REBETIKA – A BRIEF HISTORY
by Ed Emery [Institute of Rebetology, London]
From about the 1850s, in the side streets of Asia Minor’s Smyrna, the popular quarters of Istanbul, the back alleys of the port of Siros and the working-class areas of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki – not to mention the United States, and all parts of the world where emigré Greeks had flocked in their thousands – a new music began to be created: popular song, and the style of song that we now call rebetika. It spread rapidly. First among the Greeks of Asia Minor, then in emigré communities in the US, and finally – after 1922 – on the Greek mainland.
Rebetika reached the height of its popularity between the two world wars. It was standard musical fare in clubs and bars and featured largely in the discography of 78 rpm records that were produced in Greece and the US at that time.
The support enjoyed by rebetika at the popular level was not matched among the arbiters of morality and cultural values. The music was heavily censored in the 1930s. But the censorship did not kill rebetika; far from it. Immediately after the Second World War it witnessed a major boom in Greece, which lasted through to the mid-1950s. A boom explained in part, perhaps, by the sufferings and social upheavals caused by the Civil War and in part by the economic pressures that contributed to the growth of urban centres such as Athens and Thessaloniki.
During the past twenty years all the main exponents of rebetika – the heirs of the singers and composers who came from Asia Minor after the military disaster of 1922 – have died. They have left behind a wealth of recordings, which are slowly being collected and catalogued by rebetologists. In the meantime new generations of singers and players are emerging, to keep the tradition alive. Not only in Greece, but in Greek communities in the US, Britain, Australia and elsewhere, there are clubs where the old songs are sung and enjoyed and where a tradition of new songs is being forged.
The purpose of this introduction is to sketch some of the background and history of rebetiko music.
Greece and the Greeks
Greece today is a country of more or less fixed borders, on the Mediterranean, between Italy and Turkey. A member of NATO and the European Union. A country with a strong national identity, reinforced by its distinctively non-accessible language and alphabet and its all-pervasive Orthodox religion. But even today the borders of Greece are subject to pressure and liable to erosion – the general threat of Turkey’s military might; specific Turkish pressures in the Aegean and on the eastern mainland; pressure from the proponents of a ‘Greater Albania’; and the recent emergence of Macedonia as an independent state to the north.
More importantly, Greece is Diaspora, scattered all across the world, as communities of political refugees and economic migrants. Since the days of Alexander the Great there have been Greek communities found throughout Asia. In the past century Greeks have migrated as far afield as Australia and the United States. And the past fifty years have seen large-scale migrations within Europe itself. Greeks, and their communities, are to be found more or less everywhere. In a very real sense, as much as a fixed geopolitical entity, Greece is an ‘imagined community’.
And, despite the best efforts of Greek nationalists to prove the contrary, Greece is a bastard culture. A rich and complex admixture of cultural elements deriving from far and wide. It is precisely for this reason that, through the various periods of flag-waving Greek nationalism, rebetika has proved such a reference point for dissident spirits. It is fiercely transgressive; it flies in the face of accepted moralities and legalities; but it too is a bastard culture par excellence. A complex coming-together of musical modes and rhythms, combined with a distinctive argot that borrows from all the languages of the Mediterranean seaboard.
A shifting, changing entity
As regards its formal borders, the original Greek state, carved out of a 400-year subjugation to the Ottoman empire, was established in 1832 by the Convention of London. In 1864 the Ionian islands (Corfu, etc) were annexed and in 1881 Thessaly and part of Epirus were added. During the First World War other territories were taken from Turkey and added to Greece – the rest of Epirus, Macedonia, Western Thrace, Crete and the islands of the eastern Aegean. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the First World War was the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which gave Greece the right to occupy Eastern Thrace, but also the hinterland of Smyrna (present-day Izmir, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast). Directly from this derived what Greeks call the ‘Asia Minor catastrophe’ (see note 7 below). Subsequently, in 1948, the islands of the Dodecanese were also annexed to Greece.
