Mykonos bagpipe maestro Dimitris Koukas, aka “Mitsaras” passed in May 2021, taking a lifetime of Mykonian musical memory with him.
Dimitris Koukas, played the Mykonian bagpipe—the tsabouna, for eight decades of his life. As a youngster, he first expressed interest in the tsabouna thanks to a cultural tradition of tsabouna players on the rocky isle.
The tsabouna is a Greek folk wind instrument of the bagpipe family. The pipes are not blown directly from the musician’s mouth but via an air reservoir. It has been used for centuries in the traditional music of the Aegean islands.
A few years prior to the pandemic, Greek Reporter had captured Mitsaras’ larger than life and in performance mode, offering his own unique rendition of “Kapta Andrea Zepo.”
As a youngster, his father, a farmer, had relegated him to the isolation of Rhenia, an island neighboring Mykonos, used by locals for grazing livestock in the winter. At ten, he began to stay on the homestead alone for days and eventually weeks at a time. There were a handful of neighbors on the entire island and no electricity or running water. He lived in a simple stone house lacking in today’s modern creature comforts.
“My father told me I would get back to Mykonos when I started shaving,” Koukas said. “We had livestock on the island and my job was to tend them. I milked cows, I worked hard at ten.”
Isolated on Rhenia, Practice Made Perfect
On his own in Rhenia, he had to find a way to ease the boredom of being alone. The tsabouna, the Mykonos bagpipe, became a source of comfort and challenge in his solace. The tsabouna is a bagpipe that is built by its player. The musician creates his own instrument out of the organic materials available.
“I struggled, but I made my own instrument,” Koukas said. “I would climb to the rooftop of our family home and practice.” Typical houses in Mykonos follow a cubist structure with a white stucco exterior. The roofs are flat surfaces that can also function as terraces. “When we would slay the hog to sustain the family through the winter, I would play from my elevated setting,” he confides in us.
At the family’s annual pig slaughter, known as the Xirosfagia, Koukas would beg his father for the “fouska,” which in its literal translation from Greek means bubble, but here, the reference is to the pig’s stomach. He would insert a single reed and create a makeshift tsabouna known as the “mono-tsabouno.”
He also improved his skills by following local maestros who performed in a colloquial gathering known as “Kasinos.” In the early ’50s, the kasinos would be set up during the winter through the four weeks of Carnival or Mardi Gras. Ground floor storage rooms in the narrow, winding streets of the island’s town were set up for socializing. Above, was the family’s home.
Native musicians with Mykonos bagpipes, doubakia, also known as drums, violins, and tambourines would gather at dusk to sing. Locals would go from kasino to kasino to have their fill of song, wine, and dance. Lighted by lanterns and in small spaces, elders recount many long nights when they enjoyed the music and each other’s company, breaking the long winter’s ennui.
“I would go the kasina to pick up techniques from the other tsabounieries,” said Koukas. The maestros took him under their wing at the gatherings, offering him pointers. However, for the most part, he was apparently self-taught, by listening, observing, and practicing.
“At 83 I am still learning,” Koukas said in 2014.
It was at infamous “panigiria,” festivals of the small family chapels that he honed his skills. Panigiria in Mykonos are hosted by local families at chapels built by their forefathers or themselves. Friends and family gather for the vesper service, commemorating the saint to whom the chapel is dedicated on the night before the feast day.
Following the church service, friends and family gather to dine on the broth of family goats or sheep, enjoy some homemade wine, and of course, enjoy the music of the Mykonos bagpipe’s maestros, as well. The panigiria originally offered livestock boiled in a lemony broth known as “Zoumi,” or juice. Revelers would be given a cup of the broth with a bit of potato, meat, and a glass of homemade wine.
The feast for the family festival was usually prepared in a small stone room attached to the chapel known in Mykonos as the “keli.” Large cauldrons filled with meat and potatoes are boiled over a gas flame in the tiny space.
Prior to the pandemic the festivals for family and friends mushroomed into large scale community gatherings. They morphed into extravaganzas with hired bands, several courses of food including salads, cheese pies, and other dishes to highlight the generosity of the local host family.
Panigiria hosted at Agios Alexandros at Argyrenna and Holy Cross at Marathi have been known to have almost a thousand people attend. After fifteen months of pandemic, such gatherings can no longer take place.
Tsabounieri Hosts His Own Family Festival
Koukas said he had his own family chapel dedicated to Agio Pnevma, or the Holy Spirit. His family has celebrated panigiria for sixty years, and he would slaughter a dozen sheep and goats to offer the attendees.
