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Mastika: About the Song


By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin





Many people believe the Anatolian folkloric song named "Mastika" is Turkish. It's actually not exclusive to Turkish people. It belongs to both the Greeks and Turks of Asia Minor. People associate it with present-day Izmir and surrounding areas, which was originally known as Kessani (Greek Anatolian Thraki).

This article refers specifically to the medley song often known as “Mastika”. The dance associated with this beautiful song is known as the karsilama. The karsilama dance has many versions, birth places, speeds and variations. In fact, the Greek karsilamas is one of my favorites and I am known for incorporating it into my teaching and performances.

Many people state or assume that the karsilama dance was brought to Greece by the Greek Anatolian refugees. I personally, do not agree with this theory. Why? Because this dance existed not only in Anatolia, but also was found in Cyprus, various other islands and the Greek mainland. Before the Greek Anatolian refugees came to Greece, it was under occupation for over 400 years by the Ottoman Turks. It is only natural that music and movement arts were constantly flowing and in transit much earlier than the 20th century.

Important note: The focus of this article is for the Anatolian version of the song "Mastika". It should not be confused with the Mastika islanders' songs and dances. There are some other songs that have "Mastika" in their titles, but they are different from Thrakian Greek-Turkish versions.

Thracian costume



The Song "Mastika"

"Mastika" is a traditional and very old song with a 9/8 musical time signature. It dates back at least to the early 20th century, and could well be even older than that. Back in the early 20th century, Greek and Turkish people all shared the same music due to occupation, wars and migrations.

For this reason, it would be misleading to refer to the song as only "Greek" or only "Turkish". However, mastika tree referenced in the song's title comes from the Greek island of Chios. This suggests that "Mastika" could indeed be originally a Greek song.

The word mastika dates back historically to Ancient Greece, and comes from the Greek root masao, which means "to chew". Mastika therefore became the word for chewing gum, which was made from tree extracts, originating on the Greek island of Chios. Those same tree extracts are also used to make a type of liquor, which is also known as mastika. It has many medicinal purposes, and since ancient times it has also used to refresh one's breath.

In the Greek language, we do not pronounce the word mastika with a K sound. We write it as “Μαστίχα”, and pronounce it as Mah-stee-ha. As you can see, there is no “k” sound in our Greek pronunciation even though the song title has been typically written with one.

Among the Greeks of Anatolia (which is part of my heritage), this song was used in a wedding procession, when the groom arrived at the bride's home to escort her to the church. This tradition still continues among some Greek Anatolians.

Lyrics exist for this song in both Greek and Turkish languages. The Greek version of the lyrics references tsifteteli dance (belly dance).

The 9/8 rhythm of the song "Mastika" is not exclusive to Turkish music. Greeks also use this rhythm. Greek 9/8 music can vary widely, depending on which region of Anatolia (where modern-day Turkey lies) or Greece it is found in or mainland Greece and islands it is found in.

The 9/8 song “Mastika” is used for an Anatolian folkloric dance called karsilama. This should not be confused with the incorrect Americanized Turkish “Gypsy Karshlama”, which American belly dancers often present in a derogatory way. I am very dismayed when I hear Western dancers abbreviate karshlama as “Karsh”.

It was shocking to me to learn that the Western belly dance dance community had no knowledge of our traditional folkloric karsilama dances, music and rhythms. Often, when I tried to educate others through my movement courses and discussions, I noticed hesitation and disbelief in my instruction.

In summer of 2017, discussions were brought up on various social media platforms, and my voice along with other natives were heard. Such discussions took place involving living belly dance legends – Lee Ali, who is of Anatolian Armenian origin, Serap Su, who is of Turkish heritage, myself, with Anatolian Greek heritage, Shira, a legendary walking encyclopedia, and several others. This lengthy conversation travelled along other social media hubs and created quite a stir!

Alas, here we are again. While researching and preparing this article, I felt it would be very appropriate to re-visit that discussion and link to the purpose of this article which is specifically for the 9/8 Mastika: its possible origins, culture and understanding. To understand the purpose and meaning of song, one must also bring in other major factors such as the dance done to it since in our ethnic folk arts are dances are often described either by its rhythm, music name, or actual purpose.




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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