As regards the diaspora, Greeks were to be found wherever there was trade. They are, after all, a major maritime nation. In the 1790s a Greek was mayor of Moscow (a relative of mine, as it happens). In 1815 the newly founded (and revolutionary) Greek Friendly Society had active branches in Moscow, Bucharest and Trieste, as well as all the major cities of the Levant. By the turn of the century, outside Greece itself the major urban centres with Greek populations were Smyrna, Istanbul and Alexandria, and within Greece, Athens, Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Patras and Ermoupolis (the port of the island of Siros). Furthermore, prior to 1922, there were upwards of 1,000 Greek communities living in Anatolia (Asia Minor), in what is now Turkey, from Cappadocia to Trebizond.
The population shifts and migrations were many-fold and all contributed to the great magmatic, largely urbanized, multinational conglomerate which now constitutes ‘Greekness’.
As regards Athens, in 1834 the city became the capital of the newly formed Greek state. In that year its population was a mere 10,000. By 1920 it had grown to reach 285,000 and a mere eight years later, thanks to the massive influx of Greek refugees, it stood at 453,000. By 1980 it had risen to 3 million, out of a total national population of 9 million – in other words, a third of the population of Greece lived in Athens. A similar industrialization and population growth affected the other sea ports, especially Thessaloniki, which was a rail terminal and trading outlet for the landlocked countries of the Balkans.
This phenomenon of urbanization, with country populations moving into cities, went hand in hand with an outward migration. Over the 30-year period 1893–1924, the United States drew in the labour-power of 500,000 Greeks, from a country whose total population was 2,500,000. And after the Second World War Greeks emigrated to Western Europe in their thousands, some looking for work in labour-hungry states such as Germany, others seeking to escape the constraints of Fascist–Orthodox Greece and find new freedoms – for instance in Paris, where some of today’s rebetologists were among the students of May ’68, and Italy, where the universities had a massive presence of Greeks throughout the 1970s.
Setting the scene
To give an idea of the social ambience in which rebetika originated, we have the following picture provided by Lysandros Pitharas, who made an excellent documentary on rebetika for British television:
It’s 1935, in a working-class bar on the Athenian waterfront. From the outside, the bar looks like a ramshackle hut, but inside, the atmosphere is furious. In air thick with the smoke of narcotics and incense, a small band sits on a stage. The lead bouzouki-player – eyes half shut – plays a lingering solo (taxim) to shouts of ‘aman... ’. Suddenly, the other players thump their feet and begin playing a harsh, incessant rhythm, with the singer’s voice rasping:
The crowd, made up of poor people, mostly men, roars its approval. One of them, hat cocked to one side and jacket hanging from one arm, rises to the floor. Eyes shut and body swaying, he dances, bringing his hand now to his forehead, now to the ground, all the time beating the rhythm of the music with the soles of his shoes. This is the dance of the mangas [spiv], a dance known as the zeibekiko. The music he is dancing to is rebetika – a Greek blues..(note 1).
The meaning and derivation of ‘rebetika’
Like all subculture musics, rebetika poses difficulties of classification. And these difficulties begin even with the meaning and derivation of the word ‘rebetika’ itself. Individual rebetologists each have their own explanations, duly averred, and if one is true then it follows that the others, equally firmly asserted, are not. What follows is merely a selection:
The most likely derivation is rembet, an old Turkish word meaning ‘of the gutter’.
Some people claim that it derives from the Serb word rebenòk (pl. rebia’ta), which means ‘rebel’.
The Turks called their irregular troops rebet asker. Thus the rebèts were people who would not submit to authority.
It very probably derives from the Persian and Arabic root reb, rab, ruba‘a or arba‘a, which mean four. In the plural form ruba‘at or arba‘at mean fours but also quatrains... In Arabic, rab also means God and Lord...
The word may have its roots in the Hebrew rab, from which the word rabbi is derived.
The word rembetiko is a corruption of the archaic and also modern term remvastikos (meditative) and is derived from the verb remvo or remvazo, which means ‘I wander’... literally... and in the figurative sense of ‘my mind is wandering in an anxious mood’.
