Every corner in Greece has its own cultural traditions: its own architectural styles, its own cuisines, its own musical heritage.
When true creative talent encounters such influences, tradition becomes more than just maintaining the past; it becomes part of a dialogue shaping the present and preparing for the future, especially in the field of the arts.
On the music scene in Greece today, there are a number of groups and individual performers who include local and regional elements in their music and in their lyrics while still creating contemporary songs accessible to wide audiences.
Not only is the island of Ikaria famous worldwide for being one of the five “Blue Zone” destinations where people live the longest, it’s also known for its lively local church festivals, with musicians playing non-stop throughout the night and attendees enjoying a unifying, Dionysian-like experience. Ikaria is where Violeta Ikari was born and raised; she even adapted her island’s name as part of her stage name. Her unique hoarse voice and sensual interpretations are constantly earning her new fans. And while she has studied music professionally, it’s likely that she learned just as much at the Ikarian festivals where she used to sing as a child.
Villagers οf Ioannina City
The members of this band, otherwise known as VIC, all come from the city of Ioannina or the surrounding mountains of Epirus, where countless generations have depended on agriculture, faith and hard work to survive. The band blends influences from stoner and hard psychedelic rock with sounds from traditional instruments, including bagpipes, flutes, and clarinets. Not only are they the most popular rock band nationally at the moment, they’re also a band that’s acquainting thousands of music lovers worldwide with Greece’s folk songs, thanks to a strong presence on the web and at European festivals. Their last album, “Age of Aquarius”, marks the band’s return to English lyrics, albeit while still maintaining elements of Greek folk music.
Ta Pedia tis Paleotitas
The strong musical identity of Corfu is based largely on a legacy of orchestras and opera that the Italians bequeathed the island. Today, there are local bands that have assimilated Corfu’s rich musical tradition and blended it with contemporary elements of pop culture and rock music. Ta Pedia tis Paleotitas (The Children of the Age of Old) are one such group; their latest album “Enthimion Neanikon Sintrofon” (“Souvenirs of Youthful Companions”) was characterized by their founder P.E Dimitriadis as “metafolk.”
Greece isn’t all small mountain villages and quaint island harbors; it has its crowded cities as well, and these have their own chaotic beauty and their own cultural traditions. LEX (Alexis Lanaras) gets his material from Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki. A rapper on the underground scene whose weapons to date are the songs on his 2018 album “2XXX”, he has nonetheless managed to build an impressive following. He speaks about social injustice, about the difficulties he and his friends faced in the aftermath of the economic crisis, about love, and about everything else an analyst of society should, in a serious and direct style. His music videos are cinematic narratives in which he stars. Rap music may come from the US, but LEX’s lyrics reflect a Greek reality of urban landscapes and desperate situations to which thousands of his Greek listeners can relate. The fact that he lives and creates in Thessaloniki may be part of the reason for his success; it’s a city that has its own school of poetry and a tradition of producing musicians ranging from rebetiko artists to folk composers and rock bands.
The musical heritage of Crete, Greece’s largest and most populous island, is kept alive by the countless bands that play at local fetes and sometimes even participate in festivals abroad. Giorgos Xylouris is the son of legendary lyra player Psarantonis and the nephew of renowned singer Nikos Xylouris; he is carrying on his family’s long tradition of playing the lute, a string instrument that is quite common in Crete and that is most often heard accompanying the lyra. In renowned drummer Jim White (of Dirty Three and PJ Harvey fame), Nikos found not just a cosmopolitan musician but a collaborator who takes the Xylouris White band towards explosive, rhythmically liberated musical dialogues. Their last album, entitled “The Sisypheans”, was released by the US record company Drag City. Over the years, their concerts have acquired a reputation for the sense of audience involvement they engender.
Anna Vs. June
To seek out Greece’s traditional music, put on a backpack and hit the roads less traveled, but to create something new from that which you’ve found, lock yourself in the studio. This is the method that the artist Anna Papaioannou, better known as Anna Vs. June, employs; she travels to rural villages from time to time, to gather stimuli and songs, which she later “tampers with” in the recording studio, using loops, drum machines and synthesizers, and dubbing her own voice over monophonic melodies.
“How can the traditional songs of Thrace be linked to punk culture?” asks the group Thrax Punks on their official website. The music of Thrace, in northeastern Greece, has roots in antiquity and is characterized by fast rhythms and dances that reflect the locals’ fiery temperament, as well as by a range of instruments that reflects the diversity of the local population. In addition to the gaida (local bagpipes), the daouli (double-headed drum), the zourna (a wind instrument) and the Thracian lyra, Thrax Punks adds a mix of wild electric guitar, loud vocals and plenty of youthful enthusiasm, as one can hear in their 2019 debut album, titled “Thrax Punks.”
Pindos Atletico are one of the few Greek rap groups that have managed to incorporate elements of both traditional music and local dialect in their music. The group is originally from Grevena, a town of approximately 15,000 people in the regional unit of Western Macedonia. The group’s name slyly combines an homage to Spanish soccer with a reference to the Pindus Mountains, the largest mountain range in Greece and one which dominates the skyline around Grevena. Their music videos make clear where their inspiration comes from, with scenes, sounds and rhythms reminiscent of the authentic local rural celebrations you’ll find in this area.
Round II – A Musical Tour of Greece
Let us start down south, on the island of Crete. Its native son, Giannis Haroulis, might be the most famous singer and performer in Greece right now, at least in terms of live appearances. He has combined the music and the dialect of his island with contemporary Greek music to great effect and achieved much success. At times, his songs lean towards Balkan rock.
Crete is also home to Balothizer, a heavy rock band that features the traditional lute, loud drums and electric bass. And then there’s Marina Satti, who grew up in Crete’s Irakleio but had already been resident in Athens for several years when her cover of the traditional tune “Tha Spaso Koupes” (“I will break cups”) and her own “Mantissa” (“Fortune teller”) became runaway successes. Accompanied by vocal band FONES, she interprets songs from different parts of the world in a multi-cultural spirit.
Athens is also where you’ll find the folk ethnic band TAKIM, whose members, all skilled soloists in their own right, combine academic knowledge with a love of Greek tradition. The ongoing “Crossroads Project” by Penny Muse Band, who divide their time between Athens and Boston, is an interesting marriage of jazz and some of the most beloved Greek songs. The rebetiko songs penned by the legendary songwriter Markos Vamvakaris, who before WWII was a star in the informal entertainment establishments of Piraeus, are given new life in pleasant cover versions by Markos Electrik.
On the island of Samos, the home of Pythagoras, the goddess Hera and white Moschato wine, we meet Zvoures, who combine rock with traditional music.
In the northeast, near the Albanian border, lies the town of Konitsa, an up-and-coming destination for alternative tourism in the last few years. It is the birthplace of renowned musician Kostantis Pistiolis, who plays all of Greece’s traditional wind instruments. He collaborated with Giannis Haroulis for more than ten years and is a proper star in the eyes of the younger fans of “neo-traditional” music.
Based in Thessaloniki, the band Largo combines the clarinet with electric guitars, keyboards and trumpets, while the band Sleepin Pillow has found a way to introduce the Pontic lyra, a musical instrument from the Black Sea area, to rock music.
The singer-songwriter Seirios Savvaidis is certainly worth mentioning: he lives on Mount Pangeon, a beautiful mountain range near Kavala, famous for its natural beauty and its tradition in wine-making. Savvaidis combines elements from the Western folk tradition with the sounds and language of his land.