The Greek Laterna (Barrel Piano)

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This post has little to do with food but there are connections to food. Early into my vacation in Greece I had visited the Kazakis’ family and their grape leaves operations (used to make Dolmades) in the village of Nea Gonia, Halkidiki. My friend Sakis Kazakis also urged me to visit a chap by the name of Panos Ioannides (also in Nea Gonia). Panos lives in a new home built of stones from old and dilapidated Ottoman-era homes in the village.

Panos is a piano-tuner, composer and he also makes and refurbishes pianos from scratch! Panos is also passionate about cooking (beautiful, large kitchen) and he believes in the preservation of Greek culture. Panos also refurbishes but more importantly he makes traditional Greek laternas in his workshop – the reason for my visit to his home.

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.

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© 2007-2010 Peter Minakis

© 2010,
Peter Minakis

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15 Comments for “The Greek Laterna (Barrel Piano)”


Peter, this was fabulous! I adore unique and antique things. This would definitely be a beautiful instrument to have in ones home. Love, love, love! ;) Thanks for mixing it up a bit today!


What a great post. I’m a bit of a history freak and it’s good to know there are people out there who care about their heritage. Not only is the laterna beautiful – the house made from the old Ottoman stone is just gorgeous. Hopefully, the Greek government will acknowledge people like Panos and his laternas sooner rather later.


My dad whose mom was an opera singer and lived amongst Greeks in Cairo (when it was the largest European community there) and used to listen to this type of music would love to order one. I will forward the post to him. Thank you!


Peter ξετρελάθηκα, τη λατέρνα τη λατρεύω. Πολύ ωραία ανάρτηση!!
Ευχαριστούμε πολύ.


I loved hearing about the history of this instrument Peter. I have tried similar contraptions at museums here when and if you are able with the guidance of a tour guide.


This is incredible Peter! I am touched by your write-up on laternas as I’ve seen and heard them before but had no idea about their history and current state. You need to send this write-up to the kathimerini and Ta Nea and all those peeps ASAP. Someday when I get married I want a Laterna playing!


I was just reading about player piano restoration the other day, and it seems like a similar concept. My family actually had an old, no longer functioning, player piano in our house where I grew up. Nice to hear of people who still have the skills to maintain and build instruments like this.

Gary Johnston


Hello from the USA. Thank you for a great amount of information. I have just purchased an original Laterna in need of major repair. I am waiting for it’s arrival any day now. I am going to restore the entire Laterna. Although I’m not sure which Laterna I have.The main door for the strings is long lost. I am going to make a new one as close as possible to the original. I believe this has 30-31 keys. Can you tell me for tuning purposes what the keys are from left to right? I may have other questions once I start the restoring. Thank you again for your information.


Hi Gary..very exciting that you have an original laterna! I know nothing of their construction but you should contact Panos who would know more (as he makes them from scratch). Good luck!


On the islands Curacao and Aruba(islands belonging to the Dutch kingdom in the Caribbean) the Laterna is called ‘Kaha di orgel'(boxed organ)and was introduced in the late 19th century.
I was surprised to read that when the instrument came to Greece there were also Polka’s Mazurka’s and Waltzes on the cilinders.
This form of music making is very much alive on our islands.
The music we play on the kaha di orgel/laterna are the waltsz,polka,mazurka,danza,and the tumba of African origin.
We accompany the Laterna with a metal schaper/guiro, and dance to it alllllll night!!!
Harry Moen