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The sound of the Muses

Oia, Santorini.

John Malathronas discovers the music of ancient Greece in today’s Santorini


Yannis Pantazis is a musician on a mission. He picks up a tsabouna, a Greek droneless bagpipe, and starts playing. The sound is bouncy, penetrating and fun. The instrument isn’t Scottish, he declaims; it’s as Greek as retsina. The first mention of bagpipes comes from Aristophanes, in his Acharnians, written around 400 BC: ‘You pipers who are here from Thebes, with bone pipes, blow the posterior of a dog’, goes the politer translation.

Yannis and his Greek-American wife Argy came to Santorini in 2008. Three years later they rented La Ponta, a medieval tower in the village of Akrotiri, and converted it into a museum of ancient Greek musical instruments. They put all their savings into maintaining and restoring the crumbling 13th-century tower, whose architectural elements span five eras: Hellenistic lotus-shaped stone-hewn pillars, Byzantine machicolations (defensive openings from where the besieged would pour hot oil and tar), Venetian windows, Ottoman arches, and an 18th-century Greek floor.

A sign on the north-south Santorini highway directs tourists to La Ponta. It’s the only publicly accessible Venetian monument on Santorini. Amazingly for a private enterprise, entrance is free; you’re not even pressured into making a donation. As Pantazis tells me: “Business might be more profitable if there was an entrance fee, but fewer people would come, even if we charged €1. In any case, we don’t need money. We use natural ingredients to create our instruments: skins, wood and reeds.”

Every instrument in the museum has been built by Pantazis. We know from vase depictions, writings and frescoes that ancient musicians played single flutes, pan flutes, reed pipes, cane clarinets, Apollonian lyres and, of course, the bagpipes that fascinate Pantazis, a jazz saxophonist by profession. We also know that the ancient Greeks used the Doric scale. Pythagoras tried to use it as the basis for a unifying theory involving natural law, music and mathematics.

So if we know the scale and we have the instruments, we can play ancient Greek music — which is why the museum is also hands-on. Although entrance is free, there are two daily 45-minute ticketed demonstrations, plus workshops on how to construct a fully functional pan flute from a piece of cane. There are daily performances in the evenings where Pantazis plays and acts in his own theatrical composition, Odysseus Returns, showcasing 10 different instruments.

Pantazis smiles: “When we came here, people thought we were mad. Success only came by word of mouth. Soon we’ll be expanding and relocating on Santorini. But La Ponta will come with us wherever we go. It’s not a Venetian tower anymore. It’s a place where music and mythology come together.”


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