They once were many, but now are few — George Soffos and other men who know how to play the stringed musical instrument known as the bouzouki and the melancholy tunes often described as Greek blues. In the old days the grizzled musicians sat in crowded cafes, bouzoukis on laps and cigarettes on lips, and played what they called "rebetika" music from dusk until dawn.
Sometimes a man listening to Soffos would feel compelled to dance — not as a performer who needed attention but as someone whose soul had just been touched. Perhaps the music reminded him of his homeland or his parents, long dead, or the girl who once had loved him, or the good job he had lost because he arrived at the dock one morning with retsina on his breath. The sharp, mournful notes played on the bouzouki somehow affirmed that life was a struggle and had been a struggle for all eternity.
So the dancer might stand, as if in a trance, and with arms outstretched and eyes half closed begin twirling. As the music took possession, he might snap his fingers and reach his hand to the floor and with knees bent and arms akimbo, twirl once more. Then without a trace of self-consciousness he might return with dignity to his seat and his glass of ouzo. Another would stand with eyes half closed to say that to suffer is to live.
In Tarpon Springs, where old Greek culture hangs on despite the insistent and sometimes ghoulish march of the 21st century, George Soffos is the king of the bouzouki. He can play many styles: classical Greek and the island music known as nisiotika. The old rebetika tunes especially come alive when the pick in his right hand assaults the strings.
So here is a song called Conversations in Jail. Here is The Junkie's Complaint. Here is one about the man who tired of keeping his spoiled mistress happy and joined a monastery, became a monk and took a vow of celibacy.
Soffos has never served hard time. Nor does he self-medicate with a hash pipe. There has never been a spoiled mistress who brought misery to his life.
But he is a human being. He is no stranger to the knowledge that we start dying the day we are born.
See the awful scar under his chin? The one that looks like a bad man slit his throat?
The bouzouki is the weapon of choice for Greek existentialists. Rebetika music is the bullet.
In a community center a few blocks away from the sponge docks, Soffos, 57, strikes a quivering, Middle Eastern-flavored note. "Bouzouki music must come out of your soul," Soffos reminds students who think technique is enough.
They take group lessons from him on Sunday at the Tarpon Springs Heritage Museum. First they learn something about the instrument. The bouzouki, a distant cousin of the ancient lute, has a long neck and a half-watermelon-shaped bowl where the strings, usually in sets of three or four, are played with a pick. The bouzouki is more like a mandolin than a guitar, though not quite like a mandolin either. It's tuned differently and looks different and sounds different, especially when Soffos plays the old music from the heart.
Of course he teaches his students something about rebetika, about how it came along in the early part of the 20th century, how it was often written and performed by poor and oppressed Greeks who sometimes lived far away from home or in the ghettos of larger cities. Rebetika songs could be about love and sex and work and play. Rebetika songs might tell stories about old people with graveyard coughs or young mothers mourning babies who died in infancy. Some were about prison life, encounters with prostitutes and relationships with bad men, mothers-in-law and swindlers, vamps and suckers. Sometimes the songs made you grin.
"Rebetika," Soffos often tells people, "is about life."
Seated before him are a dozen students, some old and some young, some who speak English with a Greek accent and some American kids who know more about the rap of Kanye West than the rebetika of Greek men who are losing their hair.
The younger ones are here because their Greek parents sent them for lessons "so you can play for your grandfather, your Pa-Pou, when you see him this summer in Cyprus." Clutching borrowed bouzoukis, they sit before Soffos and try in a small way to keep alive the culture of Tarpon Springs for a little while longer.
It isn't easy in generic, fast-food, violent America, where culture often is what happened on reality television last night. Founded by Greek sponge divers about a century ago, famous today for Greek museums and Greek restaurants, Tarpon Springs battles to hold on to its small-town ethnic atmosphere.
Six murders have been reported in the city of 25,000 residents already this year. Two-lane roads often are jammed with traffic while big-box stores on U.S. 19 threaten the old-timey family businesses in town.
"Try this," Soffos tells an 11-year-old pupil. The boy's small fingers try to cover the strings. Soffos reaches over and helps. "Good," he says. "That's right, you got it."
The words don't come out of his mouth. Soffos speaks through a hole in his damaged throat. He adds with a metallic rasp that "I do my real talking through the bouzouki."
• • •
He was born in 1953 in Warren, Ohio, where many Greeks moved to work in the steel mills after a sponge blight struck Tarpon Springs. His parents, from the Dodecanese islands, spoke Greek and lived like Greeks.
