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Vasilis Farasopoulos

The traditional def of Cappadocia in Askites Rodopi

Farasopoulos, Vasilis: "The traditional def of Cappadocia in Askites Rodopi", 12th International Congress on Dance Research, Athens, 1-5/7/1998.


The def (tambourine) is a percussion instrument which consists of a wooden hoop, skin and zilia (small metal cymbals). It is a simple instrument , light and easy to use, and for that reason was an indispensable household article in most of the Christian homes of Cappadocia.

Other common musical instruments were the violin, the outi (lute) sort - necked, the baglamas or sazi (a type of small mandolin) and the girnata or clarino (clarinet). The Orthodox Christians of Cappadocia never use the davouli (drum). *Only Turks and gypsies played that,* say our informants, who acknowledge the that the best musicians were the Armenians who play at weddings and at entertainment’s organized by important families. From these professional Armenian musicians and singers who where invited to the villages, those of the villagers who enjoyed singing learned the new songs.

The def is an instrument of the poor, simple to construct and cheap to buy. It is easy for men, boys and girls to learn to play. Among the many, those who have the gift of a good voice and artistry stand out, as is only natural. These accomplished men and women often serve     the musical heeds of the family or village circle at betrothals, weddings, feast days, and give added joy to the atmosphere when loved ones come home from abroad or welcome visitors arrive from other villages.

Among the unwritten lows of hospitality which form the basic criteria of social and ethical esteem are the organization of singing and dancing in honour of the guests, in the spacious best room of the host. In such cases, those who are accomplished with the def need no persuading to show their skill and their feelings, singing to the beat of the def.

Construction of the def

To make a def, a wooden hoop, skin and zilia are needed. The hoop, if we put it on its side, resembles a cylinder 6-8 c.m. high with a diameter of 30-35 c.m. The hoop is made from a thin sheet of wood which can bend without breaking. Oak is suitable because it is hard and produces the right sound. If a hoop of oak cannot be found, some other wood may serve. The thickness of the wood from which the hoop is made is not more than 5-7 m.m. and join which forms the hoop is made with wood-glue or small metal staples.

At 2,3,4 opposing points of the hoop, holes are made in which to place the zilia in pairs. Traditionally, zilia were made from cast brass, like bells, They are circular dizes , 2mm thick, and have a hole in the centre through which passes the nail which holds them in the hole of the hoop. The diameter of the zilia reaches 5-6 cm and the hole in which they are placed must be slightly larger in length and breadth to allow them to move and jingle at the slightest tap of the fingers of the def.

The sharp sound of the zilia and the deep one of the skin create a balance of sound which only experienced def-players can recognize.

The skin

Cat-skin is regarded as the most suitable for the def. After it come the skin of the dog and the fox. Def-making takes place   in winter because then there is little outdoor work and family parties during the Christians festivals are many.

The cat is killed and carefully skinned. The skin is spread out under steaming manure at a depth of half a meter and is left there for 5-10 days, depending on the weather. The fermentation which takes place in the manure causes the hair to fall out and cleans the skin. In hard frost the skin will remain buried for longer. The debilitated skin, rolled up with plenty of salt, is left in a safe place for 2-3 days to harden. Then it is unrolled, washed and any sinews are carefully cut away. Then it is put into alum for a few hours and it is hung, spread out and stretched, to get rid of moisture and the unpleasant smell, and to allow it to take its natural shape. When it is quite dry it is ready to be fitted to the wooden hoop of the def. The mails used are very small cobbler’s nails with large heads. Skill and the right technique are needed to stretch the skin over the hoop and care must be taken with the positioning of the nails so that depressions do not form in the skin.

Over the points where the skin has been nailed down, a second thin narrow hoop may be fastened, in order to make the skin more secure and tight. Then follows the positioning of the zilia in the holes made in the hoop, and a general check of the construction is made. The def be ready to play in a few days after first being hung in a place which is not too warm, because is that case the skin will harden too quickly and there is danger that it will split at the first playing. The craftsman’s experience rules that the thinner and more transparent the skin is, the better is the sound produced.

For the construction of the def the skin of a young lamb or kid may also de used, or the bladder of a cow or ox. If the bladder is large it may be enough for two defs.