The strongest assertion as to rebetika’s historical origins, and perhaps the most suggestive for us, is the following, by the late Ole Smith of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Having studied a recent discography of pre-Second World War ethnic recordings in the US, he says:
It is now possible to give a much more balanced view of the emergence of the term ‘rebetiko’, which can be shown beyond doubt [my emphasis] to have made its first public appearance as a musical term among Greeks in the US... It is now absolutely clear that the term was first used in print in the United States, and that the first to have songs characterized as ‘rebetiko’ must have been Marika Papagika, who recorded a ‘rebetiko’ at least before December 1926. This was the song 'Σμιρνιά' Greek Record Co. 511. [... ] At present we cannot say why the songs were called ‘rebetika’.(note 2)
The social setting of rebetika
What we can say is that rebetika was the music of the rebetes. So now the question is, ‘Who were the rebetes?’, in the sense of the people who lived and created the songs and music of rebetika. The present book is an attempt to provide the answer to that question. But I would like to begin by sketching the elements of the broader social and musical setting.
In the rapid growth of population on the Greek mainland from 1850 onwards, there was a large migration to the cities. In part, this was made up of people leaving the countryside. In part, it was the massive arrival of refugee Greeks from various parts of the diaspora community.3 From Russia after the Revolution... from Pontus and the shores of the Black Sea... and from that part of Asia Minor (Smyrna in particular) which is now Turkey. From Asia Minor alone, in 1922–23, an estimated 1,500,000 Greeks arrived on the Greek mainland as refugees.
The effect of these forced migrations was to shatter the previously existing social and economic structures of Greece. Classes and hierarchies that had existed in the diaspora communities were turned topsy-turvy in the bedlam of flight and the ensuing struggle for survival. There was no housing to accommodate the newcomers and little health or education provision. Unemployment was the rule, since jobs could not be created out of nothing, and the incoming refugees faced the additional pressures of racism.
So the violent break-up of traditional social structures was accompanied by another violence, in the ways in which social spaces and living conditions were organized for the newly arrived migrants. Large slum communities, shanty towns, grew up around the big cities, Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki chief among them. They were characterized by poverty, unemployment, rootlessness, homelessness, police oppression, social deprivation, prostitution, criminality and drugs.
The transition, from 1832 onwards, from a rural to an urban-based economy brought into being a new form of song – the urban song – in the same way that, in the US, the blues songs of the countryside developed into ‘urban blues’ when black labour-power was drawn into jobs in the cities. Within this generic urban song, the distinctive style that we now know as rebetika began to emerge.
It was a musical sub-culture, a music of the lower classes. And this we could call the first phase of rebetika. Petropoulos explains:
The womb of rebetika was the jail and the hash den. It was there that the early rebetes created their songs. They sang in quiet, hoarse voices, unforced, one after the other, each singer adding a verse which often bore no relation to the previous verse, and a song often went on for hours. There was no refrain, and the melody was simple and easy. One rebetis accompanied the singer with a bouzouki or a baglamas [a smaller version of the bouzouki, very portable, easy to make in prison and easy to hide from the police], and perhaps another, moved by the music, would get up and dance. The early rebetika songs, particularly the love songs, were based on Greek folk songs and the songs of the Greeks of Izmir and Istanbul.(note 4)
In the large urban ghettos that had developed around Greece’s major cities the social upheaval was immense:
In Piraeus, the port of Athens, tens of thousands of unemployed people inhabited these ghettos, where their only livelihood was petty crime, smuggling and odd jobs. In the tough life of the city a new urban sub-culture held sway, with their own dialects, codes of dress and ways of life – that of the manges. At night they gathered in hashish dens to hear the new music that by the turn of the century had transformed the bouzouki into a symbol of their urban pride..(note.5)
The dynamics of this urban song were transformed utterly by the arrival of the Asia Minor (Anatolian) refugees post-1922. This was in fact a two-way population transfer, agreed under the terms of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne: Greek-speaking Turks from the present entity of Greece were shipped en masse to Turkey, and Greeks from what is now Turkey were shipped to Greece (many of them in the face of murder, rape and torture at the hands of the Turks, intent on repeating their massacre of the Armenians). These migrant Greeks brought with them a musical culture that transformed the rebetiko song tradition.6
The cataclysmic Smyrna catastrophe was crucial to rebetika history.(note 7) After a futile war, one and a half million Anatolian Greek refugees suddenly poured into the Greek cities and inflated the problems of the urban poor to breaking point. The music that the refugees brought with them was at first very different to that of the manges. It was oriental. Their clarinets, violins, santouris (hammer dulcimers) and kanonakia (zithers) vied with the bouzouki-players for the attention of the urban poor.
