Island Rhythms: Music and Dance on Greek Ferry Journeys

Ferry-hopping is one of the most flexible ways to see multiple islands in Greece, especially during high season. The domestic ferry routes are also very affordable and many have outdoor seating options that allow you to enjoy the beautiful sea breezes and island views.

Live out your mamma mia fantasies and dance the night away at these enthralling Greek music and folk dance experiences!


The nissiotika genre is an important component of the Greek island sound. It includes traditional music played on the bagpipe, lute and tsabouna as well as popular ensembles featuring bouzouki, guitar and clarinet. The chapter highlights the work of musicologists who collected field recordings of this musical tradition, highlighting songs from the islands of Aegina, Skopelos and Skyros. Musicians such as Mariza Koch are credited with reviving the field in the 1970s and many of today’s leading Greek stars incorporate nissiotika in their repertoires.

Gail Holst-Warhaft, Adjunct Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University and author of Road to Rembetika, applies the same discerning eye she used in her study of rembetika to nissiotika. Her book reveals this living tradition of island music to be a complex tapestry that tells stories of love, separation and sadness, sometimes of sailors returning from dangerous voyages, but also of the joy of youth and the beauty of pretty girls.

These island songs are based on dimotiki (folk) poetry and a variety of themes include nature, water, humor and death. The lyrics, in rhymed distichs of 15 syllables, are typically improvised by skilled singers, called mantinadhes. Unlike the metrical folk music of mainland Greece, nissiotika is typically accompanied by non-rhythmic melodic instruments such as clarinets, laouto and violins. Instrumental improvisation is an important aspect of this genre, as are the melodic embellishments and the microtonal intervals that are smaller than the Western sharp or flat.

Greek Folk Music

Greek folk music is generally based on traditional instruments, such as the violin and laouto. It includes a variety of different tempos, from fast dance songs to the more sedate melodies of the syrtos and pidiktos.

In the early 20th Century, rebetiko emerged as a form of Greek folk music associated with poorer urban communities. The music of outcasts, rebetiko singers were often drug-addicts or criminals who used song as a way to express their frustration and despair. These musicians were scorned by mainstream society, and rebetiko music became a form of subculture, associated with drugs, alcohol and criminal activity.

Music is an essential part of the komos, a kind of all-male drinking party that often involves dancing and singing, and where the men drink heavily. The songs are a mixture of heartfelt love songs and humorous satires. Music was also a major element of the symposia, the all-male feasts celebrated to mark a significant event or occasion in the life of an individual, a family or a village.

Today, a traditional Greek music scene still exists in many villages and towns, although it is less common than it once was. The arrival of electricity (as recently as the 1970s in some places) and paved roads has meant that musicians who used to play without amplification now bring along sound equipment to crank up their volume to ear-splitting levels.

Greek Dances

The Greek Islands are a dream destination for many. They’re dotted with bijou ports, petite churches and hushed beaches that call for a stroll. The wide scattering of differently sized, culturally distinct islands also makes it easy to hop between different ones on a multi-stop ferry journey.

As you hop between the islands, keep your eyes open for local dancers, as most of them will happily welcome you to join in their circle. A great place to start is with the ikariotikos. A part of the nisiotika dances (nisi means island), this line dance comes from the island of Ikaria. It starts with slow walking steps, then quickens the pace to showcase their agility.

Another fun and energetic dance is the pentozali. This passionate dance is connected to the history of Crete’s liberation fight from the Ottomans. It is an intense dance, with the beat being more important than specific, intricate steps. The lead dancer is particularly acrobatic and often jumps or throws her hands in the air to add flair.

One of the most famous Greek dances is the sirtaki, which was created for the movie Zorba the Greek. It is a fast and exciting dance, often performed in a line with the dancers holding each other’s shoulders. It is said to replicate the drunken walk home from tavernas.

Greek Instruments

The Greeks had a large variety of musical instruments. These included stringed and wind instruments. The most popular were the lyre, aulos (usually double), and syrinx. Other stringed instruments were the kanonaki, and the santouri. A kanonaki is similar to the psalterion, and can have up to 140 strings. The santouri is the modern version of the Epigonio and the psalterion. It has 120-140 strings and can produce 32 notes. There are very few santouri players today in Greece.

The tsabouna is a wind instrument, which differs from the mainland’s bagpipes (gaida) in that it doesn’t have a drone pipe. It has double pipes which are fingered at the same time, and two reeds are fastened inside the bag to help make sounds. It is played in folk songs and at traditional island celebrations.

The kanonaki and santouri are both stringed instruments, while the defi is a hand drum. It resembles a tambourine, but has a low tone and metal bangles that are used to decorate the rhythm. The defi is also very popular in Epiros, and a virtuoso can add a lot to a song with their playing skills.