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Musical Traditions of Pontus, the Black Sea Region of Present-Day Turkey


By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin


Table of Contents



Background About Anatolia and Pontus

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am not an expert in music history. I simply want to share an introduction to the beautiful culture I grew up in. I come from a long line of Pontian Anatolian (Asia Minor) Greek professional musicians, dancers, and actors.


Greeks use the term "Anatolia" to refer to the eastern part of the areas populated by Hellenic people, particularly the land mass of Asia Minor where modern-day Turkey resides. Literally, "Anatolia" means "the East". The word "Anatolia" comes from the Greek word Ανατέλλω (Anatello) which means getting up in the morning, and is a reference to sunrise. It consists of "ανα" and "τέλλω" (transliterated as "ana" and "tello"). Growing up, I also heard that it came from "ανα του ήλιου" (Ana tou iliou) which means "above the sun", and is a reference to the eastern horizon before sunrise. We say Greece is the bridge of East and West (Ανατολή κ Δύση).

"Anatolia" is also used as a female name, mostly among the Anatolian Greek communities. We refer to the Middle East as Mesi Anatoli (Μέση Ανατολή). The term Anatoliki (Ανατολική) is also used to reference any eastern area within any country, all over the world , just as in English we might say "the South" or "the North".


Pontus (Πόντος), sometimes spelled "Pontos", is a region within Anatolia that lies on the south side of the Black Sea, located in the nation known as modern-day Turkey. Since ancient times, Pontus covered a large mountainous region, and possessed great wealth, including silver mining.

Although the borders of Pontus changed through the centuries, the map above shows where Pontus was located as of 1900, before World War I and the genocide of Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians that followed. Click on the map to see more detail.

The Pontian flag was gold with an eagle emblem.

Historically, Pontus consisted of a primarily Greek population, although some other ethnic groups lived there as well. Due to invasion in the 17th century, this primarily Greek region became part of the Ottoman empire and remained part of it until the fall of the Ottomans after World War I.

The people of Pontus were some of the earliest to convert to Christianity. In fact, they are mentioned in three places in the Bible:

  • Acts 2:9
  • Acts 18:2
  • First Peter 1:1

Even after the arrival of the Mongolians, which led to the Ottoman Empire, the Pontian people continued to live in the area. Some continued to practice Greek Orthodox Christianity, while others practiced their faith in secrecy.

Much of what non-Greeks may think of today as either traditional "Greek" music or traditional "Turkish" music actually originated from the Anatolian Greek people of Pontus. The main national dances of present-day Turkey come from the Black Sea region. For example, the dance Horon, which comes from that area, is typically one of the most popular dances used to represent Turkey. Horon's ancient root word is "horo" (Χορο), which in the Greek language means "to dance". The Horon is an adaptation of the Pontian Serra dance, commonly referred to as "war dance". (Many scholars debate whether it was or wasn't considered a war dance.)

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In this photo, Panayiota wears a Pontian folk dance costume. It was taken backstage at the renowned Dora Stratou National State Folk Dance Theater of Greece, 2019 summer performance season, on Philopapou Hills, near the ancient Acropolis where the Parthenon stands.



Traditional Musical Instruments

Traditionally, a Pontian band would consist of a kemence player, a daouli player, and a touloum player. The zourna is also a very important traditional instrument.

The number of musicians playing in a given band would depend largely on how many musicians the customer could afford to pay for. It also can depend on who is at these gatherings. Since we have hundreds, if not thousands, of Pontian organizations in Greece, our events will feature guest artists. Often, the students of each organization are also given an opportunity to shine and play on stage. In addition to the band members playing together as a group, each musician would also have an opportunity to play his or her own solo.

Many Pontian musicians were very versatile. They could play not only their primary instrument, but also others. Singers, too, could typically also play instruments.

Kemence (Κεμεντζέ)

The kemence (Κεμεντζέ), often known as the Pontian lyre (Ποντιακή Λύρα) or just lyre (Λύρα), is a traditional musical instrument from Pontus. Greeks consider the kemence to be an ancient instrument, dating back to at least 10th century.

When talking with people who are not from Pontus, it's necessary to specify "Pontian lyre" (pronounced as "lyra" with an "a") rather than simply saying "lyre" because there are many types of lyres in Greek musical traditions, especially used throughout the Greek islands. From Anatolia, there is also Politiki lyre (Πολιτικη Λύρα), which means the style of lyre from the Poli* and it is a different shape from the Pontian lyre.

A kemence player may be either seated or standing, depending on their mood. They could be in the center of a circle of folk dancers, or off to the side, or elevated on a stage, depending on the layout of the venue. Of course, people always love it when the musicians come into the center of the circle. It means they have reached tremendous kefi (great mood) and want to share that energy with everyone.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota Bakis-Mohieddin, wearing a Pontian folk costume, is standing next to a musician friend holding a kemence. It was taken backstage at the renowned Dora Stratou National State Folk Dance Theater of Greece, 2019 summer performance season, on Philopapou Hills, near the ancient Acropolis where the Parthenon stands.