In a 1993 interview, Mikis Theodorakis (Greece’s best-known composer, who shifted from being a communist dissident to becoming a conservative minister) outlines the process involved in this transformation of rebetiko song. First he describes the long-standing folk-music tradition and the Byzantine hymnology, with its roots reaching back to classical Greece. He talks first about modes, then about the strong Italian influence, and then about the incursion of tonal music into the Greek world of modal music:
Rebetiko music is based on musical modes – it is a modal music – whereas the music of urban songs is tonal. Modal music had its origins in the modes of the ancient world. In ancient Greek music, the modes were a series of eight descending sounds which were characterized by different orderings of tones and semi-tones. There were three main modes – the Dorian, the Phrygian and the Lydian – but there were also others, such as the Ionian, the Mixolydian, the Hypophrygian, etc. In fact Plato himself, in his Republic, distinguishes between Western and oriental music, between the Ionian and the Dorian, and says that oriental music should be rejected...
Both these modes passed into Greek popular song – and also into Arabic and Turkish music. Byzantine scales also had a great influence on Turkish and Arabic music – and the Byzantine scales were based on the Dorian, Ionian, Aeolian scales, etc...
Theodorakis then describes the musical revolution that took place in Europe under the Enlightenment, with the advent of the tempered scale, which made harmony possible – whereas in Greek, Turkish and Arabic folk song the music is isophonic, or without harmony.
However, rebetiko song significantly remained within the modal tradition, which is characteristically oriental and ultimately derives from classical Greece. It is a music which is paradoxically, challengingly, strikingly at odds with the Western musical tradition, which partly explains why it is so enticing to the European ear. Theodorakis continues:
So, at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth, Greek folk song was predominantly modal. In the Ionian islands, on the other hand, because of the Italian connection and trade with the rest of Europe, the tonal revolution had made a breakthrough, in the form of serenades...
But then the refugees arrived from Asia Minor, bringing with them a music that was basically Turkish...
At this time, the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was influenced by tonal music, European music. On the island of Siros, and in Patras and Smyrna, they already had lyric theatre, musical review shows and operetta, brought from Europe via the merchants. The bourgeoisie were humming the tunes of Italian opera.
But the ordinary folk loved and sang Turkish music, with Turkish words, and rebetika, with words in Greek, because these gentle melodies were more in tune with their bitter experiences of life [...] The chosen instruments of the rebetes were the bouzouki and the baglamas (the latter because it was small and could be easily concealed), and these were the instruments played in the prisons... These were men of great sensitivity, who lived in city environments, and whose state of mind could not be expressed in the serenades of the islands, nor in the imported European music, nor in folk song, nor in the Byzantine hymns and the music of the Church. But their feelings could be expressed fully in the rebetika and the bouzouki..(note.8)
To this Costas Ferris adds a note about the role of Giovanikas:
The great explosion and development of rebetika came with the growing popularity of the Smyrnean Minore mode (also known as the ‘Minore of the Dawn’), which was created towards the end of the nineteenth century by the violinist Giovanikas. Born in Wallachia (Romania), he lived in Mytilene, Constantinople, Smyrna, and often toured in free Greece. Giovanikas, who had a classical musical culture as well as knowing a lot of traditional island music, had the brilliant idea of combining gypsy (Balkan) polyphonic (and thus ‘Western’) chords in the cymbalon, santouri or other instruments, with the monophonic oriental Niavent dhromos mode in the melodic lines of the soloist singer or violinist. This mating produced a vibrant combination of Western polyphony with Byzantine and oriental monophony.(note 9)
Markos Vamvakaris and the manges
Sociology apart, the social setting of rebetika is perhaps best summed up in the figure of Markos Vamvakaris. In the words of Lysandros Pitharas:
The 1930s were the Golden Years of rebetika and the life and times of its most famous composer, Markos Vamvakaris, gives a flavour of what this era was like. He was born in Syros in 1905. At the age of eight he was already bored with working in factories; by the time he was twelve he had been imprisoned for black marketeering. In 1920, when he was just fifteen, Markos stowed away on a ship bound for Piraeus and started a new chapter in his life.
