Bringing Folk Music from Rhodes into the Modern Age



Folk music
Nikos Tzellos. Credit: Nikos Tzellos

Regional folk music is an integral part of an area’s history, linking contemporary society to aspects of culture and tradition that are no longer in practice, or have been largely forgotten.

For this reason, Nikos Tzellos, a young musician from the Greek island of Rhodes, has made it his mission to revive the folk music of his island for the modern era.

Speaking to Greek Reporter, Tzellos, who plays a wide array of instruments, including the piano, lyre, guitar, mandolin, and lute, stresses the importance of preserving traditional folk music: “Traditional music is something holy to us… we traditional musicians ought to preserve and promote what has been given to us.”

As is the case in much of Greece, “in Rhodes, tourism greatly affected the local culture and the music…characteristics that have survived through the ages” are now nearing “extinction,” Tzellos laments to Greek Reporter.

Tzellos discussing the beauty of an antique lyre with Giorgos Sentis, on left. Credit: Nikos Tzellos

Restoring Tradition

In order to combat the loss of precious cultural remnants of Rhodes’ history, Tzellos took it upon himself to revive the island’s traditional music for the modern age.

Using a traditional “Sousta” song from southern Rhodes as his inspiration, Tzellos recorded his own version of the 100-year-old song using authentic instruments from the time period, along with some musical elements more familiar to the modern ear.

When Tzellos heard of an old, damaged lyre hanging in a historic home in Afantou, Rhodes, he was on a mission to restore it. The lyre is commonly found throughout the island’s folk music and has links to Greece’s ancient past.

With the help of his friend and fellow lyre player, Manolis Lentakis, Tzellos carefully examined the 150-year-old instrument, and the pair went about refurbishing the traditional instrument.

When it was finally restored to its former glory, Tzellos was able to use the lyre in his recording of the folk song “Sousta.” Tzellos used chords and compositions for the song that he had found in old books on the island.

“Sousta,” as a genre, is widely found across the Greek islands, with each island and region developing its own specific compositions and dances to accompany the music. The basis for this musical tradition is thought to date back to ancient Greek rituals to appease the gods.

However, the dance became associated with courtship throughout the successive centuries, and is traditionally performed between couples at weddings.

The poster for Tzellos’s rendition of the Sousta. Credit: Nikos Tzellos

Keeping the Past Alive

Importantly, Tzellos keeps his renditions of folk songs very authentic, just adding subtle elements that make them fresh. Rather than “spoiling the true sound” of folkloric music, Tzellos adds what he calls an “air of 2020” to the songs, some of them over 100 years old, through adding bass and percussion.

While some may consider these modern elements to be unwelcome additions to traditional songs, Tzellos firmly believes that it is important to make folk music relevant to our current era.

“We need to modernize our music in order to keep it alive… the radical changes in our everyday lives are too great for these cultural traits to survive,” the musician explains. “We can give them a hand,” Tzellos continues, “and with the correct handling, tradition will remain alive.”

It seems to be working — young people on Rhodes have become more interested in traditional music and dancing, especially in weddings and panigyria, or traditional Greek festivals, where the track list is usually half folk music half modern Greek music.

When asked what his favorite part of performing his island’s traditional music is, Tzellos responds “filling people with joy and the mood to dance…”

When he plays, everyone “becomes one… there is this communication between us, and we are all smiling, singing and having fun.”