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The greek bagpipe - tsabouna

The tsabouna is a Greek folk wind instrument of the bagpipe family i.e. the family of pipes that are blown not 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. In the 21st century it also started appearing in new contexts, outside that of rural traditions or of folkloric representations.


Organology of the Tsabouna

The tsabouna has two short cane chanters of equal length, placed in parallel position so they can be played as one, and tuned in unison. Fingerholes may be the same on both chanters (5+5) or not (5+3, 5+1). The two chanters are fastened into a wooden or cane yoke ending in a bell, usually made of cow horn. Fastened to the upper end of the chanters, and hidden inside the bag, are two single-blade reeds.

The bag has two openings. One holds the mouthpiece (blowpipe), and the other the yoke. The air travels from the player's mouth to the bag through the mouthpiece, then passes through the reeds' blades, causing them to vibrate and thus to sound.


Use of the Tsabouna

The tsabouna's traditional repertoire consists of the folk dances particular to each island, local songs, and music for folk ceremonies connected with the cycle of the year (Christmas period, Carnival). It used to have a central role in every musical event of the islands −weddings, religious feasts, etc.−, but in the last decades its traditional use has been confined to small gatherings and informal celebrations far from the central public areas, and concentrated mostly in mountain villages and on small remote islands.

In the small and almost secret milieux where the old musical practices are still preserved, the tsabouna expresses the quintessence of the community's collective identity. Songs and dances are not mere entertainment: they are vehicles of common memory and group re-creation, and of dialogue between present and past, between the individual and the group. In these contexts a bagpiper will never be seen performing on stage, nor will a singer sing into a microphone. The duration and lyrics of every song are decided by the group during performance. Generations-old tunes are rendered each time in a unique, unprecedented and unrepeatable way, far from any notion of standardisation, due to the improvisation of not just the musicians but each and every participant.




The tsabouna is made entirely of natural materials, with the least possible processing. The bag is the skin of a whole goat, the chanters are of natural cane, the blowpipe is a bone or another piece of cane, the bell an entire cow horn. Beeswax is used as a glue, natural fibres or leather strips for bindings. Tuning is adjusted with a hair or thread in the reed, or with a straw inside the bore of the pipes.

Tsabounas are traditionally constructed not by specialised instrument makers but by the players themselves. Construction, just as playing, is learned empirically, with no theory or any organised learning system. The secrets of this art, varying from island to island, are orally transmitted or "stolen." All the materials and tools needed for construction are to be readily found in the piper's immediate environment, either in nature or in the traditional household.



Geographical Diffusion of the Greek Bagpipe

Tsabounas are played nowadays on most islands of the Cyclades, some of the Dodecanese, in the Northern Ægean (Samos, Icaria, Chios) and in Crete. In each of these places the local tsabouna has some peculiarities, so that every island has its own unique variant of the instrument. Outside the islands, the tsabouna is also played in the Pontic (Black Sea refugee) communities of Northern Greece and the Athens area. Since the revival, it is also being played by a handful of musicians without origin from any of the above places, who may reside anywhere (mostly in Athens).

Variants of the same instrument are also to be found among non-Greek peoples: tsabouna bagpipes are played in Turkey by the Laz of the Black Sea, in North Africa, in the Arabic Peninsula and the Persian Gulf countries, in Georgia (ex-USSR) and Malta.

Not every bagpipe is a tsabouna. A great variety of bag instruments different from the tsabouna are played throughout Europe, from the British Isles and Spain to the Balkans. One of them is the Greek gaida, played by the local (non-refugee) population of Macedonia and Thrace.



History of the Tsabouna

Every member of the bagpipe family, the tsabouna included, has a bag and one or more pipes. Pipes can vary as much as simple bagless wind instruments, and each of them has its own history. Some existed before the invention of the bag, and were then combined with it, while others first appeared in the form of a bagpipe.

There is no history of the tsabouna as such. Its pipes belong to one of the oldest types of wind instruments, documented several millennia ago in the great civilisations of antiquity (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and much later Greece). The bag's first appearence in Greece dates from the Roman period, and it is believed to have been imported from the East. However it is not known whether it was used for a tsabouna or some other type of bagpipe.

The tsabouna in its current form is not mentioned in sources older than the 15th century: its purely popular, agricultural use was not of any interest to authors to whom we owe detailed information on art or religious music of past centuries but hardly anything about village festivities. Thus, the precise origins of this particular type of instrument are lost in the unwritten history of civilisations.



Current Revival

In the 21st century interest in the tsabouna is growing and re-oriented. Although its tradition emerged out of a now obsolete social context, current reality is giving birth to a new tradition. New musicians, a new audience, new terms of listening, a new repertoire along with the old one, and, most important, new or ever-timely messages, form the framework within which an old instrument remains alive and even gains popularity. This new tradition goes side by side with the old one that is still carried on, and is inspired by it. At the same time it breaks the latter's closer bond with local communities, transforming the tsabouna music from a set of local dialects into a lingua franca.


Pericles Schinas

English translation edited by Panayotis League

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