We often say "The lyre is crying," when a kemence is playing.

Today, the kemence is still often used by musicians of Pontian heritage, and is very much part of mainstream Greek music when Pontian songs are embraced by the mainstream.

Greek pop singer Elena Paparizou became a major star in Greece due to her winning Eurovision performance which included a kemence instrumental piece. In the show, the choreography involved lifting her onto a dancer's shoulders, pretending to play a stringed instrument in the air which was a reference to a kemence. (See below for a section listing several of the artists of Pontian origin who achieved great success in the mainstream.)

* "Poli" was the original name for Constantinople (Κωνσταντινούπολη), referred to today as Istanbul (Ιστάνμπουλ). The name Constantinople is a reference to the Emperor Constantine the Great. Some people argue that the name "Istanbul" has its roots in Greek, meaning "Ee Stin Poli", which is written as "εις την πόλη" in Greek. However, Turks don't agree with this, and say that the name "Istanbul" means "the city of Islam".

Daouli (νταούλι)

The daouli (νταούλι) is a traditional Pontian drum. In Pontian Greek, the name of it is written as "Ταουλιν" or "ταουλ". A daouli player may play while seated, but many choose to attach a harness to the drum, which allows them to stand up and move around or dance while playing it.

The daouli comes in different sizes. Traditionally, it is covered with animal skin; however, a trend in recent years is to use synthetic skin, which is easier to maintain and doesn't break as easily. The synthetic skin does have a slightly different sound.

The daouli is played with two drumsticks required to produce the sound. In one hand, the drummer holds what is known in the Pontian language as the "kopal" (Κοπάλ). Modern Greek refers to it as kopanos (Κόπανος). Interestingly, kopanos is also used as a swear word or insult, which means the person being insulted is stupid! In the other hand, the drummer holds a very thin stick that is referred to as in the Pontian language as "vitsa" (Βίτσα). Modern Greek calls it the "verga" (Βέργα). The word "verga" can also apply to a slender leafless stick from a tree.

This is the same instrument used in Arabic-speaking countries where it is referred to as daoul (νταουλ) or tabl baladi (ταμπλ μπαλαντι). The Turks call it davul (νταβυλ).

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota, wearing a Pontian-style folk dance costume, holds a daouli. It was taken backstage at the renowned Dora Stratou National State Folk Dance Theater of Greece, 2019 summer performance season, on Philopapou Hills, near the ancient Acropolis where the Parthenon stands.

Daires (νταϊρές, νταχαρές) or Bendir (μπεντίρ)

This instrument was traditionally used in Anatolia. However, scholars debate whether it was specifically used in Pontus. I personally haven't seen it live in a traditional Pontian traditional band, only in the bands that make their own modern versions of Pontian music. However, this doesn't mean it couldn't have been used, I just haven't seen it myself.

Touloum (τουλούμ)

Another very traditional Pontian instrument is the touloum (τουλούμ), which is a bagpipe. A similar instrument from the Greek mainland is known as a gaida. Sometimes Pontian bands (or just certain songs or dances, depending on the dance director) don't include a kemence, opting for only touloum and daouli (drum). A touloum player comes into the center of a circle of dancers and runs around playing, or stands in the center. Sometimes the touloum player lies on the ground in the center of the circle while people dance around him in a circle. Even while he is on the ground laying flat on his back, he is still playing the touloum!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows two daouli of different sizes

Zourna (Ζουρνάς)

The zournas (Ζουρνάς), sometimes called zourna (Ζουρνά), is another instrument that is a very important part of Pontian musical tradition. It is a double-reed woodwind instrument from the same family as the oboe.

As with kemence and touloum players, it is common for a zourna player to stand, walk around, or even dance while playing. Of course, it's also an option to sit if desired.

Modern Pontian Music

Of course, today musicians performing Pontian music may opt to use modern electronic keyboards and touberleki darbouka.



Pontian Music in the Diaspora

The bouzouki and the oud were traditional musical instruments in Anatolia; however, they were not traditionally played in Pontus.

In both Greece and the diaspora, at Greek celebrations with live bands, the bouzouki or oud player may know 2 or 3 Pontian songs and dances, and will play them by request if there are Pontian families or groups in the audience.

However, normally a Greek celebration which will be attended by many Pontian guests will need to hire a second band whose repertoire focuses on Pontian music in addition to hiring the band that plays mainland Greek music. Mainland Greek bands typically know how to play all Greek music except for our Pontian music. For this reason, it's very common to feature two different bands at the same event.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota sits with two musicians - a kemence player on the left, and a daoul player on the right. It was taken backstage at the renowned Dora Stratou National State Folk Dance Theater of Greece, 2019 summer performance season, on Philopapou Hills, near the ancient Acropolis where the Parthenon stands.