He was only 5 years old when he first saw someone play a bouzouki. He remembers being smitten. It wasn't only the sound, he remembers, but the attitude of the musicians, how they held their instruments and even their cigarettes between ring fingers and pinkies. But mostly what got to him was how the music transfixed the audience.
At home the little boy tried making his own bouzouki out of string and cardboard. He pretended to play the instrument while sitting on the porch. He wore the kind of hat favored by bouzouki players and pretended to smoke like the bouzouki players did. Eventually his parents broke down and bought him a guitar, which he learned to play well enough to earn his first bouzouki. He learned to play by listening to old 78 rpm records. From time to time a Greek orchestra came through town and invited the precocious kid to join them.
He resented school. He resented having to do homework. He cared only about the bouzouki. Exasperated, his parents sent him to Washington to study with the most famous bouzouki teacher in the United States, John Tatasopoulous. For two years he lived with the master and played day and even at night in the master's band. When his master fell ill, he became the band leader known as "the boy wonder." He was offered gigs all over the country.
The high school dropout was barely 17.
He saw a concert and liked the way Jimmy Page incorporated Middle Eastern sounds into the blues, but remained true to the bouzouki. Over the decades Soffos has played in the best Greek nightclubs in America and beyond. He has played in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, Atlanta, Washington, New York and Athens, Greece.
"There are people who believe he is the best American-born bouzouki player in the world," says Dr. Tina Bucuvalas, the Tarpon Springs folklorist. In Tallahassee on Wednesday, after this article went to press, he was to receive a prestigious Florida Folklife Heritage Award from the secretary of state for his cultural work in Tarpon Springs.
It was meant to be a celebration so he didn't plan to talk about his personal business, his own blues, his own rebetika.
• • •
Mother, my chest is hurting and I sigh.
This year, mother, I won't see it out.
When I die, mother, speak to the girl next door.
Tell her I'm dying for her and I'm on my way to hell.
Tell her to wash me, lay me out, light a candle for me,
Wash me, dry for me, so my body can cease to be.
— A song recorded in 1931
His deep, rebetika blues started 13 years ago — with an earache. The doctor prescribed antibiotics.
He had just moved to the Tarpon Springs area. For four long years in Chicago he had owned a Greek club where every night he took the stage and played until dawn. So yes, he was burned-out. And so, frankly, was his wife. After a dozen years of marriage, she wanted a husband who would be home at night, who would put down his bouzouki and instead read to his three beautiful daughters at bedtime. She wanted a husband who would take care of himself, eat better and quit the two-pack-a-day habit that had turned his right hand yellow.
The antibiotics didn't work. The doctor ordered additional tests.
It was a tumor. It was growing in his throat.
The radiation seemed to work at first. The tumor shrank. But then it began growing back. Unless they started cutting, he was history. He was only 45. For his girls he imagined a life without a father. The doctor started cutting.
Afterward he had to learn to breathe, eat, drink and speak again.
His mother died.
His wife filed for divorce.
It was something out of a rebetika song.
He forgot about the feeding tube around his waist when he finally was strong enough to play the bouzouki again.
• • •
Soffos and his band, Ellada, play at Mythos, a Greek restaurant and nightclub in Clearwater, on the month's third Saturday. Their fans begin filing in early. When the show starts at 8 p.m. every chair and every stool is taken.
The tall man with the scar on his throat dresses in black, wears black glasses, has black hair. The pick in his finger flies across the strings during an old tune, Sabre Dance. As he plays, he leans toward the audience and makes eye contact with fans who attend all of his shows.
He can no longer sing, of course, but Elias Poulos can. Dressed in white, Poulos slinks between tables, leans back and sings the old tunes in his hoarse, passionate voice. They are joined by Dino Theofilos, the keyboardist who has known Soffos since boyhood "and he didn't want to do anything but play the bouzouki.''
Old pros, they seldom take breaks because they want to keep the dance floor crowded. One song leads into another, often with a long and intricate bouzouki introduction that draws approving yells from the crowd. The band plays one the older Greeks know as The Egyptian Girl; the younger ones who remember the film Pulp Fiction know it as Misirlou. Dick Dale, say hello to the king of the bouzouki.
As the night goes on, and the liquor takes possession of some in the audience, Soffos leans forward and begins the intricate, well-known introduction to To Vouno, or, in English, The Mountain. It's classic rebetika.
I'm going to stay on the mountain,
And far away from the world.
I'm going to be crying by my self,
I will be in pain,
And I'm going to be heard throughout the mountain
A gray-haired man steps onto the dance floor. As if in a trance, he extends his arms and begins to twirl. And when he's through expressing himself — nobody knows the trouble he has seen — he returns to his table in the corner and wipes his dripping forehead with a napkin.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.