On reaching the mainland, he found work loading coal, but quickly discovered the underworld of this tough city. The petty hoodlums and smugglers of the port soon became his friends and by his late teens Markos’ companion was an older whore, and his life that of the tekkedes [hash dens].
Markos had two great loves in his life – smoking hashish and bouzouki. It was not long before he started to become known as a mangas. The nearest English equivalent to the term mangas is wide boy, or spiv. The culture of the manges was so underworld that even Greeks disagree about what they were. Generally, they were twilight characters living on the edge of the law. Many of them spoke their own street dialect (koutsavakika) and dressed with a streetwise swagger (hats, spats, suits). They were involved in the petty crimes of the ghettos, often carrying knives. These were the characters behind the most underworld themes of rebetika – the songs about smuggling, prison and so on.
By 1933 Markos had won their admiration with his music. He had teamed up with two Asia Minor refugees, Stratos and Artemis, and a fourth musician mangas called Batis. They were the most popular rebetika band to win a wide following all over Athens with songs like Ime alaniaris... [I’m a wide boy... ]:
But life was cruel to the mangas. Markos’ brother, for instance, died of a drug overdose early in the 1930s. His second brother became a knife-carrying thug, spending most of his life in prison. Artemis too died in 1943 from a drug overdose, an event he prophesied in the most famous rebetiko junkie song, The Junkie’s Lament:
The social acceptability of rebetika
Rebetika had its travails. As a musical form, it was banned by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936. The rebetika musicians became targets for arrest and victimization by the authorities. Tekkedes were frequently raided, and if people were caught singing rebetika (or indeed playing the bouzouki), they were likely to be taken for dissolute hash-smokers and shipped off to internal exile.
And the smoking of hashish was no small part of rebetiko culture. In the Ottoman empire hashish had been freely available and was openly smoked in cafes. In Greece too, for a period, people smoked freely. The hash den was known as a tekkes – from the Turkish tekke, meaning dervish convent – and the rebetes who frequented these dens sometimes referred to themselves as ‘dervishes’. Hashish cost virtually nothing and was a poor man’s way of forgetting life’s troubles. There are songs aplenty celebrating the smoking of hashish (in fact two Danish rebetologists have produced a whole book of them, and a French company recently issued a record of hash-den songs.10 After the Second World War, however, they began to disappear. During the Nazi–Fascist occupation of Greece no rebetika recordings were made – although this is not to say that the songs were not sung.11
Vassilis Tsitsanis, one of the greats of rebetika, was apparently singing songs featuring hashish right through the period of Nazi occupation, but these could only be issued as recordings after 1946, when the record factories reopened in Greece. Then, in 1947, censorship was reimposed and drug songs were again banned. That censorship is still in force today – the law has never been repealed, and in theory the words and music of all recordings must be submitted to the censor’s office (although presently the law is not enforced). Rebetika was also attacked by the Communist Party, for instance by Nikos Zachariades, who described it as the music ‘of knife-fights and decadence’.
