by Tim Storhoff
Florida’s Greek and musical communities lost an important member and resource last month when master bouzouki player George Soffos passed away. Soffos was widely considered to be the best bouzouki performer in the United States, and he actively shared his musical talents as a performer and instructor across the state.
George Soffos was born on November 6, 1953. The youngest of five children, he grew up in Warren, Ohio. His Greek ancestry could be traced through his father, who was from Asklipio, Rhodes, and his maternal grandparents from Katavia, Rhodes. All three of his older brothers pursued careers in the music industry. When he was fifteen, his parents sent him to study with John Tatasopoulos, the most highly regarded bouzouki player of his day, in Washington DC. Soffos spent two years studying and playing with Tatasopoulos in clubs in the DC area, and at seventeen he began his career as an independent headliner in bouzoukia (Greek night clubs) in cities across the United States. He also toured internationally, performing in Montreal, Toronto, and numerous Greek cities, as well as in countless festivals and other special events throughout the U.S. Mr. Soffos’s career included performances on several recordings for Greek and Greek American artists, including Nikos Kritikos, George Evagoras, Hrach Yacoubian, and Grigoris Maroulis. He frequently provided instrumental backing for Greek singing stars, such as Marinella and Rita Sakelariou, when they toured in the U.S.
After relocating to the Tarpon Springs area in the late 1990s to be near family, Mr. Soffos became the most sought-after performer at local Greek bouzoukia and festivals—and thus a valued community member in an area with a strong Greek cultural presence. Tarpon Springs has a higher percentage of Greek Americans than any other city in the country. The first Greek immigrants began arriving in the 1880s to work in the local sponge harvesting industry, and the city has maintained a strong Greek tradition ever since. Multiple Greek cultural events and festivals are held there each year including the Epiphany celebration, which draws thousands of visitors every January. Soffos was an active part of this Greek community. He became a mentor to many younger musicians by teaching bouzouki classes through the City of Tarpon Springs, which encourages the preservation of Greek community arts.
Soffos continued the tradition of the bouzouki player as custodian and guardian of traditional Greek musical culture. The bouzouki is a Greek stringed instrument in the lute family that produces a sound reminiscent of a low-pitched mandolin. The instrument came to Greece through Turkey in the early twentieth century, but it had multiple precursors such as the Greek tambouras. The bouzouki is the central instrument in rebetiko, or Greek folk music, that underwent a popular revival starting in the 1950s. It has since been used to accompany a wide range of traditional and popular Greek genres, and an Irish variant recently became an important part of Irish traditional music. When Greek immigrants came to the United States in large numbers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they brought their musical traditions with them, and following the revival of rebetiko songs in the fifties, a number of the top Greek bouzouki players came to the U.S., including Soffos’s teacher John Tatasopoulos. George Soffos continued this rich tradition and helped to see it flourish in Florida.
Mr. Soffos recently began to experience the recognition his playing deserved. He received a Florida Folk Heritage Award in 2011, and was designated a master artist in the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program in 2011-12. George Soffos was most recently selected as a recipient for the 2013 Individual Artist Fellowship in the Folk and Traditional Arts discipline, but he passed away after suffering a heart attack on January 8, 2013 at the age of 59.
His career spanned diverse contexts for music making in the Greek American community. He was a regular fixture in festivals and cultural events in Florida and across the country, and he shared his musical talents by teaching young musicians and establishing professional relationships with other performers. It could be said that George Soffos’s life represents the history of Greek music in America over the last four decades, and his contributions to Greek music in Florida will continue to be heard for many years.