Any visitor to Ermou, the main shopping street in Athens, has likely seen Spyros Tarapossos and his laterna, or barrel piano.
The laterna is an automatic piano that is operated by turning a crank on the side of the instrument. It is portable and usually moved by four wheels on the bottom of its case.
Like much smaller music boxes, it works by a crank turning a cylinder fitted with metal pegs which pluck respective strings, producing music. A traditional Greek laterna usually has a repertoire of nine songs.
The history of the Greek laterna
Barrel pianos, which were first invented in Europe in the late nineteenth century, quickly became extremely popular amongst Greeks when the instrument was adapted by Italian Giuseppe Turconi and Greek Armaos, both of whom lived in Constantinople.
The Greeks in the city took to the laterna immediately, and the instrument soon became ubiquitous in the homes of middle class Greeks in Constantinople, and it spread to the Greek mainland. It was one of the primary forms of entertainment during the time, as it long predated radios, stereos, and televisions.
In addition to the home and at special events, laternas were frequently found on the streets, where musicians played popular songs with the hopes of taking home some change.
Seeing a street musician playing a laterna was very common in Greece up until the late twentieth century, but is now a less common sight.
Keeping the tradition alive
However, Tarapossos is frequently stationed at the head of Ermou Street, in Athens, and is keeping the tradition alive. He is widely known in Athens as he is one of the only people left playing this incredibly historic musical instrument for the public.
He first began playing his laterna, which was given to him by his grandfather so he could make some money after becoming unemployed, for over 20 years.
His grandfather’s laterna, made in 1942, is decked out with various images from old Greek movies featuring actress Tzeni Karezi as well as pictures of Tarapossos himself.
Speaking to Greek Reporter, Tarapossos stated that he is “following in his grandfather’s footsteps” by playing the traditional instrument.
His laterna plays songs that were extremely popular in Greece in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. While most older Greeks know and love the laterna and the songs he plays, Tarapossos says that many young Greeks have no idea about the once-popular instrument.
They often marvel at the laterna and ask about the songs he plays, as well as the history of the instrument.
Tarapossos dedicated the poignant song “The Love That has Became a Double-Edged Knife,” made popular by Melina Mercouri in the film “Stella,” to “all immigrants across the world,” particularly his own daughter, who moved to Germany to find work.