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Nikitas Tsimouris

1989 Florida Folk Heritage Award


Nikitas Tsimouris brought the complex music of the tsabouna, a type of Greek bagpipe, to Tarpon Springs. He was born in the village of Chora on the Dodecanese island of Kalymnos, one of eight children of a sponge fisherman and citrus sharecropper. Tsimouris’ father played the tsabouna and the family had a reputation for a love of dance and music. On most nights family or neighbors gathered in their kitchen or courtyard for informal parties. At about age eight, Tsimouris learned to play the tsabouna from his father while they watched their sheep.

Tsimouris started working after third grade to help support his family. During World War II, Greeks faced hunger, terror, and death—and almost half a million died of starvation alone. Tsimouris’ father died in 1942, and Tsimouris continued the responsibility for his mother and four sisters. He emigrated to Tarpon Springs in 1968, where he worked on sponge boats, in a restaurant, and finally in the stucco trade. He also served as custodian of St. Nicholas Cathedral during his later years. In Tarpon Springs he continued to play for many family, Kalymnian Club, and community events. In his home and for events, he often performed with family members who provided vocals and danced, including his wife, Nomiki, and his sisters (Nomiki, Focaina, and Maria Elena)—who lived on the same block
The tsabouna is one of two types of bagpipes in Greece. The gaida, played in mainland Greece, has a single chanter. The tsabouna played in the islands has an untanned goatskin bag turned inside out, blowpipe, and two parallel chanters, each with five finger holes, fitted into a single tube with wax. The tube is often olive wood, while the chanters and reeds are rush or cane. The musician blows air into the bag through the mouthpiece and squeezes the bag to generate sound.

The melodies Tsimouris played were highly ornamented one to two-phrase litanies for dance or song. Songs were in tonal unison, with rhythmic heterophony or unison—though in some types the refrains overlapped with verses to create syncopation and rhythmic tension. According to inspiration, singers led songs and added verses. The music was often accompanied by whistling, clapping, stamping of dancers’ feet, and exclamations.   The tsabouna player stands in the middle of the dancers, keeping time with the dance leader/singer. Types of songs included social songs, serenades, kantadesmantinadespismatika (improvised teasing verbal exchanges), wedding songs, miroloi, emigration songs, patriotic songs, carnival songs, Christmas carols (kalanda), epic narrative fragments, table songs; dances such as the soustakalamatianossirtos; common tunes, and songs specific to certain islands.   

Ethnomusicologist Theodore Grame first recorded Tsimouris and published a paper on the highly ornamented and complex music, characterized by intricate melodies and many notes. Tsimouris also worked with ethnomusicologist Kathleen Monahan, and most extensively with folklorist/anthropologist and friend Anna Lomax Wood.