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Thursday, May 15, 2003

Arts & Letters

Inventing Tradition

I HATE world music….The term is a catchall that commonly refers to non-Western music of any and all sorts, popular music and even classical music. It’s a marketing as well as a pseudomusical term — and a name for a bin in the record store signifying stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else….What’s in the bin ranges from the most blatantly commercial music produced by a country, like Hindi film music (the singer Asha Bhosie being the best known example), to the ultra-sophisticated, super-cosmopolitan art-pop of Brazil (Caetano Veloso, Tom Ze, Carlinhos Brown); from the somewhat bizarre and surreal concept of a former Bulgarian state-run folkloric choir being arranged by classically trained Soviet-era composers (Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares) to Norteno songs from Texas and northern Mexico glorifying the exploits of drug dealers (Los Tigres del Norte).
— David Byrne, “I Hate World Music,” The New York Times, October 3, 2002

The annual festival of Greek music and dance sponsored by the World Music Institute was presented again last month in New York City. Having marked its fourth anniversary, I believe that the festival has now reached a point, and assumed an identity, that requires a reevaluation of its purposes and direction. My aim here is not to review the performances per se. With very few exceptions, the artistic quality of both individual performers and various ensembles remains consistently high. The manner, however, in which the artists have been packaged in the last couple of years and offered to the public as Greek traditional music has become increasingly problematic. The festival’s creation in 2000 was motivated by a desire to take advantage of the extraordinary resurgence in the United States of traditional/folk/world music, and to make available to a larger audience a “soundworld” (to quote Anastasia Tsioulcas’s review in this issue of that had previously only attracted the attention of a few ethnomusicologists. The World Music Institute has played a major role in developing the traditional-music scene in the United States, and collaborating with it on behalf Greek traditional music made — and continues to make — perfect sense.

For a long time, Greek traditional music was a slowly dying musical idiom. Lacking official recognition and support, it had become an overly regional phenomenon that exerted no influence on younger people since the transmission from one generation to another, which is so essential to the survival and continuation of traditional art forms and expression, had weakened considerably. Nevertheless, the Eighties and the Nineties witnessed strong revivalist tendencies in traditional music. A younger generation suddenly began to emerge that was eager to receive the knowledge of and continue traditional musical idioms. A serious effort began to record traditional singers and musicians throughout the country, and traditional instruments started to exert an unusual allure. Furthermore, the Greek government began an extensive program of sponsoring traditional music through its cultural and educational institutions.

As a result, a remarkably talented group of young musicians has emerged during the last couple of decades. In a cultural environment that strongly supports local traditions, traditional Greek music has, to a certain extent, become dynamic once again. This revival and emergence of a new generation of musicians made the creation of a festival of Greek traditional music in the United States very timely: This was the right time to generate interest in Greek music that transcended national boundaries. Indeed, during the festival’s first two years, the combination of established artists and younger musicians succeeded in capturing the dynamism that characterizes contemporary Greek traditional music.

Things took a wrong turn, however. It was obvious from the very beginning that it would take time to establish, and maintain the interest of, an American audience. People do not become fans of traditional and unfamiliar sounds overnight. It requires education and continuous involvement, and Greek traditional music has never had a systematic presence in the United States. There is, of course, a Greek audience eager to attend these events but one of the basic points to creating such a festival is to move beyond preaching to the converted. I was involved in the efforts to create this festival, and to organize the first one in 2000. What we all had in mind then was not just to bring a group of musicians to New York every year, but to institutionalize such performances in the US, to educate and familiarize the American audience with Greek traditional music, and to create a small but serious demand for it, which moved beyond attending an annual festival to actively buying the music and being genuinely interested in it.

Relatively quickly, the festival’s format was compromised and altered to deal with financial considerations. The three-day festival took place in large spaces, which required large audiences, so the organizers would not lose money. Regional traditional Roma music from Greece can’t easily fill a space as large as New York City’s Town Hall, however. One also needs to take into consideration that in presenting traditional music that can be defined as strictly regional, you can’t count on extensive support from the Greek American community. Regional attachments are stronger than national ones in many cases. It is therefore difficult to promote Thracian music to a Cretan audience, for example.

