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Zorba the Freak

Forget the crumbling ruins of Ancient Greece. Modern Greece is alive and kicking at the all-night-long bouzoukia.

A night out at a Greek bouzoukia is like a high-decibel mixture of ‘Zorba the Greek’, ‘Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and a gun-fight at a carnation farm. Sound horrible? Just try not to enjoy yourself…

bouzouki is the name of the tinkly Greek guitar that’s over-familiar from the Zorba theme tune, and which still features as prominently in their pop music as the electric guitar does in ours; the bouzoukia is the name of the clubs all over Greece (but mostly in Athens) where people used to go to listen to traditional songs, played live by travelling musicians. That was before the invention of deafening amplification, massive banks of coloured lights, and MTV. Bring on the modern bouzoukia—the disco on steroids.

It always comes as a surprise to me when travelling, to turn on the radio and discover that other countries have their own pop music—just as bad as ours, but different! In the case of Greece, they have their own music channel (‘Mad Greeks’), their own vibrant musical tradition, and in the bouzoukia, a special and different place to revel in it. If the cliché at our nightclubs is of wallflowers too timid to get up and dance, the cliché here is that you’re expected to throw flowers at the performers, and that you’re almost certainly going to finish the night leaping around on stage atop a carpet of carnations like an Ionian Elvis, as the deafening bouzouki twinkles faster and faster in your ear, and you channel your inner Anthony Quinn. I know which club sounds better to me.

And just like dance-clubs anywhere else, you get good ones, and you get real dogs. The photos above come from a recent trip to Greece where I selflessly visited one of each. Amazingly, even in the crappy ones, the band is outstanding. With a look of entrenched boredom on their faces (see the smoking keyboard player), they’ll rip through five hours of highly rhythmic 5/4 live music without missing a beat or (crucially) breaking a smile. At the best ones, you’re treated to the biggest stars of the Greek firmament, crooning, shuffling and strutting just a few metres in front of you. You love it, and you hurl a fistful of flowers at them. The best singers catch them mid-phrase, and chuck ‘em right back. Too cool.

If you’re questioning my sanity or objectivity, I must freely admit to an unabashed enjoyment of live music of all kinds, yes, even including musicals. Sorry. But really, truly, genuinely, you’d have to be dead on the inside not to find this somewhere between funny and fun. And if you think you know Greece but you’ve never been, well… sorry son. It’d be like knowing England and never having been to the pub.

Arrive around midnight (that’s early) and leave around 8:00 am. Call in advance to book a table as near the stage as possible.

Anyone else share my love? Know any good ones? Know any particularly bad ones? Do tell.

Jack and his questionable musical tastes can be reached at

You’d have to be dead on the inside not to find this somewhere between funny and fun.

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