Lefteris Bournias on the Clarinet, Greek Folk Music, and How Music Transcends Borders

This weekend, Greek clarinetist Lefteris Bournias is coming to Boston to share his talent and knowledge of folk music. On Saturday night, people will be able to listen and dance to his music at BLE’s annual Karnavali celebration. And on Sunday afternoon, Bournias will lead the first of a series of music classes in this year’s Greek Music Education Program. In anticipation of his visit to Boston for our community to benefit from his musical knowledge and expertise, Lefteris took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about folk music, his life, and his love for the klarino.

Much of Bournias’s love for Greek folk music and the clarinet came from his childhood visiting family’s native island of Chios. One of his earliest memories was watching two men dance the aptalikos to the music of the clarinet during a saint’s festival. He recalled how the two men danced “like eagles,” arms moving up and down like wings, just the two of them, moving with the music and the music moving with them. The performance—of the clarinetist and the dancers—was captivating and one of many encounters with traditional music that made him fall in love with Greek folk music and the clarinet.

Bournias grew up in a musical family. His great-grandfather, Pantelis Bournias, was a poet (ποιητής), celebrated by locals for his ability to create verses on the spot. Amongst Pantelis’s musical children, one played violin and another clarinet. This is also the point where Bournias offered a little history: the clarinet—probably introduced into the Greek family of instruments by the brass bands of the Ottoman Janissaries—often replaced the musical roles of the flogera, tsambouna, zourna, and many older wind instruments. Part of what made the clarinet so attractive to Greek musicians was its range and versatility. For example, the clarinet allowed a musician to play more notes: depending on the clarinetist, it could have a range of three octaves or more. This isn’t to say that the flogera and its relatives disappeared. Bournias heard his own father play the instrument, playing a part in the daily lives of the shepherd families living in the small villages on Chios. In these villages, these instruments existed side by side with the clarinet.

Music is a form of entertainment and a vehicle for self-expression. This is what Bournias witnessed in his own childhood experiences on Chios. Particularly memorable to him were songs and dances that he described as his “first love”: music from Asia Minor. Many inhabitants of northern Chios are descendants of refugees from Mikra Asia (his own family traces their ancestry to Tsesme/Çeşme, on the peninsula west of Smyrna.) The “old timers” maintained older genres of music. Besides Asia Minor dance melodies such as those for aptalikos, another example of Asia Minor music was the genre of amanes/ghazels. These songs were lamentations, most often men mourning the loss of loved ones.

I also spoke to him about the diversity of Greek folk music. Styles of playing clarinet vary from region to region–for example, a clarinetist playing music from Epirus versus a tsifteteli from Asia Minor. But for Bournias, a conversation about musical diversity begins at the local level. On Chios what kind of music is played, with what instruments, and in what styles, can vary from one part of the island to another, from village to village, and even from one musical family to another.

Bournias spoke specifically about northern Chios. This part of Chios is home to the descendants of refugees from the Anatolian mainland. In the trauma of displacement, the loss of home and loved ones, and the catastrophe of Smyrna in 1922, refugees were forced to rebuild their lives elsewhere. They brought their musical instruments, melodies, songs, and dances with them. These traditions also drew from the diversity of traditions already in conversation with one another in Smyrna and surrounding towns and villages. Pre-1922, Smyrna was incredibly cosmopolitan. Greek, Turkish, Armenian, and Jewish neighborhoods were in musical conversation with one another, while living in an important port city exposed them to more “western,” European styles of music.

The musical interchanges between regions, neighbors, and villages is a longstanding and continuing tradition. Even before 1922, Greeks from Asia Minor were bringing their music to Chios. Post-1922, musicians would visit Smyrna, hear a melody there and bring it back with them to the island. What they would bring back was their own interpretation of what they heard. Such examples of musical sharing between islands, regions, and even from village to village is as much a part of Greek music’s history as is the uniqueness of each of these places.

Another example of variations in musical styles was on the more intimate level of musical performances themselves. When the clarinet began replacing the tsambouna in southern Chios, clarinetists maintained a tsambouna-like sound to their playing. Similarly, at a time when reeds were not readily available, older clarinetists were known for a raspy quality to their playing. This would become a style, a sound that later musicians would mimic.

All of this talk on musical diversity led us to the importance of preserving this tradition. As well as the complex stories such heritage tells us about transcending national borders, music has a fascinating way of bringing people together into community. It links us to our heritage, our ancestors. It is something that we pass on from generation to generation, linking ourselves to others across time. It can also bring together people from different regions and different ethnic backgrounds.

Due to the clarinet’s flexibility and Bournias’s own love for various folk music traditions, both Greek and non-Greek, he’s collaborated and been a part of bands playing all kinds of traditional music. This is also what he said distinguished himself as a musician: his ability to effectively play with other musicians in different styles. He recalled Greek clubs where a band may be joined by an Armenian playing an oud or an Arab playing a qanun (kanonaki). This collaboration with other musicians continues to be a valuable part of his musical career.

Collaboration sometimes reveals cultural tensions between different ethnic groups or even people from neighboring regions. He recalls one time when he was playing a leventikos and someone complained, telling him to “stop playing Bulgarian music.” I told him that this reminded me of an interaction we had in a music workshop session last year. Lefteris Kordis played two renditions of a Thracian song—one from the Greek side of the border and one from the Turkish side. He wanted us to guess which one was which. Our class consensus actually turned out to be wrong: what we thought was the “Turkish” version was actually the Greek, and the “Greek” the Turkish. Such misrecognition, misunderstandings, and discomforts also happen when he performs music on Chios. Once, performing at a panegyri, he was reproached for singing a line in Turkish: “this is Greece, sing Greek.” These tensions around what is and is not Greek music reveals a complicated and complex musical heritage, a heritage that Bournias, through his music, asks us to celebrate rather than dismiss.

Musical traditions have boundaries that are often times more fuzzy than national borders. Bournias says that “this is regional stuff and it transcends borders.” Historically speaking, much of the folk music that we are preserving is older than the creation of our modern borders. It is hard to say, definitively, who has ownership over a particular song, instrument, or dance. Music has always traveled a lot. And perhaps what makes many of these Greek folk traditions “Greek” is the way they echo the journeys musicians and dancers took across the seas, from island to island, from one mountain range to another, one town to another. The kinds of journeys that have been definitive of the Greek experience from Homer to our diaspora across the globe.

Listen to the full interview here: 

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