The bladder, after being removed from the carcass, is washed in warm water and inflated using a straw in order to stretch the membrane somewhat. Then it is cut in such a way as not to reduce its size and, after being salted, it is nailed to a wooden frame, stretched out, to dry. It remains thus, hung in the shade in a place safe from mice, cats and dogs, and, when it is judged to be ready, it is taken off the frame and left for a few hours gets rid of the animal smell and fat, and hardens the membrane so that it becomes stiffer and more durable. When the membrane is taken out of the alum it is carefully stretched over the hoop and fastened with many closely-placed large-headed nails. The nails are knocked in from the outside and the extremely short, so that their points will not project through the inner surface of the hoop.

Finally any sinews are carefully removed with a very sharp knife and the def is hung in a dry place to get rid of the remaining moisture.

A cow’s bladder is preferred to that of the ox because it does not have so many sinews which, when cut out, many result in a hole. With the first blows the hole may get larger and so make the instrument useless.

Craftsmen who have test and love for their work embellish their instrument with various carvings and paintings.

Carvings are made on the outer surface of the hoop and show a variety of decorative geometrical flowers.

Paintings are executed on the outer surface of the skin, with natural pigments made from boiled walnut shells and onion-skins. The design most frequently seen shows two small birds facing each other with half-opened beaks and wings, apparently dancing.

A man and woman dancing, facing each other with raised arms, may also appear. Another subject is a sun with rays which is shown with a smiling human face. Well-known def-players who are invited to entertainment’s and parties add a leather thong to the inside of the hoop, through which they pass their thumb in order to hold the def more securely. This leaves their fingers free to more easily when playing with vigour and animation and to hold the def high, giving a lively air to the song, to the beating of the instrument and to the dancers.

The closely-placed, large-headed, shiny nails are a further decorative element.

The conditioning of the def

The def is a simple instrument and delicate as regards the part made of skin.

To keep it in good condition, is must be hung by the hoop in a cool dry shady place. If it is left for long in strong sunlight or in a very warm place the skin dries out, warps and loses the elasticity which creates the sound vibrations.

In such a case, before being played it should be left for a time in a damp place in order to regain its share, and to prevent it from splitting if hit by a harder-than-normal blow, since the skin is as thin as paper and must have its natural level of moisture.

If the def is left for a long time in a damp place its skin slackens. In that case, before playing, we can hung the def in a warm place to get rid of most of the moisture and to tighten the skin. We can also move it back and forth at a safe distance over a source of heat.

When we are going to play the def in damp weather or in the open air where the skin slackens quickly and loses its sound quality we set light to a small piece of paper and while it is still aflame we throw in onto the inside of the def, moving the instrument back and forth like a sieve, so that the burning paper does not stop in one place and burn the skin.

Even indoors, def-players condition their instrument by rubbing the inside of the skin with the palm of their hand. The palm moves in quick circling movements on the skin.

Holding and playing the def

The def traditionally is held by the hoop between the thumb and first finger of the left hand, while being supported by the thumb of the right hand, through this is not an inviolable rule because very often the whole of the right palm is held free in order to give a more powerful tone to the beating, in which case the range of movement of the palm must be greater.

The tree fingers of the left hand are able to more and give the supplementary beats while the main beating is done by the palm of the right hand.

Practiced and experienced def-players beat with artistry, now towards the center of the def where the sound produced is deeper, now towards the hoop where the jingling of the zilia is more pronounced and gives a contrast according to the choice of the def-player.

The rhythm of the song, the mood of the def-player and the general climate of the entertainment, together with the ability of the dancers may encourage the musicians to participate in enlivening the dance movements. I such a case the singing becomes more lively and the def is moved slightly up and down and from side to side, help in the left hand above the players head, when the right hand, no longer supporting the instrument, beats more force fully on the skin and on the hoop.

There are many and various images of def-players-men and women of past times who show diverse methods of holding the def. More characteristic are those depicting female dancers of the harem or of great houses, in which hedonism, eroticism or sensuality are impressively stamped. These images originate from Anatolia or North Africa , were those few who have wealth and power and live in fairy-tale palaces can have such dark-eyed creatures and enjoy their beauty and accomplishments.

The use of the def by the Greek Orthodox Christians of Cappadocia does not correspond at all with such images.