The first public sign of rebetika’s emergence into respectability came in 1948, right in the midst of the fratricidal war that was tearing Greece apart. One of the country’s leading modern composers, Manos Hadzidakis, made a speech at a conference, defending rebetika and claiming it as an integral part of the Greek musical heritage. Up to that point the cultural elites had seen it as a music of criminal low-life, sung and danced in prisons and dope dens, and linked to drugs, violence and prostitution. Hadzidakis, albeit a conservative, claimed it as an authentic music of the people, an art form of high musical quality and nobility. He also pointed out that the taste for rebetika united all classes of Greeks, right across a geographic spectrum that had previously been regionally divided. It was – and this was a poignant moment in a country divided by civil war – a unifying force between all Greeks.
Shortly afterwards, with the Civil War ended, rebetika was ‘discovered’. It came out of its low-life backwaters and into night clubs where rich people went. And at this point the character of the music changed. The bouzouki went electric, everything went electric, and the players began to perform for the upper bourgeoisie. Rebetika became a fashion. You only have to see the photos of Giorgos Zambetas playing for the Kennedy family and Aristotle Onassis to understand how far it had come from its humble beginnings. The music became heavily commercialized – over-orchestrated, with insipid lyrics – especially with the mass production of long-playing records in Greece after 1955. The songs lost their edge, lost their pain and depth of feeling. And the places where rebetiko music was played were among the most expensive night clubs in Greece.
At this point we should go back a couple of hundred years to look at what had been happening musically in Smyrna. For Greeks the city was a little Greece, experienced emotionally as part of the motherland. A rich trading port, it had an active harbour and a fertile hinterland. And it had a flourishing musical life that was noted by travellers even 300 years ago. The Frenchman Joseph Tournefort commented in 1702: ‘The taverns [in Smyrna] are open at all hours of day and night. They play music, they eat good food, they dance in the European, Greek and Turkish style... ’. Another Frenchman, Bartholdy, observed:
For a Greek to dance, any time of the day is suitable. The taverns in Smyrna and the other ports are continuously filled with men drinking, dancing and singing. Even on the decks of their boats they manage to find a bit of space where they can dance...
And in 1878 the folk-musicologist Bourgault-Ducoudray wrote: ‘Smyrna is a very musical city. Nowhere have I seen so many barrel-organs.’12
In the smart salons they sang romantses (a Spanish song-form) with piano accompaniment. The ordinary folk had the ‘cafe-amans’, or musical cafes, which is where the dais13 would hang out, as described by a Smyrniot poet whose name has not come down to us:
I am a dais, and when I dance the khasapiko, the ballo, the karsilamas and the tsifteteli, with the sweet violin of Giovanaki, all of Smyrna is proud of me.
I’m a dais, and ouzo is my god [... ] I have a good time, I dance, I drink and I get drunk, with santouris, and violins, and drums.
What is important in all this is that the musical life of Smyrna was both highbrow and lowbrow, both Italophile and Turcophile, both East and West, and when the Greeks were driven out of that city, they took their musical culture with them wholesale and transplanted it onto the Greek mainland.
The musicians who came as refugees were not just semi-skilled amateurs or street musicians:
The musicians, like most of the other refugees, were, in comparison to the Greeks of the host country, extremely sophisticated; many were highly educated, could read and compose music, and had even been unionized in the towns of Asia Minor. It must have been galling for them to live on the periphery of the new society in poverty and degradation; most had lost all they had in the hasty evacuation, and many, from inland Anatolia, could speak only Turkish. In their misery they sought relief in another Ottoman institution, the tekés or hashish den.(note 14)
Performers and composers of rebetika
The original rebetiko music, as we have said, derived from Asia Minor and was strongly Turkish in character. Here we are talking about a distinct first generation of rebetika composers and performers, most of whom derived from Asia Minor – Panayiotis Tountas, Kostas Skarvelis, Evangelis Papazoglou, Yannis Dragatsis, Kostas Karipis and Spyros Peristeris, all of whom were born between 1880 and 1895. By the 1920s there were two distinct ‘schools’ of rebetika. The first was the Smyrna school – songs with distinctly oriental melodies, which were often sung by women, such as Rosa Askenazi (d. 1981) and Rita Abatzi (d. 1969). They were accompanied by a small Turkish-style band, playing violin, santouri and ud (lute). The songs were often mournful laments, known as amané, from the characteristic ritual refrain of aman–aman (roughly, ‘mercy, mercy’) which came between the verses, often as a way of giving the singer time to improvise the next verse. This style is still to be found in the rai music of Algeria. The level of pathos reached in some of this Smyrniot song is truly heart-rending.
