A flurry of notes flies out of the elegant four-stringed instrument, and each sound echoes as it fuses with the others. The harmony evokes imagined memories of a past filled with love, danger, and celebration. The bouzouki has played a defining role in Greek music for centuries, and conveys this history through its folksy Mediterranean sound. It has evolved over time, but every change has made it more accessible to audiences of all kinds.
The Danforth is the perfect area to discover the instrument. Several venues host live Greek music on weekends, and here the performances are invariably punctuated by the fascinating sound of the bouzouki.
In its most traditional Greek form, the bouzouki is composed of three courses, a long neck, fixed frets, and a hollow body with a rounded back. It is usually embellished with decorative carvings and a mother of pearl inlay near the sound hole. It has been a mainstay of Greek rembetika, folk music that became popular in the 1930s and experienced a revival in the 1960s. A fourth pair of strings was added to the instrument in the 1950s, and the tuning was subsequently changed. This made the instrument more adaptable to different musical genres, and more accessible to a wider variety of musicians.
In its new form, the bouzouki was found to adapt quite well to Irish folk music, and in the 1960s the Irish bouzouki was born. Similar to its predecessor, the newer instrument cast off its Greek counterpart’s decorative elements and had a flatter back. You can acquire your own Irish bouzouki at the Twelfth Fret. It sells well and is quite popular with Canadian contemporary folk bands, such as Great Big Sea. Irish bouzoukis aren’t generally used as lead instruments, but serve to enliven particular songs. Bands playing the Irish bouzouki can be seen at the Dora Keogh pub.
It is more difficult to obtain a Greek bouzouki, but the Danforth is the perfect spot to hear one played; keep in mind, The Romeo Bouzouki Lounge, is a members-only nightclub. It features lively Greek music and parties that continue until the early morning. The exclusivity is perhaps a way to preserve cultural traditions and retain a sense of identity. It has been said that when older Greek men and women walk by, they offer the lounge a nod, conceivably of recognition and respect. There are other options for people who wish to see the Greek bouzouki in action: Christina’s, Kokkino, and Pan all feature the music on Friday and Saturday nights.
Tasos Issaakidis, an experienced bouzouki player and teacher at Elite Music Academy on the Danforth says, “I have always been nostalgic for the place where I grew up, and the bouzouki kept me in touch with Greece.” He started playing the instrument when he was 14, and likens his attraction to it with the draw of the guitar for Canadian youth. During his 10 years of teaching, the majority of his students have been Greek but he has taught individuals from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. “I do believe that the bouzouki appeals to a greater audience more so today than it ever did in the past. Even the set up (tuning) of the instrument has changed over the years in order to accommodate the wide spectrum of music.”
An orchestra of bouzoukis actually played the theme for the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympic Games. This instrument has evolved over the course of its long life, continuing to inspire the growth of new musical traditions. On the Danforth, the instrument’s cultural integrity is both preserved and encouraged to expand.