Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus, 1933. Source: wiki.
Having been beguiled by the popular songs of old Istanbul, I thought I’d explore rebetika in Greece—which is again a focus for nostalgia.
The dispersal of the genre around the Aegean seaboard was further prompted by the displacement of the Greek inhabitants of Asia Minor (notably Smyrna) to Athens, Thessaloniki, and the USA. *
I’ve been re-reading the evocative introduction
- Gail Holst, The road to rembetika: music from a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish (1975, many reprints).
When Holst first came to Athens in 1966, she was struck by the demeanour of the men dancing, often alone, to juke-box recordings in tavernas:
Not exuberant, not being done for the joy of movement, not even sensual […] the dancer would rise, as if compelled to make his statement. Eyes half-closed, in trance-like absorption, cigarette hanging from his lips, arms outstretched as if to keep his balance, he would begin to slowly circle. As the dance progressed, the movements would become more complex; there would be sudden feats of agility, swoops to the ground, leaps and twists, but the dancer always seemed to be feeling his way, searching for something, unsteady on his feet. The dance took place in public, people were watching it, and yet it appeared to a be a private, introspective experience for the dancer. […] It was as if the dance served as a sort of catharsis for the dancer.
Holst was inspired by reading Elias Petropoulos’s book Rembetika tragoudia (cf. Songs of the Greek underworld; note the documentary An underground world (see also Landscapes of music in Istanbul, and Kaliarda).
While Istanbul was a teeming metropolis, the population of Athens only began to swell with the influx of migrants after the expulsion of Greeks from the Anatolian seaboard from 1922. This added the Smyrna style to the mix, but it would soon be diluted.
The rebetika scene thrived in the port of Piraeus. Its subaltern image was dominated by manges “spivs”, fuelled by hash and cocaine—part of a common theme in the urban underworlds of flamenco, fado (here, with sequel), and tango. There was a nexus between the songs of the hashish dens and the prisons, the connection “being very effectively kept alive by the fact of the habitués of the former frequently becoming inmates of the latter”, as Rod Conway Morris observes.
As always, we find rapid social and musical change. Holst gives vignettes of 1920s’ Piraeus, with characters like Crazy Nick, Marino the Moustache, and Papazaglou the Cucumber. Women singers were common in Istanbul, and they became popular in Athens too, such as Marika Politissa, Rita Abadzi, Rosa Eskenazi, and Marika Papagika (listen under Songs of Asia Minor!). An influential male group was the “Pyraeus Four” (Syros, Márkos, Artemis, Batis, Stratos).
While rebetika was both censored by the Metaxas dictatorship and deplored by the Communists, a more general change was under way as it was eclipsed by new genres of popular commercial music. The change in style was expressed in going “to the bouzoukis”—which Holst found kitsch even in the 1960s. But as the nostalgia industry (cf. Kuzguncuk) became popular, old-style rebetika suited the anti-authoritarian mood of the 70s, and even if it was hard to hear live, recordings began to be reissued. As Holst observed,
What seemed to me like a faddish revival of early rembetika in the late 1970s has become an established phenomenon of the 80s.
She compares its trajectory to that of the blues, “similarly modified to suit the tastes of a broader audience and later revived in an artificially puristic style”; both “have been allowed to degenerate and die, and have subsequently been dug up by the youth of the next generation and lovingly enshrined”.
As rebetika evolved in Greece, the system of dromos “roads” or paths, related to the Middle Eastern maqam, went into decline, as did the premium on improvisation. The exquisite free-tempo preludes taxim/taksim (cf. Indian alap) of the oriental style were abbreviated or omitted in recordings. Among many wonderful amanedhes (listen under Songs of Asia Minor; see also Gail Holst-Warhaft, “Amanes: The legacy of the Oriental Mother”), here’s Roza Eskenazi:
As to dance, the popular 9/8 zeibekiko (a solo male dance, like the one that so impressed Holst) was another import from Asia Minor.
Holst is keen on the singing of Sotiria Bellou (1921–97)—see e.g. her chapter (as Gail Holst-Warhaft) in Music and gender, “The female dervish and other shady ladies of the rebetika”. Here’s a 1959 recording of Bellou singing San pethano sto karavi (“If I die on the boat”), with an all-too brief opening taxim:
Ah, if I die, what will they say? Some fellow died,
A fellow who loved life and enjoyed himself. Aman! Aman!
Ah, if I die on the boat, throw me into the sea,
So that the black fish and the salt water can eat me. Aman! Aman!
Cloudy Sunday was composed in 1943 by Vassilis Tsitsanis during the occupation, and recorded in 1948:
Here’s the reissue Rebetika 1918 to 1954 (playlist):
Call Me Old-Fashioned (yet again), but I’m still drawn to the more introspective songs, such as Gazeli neva sabah (“The hour of death”, #5), with Rita Abadzi:
and Tıs ksenityas o ponos (“The pain of being abroad”, #8), sung by Antonis Dalgas, is reminiscent of the oriental, free-tempo style of early amanedhes:
By way of contrast, here’s Bouzouki favourites: smyrneika and rebetika (86 tracks):
I still can’t overcome the image of the bouzouki in the Monty Python cheeseshop sketch.
Supplementing my little list of reissues in Songs of Asia Minor, there’s a wealth of CDs, such as
- Rembetica: historic urban folk songs from Greece (Rounder, 1992)
- Lost homelands: the Smyrniac song in Greece, 1928–1935 (Heritage, 1995)
- Mourmoúrika: songs of the Greek underworld 1930-1955 (Rounder, 1999)
- Women of rembetica (Rounder, 2000)
- Rembetika songs of the Greek underground 1925–1947 (Trikont, 2001)
- Mortika: rare vintage recordings from a Greek underworld (Arko, 2005).
Note also the early 78s on the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum site.
There are many documentaries, such as this seven-part series:
And the feature film Rembetiko (Kostas Ferris, 1983) is a classic:
Of course, while rebetika waxed and waned, there’s far more to Greek traditional music—ciick here!
* A 1981 essay by Rod Conway Morris is useful, with leads to performers and recordings. Note the site greeksongstories.com. The wiki entry is extensive too; see also The Rough Guide to world music. The wider context is described in chapters 5 and 6 of Peter Manuel, Popular musics of the non-Western world (1988), and by Paul Vernon (e.g. here); see also The Rough Guide to world music (under both Greece and Turkey), and Songlines.