Tarpon Springs, a small town in Southwest Florida with the highest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the U.S., was recently named Florida’s first Traditional Cultural Property as recognized by the National Park Service. Greek immigrants began arriving at Tarpon Springs in the 1880s. They worked in the booming sponge diving industry, bringing with them rich cultural traditions that shaped their community into one of the most unique cities in Florida.
One thriving cultural tradition in Tarpon Springs is rebetiko music. Rebetiko (plural rebetika), a catch-all term for Greek folk music, became popular during the folk revival in the 1960s and 70s. Many Greek musicians living in Tarpon Springs playing a diverse range of instruments, including the tsabouna and bouzouki, went on to have illustrious careers playing rebetiko.
Nikitas Tsimouris, a notable Greek American tsabouna performer, came from a family of sponge divers and learned songs from around the world on his sailing expeditions. Tsimouris participated in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, passing down the tsabouna tradition to his grand-nephew, Nikitas Kavouklis. In 1991, Tsimouris received the National Heritage Fellowship in recognition of his ability to build and play the instrument.
The tsabouna originates from the Dodecanese islands, and is a bagpipe-like instrument made out of goatskin. Some believe the instrument was created by herdsman as a way to pass the time. It has two chanters, pipes with finger holes in them, so two lines of melody can be played at the same time and harmonize with each other, creating an interesting accompaniment for a singer. Typically, a chanter is passed down from father to son, and Tsimouris’ chanter was made out of olive wood and bamboo reeds by his father.
Nikitas Tsimouris playing the tsabouna, a Greek Bagpipe
Another popular instrument used in rebetiko is the bouzouki. The bouzouki is a 3 or 4-stringed instrument that originated in Asia Minor and was brought to Greece in the early 1900s. It is a pear-shaped instrument, usually inlaid with designs made from mother-of-pearl.
Spiros Skordilis was an accomplished composer and performer of the bouzouki. He recorded many hit songs while living in America, including Your Mini Dress, which was banned by Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos in 1967 as part of his widespread ban on mini skirts. Skordilis was also a dedicated teacher, participating in the Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program and teaching bouzouki at Tarpon Springs Elementary School.
To hear more rebetika from Tarpon Springs, check out the additional tracks below, or listen to the podcast “Greek Music Traditions in Tarpon Springs.”
Cretan wedding music – Kostas Maris and Nick Mastras
I Yerakina – Grecian Islanders of Tarpon Springs
Greek Music Traditions in Tarpon Springs