Monday, May 19, 2014

Manolis Hiotis


"I saw even a
Chian Manolis
with the bouzouki
enjoying themselves and the Devil. "
 Rebetika Song

The late Jimi Hendrix has often been named the world’s greatest guitarist, an elite acknowledgment given the stiff competition. Jimi Hendrix heard Hiotis play once (while in the States) and was amazed by his dexterity. When asked in an interview what he thought about being the best guitarist in the world, Hendrix said, “You think I’m the best in the world because you haven’t heard the Greek guy.” When asked who the Greek guy was, Hendrix replied, “Manolis Hiotis. When you listen to him playing, then you will know who the best is.

Hendrix first met Hiotis and his partner, singer Mary Linda, while they were on tour around the United States back in the 1960′s. Having attended one of Hiotis’ shows, Hendrix admitted he admired him and that he discussed with Hiotis about his playing technique.

Hendrix was Hiotis’ biggest backer even before then-U.S. President Lyndon Johnson invited Hiotis and Mary Linda to the White House to play on his birthday and offered them a Green Card for immigrants so they could stay in America as long as they wanted.

Hiotis had other successes. In the summer of 1961, he played for Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas, Prince Rainier III of Monaco and Grace Kelly. Journalist Dimitris Liberopoulos, Onassis’ biographer, writes in his book  that when the two couples joined one of Hiotis’ shows in Athens, they asked to meet him in person to congratulate him.

Callas told Hiotis that she had been translating the lyrics of his songs to Princess Kelly all night long and the American actress loved them because “she is a woman in love.” At that moment, Kelly asked Hiotis what the difference between a bouzouki and an electric guitar is.

Hiotis’ answer was rather unexpected; “Mrs. Callas, please explain to Princess Kelly that the strings of an electric guitar are vibrated due to electricity while the strings of a bouzouki right by heart.”

Manolis Xiotis one of the legends of the bouzouki and folk music began his career in Greece shortly before the 40s. In America he traveled for the first time in 1956 , when he visited New York. His songs have been successful in the U.S. public, but also to groups of musicians. He recorded there, mostly folk songs in 78 albums and 45 rpm, with Mary Linda Eve Style, Kostas Sevastaki (clarinet ) and after 1959, when the transatlantic voyage found the artistic couple united in life, he recorded solo songs and taximia.
After 1964, in a longt stay in the U.S. which lasted until 1968, he recorded three albums with Long Play Mary Linda and his orchestra homogeneous George Stratis. In 1966, the U.S. president Lyndon Johnson awarded him an diploma and named him honorary resident of America. Manolis Hiotis, famous composer and bouzouki soloist recorded many of his songs in USA between 1955-1965. 

The bouzouki (Greek: μπουζούκι pronounced [buˈzuki]; plural: μπουζούκια) is a Greek musical instrument that was brought to Greece in the 1900s by immigrants from Asia Minor, and quickly became the central instrument to the rebetika genre and its music branches. A mainstay of modern Greek music, the front of the body is flat and is usually heavily inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The instrument is played with a plectrum and has a sharp metallic sound, reminiscent of a mandolin but pitched lower. There are two main types of bouzouki. The trichordo (three-course) has three pairs of strings (known as courses), and the tetrachordo (four-course) has four pairs of strings. The Irish bouzouki is a development of the Greek bouzouki adapted for Irish traditional and other folk music from the late 1960s onward.

The name "bouzouki" comes from the Turkish word "bozuk," meaning "broken" or "modified", and comes from a particular re-entrant tuning called "bozuk düzen", which was commonly used on its Turkish counterpart, the "saz-bozuk". It is in the same instrumental family as the mandolin and the lute. Originally the body was carved from a solid block of wood, similar to the saz, but upon its arrival in Greece in the early 1910s it was modified by the addition of a staved back borrowed from the Neapolitan mandola, and the top angled in the manner of a Neapolitan mandolins so as to increase the strength of the body to withstand thicker steel strings. The type of the instrument used in Rembetika music was a three-stringed instrument, but in the 1950s a four-string variety was introduced.

While the old guys were in the tekedes smoking hashish and singing to each other the rest of the country were not staring at each other waiting for someone to invent music. Each part of Greece had their traditional music, much of it distinctive to a particular island or area. There were influences brought into Greece from the many men who took to the ships and sailed around the world, such as latin, jazz and blues. All these forms and Rembetika and Laika combined and became the popular Greek music or Laika and just like Chuck Berry and Brittany Spears you can draw a line from Markos Vamvakaris to the most commercial laika-pop singer of the day.

