Blowers from the Balkans
classic historic recordings of wind instruments
Topic TSCD928
Bagpipes of Greece
recordings and notes by Wolf Dietrich
Topic TSDC930

Cover pictureOne thing that struck me immediately about Blowers of the Balkans is that the title is more than a little misleading.  Only about a third of the tracks were recorded in the Balkans - most of the recordings were made in New York, performed by emigré bands.  The well known klezmer musician Abe Schwartz, for instance, emigrated from Romania to the US, where he made his career.

The American recording industry was key in preserving the Balkan music traditions.  But was it a tradition that had changed because of the changed context?  We hear only a single bagpipe piece, and one piece each on fjell and kaval - instruments which, still much used in Bulgaria, didn't fit the dance band culture of the metropolis.  There's much more clarinet - an instrument admirably adapted for band performance.

This selection of tracks from 1906 to the early fifties also illustrates the extent to which changes in the tradition are still occurring.  The rhythms are unbelievably sedate compared to the frenetic pace set by some Balkan musicians today.  Has eastern European music undergone the same speeding-up as Irish music?  Even the bagpipe piece is very legato and quite laid back, and predominantly melodic, whereas modern Bulgarian gaida playing tends to concentrate more on staccato notes and ornamentation.  Another intriguing feature is the use of the lower (chalumeau) register of the clarinet in two pieces; again, modern performers tend to play predominantly above the break, so there seems to have been an aesthetic shift since the early 20th century.

Although some of the tracks sound a bit muddy, and some of the tracks seem to be curtailed, this is an interesting selection of music.  But the notes are very disappointing.  They don't explain the styles used, the context of the bands, or even the rhythms used: Invirtita is a general name for Romanian whirling dances in, for example, 2/4, 4/4 or 7/8 time.  I would have liked to see more background and context.

Cover pictureBagpipes of Greece is hard core by comparison - nothing but bagpipes, with occasional accompaniment.  All the tracks are field recordings made by Wolf Dietrich over the course of thirty years - no commercial takes on this disc.

What struck me on reading through the notes is that Greek piping seems to be stuck where English piping was twenty years ago.  There are few makers left in Greece, with most players forced to get their pipes from Bulgaria, and there hasn't really been a revival.  Even on the islands, the tsambouna has gradually been degraded and is being replaced by violin or clarinet.  Most of the players recorded here are in their sixties or seventies - it's an old man's instrument and few younger people seem to be taking it up.  And while the emigré Pontic community has retained the lyra as a traditional instrument, the Pontic touloumi is apparently dying out.  The Greek bagpipes need a revival - but they don't seem to be getting one.

One of the problems may be that many modern melodies simply don't fit on pipes, so the repertory is not up to date.  There's a delightful track on this CD of the Tsanoulinis brothers, from Tinos, playing a polka and waltz.  Their idea is to rejuvenate the repertory.  The result is weird, to say the least.  Another track shows a piper from Samos 'stealing' a Cretan tune, because most melodies from his own island exceed his instrument's six note range.  Ultimately, though, the revival of the bagpipe requires a change in attitudes to traditional music - and that has not happened yet.  Let's quote from the notes to track 19:

The brothers Tsanoulinis are the last pipers from Tinos.  Situated relatively close to Athens, the island nowadays is overcrowded by weekend tourists from the capital which want to hear a different music.  That is why the Tsanoulinis brothers had their last engagement more than 10 years ago.
The music itself is lively, with a number of bagpipe and drum combinations used that could be compared to the use of zurna and tupan in Turkey, or the piper-and-drummer duos shown in Breughel's paintings.  Staccato playing on gaida is used to liven up pieces for dancing.

I know gaida music pretty well, but the tsambouna was a new discovery for me and an exciting one.  Using the double chanter, tsambouna players are able to create considerably complex polyphonic effects, while retaining an edge of wildness and rhythmic impetus.

The notes for this disc are good.  The occupations of the players are recorded - for the most part carpenters, peasants, but also a hairdresser and a young archaeologist - as well as their ages and locations.  There's also some good detail on playing technique.  And there is one delightful near miss in the translation - 'belly-blown bagpipes are unknown in Greece'.  As elsewhere, I'd suggest!

Andrea Kirkby - 8.3.06

Top Home Page MT Records Articles Reviews News Editorial Map

Site designed and maintained by Musical Traditions Web Services   Updated: 8.3.06