The refugees from Anatolia have their own may of playing and give the def their own cultural perception.

Defs are made in various sizes:

The daeres is the bigger brother of the def as it haw a larger diameter and deeper hoop.

It does not have zilia, and is usually beaten with the palm of one hand because the fingers of the hand which holds it cannot reach the skin as happens with the def. It gives a deeper and louder sound. *Daere* is an Arabic word and means *circle* or *outline of circle *. There are also smaller defs which have many zilia. These are use for minor orchestral purposes, only for the sake of their jingling zilia.

In recent years defs with a metal hoop and plastic membrane instead of skin have been produced.

There are also elliptical hoops with many zilia. There are used almost exclusively for show and for the sound of the zilia.

The toumberleki is a def with a deeper hoop to give greater resonance.

All these homogeneous instruments have their differences and peculiarities, illustrated in the diversity of their ways of being held, of being played, of construction, and seen in the ways musician blends the sounds of the song and the def into a harmonic whole.

For the traditional def-players man or woman it is unacceptable for the def to be tapped against the buttocks, elbow or knee as is often shown in films.

This, for the def-players of Cappadocia, shows disrespect an is an insult to the instrument.

The def in the new Homeland

The def and the art of playing it came with the refugees from Cappadocia and was transplanted to Askites with their songs and dances.

It forms a characteristic part of the cultural identity of the Greeks o Cappadocia as the lyre is for those of Pontus and the gaida (bagpipe) for Thracians.

At Askites the def led a life analogous to that of the people who brought it. It was glad when they were and hung silently from a hail in the wall when they were sad.

Until the 1940s it was the principal instrument at the weddings and entertainment’s, together with a sazi (small mandolin) and an outi (lute) and a clarinet, which originated in the area of Smyrni.

The 40s were a period of suffering for all Greeks. They began with war and ended with civil war, which was worse than the former, because together with all other misfortunes it obliged villages to leave their homes and move to the towns and cities for protection.

The long-lasting removals and hardships that people lived through, with the herding of people into the store-rooms , clubs and barns which were called houses stamped their influence on the language, customs and perceptions of the population and caused the def to remain silent since no one had the heart to play it or listen to it. The def sounded again when the population of Askites returned to their homes at the beginning of the 50s, when the open village way of life allowed the well-known sound to be heard again.

This time the voice of the def was more lively because together with the older musicians there appeared talented youths who had learned the techniques from their parents and played songs for dancing for the young people who had neither money nor a place at the coffee shop and were obliged to do their dancing with their peers on various pieces of open ground or in large enclosed spaces when cold or mud made it necessary.

The older youths of around the age for military service had the right to go to the coffee shop and amuse themselves with the sounds of the gramophone there, wanting to some extent to show their independence of the def and its tunes. The favorite song of the time was *Leave me, leave me ........*. The request most often made :

*Let me have an ouzo and a record with a zeibekiko tune *.

The homeless and penniless young people along with those loved the def and its songs found new ways of exploiting the sounds of the instrument. They brushed aside traditional face to face dancers in favour of kalamatiano, syrto, waltz, tango and youpi-yaya, all these with the help of the def and its player, who was not alone, because when he became tired another boy or girl would take his place.

The songs played and danced to were *One Saturday evening, Maria* ,*Gerakina* and a local *syrto* composition which began *na, na, na, na,.........* and ended in the same way.

The young people danced hand in hand, enjoying themselves with the dance, while the def-player often regulated the tone and rhythm, stepping alongside the leading dancer. Here began the first stirrings of romance among the young people .

The couples who danced together were boy an boy, girl and girl. For   a boy and girl to dance together was forbidden unless they were siblings or a married or engaged couple.

In these circumstances the tune, a rare dance, was sung and played on the def by the men of about fifty years old, born in Cappadocia. It is a kind of polka and the first line goes as follows *Fly to Poli (Constantinople, Istanbul) to my warm embrace, to fly together............* There are no other words and the songs is completed with na, na, na, na ................ for hours on end, with no apparent meaning.

- Where did you learn that song ? We ask Than. Pachtiridis.

- I don’t know when i learned it. I think i learned it from my mother and Stamboulou.

- What is Stamboulou?