Some say that line passes through Manolis Hiotis, the man who added the 4th string to the bouzouki and electrified it, sending rembetika careening off towards the world of pop. While you can say that Hiotis  broadened the scope of bouzouki music you can also say that he made more bad music possible. But this is a battle for fanatics and purists which I am not. Nobody forced the rembetis to turn in their 3-string bouzoukia for the 4-string and nobody forced them to leave the tekedes and their hash-smoking buddies to play nightclubs and make records and make money too. Remember that the first Beatles fans who heard the group play live in Liverpool and Hamburg claim they made their best music before they had ever made a record. What came later was the commercial dregs despite these being the songs we know and love. In rembetika too, even the most diehard fan has never heard a young Markos Vamvakaris and his buddies stoned out of their minds playing in some back room somewhere. All we have are the recordings which could never fully capture the true essence of the music, the time and the place. To be a rembetika purist is like being a tourist. You can appreciate the marble columns and broken walls but you will never know what it was like to walk in the agora among the ancient Greeks.

Rembetika's most important gift to laika and to Greek popular music is the bouzouki. How important is the bouzouki to the rest of the world? Since being introduced into Irish music it has become one of the most played instruments. But this pales compared to the effect it has had on American music. In the nineteen-fifties a young guitar player named Dick Dale became popular on the west coast playing a staccato-style electric guitar that he learned from his uncle, a bouzouki player. Dick Dale became the father of what is known as Surf Music and his style influenced the Ventures, the Beach Boys and many generations of musicians. The amplifier developed for Dick by his friend Leo Fender to withstand this different style of guitar playing became the most popular amps in the world and there are few electric guitar players who have not owned a Fender for performing or practicing.

Originally the body was made of one piece of wood, hollowed out by carving (skafto), but today the bouzouki itself is always made of staves, shaped and glued together like a lute. For the most part, tzouras are made with staves, but some can be found carved. About half of the baglamas made today are carved, and half are made with staves. According to Pythagoras, the body was originally made of White Laurel. Today, the traditional wood is Mulberry, but many instruments are made with Walnut (and often Walnut dyed black), Rosewood and Maple. Other, more exotic, woods are now being used, as well. The neck is usually made of Bass wood (called Lime wood in Europe) or the wood of the Plane Tree. To strengthen the neck, it is laminated with one or more strips of a harder contrasting wood such as Ebony, Rosewood or Wenge. The soundboard is made of spruce and the fingerboard of ebony. Rarely, truss rods are used to adjust the neck, which can warp from string tension, but most professional players feel this destroys the tone of the instrument. Professional luthiers take pride in their ability to build their bouzoukis' long, thin necks without truss rods, and able to withstand the tension of the strings without warping.

While the bouzouki and its predecessors existed in Greece, it did not become wildly popular until the 1920's, with the rise in popularity of Rembetiko music. From that point on, the history and popularity of the bouzouki very closely followed that of Rembetiko music. The inherent problems with studying what is today called "Rembetkio" music are many. First, the musicians who are associated with this style of music did not call themselves Rembetes, nor did they call their music Rembetiko music (that term was first used on a recording made in the United States). Secondly, as I will discuss below, this was a sort of underground music movement, largley outlawed for most of its early period, so it is not well documented, and ethnomusicologists have only begun to research and document the history of the movement in recent years. The attempt to document the history of Rembetico music is an endeavor complicated by the fact that many of the musicians are now deceased, as well as the fact that it was largely a non-commercial, oral tradition (which makes it difficult to determine the composer of any particular song). Even among the most well respected experts in Rembetiko music and history, there is a fair amount of disagreement on the how and why Rembetiko music evolved.

