Mykonian bagpipe in danger of becoming a lost art
The Mykonian bagpipe called tsabouna has been playing for centuries and recently lost one of its musical maestros. At the beginning of May, Dimitri Koukas, 90 years old, “Mitsaras”, passed away, taking with him a lifetime of Mykonian musical memory.
In small, almost clandestine gatherings, where ancient musical practices are still preserved, the tsabouna expresses the quintessence of the collective identity of the community.
the tsabouna is a Greek folk wind instrument from the bagpipe family. The pipes which are not blown directly from the musician’s mouth but via an air reservoir. It has been used for centuries in the traditional music of the Aegean Islands.
The traditional tsabouna repertoire includes folk dances specific to each island, local songs and music for folk ceremonies. A bagpipe is sounded by reeds to which the wind is fed by the pressure of the arm on a flexible bag. This bag is kept filled with air from the mouth or small gussets attached to the waist and the other arm.
The tsabouna, usually in concert with the toubaki, a hand-made drum, is played today at small family pig slaughter festivals (Xirosfagia), weddings, baptisms and at celebrations of the days of the names of the saints in family chapels, (Panigiria), spread across Mykonos.
Koukas, a permanent resident of Mykonos, was raised as a farmer and eventually became a construction contractor as the island began to develop as a destination for tourism and booming development.
Young, he first showed his interest in tsabouna thanks to a family tradition of tsambouna and toubaki players on the rocky island.
TV program Features Mykonos Tsabouna
In 2017, her traditional folk music, was recorded on the show Alati Tis Gis, (Salt of the Earth), broadcast on the Greek public television channel, ET. Alati Tis Gis is a staple in the programming of traditional Greek music.
When the show’s host, Lambros Liavas, learned of Koukas’ disappearance, he made the following statement on the TV show’s Facebook page:
“Dimitris Koukas, whom we know affectionately as“ Mitsara ”, lived his days full of celebration during his 90 years. He was regularly present when his fellow musicians, Babelis and Kantenasios, gathered to preserve the Mykonian tradition.
They were the precious ambassadors of the music of another “Mykonos”, hidden behind a contemporary facade, adds Liavas.
Continuing his homage, Liavas writes: “I have always been fascinated by ‘Mitsaras’ with his stammering voice and the unique passion that made the instrument blow, transfusing his breath and his soul, with… the alcohol from his glass!”
“Either you fall in love with the tsambouna, or you can’t stand it for a minute, there is no middleman,” according to the TV host. “But to love tsampouna, you also have to reach ecstasy, indulge in its primordial rough sound,” he adds.
The former tsambouna players were never professional musicians but remained ordinary farmers, shepherds, fishermen, people who worked with nature and were magnanimous, says Liavas. “Mitsaras was exuberant, generous and humorous,” he writes.
“I feel lucky to have met him and earned a place in his business.” The echo of the tsambouna and the song of Mitsaras will continue to give energy and inspiration to the new generation who will take over the musical in the future, writes Liavas.
Songs and dances are not just entertainment: they are vehicles of common memory and group recreation. They are a dialogue between the present and the past, between the individual and the group. In these contexts, a bagpiper in Mykonos will never be seen on stage, nor a singer singing into a microphone.
The length and lyrics of each song are decided by the group during the performance. The generations old tunes are each rendered in a unique, unprecedented and irreplaceable way. There is no standardization. Not only the musicians improvise themselves, but also the participants.
Tsabouna’s story in Mykonos
The tsabouna in its present form is not mentioned in sources older than the 15th century. Perhaps no author was interested in the information about the village festivities. The precise origins of this particular type of this instrument are unknown.
Each member of the bagpipe family, including the tsabouna, has a bag and one or more pipes. Pipes can vary as much as simple bagless wind instruments, and each one has its own story. Some existed before the invention of the bag, and were later combined with it, while others appeared in the form of a bagpipe.
There is no history of the Mykonian bagpipe as such. Its pipes belong to one of the oldest types of wind instruments, documented several millennia ago in the great civilizations of Antiquity (Mesopotamia, Egypt and much later Greece). The bag’s first appearance in Greece dates from the Roman period and it is believed to have been imported from the East.
Construction of the Tsabouna
The Mykonian bagpipe has two short cane singers of equal length, placed in parallel position so that they can be played as one, and tuned in unison. The finger holes can be the same on both chanters. The two chanters are fixed in a wooden or cane yoke ending in a bell, usually in cow horn. Attached to the top end of the chanters, and hidden inside the bag, are two single-blade reeds.
The bag has two openings. One holds the mouthpiece, the blowpipe and the other the yoke. Air passes from the player’s mouth to the bag through the mouthpiece, then passes through the reed blades, causing them to vibrate and therefore ring.
The Mykonos tsabouna is made entirely of natural materials, with as little processing as possible. The bag is the skin of a whole goat, the chanters are made of natural cane, the blowpipe is a bone or another piece of cane, the bell a whole cow’s horn. Beeswax is used as glue, natural fibers or leather bands for bindings.
The tuning is adjusted with a hair or thread in the reed, or with a straw inside the bore of the pipes. Tsabounas are traditionally built not by specialist instrument makers, but by the musicians themselves. Construction, like play, is learned empirically, without theory or organized learning system.
The secrets of this art, varying from island to island, are transmitted or copied orally. All the materials and tools needed for construction are easily found in the bagpipe player’s immediate environment, whether in nature or in the traditional house.
Tsabounas are played on most of the Cyclades islands, some in the Dodecanese, in the northern Aegean Sea and in Crete. In each of these places, the local tsabouna has some peculiarities, so each island has its own unique variation of the instrument. It is also played by a handful of non-native musicians from any of the above locations, who reside in Athens.
Not all bagpipes are tsabouna. A wide variety of different tsabouna pocket instruments are played all over Europe, from the British Isles and Spain to the Balkans. One of them is the Greek gaida, played by the local people of Macedonia and Thrace.
A revival for Mykonos Tsabouna?
In the 21st century, interest in the tsabouna of Mykonos is growing and reorienting itself. If its tradition stems from a social context that is now obsolete, the current reality gives birth to a new tradition.
New musicians, a new audience, new listening conditions, a new repertoire with the old and, above all, new or still relevant messages, form the framework in which an old instrument remains alive and even gains in popularity. .
This new tradition goes hand in hand with the old one which is still perpetuated, inspired by the old one. It breaks the once close bond with local communities, transforming Tsabouna music from a set of local dialects into a globally common language.