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Honored Greek folk musician dies

Nikitas Tsimouris, 77, of Tarpon Springs has been credited with keeping the tradition of the shepherd's instrument alive.


© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001

Nikitas Tsimouris, 77, of Tarpon Springs has been credited with keeping the tradition of the shepherd's instrument alive.

TARPON SPRINGS -- You probably have never heard of Nikitas A. Tsimouris, but without him, the world would have been a less musical place.

Born on the Greek island of Kalymnos, he brought to Tarpon Springs the intricate music of the tsabouna, a shepherd's instrument he learned from his father. So few people play the tsabouna, which is somewhat similar to the bagpipes, that he has been credited with single-handedly keeping the tradition alive in the United States.

In 1991, the National Endowment for the Arts honored Mr. Tsimouris, along with legendary guitar bluesman B.B. King and 14 others, with a National Heritage Fellowship. He was the first Floridian ever to receive the honor.

On Wednesday (Sept. 12, 2001), Mr. Tsimouris died. He was 77.

"He was an anchor of the Greek cultural tradition in Tarpon Springs," said Kathleen Monahan, a longtime friend and the director of the city's department of cultural and civic services.

In a 1991 interview, Mr. Tsimouris said through a translator that he learned to play the tsabouna at age 10 from his father while they watched their sheep in the fields on Kalymnos.

He came to Tarpon Springs to work in the sponging industry, and continued to play the tsabouna for family and friends, eventually receiving recognition for his increasing skill.

About 30 years ago, Theodore Grame, then an ethnomusicologist at Wesleyan University, was traveling and doing research in Tarpon Springs when someone recommended that he hear Mr. Tsimouris play. At the time, many people both in Tarpon Springs and in academia tended to dismiss the tsabouna as a peasant's instrument, he said.

"Well, I thought it was really important, so I did what I could to publicize it," said Grame, 71, who is married to Monahan. He recorded Mr. Tsimouris and published a paper on the sophistication of the music, which he said is characterized by intricate melodies and the "tremendous number of notes going all the time."

"It was very, very complex, very difficult for an outsider to evaluate in any stylistic or theoretical way," Grame said. "You could just sit there and wonder at the man's virtuosity."

"If you watched him tapping his feet while he played, you wondered how he kept the beat because the music was so highly ornamented," Monahan said.

The tsabouna is made from a goatskin turned inside out with the neck, tail and two of the legs tied shut. The player blows air into the bag through the mouthpiece and hugs the bag while squeezing out sound. The music of the tsabouna, which is meant for dancing, uses no written notation.

Over the years, Mr. Tsimouris performed regularly at Greek festivals and celebrations locally and in other states.

In later years, as his lungs grew weaker, he would use an air compressor to inflate the tsabouna so he could play, Grame said.

In 1989, he received the Florida Folk Heritage Award and participated in the Florida Folklife Master-Apprentice program as a teaching folk artist. The NEA also commissioned him to teach the tsabouna. A 30-minute videotape featuring him and his craft was made in 1989.

His students have included 18-year-old Constantine Grame. The younger Grame, an accomplished musician who also plays the Scottish bagpipes, was fascinated to find that the music of the tsabouna was passed on aurally.

"He would play you slowly the phrase you were to learn and then you would play it, and if you had it not quite right, he would play it again," he said. "He spoke next to no English at all, and yet we were able to communicate musically and he was able to teach me."

Along with working in the sponge industry, Mr. Tsimouris made his living as a stucco and plaster laborer, and was a member of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Nomiki; a son, Tony, Palm Harbor; three daughters, Maria Pilatos, Niki Sazalis and Irene Tsimouris, all of Tarpon Springs; four sisters, Maria Ellenas, Fotini Skandaliaris and Nomiki Tsimouris, all of Tarpon Springs, and Sevasti A. Tsimouris, Miami; eight grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Homes is officiating.

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