On a working trip to Greece, I stumbled on a small museum in a corner of Athens’ historic Plaka district that shows there is more to Greek music than “Zorba’s Dance” and “Never on Sunday.”
In fact, the Museum of Greek Folk Musical Instruments, or MELMOKE, contains barely any bouzoukis — the quintessential Greek instrument that often accompanies the smashing of plates in overseas Greek restaurants. Instead, visitors are treated to rows of wood and bone flutes, pottery drums called toumbeleki, and gaida — bagpipes made of sheep or goat skins.
On a recent Saturday, the basement was echoing to the sounds of students learning to sing and play old-style, including using a santouri, a type of hammer dulcimer.
“Traditional music was live until recently,” Petros Moustakas, a musicologist at MELMOKE, told me. The museum is designed to protect the roots heritage of the music and to keep the old way going.
Modern Greek music is very popular in Greece, and unlike many European countries, the local fare tends to outnumber English and American imports in music shops. It is more like pop and disco, but Moustakas says it still uses the “modes” of traditional music, albeit in a far more urban way.
Other forms of Greek music do too, such as rembetika, nearly always called “Greek blues” because it was first played by the poor around the Piraeus docks.
But the MELMOKE is primarily about raw, rural sound from Greece’s mountainous mainland and scattered islands.
Most of the roughly 1,200 items owned by the museum come from the collection of critic and musicologist Fivos Anoyanakis, who died in 2003. They date from the 18th century to the present day, although there is scant sign of anything commercial — and certainly nothing electric.
The oldest item, according to Moustakas, is a 1743 lyra from Crete, a small teardrop-shaped, three-stringed instrument that has a head carved with various symbols. It is played by a bow with bells on it.
One of the more magnificent objects on display, meanwhile, is a 19th century laghouto, or lute, inlaid with ivory and tortoise shell. It is said to have been made by luthier Manolis Venios of Constantinople (present day Istanbul), a master craftsman whose works now sell for many thousands of dollars.
(This is an edited version of a story I wrote for my main employer, Reuters)