Ancient Greek vases show a circle of dancers performing a dance which is believed to be the same as one still danced in present times (syrtos) ,though with many variations according to region, all over Greece. The subject of Greek music and dance is vast, but certain salient points can be made with the foreign traveler to Greece in mind. The best-known type of popular Greek music known outside of Greece is rembetika music, an urban music tradition with its classic period in the 1930s, which has experienced an international revival in recent decades. Classic rembetika music, performed typically with three instruments: bouzouki (or the smaller tzouras), guitar and baglama-the latter a tiny bouzouki used for chords played in percussive fashion.
This urban genre of Greek music had its roots in mainland Greece during the late 19th century, and later overlapped with the music brought in the early 1920s by the Greek refugees who flooded into Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki from Smyrna and Constantinople in Asia Minor after the compulsory population exchange of Christians and Muslims in 1923.
This exchange followed the 'Katastrofi' (Catastrophe) of 1922 , which in turn followed the failed Greek attempt to take back formerly Greek areas within the new Turkish nation that arose after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The music brought by the refugees is generally referred to as Smyrneika, and was played on instruments such as violin, the Constantinopolitan lyra, the santouri, kanonaki (both zither like instruments, the first struck with mallets and with fixed pitches, the latter played with metal picks attached to the fingers and with pitches adjusted to small microtones while playing, by use of tiny levers that lower tiny bridges that change string lengths), and outi (oud, ud), a gourd-backed instrument with gut string and no frets.
The highly sophisticated players of these instruments included song composers who were at the reins of the recording industry in Athens after 1922, and many people refer to their music (which includes traditional, handed-down, pieces as well as composed ones), as 'Early Rembetika'.
By the 1930s, however, the bouzouki centered music had displaced the Asia Minor music and its instruments, the three instruments of the former music utilizing fixed frets, and hence, fixed pitches (ie. half tones and whole tones).
Interestingly, the early bouzouki looked exactly like the saz, which had moveable frets, and which could hence be adjusted to play various microtones. By the post war period entire bouzouki orchestras had replaced the old intimate trio, and the dark themes of the earlier 'classic rembetika' (drugs, jail, poverty, betrayal in love, etc.) replaced by themes more acceptable to the middle class urban Greeks.
The scion of that later rembetika was laika (literally, 'popular music' or 'people's music') and by the latter part of the 20th century, the process of commercialization and electrification had reached an extreme. Saga-Pau-pau-po!
Far less known to the outside world was the music of 1920s and early 1930s urban Asia Minor, or the music from many areas of both coastal Asia Minor and inland regions where Greeks lived, which including the wonderful music of Greeks from Kappadokia (Cappadocia) or from the Black Sea coast in the north, the homeland of the Pontic Greeks.
Nor was the music of the different Greek island groups, including the very unique music of the largest island, Crete, or of the various regions of the Greek mainland (Thrace, Macedonia, Ipiros, Thessaly, Central Greece, the Peloponnisos) known to people outside of Greece.
A few major figures in Greece, however, devoted their lives to the recording and collection of music, dance and costume from all regions of Greece. Among them was Simon Karas who founded the Society for the Dissemination of Greek Music, who made field recordings during the 1960s and '70s which resulted in some 30 LPs, later issued as cassettes, and some of them now reissued as CDs.
Another major figure was Dora Stratou, whose spawned the dance productions that still continue annually in Athens at the theater named for her on Filoppapou , near the Acropolis in Athens. Regional recordings are available from the society founded by her, with a site on the internet.
Other major players include Domna Samiou, now in her 70s, born of Asia Minor refugees in Athens, who had collected and recorded an enormous body of songs from all regions of Greece, accompanied by some of Greece's finest musicians, and Finos Anoyinakis, whose collection of folk instruments played traditionally in all Greece are housed in the superb instrument museum in Plaka (across from the Tower of the Winds).
Travelers to Greece interested in hearing authentic older Greek music as well as Greek dancing, can do so in many places in Greece.
Athens and Thessaloniki are the main cities where such music is happening, as well as in some smaller cities and towns. Authentic village music and dance are increasingly harder to find in their places of origin, due to intense electrification, over amplifcation, sound effects, and slicking up of styles, replacement of older instruments with others, ,etc.
In Crete one can find both the older authentic music and dance as well as the modern commercialized versions. The Dodecanese island group, especially Karpathos, offers some of the real thing as well. Visitors will see signs posted everywhere in summer for saints' day festivals and other music events, but the best thing is to know the difference between truly 'traditional' music and the modern 'replacement'.
Many local Greeks will tell you that the music advertised on a phone pole is 'paradosiaka' (traditional), but they won't tell you that the volume will be cranked up to earsplitting levels and that the laouto (lute) will sound like an electric bouzouki.