After the end of the Greek Civil War, Rembetika music became wildly popular, with the opening of expensive night clubs, which came to be called The Bouzoukia. The music was loud, the bouzouki became electrified with pick-ups, and the clientele was wealthy. The gritty edge went out of the music, and it took on more European flavor. The banning of songs related to drugs was (and still is today) in effect, and that, along with a desire to be more cosmopolitan, led composers to incorporate the Italian and Spanish styles of rumba and romance ("romantza") style of music into their compositions. This led the way to Greek popular music, called laika (urban folk or popular music). Along with the popularization of Rembetika, came the superstars of Rembetiko music clubs (archorembetes), probably most identified by Georgos Zambetas, one of the best known and most talented bouzouki players. These superstars traveled in limousines, wore expensive clothes and made huge sums of money, both in salary and "hartoula" the money thrown at their feet as they permformed (the hartoula could be in the thousands of dollars per night).

The bouzouki changed along the way, as well. At some point, and nobody is really sure exactly when, or who came up with the idea or made the first one, but a forth set of strings was added to the trihordo bouzouki (Hiotis, Stathopoulos and Stefanakis are usually credited. Stefanakis was allegedly a "banjo" player, however, it seems implausible that there was a banjo player in Greece. It is more likely that Stefanakis played a cumbis, which is a Middle-Eastern instrument with a skin face and four strings, similar to a banjo). Manolis Hiotis, the one of the greatest virtuosos of the bouzouki, popularized the four string bouzouki, and its guitar-like string tuning intervals (although one whole note below that of the guitar's first four strings). This innovation allowed players to play much faster, and to easily create chords for back up to the singer. On the trihordo bouzouki, the players hand moves continuously up and down the fingerboard. The melody was concentrated on the upper two strings, with the third string being used mainly as a drone or lower octave accent to the upper string. With the forth string and guitar-like tuning of the tetrahordo bouzouki, the players hand is much more stationary, being able to play longer runs without motion. This enabled players like Hiotis to achieve incredible speeds. For a while, the trihordo almost disappeared, but now, many players favor it for playing traditional Rembetika songs.

The hallmark of a bouzouki virtuoso, either trihordo or tetrahordo, is the ability to play the taximi. A taximi is an improvisational solo, usually at the beginning of a song, but sometimes between verses. It is meant to portray the inner most feelings of the player. Some players are criticized for overly fast, complicated taximia, in preference to a slower, more meaningful and expressive passage. It is not uncommon to hear statements along the lines of, "That bouzouki player ripped out one thousand notes, yet he didn't say anything." While a well loved taximi might be commented on with, "He played 5 notes, and I saw into his soul." One of the most respected masters of the taximi is Yiannis Papaioannou, an early Rembetiko, trihordo player.

After the release of the 1960 film, Never on Sunday, starring Melina Mercouri, the bouzouki became recognized the world over as the sound of Greece. Tourism escalated, and tourists were hungry for the Greek bouzouki nightlife. Scores of low-quality recordings were made of bouzouki music for the tourist trade. The syrtaki dance was developed just to entertain foreign tourists. All of that is turning around now, and better quality music is being produced, along with the recording of many long lost Rembetika songs. The trihordo bouzoukis is making a comeback among enthusiasts, and Greek bouzouki luthiers are busier than ever. The wait for a custom bouzouki can be up to two years from top makers.

The Greek bouzouki even influenced Irish music. In the 1960's several Irish musicians heard the Greek bouzouki, and thought its sound would be the perfect accompaniment to their music. They began incorporating the bouzouki in their songs. Eventually, a separate instrument developed, which some call the "Irish bouzouki," although it should more correctly be called a mandola or octave mandolin, as it only marginally resembles a bouzouki. The Irish instrument has a much wider, rounder pear shape and has a flat or arched front and back, unlike the bowl shaped Greek bouzouki. The sides of the Irish instrument are set at a 90 degree angle to the front and back, and the scale length is shorter than that of a Greek bouzouki. While it has four pairs of strings, the instrument is tuned in various different intervals, and is generally used for chords, rhythms, basslines and some counter melody work, rather than the lead melody line, like the Greek bouzouki.

Manolis Hiotis was born on March 21 1920, in Thessaloniki and died on March 21, 1970.

Once cruelly described as "A guitarist who caused the tetrachordo to become popular", Hiotis was a virtuoso on many stringed instruments. He appears playing excellent trichordo bouzouki on several famous Rebetiko recordings, but moved to playing other styles, and is consequently mostly not thought of as a rebetiko player. Manolis Xiotis personality changed the history and development of music in Greece. The novelty of the four string bouzoukimay well have caused the fury of traditional stringed, but expanded the bouzouki throughout Greece. Banned and classified as "too popular" but known to the rest of the world.