- She was a refugee in our village from Constantinople and they gave her that name.

Our informants tell us that during the final years before becoming refugees the Greeks secretly danced the polka in the old home - land.

During the 50s there were in the village three violins with as many apprentice violinists, who did not manage to make a living by themselves and joined forces with the def to make dance music.

The usual and accepted instruments which played at important weddings were the violin, the outi (lute) and clarinet, which were played by musicians of Thracian origin from other villages. And in these cases, the def continued to be played at special moments, usually in a different room or very late when the wedding musicians had stopped.

There were cases when the def was the only instrument played at a wedding. But these were rare, when great property was for a moment forgotten before the wish of two people to unite their fortunes.

The 60s and 70s were characterized by the need to seek new fortunes. Young men who reached the age for military service and marriage were forced to leave the village which, with its emphasis or agriculture, did not give much promise of prosperity. Each one who wished to create a home and family had to make up his mind to leave for Germany, Thessaloniki or the capital of the prefecture, Komotini.

«If we didn’t promise to leave the village to live abroad or in the town they wouldn’t give us bride. Those who had a job in town or relatives in Germany to invite them to go easily found a girl to get married. The rest found it very difficult».

(Confession of an informant living in Thessaloniki)

The tendency of the population to more away shook the foundations of the customs and traditional values of the people of the villages, who, in their new surroundings, think first of work and of attending to their economic and family needs. There were neither time, place non people for the traditional dances with the def.

These would be remembered , rarely, among the people who remained. In spite of the fact that brides   were accepted from, and given to the neighboring villages, who were of different origins, in the negotiations which took places concerning weddings, engagements and other joyful events it would be accepted on both sides that * Well follow our customs and you yours *. And so the def woke from its lethargy and began to sing.

This acceptance united Thracians, people of Pontus, Cappadocians, Sarakatsanes, and built future families on broader and firmer foundations.

In the 80s and 90s the def has re-emerged in the role it had in the first years after its trans- plantation.

This development is the result of the general climate and the need for an awakening of the cultural elements peculiar to Greek society.

In this direction, the contribution of the Cappadocians Association of Rodopi is very positive. The association is based in Komotini and with its charter of principles it supports events which have as their aim the preservation and display of the particular culture which was brought and is still preserved by the Greeks of Anatolia.

With the passing of time, the changing generations and the natural wear of things, the humble def which came with Cappadocians of Askites has shown unusual durability and has remained a living instrument, despite the fact that it has had to complete with the wonderful devices   produced by modern man’s inventiveness. The battle haw been extremely one-sided with the gramophone, the radio and television all fascinating and immobilizing young and old.

The def has been handed down from generation to generation together with the songs and dances of the Greeks of Cappadocia and has survived until today.

Many men and women play today and sing as before. They are self-taught and have talent. By themselves, and without anyone to instruct them, they have picked up the knowledge they need to take the simple humble instrument in their hands and make people lose their cares in the dance.

In private moments they use an allegorical phrase which speaks of the def but really refers to something quite different: *Her def has been torn or they’ve torn it for her *.

It is a phrase either confirmatory or interrogative and refers to a girl who is no longer a girl. That is to say, she has lost the most valuable thing that a girl should possess until her lawful wedding day, according to the perceptions of the people of days past.


1. Ekizidis Christos Tseltek Karvalis 1911 Askites
2. Ekizidi   Despina Skopi Kaisareias 1916 Askites
3. Evdoxia Mavridi - Sevdinogou Agirnas Kaisareias- Anargyrasion 1902 1997 Askites Komotini
4. Pachataridis Athanasios Skopi Kaisareias 1916 Askites
5. Eleni Georgiadi-Tatsioglou Tarsiach Kaisareias 1919 1995 Askites
6. Anasta-Anastasia Ikonio 1917 Thessaloniki
7. Gavril   Farasopoulos - Sevdinoglou Agirnas Kaisareias- Anargyrasion 1906 1993 Askites
8. Stavros Farasopoulos - Sevdinoglou Agirnas Kaisareias- Anargyrasion 1911 Askites Komotini

Besides the above - named, there are other men and women who have given information. Between 50 and 70 years old, and living in Askites, Komotini and Thessaloniki, they continue to sing and play the def today.


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