observe is that, in his taximia, while it is clear from his playing that he knows the maqam very well, he never stops for a rest at any moment. Frequent pauses are a characteristic of all good musicians who improvise. His taximia have characteristics that we don’t find in later improvisations, among performers on the bouzouki. Mainly this fact of the absence of pauses.




To continue, I would like to look at Lambros Leondarides, in relation to his brother Parascho (?) in Istanbul, and their teacher Rusen Ferid Kam, and Aleko Batzanó. The Leontaridis brothers play the lyra in the way it was played by Rusen Ferid Kam, and not like their father Anastasios Leontaridis. Anastasis plays with many bow-strokes, and ornaments the melody more. This is natural because Anastasis was a fellow pupil in Vasilaki of Cemil Bey, and so these two, together with Sotiris Tsantali, play very differently, with more ornamentation. It is strange, or rather we do not know the reason why the Leontaridis brothers learned lyra from Rused Ferid Kam, who played with bigger bow strokes, and not with their father Anastasis.


Lambros, as a player on the popular music scene around Athens, plays  in a more sprightly way, and this is very interesting because it shows us that in Istanbul they could play like this, but clearly the personality of Rusen Ferid Kam imposed a playing of the lyra that was closer to the sound of the ney. Only Alekos Batzanós managed to escape from this and played differently. Only recently did I discover the reason: Alekos had Anastis as his teacher! This is referred to by Yorgos Batzan in an interview that he gave to the journalist Pekirgin on the occasion of the death of  Alekos! Anastis taught lyra to the nephew of Alekos and not to the sons of Paraschos and Lambros who learned lyra from Rusen Ferid Kam. So now let us listen to some experts from among the lyra players.




Now let us go to the kanun. Basically in Greece there were two main kanun players, Lambros Savvaidis and Nikos Stefanidis. For a start I should stress that technique on the kanun from that period until the present day has developed to a very great degree. Thus players such as Ahmet Yatman and particularly of Artaki Candan who are the players mainly copied by the Greek players are thought of as outdated, in the sense that for present-day players they are too easy. So nowadays we can see more clearly that Lambros Savvaidis is more original and his style is clearly more compounded. The vibrato technique that he uses is very interesting – in other words he is continually moving the “mandali” (hammer) with his left hand, with the result that a vibrato technique is produced which is used very much by players today, particularly among the performers of “fandezi” music in Turkey.


Note that he plays the “saba” in accordance with how it is traditionally played, in other words with “open” intervals, and not as it is described in the theoretical approaches of Huseyin Sadrettin Arel and Suphi Ezgi.


As regards Stefanidis very many things could be said. He uses far fewer techniques in his playing. This is due mainly to the fact that he played the kanun again in his old age, with the result that it did not develop as much as might have been expected. It is interesting to note that he uses intervals that are “correct” in traditional terms, and not influenced by theoretical systems, for maqams such as taximia, which means that he was not influenced by the intervallic teaching of Simona Kará, with whom at a certain point and later he shared a common path.


Stefanidis played in the style of the great Armenian performer on the kanun Artaki Candan. Certainly he would have heard him off the radio, as Simon Kará tells us in an article about Nikos Stefanidis in the magazine “Tar”. We shall not extend to players such as Ahmet Yatman, who clearly playes in a style which is more the style of the “piatsa” (?), or Vechihe Daryal. However we should say that generally the style of Stefanidis is not a taverna style, but clearly more (?) detailed. Here we might simply recall that Stefanidis does not play rebetiko music. We shall hear an example of the family of taximia from Stefanidis, and then an example by Artaki Candan, which is the person whom Stefanidis copies. Note how, with both of them, their intervals have no relation to the theoretical interpretations of Simon Kará or Huseyin Sadrettin Arel.



Provisional Trans. Ed Emery

October 2004