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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Mastika: The Story Behind the Song

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin

 

 

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Introduction

Important note: The focus of this article is for the Anatolian version of the song "Mastika". It should not be confused with the Mastika islanders' songs and dances. There are some other songs that have "Mastika" in their titles, but they are different from the Thrakian Greek-Turkish song discussed here.

"Mastika" is a very old traditional song which musicians count with a 9/8 time signature. It dates back at least to the early 20th century, and could well be even older than that. In Greek music, 9/8 music can vary widely, depending on which region of Anatolia, Greece, or the islands it is found in.

In this article, I explore the song's possible origins and cultural context. To understand the purpose and meaning of a song, one must also look at other major factors such as the dance done to it, and the situtions in which that dance is done. In our ethnic folk arts, dances are often described either by their rhythm, song title, or actual purpose.

Many people incorrectly believe this song is Turkish. It's actually not exclusive to Turkish people. It belongs to both the Greeks and Turks of Anatolia (the land mass of Asia Minor where present-day Turkey resides).

The song's instrumental form was originally used for wedding processions in Thraki (Θράκη); most specifically, Kessani of Anatolian Thraki (Κεσσάνη Ανατολικής Θράκης). In a tradition that continues today among some families, Greek weddings originate from the home of the bride rather than the Western custom of everyone meeting at the church. The groom meets the bride at her home, along with musicians and family. Together they all proceed towards the church, playing traditional music and dancing.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows what traditional Thraki clothing looked like.

This article refers specifically to the song often known as "Mastika". The dance associated with this beautiful song is known as the karsilama. The karsilama dance has many versions, birth places, speeds and variations.

For this reason, it would be misleading to refer to the song "Mastika" as only "Greek" or only "Turkish". It was viewed as a traditional song of Asia Minor.

However, the mastika tree referenced in the song's title comes from the Greek island of Chios. This suggests that "Mastika" may possibly be originally a Greek song.

Thracian costume

 

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Mastika and Chios

The word mastika dates back historically to Ancient Greece, and comes from the Greek root masao, which means "to chew". Mastika therefore became the word for chewing gum, which was made from tree extracts originating on the Greek island of Chios (pronounced HEE-os). Those same tree extracts are also used to make a type of liquor, which is also known as mastika. The extract serves many medicinal purposes, and since ancient times it has been used to freshen one's breath.

In the Greek language, we do not pronounce the word mastika with a K sound. We write it as “Μαστίχα”, and pronounce it as MAH-stee-ha. As you can see, there is no “k” sound in our Greek pronunciation even though the song title has been typically written with one.

Greeks sometimes refer to mastika as "tears of Chios" because it is a natural resin that comes from the tree in the form of droplets. Some pharmacies and natural herbal shops refer to it as Arabic gum or Yemen gum.

Mastika

In Byzantine times, Syrians referred to mastika as chiou because of its origin on Chios. Syrian traders played an active role in importing mastika from its island of origin.

On the island of Chios, people don't really drink mastika liquor — it's for the tourists. The locals prefer to drink Souma Chiou (σούμα Χίου)

ABOUT THE MAP TO THE RIGHT: The map shows Greece, with an arrow pointing to the island of Chios.

ABOUT THE PHOTOS BELOW: The photos below come from the archives of Hellenic Arab Folklore Institute. They show people from the island of Chios in the early 1900's. Click on them to see more detail.

   
   

 

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Uses for Mastika Resin

Mastika has been used in several ways, including as an antiseptic, antihistamine, wound healing, surgical thread, and chewing gum.

As a young child, I grew up with yummy traditional mastika gum sold under the brand name ELMA. It was much better, healthier and higher quality than the chewing gum being sold in your American local convenience stores.

In 2002, a new company was launched with the name Mastiha Shop which sells anything and everything involving the mastika, including ELMA chewing gum. Since then, thousands of boutique shops have begun to sell it throughout Greece. Countless more have arisen internationally as well, including into the United States. Here is some information on the company:

Mediterra SA was founded on 17 June 2002 by Chios Mastiha Growers Association, with the main objectives:

  • Establishment of a marketing tool for mastiha (mastihashop)
  • Development, production, promotion and sale of mastiha products worldwide,
  • Development, production and sale of high quality Greek products,
  • Development and implementation of promotional activities.

To date Mediterra SA has developed a retail outlet network under the brand "mastihashop" which consists of 16 stores in Greece and abroad. It has established a food production unit on Chios Island, Greece where it has developed more than 100 different products.

Its web site is at www.gummastic.gr and contains an overview of mastika's fascinating history.

Another web site that sells mastika products is www.mastihashop.com . They ship large amounts of product worldwide, and also feature many boutique stores throughout Greece.

 

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Versions of the Song

Although most folklorists say the karsilama music used in wedding processions was only instrumental, lyrics exist for "Mastika" in both the Greek and Turkish languages. Some people confuse the song "Mastika", which originally didn't have lyrics, with another old song named "Sire Na Pis Tis Manas Sou" (Σύρε Να Πεις Της Μάνας Σου). Its lyrics feature a few Turkish words, but mostly are Greek. The Anatolian Greeks of Asia Minor, generally all spoke Turkish. My great-grandparents were fluent in the language. Aside from oral history, there is very little evidence to show who created the original lyrics and when.

Versions that exist today include:

  • In Greek
    • Ouzaki, Ouzaki, 1984
    • Mastikaki, Mastikaki, 1989
  • In Turkish
    • Ussak Karsilamas
    • Mastika

In the Greek version titled "Ouzaki, Ouzaki", the lyrics mention the tsifteteli dance (belly dance) and ouzo (anise-flavored liquor) as the bride and groom drink ouzo on their way to the church.

The song title was chosen because ouzo contained ingredients and sensory stimulation reminiscent of the Hiotiko mastika. (Hiotiko means "from the island of Chios".)

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows a glass of ouzo.

 

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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