Consequently, it seems to me, the nature of the event changed to guarantee financial success. The concept became that of a much more generic package aimed at a mixed audience. Something for everybody became the festival’s effective slogan. The concept of adding folk groups to dance traditional dances onstage in front of the musicians, for example, which began with the first festival, and was always problematic, continued to a larger degree in the following years.

The issue here, of course, is not folk dancing, but rather the way the organizers have presented it. If the purpose of the festival is to familiarize an American audience with a musical idiom, 10-minute dance segments are not the best way to do it. It also devalues the dancing, and makes it into a spectacle that leaves no impression and which no one has a desire to see again. As a friend pointed out to me, an evening of rebetika cabaret-style, with dancers sitting in small café tables in front of the musicians and dancing to bad choreography, is obviously a misconceived attempt to capture the spirit of the Broadway productions a few blocks away. This is pure “folk Greece” in all its “glory.” A little dancing, some traditional costumes, and who knows what else next year — maybe some souvlaki to complete the package.

From rebetika to Karagiozis
This year’s festival included a performance of Karagiozis, traditional Greek shadow theater, which was not thought out carefully. The space was totally inappropriate; the stage was too large and too deep for Karagiozis, which demands intimacy. Furthermore, the presence of a large band in the front of the stage forced the canvas screen to be raised too high, so that it could be seen from every seat in the theater. But the result was actually to throw off one’s perception of the shadows and their movements because of the screen’s impossible angle and depth. The purpose of the performance should have been to promote shadow theater, not to offer a “panorama” of Greek music. By choosing The Wedding of Karagiozis, a play that required a large band onstage and an extensive repertory of songs from different regions, the emphasis fell on the music. It was very difficult for those not familiar with the genre to develop any sense of it or of the ways it works, since the music overwhelmed the play.

In the end, the play’s narrative continuity, so essential in grasping the dynamics of this art form, was completely lost. The play became too long and fragmented. As I watched the performance, it occurred to me that the point was not to promote Karagiozis, but to satisfy certain logistical needs, since the musicians were also part of the performances of the next two days. It would have been much more effective, and would have made much more sense, to promote the beautiful art of shadow theater within the context of the distinguished international puppet festival that takes place annually in New York.

The rest of the festival programs — rebetika, laika, and popular songs, as well as the music of Asia Minor — suggested a shift toward more accessible musical genres. Rebetika, laika, urban songs, and amanedhes are much more marketable to an American audience, as well as to Greek Americans. And although the musicians were clearly talented, I began to sense that the festival had become antiseptic and gentrified. Greek regional folk music is idiosyncratic, difficult, and demanding, but it is also the heart and essence of Greek traditional music. What had originally inspired the festival was the idea of promoting this music. It is difficult to think of where the festival can go from here, as it is already becoming repetitive and has failed to develop an American audience. The lack of press coverage this year might be the result of the fact that the novelty has worn off but has not been replaced with a sense of vision.

It’s time for a radical change. The festival needs to go from a three-day event in a large space in New York to a much more grassroots type of experience. Inviting a group of musicians at a time for a more extended stay, and having them play at much smaller venues in different communities, has proven to be much more effective in disseminating and promoting folk music. It is much easier to develop an audience when you aim at smaller local communities. Furthermore, an effort needs to be made to have these artists work with other musicians, and not simply function within the isolated framework of one-day concerts. Some form of collaboration with the people actively engaged with world/traditional music in the United States — journalists, ethnomusicologists, and musicians — is also essential. The people who are actively involved with studying and recording Greek traditional music today seem to have nothing to do with this festival.

Finally, let’s not forget that what keeps Greek traditional music dynamic are the many amateur musicians throughout Greece whose musical knowledge has been transmitted to them from previous generations. They are the ones who keep certain genres and instruments alive, and some of them happen to be brilliant musicians. The festival needs to move beyond the notion of inviting only “professional” artists and begin providing a forum for other ones as well.

In addition to being a co-founder of, Stelios Vasilakis is a classical philologist and a former associate of the Speros Basil Vryonis Center for the Study of Hellenism.
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