In the period 1900–30 these women singers performed in Smyrna itself, in the port town of Volos, and in the ex-Ottoman and strongly Jewish city of Thessaloniki, a cultural crossroads and a major trading port serving the Balkan hinterland. It would be performed in the cafe-aman, with the singer and band occupying a small platform, where the rebetes would come up and dance.
The Piraeus school, on the other hand, based in the sprawling urban port area serving Athens, was very different. Here the instruments were the bouzouki and the baglamas. This was more a dance music – based on the khasapiko and the zeibekiko, rather than the oriental tsifteteli. And the voices were rougher, deeper and more generally male.
The distinctive change here was the introduction of the Western tonal system into the music. Now the Western major and minor scales entered rebetika alongside the oriental dhromi.15 The key figure in this change was the great bouzoukist Markos Vamvakaris, born in Siros (an island port, and the most Westernized of Greek communities at that time).
Vamvakaris, the composer of the well-known rebetiko song Frangosyriani, set up his famous Piraeus Quartet in the 1930s, which influenced a whole subsequent generation of rebetika performers and composers. His main counterpart in this period was Yannis Papayioannou, the composer of Leave me, leave me... [Ase me, ase me... ].
In chronological terms, the second generation (who came from various parts of the extended Greek community and were all born between 1920 and 1925) included Vamvakaris himself, Dimitris Gongos, Apostolos Kaldaras, Kostas Kaplanis, Giorgos Mitsotakis, Yannis Papayioannou, Stavros Tzouanakos, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Apostolos Hajichristos, Manolis Chiotis, Stelios Chrysinis and Giorgos Zambetas. Some of these had a solid musical training and had no desire to be identified with the older low-life traditions of rebetika – the prisons, the drugs, etc.
In the 1940s there was something of a rebetika revival, under the auspices of Manolis Chiotis and Vassilis Tsitsanis. Chiotis added a couple of strings to the bouzouki, thereby extending its potential for musical virtuosity. Tsitsanis moved the lyrics away from the traditional motifs of drugs and prison and introduced sentimental and social themes. His ambit saw the involvement of women singers in the Piraeus school – notably the great voices of Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou.
The Second World War, the German occupation and Greece’s subsequent Civil War (1946–49) were important in the popularity of rebetika, since the songs were seen as embodying something of the national Greek identity through the times of hardship, repression and censorship. It is no accident that classical composers such as Theodorakis used this music as a fundamental part of their creative output. As Theodorakis himself explains:
During the years of internal exile, first at Icaria and then in Makronissos, during the evening hours we sang rebetika, and the Piraeus people taught us how to dance the khasapiko and zeibekikoin the tents of the concentration camp. It was in a tent on Makronissos that my first symphony had its debut performance, with an orchestra of violins and mandolins – in the ‘generals’ tent’, where the generals of ELAS (the Resistance Army of National Liberation) were housed. I remember someone protesting because General Serafis, instead of singing our revolutionary songs, was crazy about rebetika! On Icaria I asked my comrades to sing me rebetika songs and I wrote down the notes. I wrote, I sang and I danced. That way I collected about eighty songs. And then, when the ‘Colonels’ sent me into internal exile in Oropos in 1967, I attempted to harmonize rebetiko song and interpret it in a tonal mode. [... ]
In those very difficult years of 1947–49, the terrible years of the Civil War, so full of hatred and death, I believe that the urban songs – discovered by the people, sung at the front by both government soldiers and communist partisans, and sung in the prisons and the internal exile camps – had a fundamental importance for people’s stability of mind. It was the element that united us.16
No account of rebetika would be complete without a note on the recordings that are available. Here excellent work has been done on the Internet, and I would refer the reader to my Institute of Rebetology website for further references. Here, though, is a brief but useful summary, again by Lysandros Pitharas:
The richness of rebetiko history prevents any comprehensive list here. Artists to look out for in each of the various periods are as follows:
Elias Petropoulos was born in Athens in 1928. For many years he lived in Thessaloniki, a city he knows intimately (not least as regards the history of its Jewish community). During the Second World War and the ensuing Civil War he was a member of illegal left-wing organizations. From 1965 to 1975 he lived in Athens, where he earned his living as a journalist and writer. He then moved to Paris, where among other things he pursued Turkish studies at the École Pratique. He still lives in that city. During a lifetime of work he has published upwards of 80 books and 1,000 articles and essays. Many of the books were self-publishing ventures, sometimes in small-run art editions designed by himself. Twenty-seven of them have now been published in Greek in the Collected Works by Nefeli publishers, Athens (these are listed in my Bibliography).
Petropoulos is a terrific man of Greek letters. There is a boldness of conception in the way that he combines sociological research with biting satire, guaranteed to get up the noses of Greece’s academic establishment. His avowedly anarchist temperament has led to repeated brushes with the Greek state prosecutor. In 1968, at the age of 40 and in the second year of the Fascist junta, he published his Rebetika Songs [Rebetika Traghoudhia], a very personal combination of anthology, sociological dissertation and photography, on a subject which at that time was taboo – the sub-culture of rebetiko music. This led to his first prison sentence.
The second prison term came three years later, with the publication of his Kaliarda (1971), a unique dictionary of Greek homosexual slang. The next moment of notoriety came with his publication of The Manual of the Good Thief (1979), a shocking description of conditions in Greek prisons, which Petropoulos had experienced at first hand. Apart from its factual content, the book has a biting edge of satire that appalled some and delighted many, and it remains a favourite among free-thinkers to this day.18 It was immediately banned (by this time Greece had emerged from Fascism, but the old laws still applied) and both Petropoulos, by then resident in Paris, and his publisher were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Today it can be freely bought in any bookstore.
The range and diversity of Petropoulos’ writings over the years can be judged from the Bibliography: Turkish Coffee in Greece (1979); The Brothel (1980), a study of historical and present-day brothels in Greece; Graves of Greece (1982), a remarkable illustrated essay on Greek graveyards; Holy Hashish (1987), a detailed sociology and practical handbook of hashish; Corpses, Corpses, Corpses... (1988), the author’s macabre memories of the occupation of Greece and the ensuing Civil War; and The Moustache (1989), a study of the moustache in the culture of Balkan manhood.
The year 1999 has seen the publication of his illustrated History of the Condom, and a republication of his Cemeteries of Greece is in the pipeline. And rest assured, there is more to come. At the age of 72, Petropoulos is not stopping yet!
Aqua Dolce, Levanto
2. Ole L. Smith, ‘New Evidence on Greek Music in the USA: [Richard] Spottswood’s Ethnic Music on Record’, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, vol. 18, no. 2, 1992, pp. 97–109. For a scathing and penetrating critique of the state of rebetology studies, see Ole Smith’s other major article, ‘Research on Rebetika: Some Methodological Problems and Issues’, Journal of Modern Hellenism, no. 6, 1989 (part reprinted in Appendix A below).
3. In November–December 1993 the Athens-based music magazine Defi published a special issue (no. 18) on the Greek diaspora in Asia Minor. It contains important research articles on the musical culture of that community. I have translated some of these articles and placed them on my Institute of Rebetology website (for details, see Appendix B below).
4. See Petropoulos’ preface (pp. 13–14) to: Katharine Butterworth and Sara Schneider (eds), Rembetika, Songs from the Old Greek Underworld, with essays by Markos Dragoumis, