A laterna is a barrel piano which is in fact a smaller, portable piano with an action activated by a wooden cylinder and spiked with thousands of little nails, each one being a musical note. The laterna began to be heard in the streets, parlours and boites from the late 19th to early 20th century in Greece, before there were radios, TV sets or gramophones. It was the main method of reproducing music until WWII and it was widely produced and popular with Greeks, becoming the jukebox of the period.
The laterna was played on the streets by buskers playing for spare change and to this day, one can still see the odd old fella cranking a laterna in hopes of earning some money. The laterna might look like an organ grinder but they operate differently and sound differently. The laterna’s music is stamped on cylinders which when turned, hit a certain combination of nails (notes) to re-create the chosen or composed song. The Greek laternas cranked out Greek songs but many also had a spare cylinder, containing dance music from western Europe such as polkas, tangos and waltz.
There are very few original laternas to be found today and Panos has undergone to create new laternas with the goal of preserving this valuable piece of Greek culture. It should be noted that Panos creates laternas privately, using his own funds, passion and imagination to preserve this craft. There is NO government funding from anywhere and sadly, little notice from Greek media. When I was in his workshop, Panos showed me a stack of Turkish newspapers that had contained feature articles on him and his laternas and then Panos showed me the lone Greek print article on laternas.
The Turkish interest in laternas evoked by the laterna’s origins coming from Constantinople (Istanbul) and the first laternas were created by Italian Giuseppe Turconi and the Greek, Joseph Armaos, both living in Constantinople at the time. The Italians called the barrel piano “la torno” and the Greek word is close too…”laterna”.
The "stamped" cylinders of a laterna
The laterna’s cousins are the Hurdy Gurdy from Bavaria, the music box from Switzerland and the barrel piano in England. All three instruments produced music the same way, with the cylinder and the nails for the notes. The first barrel organ was produced in 1808 in Bristol, England by a piano manufacturer. It was sold in Belgium, France, Italy and the US north-east. Soon after it exploded onto the scene in the Balkans and Asia Minor, becoming very popular in Athens and cities of with Greek colonies like Istanbul (Constantinople), Smyrna (Izmir), Cairo, Alexandria and Bucharest. The music (both Greek and western European) was written by both Greek-Orthodox and Catholics and Armenians who lived in these cities.
The laterna in Greek society quickly spread to the streets, tavernas, fairgrounds and into homes of those who could afford it. Many of the founding genres of Greek music were written (stamped) on cylinders in laternas: Smyrneika, Dimotika, Rebetika, Kantadorika, National anthems and polkas, waltz and mazurkas. Music back then was being re-created by the laterna (other than live music). Remember, there was no TV, no radio or gramophones at the time. The laterna would be played on the streets, at festivals and even at weddings!
When the production of laterna was in full swing, there were two bodies of skilled artisans: one group creating the music, stamping the cylinders (Stampadoroi” and the second group being those that manufactured the bodies. Homage should be paid to those artisans who pioneered the laterna, like Turconi, Armaos, Georgiou, Carmello, Brindisi, Tripolitsiotis, Polykarpos, Papandreou, Dikran, Ali Bey, Efthimiou and Fotiou.
The nadir of the laterna came with the arrival of the gramophone and radio. There was little use for the laterna, time marched on and the new technology seduced the masses (much like the laterna did when it arrived). The Metaxas dictactorship also pushed the laterna into anonymity and into the underground, along with Rebetes, koutsovakia, moustaches, long sleeves. Today there are about 200 laternas left in Greece, the last original laterna being built in 1935 by Polykarpos. Most are inoperative and are in need of a serious overhaul and repair.
Today, Panos Ioannides makes laternas from scratch, based on his knowledge as a piano maker and composer. Panos has been making laternas since 1995 in his workshop in Nea Gonia, Halkidki (near Thessaloniki). If you would like more infomation about Panos’ laternas or his pianos, all of Panos’ contact info is here.