Sophia Bilides and Mike Gregian performing Smyreika songs at the Library of Congress, August 24, 2011. Not pictured, Mal Barsamian.
Greeks have been coming to the New World since colonial times, but they only started establishing permanent communities in the United States in the 1890s. They emigrated from their homeland and many parts of the Ottoman Empire.
They arrived in two main waves, generally driven by economic need. The first wave occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when approximately 450,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1917. Crop failures, political instability, and, in the Ottoman Empire, avoidance of conscription in the Turkish army and Turkish oppression motivated many to leave. Before and after the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, Greeks in the Ottoman Empire were forced to leave.
As Greeks came to the United States they formed communities in urban areas, including New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles and to smaller cities such as Baltimore, Providence, Detroit, and Tarpon Springs, Florida.
The immigrants from Turkey brought to Greece, and then to America, a form of Greek music, smyrneika, characterized by a strong vocal presence set to intricate melodies using Middle Eastern modes and rhythms which contrast to the more European forms of Greek folk music called dimotika. Examples of smyrneika are presented in a concert at the Library of Congress on August 24, 2011 by Sophia Bilides with Mal Barsamian and Mike Gregian.
An example of dimotika can be heard on a recording of "A Spiritual Brothers Song" by Mrs. Nick Alvanos in Tarpon Springs, Florida on August 26, 1939.
Greek American songs are traditionally performed by bands at social functions and at church festivals that usually occur religious holidays. In the 1920s and 1930s, these bands, which consisted of voice, clarinet, violin, santouri (struck zither) and laouto (fretted lute), focused on dance songs. A style known as elafra ('light' music), which was based on popular urban romantic songs from South America and Europe with lush orchestral arrangements, Latin rhythms and Greek lyrics, became a fad in Greek American communities in the 1930s
Rebetika, another urban music genre (a sort of Greek version of the blues, often with seedy lyrics) was brought to the United States by Greeks immigrants and continues to be popular today. It is thought to have been developed from the music Greeks brought from Asia Minor but more often associated with gritty seaport towns and gloomy low life. The songs are solo performance accompanied by bouzouki and recognized by their passionate lyrics and style.
A number of commercial "popular" recording were issued in the early 1920's by Victor and other commercial recording companies targeting sales different ethnic groups. Here are two commercial recording of very different styles of Greek music. The first, "Ena Trapezi Fouero" (The Dinner,) performed by tenor vocalist Sotirios Stasinopoulos was recorded in New York City on September 29, 1924.
The second performance, "Epo ti Fistes Sekebes" (In the moonlight) is by Baritone vocalist Andres De Parry recorded on October 6, 1921 also in New York City.
Other varieties of Greek popular music also gained prominence in the twentieth century among the Greek American community. These include dimotika (traditional rural folk songs often accompanied by a clarinet, lute, violin dulcimer, and drum), laika (an urban style of song which features the bouzouki, a long-necked stringed instrument) and evropaika (a European-influenced style set to Greek words.) Laika is the most popular form today.
After World War Two, Greek American bands expanded their repertoire to include mainstream American pop hits and continental standards such as "Besame mucho" and "La Paloma."
A second large wave of immigrants arrived from Greece in the 1960s and 1970s fleeing an unstable economy and political challenges particularly with the military installment of a right-wing junta. Unlike the first wave of Greek emigrants, many were from urban areas and brought a new repertoire of songs and dance. Many settled in the large urban communities established in the first wave.
In the 1960s, many Greek American groups began performing in the three-part harmony style of Trio Bel Canto, a popular Greek American band founded in 1948, and also started incorporating more American rock elements into their sound. These included amplification, electric guitar and westernized rhythmic patterns.
Three singers during this time gained world-wide appreciation: New York City born opera singer Maria Callas and the popular Greek singer and actress Melina Mercouri who performed in the popular movie that exposed countless Americans to Greek music, "Never on Sunday," and Greek -born Nana Mouskouri, who performed popular songs and opera, as well as Greek folksongs. Mouskouri's songs were recorded in Greek, English and several other languages selling over 350 million albums world wide.
Greek American communities in the United States retain a passion for traditionally inspired dance songs. During a study of Greek American ethnic arts in Chicago conducted by the American Folklife Center in 1977, recordings were made of John Hemonas who performed on guitar and bouzouki. He sang songs that he performed with a band and that have deep historical roots. In this recording, he performs a medley of three songs, including "Dance of Zalongo" a piece which commemorates the women and children of the village of Souli in Epirus. According to tradition, in 1803, they danced their way to a cliff and threw themselves of to avoid capture by the advancing Turkish army.
The Library of Congress Performing Arts Encyclopedia features recordings of many traditional folk songs performed by Greek American vocalists.
- For more information on Greek American collections in the archive of the American Folklife Center, see the finding aid: Greece Collections in the Archive of Folk Culture.
- "Southern European (Balkan) Music" by Mark Levy in Koskoff, Ellen, Ed. The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music Volume 3: The United States and Canada (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 2001) pp 929-932.
- See more articles about Ethnic Song in America.