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Electricity and the Bouzouki – Revisited

When I first ranted about this subject five years ago, I said at the time that I didn’t like magnetic pickups in acoustic instruments. The basis for my dislike was that magnetic pickups only amplify the strings and not the whole instrument, leading to an overly bright sound which might be good for cheesy taverna music and Laika (Greek popular music) but not for anything else. If you want a fully electrified sound, I said, buy or get someone to build you a solid-body electric bouzouki and don’t just put electric pick-ups in an acoustic one. Electrification of 6-string bouzoukia is pretty controversial to begin with of course, seeing as rembetika musicians tend to be acoustic purists in the first place but that’s a whole other argument.

Anyway, I’ve had a slight change of heart since then, prompted in part from watching Musical Brotherhoods from the Trans-Saharan Highway (Sublime Frequencies, 2008). Some of the Moroccan musicians who appear in the film are clearly using magnetic pickups in their acoustic instruments and they sound fucking amazing, so in light of that I’m prepared to make some exceptions to my own rule. Aside from the fact that the musicans in Musical Brotherhoods…(2008) aren’t playing sanitised versions of their folk musics, no Moroccan equivalents of laika or even rembetiko revival here thank you very much, I think a large part of why they sound so good is that the sound is kind of shitty.  Shitty in the best possible way that is because they’re not afraid of some dirty old fuzz.

To be fair, bouzouki’s were first amplified in the 1950’s before fuzz was a widespread phenomenon and by the late 1960’s when it had became a major thing, Greece was under the rule of a military dictatorship (1967-1974) that cracked down on many forms of expression. So Greece’s urban folk music, rembetika, by now already gentrified into ‘laika’ (popular song) – at least partly due to the earlier Metaxas dictatorship of 1936 to 1941 – had no chance to re-flower during the psychedelic era in the way that, for example, Turkish music did with musicians and groups like Mogollar, Erkin Koray and Selda Bagcan. Well at least not to the best of my knowledge anyway. One notable exception is Dionysis Savvopoulos, active from the late 1960’s onwards, who has incorporated a lot of Greek folk elements into his Greek New Wave music. Although Savvopoulos’ music fits more into the art-song category than psychedelic rock, think a Grecian Serge Gainsbourg or perhaps Areski Belkacem, it’s definitely worth extended and repeated listens.

As a stab in the dark (I’m no musicologist), by the time Greek prog, punk and post-punk came along in the 1970’s and 80’s, the Laika must have brought about such a distaste for bouzouki music amongst the more seriously-minded underground and experimental musicians that none of them wanted to touch the instrument. And who can blame them really. The rembetika revival that’s been going on for the same period of time is largely and unfortunately just that, a static revival, not a living and changing tradition. The revivalists do have their place and I do occasionally go to rembetika nights in Melbourne but I just wish more people would take the instrument and the music in new directions. Well that’s my theory and opinion anyway, I’m sure there are other exceptions to the rule that I’m not aware of and I should probably do some further research on the topic. I have tried researching more progressive or experimental bouzouki music before without much luck but it probably doesn’t help that I can’t speak, read or write Greek. My poor excuse is that the language was never spoken in the home when I was growing up and I haven’t ever found the time to learn as an adult.

As an aside of sorts, several more recent exceptions to the rule can be found on the compilation A Steady Diet of Hash, Bread & Salt (2012) put together by the person behind the Soundeyet blog. It’s a great idea for a compilation and an interesting collection featuring names like Steve Gunn, Ignatz and Sam Shalabi alongside Greek acts such as Free Piece of Tape, all of whom are more competent or ‘mis-competent’ than I am. By mis-competent I’m referring to Bruce Russell’s term – I went to a talk he gave recently about his PhD thesis – that refers to neither competency or incompetency but something in between. Another way of getting there. Something I can definitely relate to but I definitely haven’t gotten there yet.

Anyway, back to the music of the Jemaa El Fna, the central square in Marrakesh where most of Musical Brotherhoods…(2008) was filmed. Abdul Hadi Milani of Troupe Majidi is probably my favourite out of all the musicians in the doco and he’s just using a contact mic on his long-necked lute instrument and it’s the kind of sound that could start a revolution! If anyone knows what the instrument is that Hadi Milani is playing, I would really like to know. There’s another guy, possibly Imzwajin Del Hussein, also playing a kind of lute, who has a magnetic pickup combined with a contact mic to get more of that fuller instrument-body sound.

Elsewhere in the film there’s other musicians playing banjo-like instruments and you can’t see what type of pick-up they’re using, my guess is they’ve got internal magnetic pickups because it can be hard to stick anything else on or in a banjo. The only non-curved surface near enough to the action is the skin of the resonator and neither contact mics or piezos tend to stick to that surface very well. I know this because I had to get a magnetic pickup put in my banjo years ago for the same reason, I hardly ever plug it in these days though because I like its acoustic sound more. I guess I just need to start using some dirt with it again. So yes I was being a bit hypocritical when I wrote my first rant on this topic five years ago because I already had the pickup in the banjo at the time but it was the only option other than a goose-neck mic and who wants one of those things getting in the way. Besides which I could imagine a goose-neck leading to feedback of the undesirable kind. Don’t get me wrong, I love feedback but you only want it to be uncontrollable when you want it to be uncontrollable.

Well that’s all really, so go stick your bouzouki through some dirty fuzz. Regardless of what kind of pickup you have in it.

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