Many times the percussionist may be Pontian, and therefore able to play both mainland Greek music and Pontian music. Usually, they will begin with the Pontian music, and then they switch to the "laiko program" (λαϊκό πρόγραμμα). "Laiko" translates into English as "the music of the people", but in this context it refers to the modern popular music which can and does include both the old-school and newer Greek songs. It's the same type of music you would hear in Greek nightclubs or bouzoukia (μπουζούκια).

in Greece, we also enjoy our own Pontian nightclubs. The Pontian scene fizzled out in Athens, but in northern Greece there are still many. Now we have so many parties on a monthly basis — they somewhat took over the nightclub scene in Athens! But throughout Greece, we still arrange many Pontian gatherings. Really, there are so many that you can't keep up! It's like a marathon of countless celebrations!



Pontian Music in Today's Greek Mainstream

Mainstream vs Regional Tradition

Today, many Pontian traditionalists hate the modern mainstream Pontian style. They feel we should only stick to the classics and traditional old songs. Only the newer songs, which means those created before the 1990s, are acceptable to them, though they would make an exception for now-famous older Pontians.

I remember 20 years ago, I confronted a renowned Pontian kemence player and said, "Let's make a new song or album!" and he said "No! It wouldn't be a hit!" But, I knew it would! Of course, others brought my vision to life in the mainstream Greek music industry. In present-day Turkey, they do it as well, with modern Karadeniz songs. (Karadeniz is the Turkish name for where Pontus once was.) It's important for the new generation to create and keep our music alive. Through the new music, you can teach the younger generation to embrace the classics, plus open the door for others to learn as well, now that we have made a place for ourselves in mainstream Greek music.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Despina Vandi is a popular artist of Pontian heritage who has achieved great success in mainstream Greek music.

About the mainstream... Mainstream attention to Pontian music is beneficial because up until 15 years ago, nobody was allowed into our communities and centers. Participants were required to have been of Pontian descent. Even in the United States when I was teaching, no non-Pontians were allowed to perform or come learn. This rule also applied in Greece. It was very rare for an outsider to be allowed in.

Our people went through so much discrimination, and experienced such racism, that we needed to protect ourselves by sticking together within our own communities. Anatolian Greeks from other parts of Asia Minor did so as well. This statement is somewhat controversial — depending on which Anatolian region you came from, you may or may not have been welcomed. Today this drama continues to stem from the genocide recognition, as we Anatolian Greeks are still segregating ourselves, even though we shouldn't. As I like to say, there remains some level of friction between the southern Asia Minor Greeks versus the northern Asia Minor Greeks. But this is another conversation....

Now, with our music achieving mainstream popularity, we invite other Greeks to learn. Also, now many non-Pontians perform with our dance companies, as well as learning our culture, music, dance, and food along with it.

Some Prominent Pontian Musicians

The following artists of Pontian descent have achieved success in the mainstream Greek music business. All are featured elsewhere on this web site in profiles that accompany English translations of songs they have recorded, composed, or written lyrics for.

  • Babis Kemanedzidis
  • Bo
  • Christos Cholidis
  • Despina Vandi
  • Eirini Papadopoulou
  • Eleni Hatzidou
  • Kelly Kelekidou
  • Konstantinos Tsahouridis
  • Lefteris Pantazis
  • Melina Aslanidou
  • Mimis Papaioanou
  • Michalis Kouinelis
  • Michalis Touratzidis
  • Nikos Kourkoulis
  • Nikos Vertis
  • Nikos Xanthopoulos
  • Pantelis Pantelidis
  • Pela Nikolaidι
  • Petros Iakovidis
  • Stelios Kazantzidis
  • Themis Adamantidis
  • Vasilis Karras

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows Pantelis Pantelidis, a spectacularly successful singer-songwriter of Pontian descent, whose career was cut short at age 32 in February, 2016 when he was killed in a tragic car accident.

Pontian Music Sung in Pontic Greek

Translations of the lyrics into both English and Modern Greek.

  • Mana En Krion Neron (Mother Is Like Cold Water). Song honoring mothers. By Giannis Tsanakalis.
  • Sa Xena Ime Ellinas (In Foreign Lands I'm a Greek). By Stelios Kazantzidis. Unofficial anthem of the Greek diaspora.
  • Tin Patrida M' Ehasa (I Lost My Homeland). Giannis Kourtidis & Ahileas Vasiliadis.

Pontian Music Sung in Modern Greek

Translations of the lyrics into English.

  • Tou Pontou Panayia (The Virgin Mary of Pontus). Includes cultural information about Monastery Panagia Soumela located in the Pontian mountains at Trapezounda.

Mainstream Greek Songs with Pontian Influence

The following links lead to English translations of songs from mainstream Greek popular music that include Pontian influences:

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Stelios Kazantzidis was a highly successful performer of Greek rebetiko music, particularly active during the 1950's and 1960's. His heritage was Pontian.




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.




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