Greek Island Melodies – Musical Discoveries on Ferry Journeys

Ahead, a musical journey around Greece’s island-dotted coastline.

The rembetiko that grew out of the cafe-aman and the hashish dens (tekkedes) became a Greek urban popular music, despised by the upper classes and feared by police; it was the forbidden Greek urban blues.

This music was accompanied by a bouzouki, baglama and laouto, as well as a violin or clarinet. The songs are in rhymed distichs of 15 syllables.


The Nissiotika genre showcases the rich cultural diversity of Greek island communities. The music has lively rhythms and melodic patterns accompanied by clarinet, violin, and a mixture of traditional instruments. Typically performed at weddings, festive events, and other celebratory gatherings, Nissiotika songs invite all to dance together in a free spirit. Nissiotika is closely related to rebetiko, which is a form of folk music that emerged from urban working-class communities and reflects their struggles and joys through soulful vocals, poetic lyrics, and the use of various instruments.

Unlike the dramatic music of Cretan and Pontic islands, Nissiotika is light and easy to listen to. Its gentle rhythm and simple dance make it a favorite of a wide audience, especially in the 1960’s when the “new wave” inspired by Western ballads took hold among Greek youth.

The popularity of Nissiotika was also boosted by renowned singers such as Mariza Koch and musicians from the Konitopoulos family, who revived these island folk songs in recordings and performances backed by rock musicians. More recently, other artists on the World Music circuits have included nissiotika in their repertoire. Due to its idiomatic language, however, it is difficult to appreciate fully without a basic understanding of Greek. A knowledge of the language is especially crucial to understand the meaning and sentiment behind a song like Amalia’s, in which she recalls her home island with a mix of melancholy and euphoria.

Traditional Greek Music

There are a wide variety of styles of traditional Greek music. Each region has its own particular musical style based on local history, traditions and cultural influences. The music of the islands is influenced by the mainland, but the relative isolation of the islands allows each island to develop a unique sound.

For example, a violin style can vary radically between places only two or three hours apart by boat and even from one village to another. The most common instruments are the bouzouki and the baglamas. These are accompanied by the laouto and either the lira or a violin. In addition to the instrumental interludes between verses of songs, there are also purely instrumental pieces. Most songs are set to dance rhythms and can be danced to. In the past, musicians were considered to have elevated status in society. They were referred to as melopoioi and there are several depictions of them in pre-Christian art.

The Heptanesian kantadhes (‘serenades’) were influenced by Italian music, but soon spread throughout the islands and the rest of Greece. These were the forerunners of modern Greek song, and they greatly influenced other styles of folk music as well. The nissiotika of the islands are easy to hear at every festival on any of the islands, where a group of musicians plays continuously for the entire night.

Greek Folk Music

During the Axis occupation of Greece (through 1941 to 1944) and until 1946, music production was prohibited by the government. However, the music of Crete and Corfu remained alive and flourishing, even though musical instruments like the pear-shaped Macedonian lira were replaced by the larger dachares, the violi with the Cretian laouto, etc. It was to these self-taught musicians that the sense of the Greek folk tradition owed its very existence.

The kleptic musical style of the nissiotika was born of these self-taught players and expresses the deepest sentiments of a people. Its lyrical themes include love songs, wedding songs, exile, and war songs, as well as a distinctly Greek sense of tragedy.

By the late 1930s, however, many of these musicians—both singers and bouzouki players—had left the scene. Those who stayed had to adapt their musical styles to meet the changing times and new audience expectations.

The old musical idioms were reworked and cross-fertilised with the heavy local urban styles of the day, as exemplified by the work of Vassilis Tsitsanis, for example. And it was also during this period that the nissiotika and rebetiko became a part of popular culture, with songs and dances appearing on film and radio. In the 1950s, these styles became the mainstream laiko (astike klai kaike mousike ’urban folk music’). Classic laiko songs, such as Manolis Angelopoulos’s indoyiftika (literally ‘Indian-like’), were heavily influenced by oriental sounds.

Modern Greek Music

In the modern era, island music has been strongly influenced by contemporary technology and electric amplification. The bouzouki, which has four double strings, and the baglamas, a smaller 3-stringed lute that sounds like a clarinet played an octave higher, both play a key role in rebetika, the urban musical tradition associated with the working classes. Both instruments may be accompanied by keyboards and/or guitars for percussive backup or to mimic the sounds of other instruments. In traditional mainland dance bands, the clarinet, or klarino, is a common lead instrument.

While the nissiotika melodies and rhythms of the islands remain intact, many musicians are reinventing Greek folk music to better represent their experiences in modern Greece. A popular example is the duo Kristi and Stathis who remix traditional demotika songs to create a sound that is new and unique.

Other modern Greek music styles include laiko, or mainstream soft popular music reminiscent of Spain, and entechno, which incorporates eastern scales and rhythms into Western forms. The composers Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis are examples of the latter. Modern Greek music is also characterized by a fascination with fusion, which combines western forms and instrumentation with traditional melodies and rhythms. This can be heard, for example, in the mesmerizing song Tou Ai Giorgi by Savina Yannatou. Her ethereal voice and alluring arrangements transport listeners to another world.