“We were always gathering for the festivals, even in the lean years,” Koukas said. “Glory to the mother of God, Panagia, I and my family have managed to stay on our feet” even through the hard times of the economic crisis.
Koukas, a lifelong resident of Mykonos, was raised as a farmer and eventually became a construction contractor, as the island began to grow as a destination for tourism and development boomed.
He told Greek Reporter that his secret to staying young was in his lifestyle: “I have worked long and hard, I walk a great deal, I hunt in the wild and often was climbing high scaffolding” as a construction labor.
Since Koukas retired and was pensioned, he has not rested a single day. “I have a garden, I have sheep and goats that I tend, I am afoot all day,” he said. And of course, he played the Mykonos bagpipe.
“If we are able to still have good time, particularly during an economic crisis, we shouldn’t complain,” added Koukas.
The tsabouna’s traditional repertoire consists of the folk dances particular to each island, local songs, and music for folk ceremonies. A bagpipe is sounded by reeds to which wind is fed by arm pressure on a flexible bag. This bag is kept filled with air from the mouth or from small bellows strapped on the waist and to the other arm.
The tsabouna, usually in concert with the toubaki, a handcrafted drum, is played today at small family pig slaughtering festivals, weddings, baptisms, and at celebrations of saint’s names days in family-owned chapels throughout Mykonos.
Tsabouna’s history in Mykonos
The tsabouna, or Mykonos bagpipe, in its current form is not mentioned in sources older than the fifteenth century. Perhaps no authors found any interest in information about village festivities. The precise origins of this particular type of instrument are unknown.
Every member of the bagpipe family, the tsabouna included, has a bag and one or more pipes. Pipes can vary as much as simple bagless wind instruments, and each of them has its own history. Some existed before the invention of the bag and were then combined with it while others first appeared in the form of a bagpipe.
There is no recorded history of the Mykonos bagpipe as such. Its pipes belong to one of the oldest types of wind instruments, documented several millennia ago in the great civilizations of antiquity (Mesopotamia, Egypt, and much later Greece). The bag’s first appearance in Greece dates from the Roman period, and it is believed to have been imported from the East.
Construction of the Tsabouna
The Mykonos bagpipe has two short cane chanters of equal length, placed in parallel position so they can be played as one and tuned in unison. Fingerholes may be the same on both chanters. The two chanters are fastened into a wooden or cane yoke ending in a bell, usually made of cow horn. Fastened to the upper end of the chanters, and hidden inside the bag, are two single-blade reeds.
The bag has two openings. One holds the mouthpiece, the blowpipe, and the other the yoke. The air travels from the player’s mouth to the bag through the mouthpiece, then passes through the reeds’ blades, causing them to vibrate and thus to sound.
The Mykonos tsabouna is made entirely of natural materials, with the least possible processing. The bag is the skin of a whole goat, the chanters are of natural cane, the blowpipe is a bone or another piece of cane, the bell an entire cow horn. Beeswax is used as a glue, natural fibers or leather strips for bindings.
Tuning is adjusted with a hair or thread in the reed, or with a straw inside the bore of the pipes. Tsabounas are traditionally constructed not by specialized instrument makers but by the players themselves. Construction, just as playing, is learned empirically, with no theory or any organized learning system.
The secrets of this art, varying from island to island, are orally transmitted or copied. All materials and tools needed for construction are to be readily found in the piper’s immediate environment, either in nature or in the traditional household.
Tsabounas are played on most islands of the Cyclades, some of the Dodecanese, in the Northern Aegean, and in Crete. In each of these places, the local tsabouna has some peculiarities, so every island has its own unique variant of the instrument. It is also being played by a handful of musicians without origins from any of the above places, who reside in Athens.
Not every bagpipe is a tsabouna. A great variety of bag instruments differ from the tsabouna and are played throughout Europe from the British Isles and Spain to the Balkans. One of them is the Greek gaida, played by the local population of Macedonia and Thrace.
A revival for the Mykonos Tsabouna?
The echo of Mitsaras’ tsambouna and song will continue to be a source of energy and inspiration to the new generation that takes up the musical baton in the future.
In the 21st century, interest in the Mykonos tsabouna is growing and re-oriented. Although its tradition emerged out of a now-obsolete social context, the current reality is giving birth to a new tradition.
New musicians, a new audience, new terms of listening, a new repertoire along with the old one, and, most importantly, new or ever-timely messages, form the framework within which an old instrument remains relevant and even gains popularity.
This new tradition goes hand-in-hand with and is also inspired by the old one that is still in practice. It breaks the previously close bond with local communities, transforming tsabouna music from a set of local dialects into a globally common language.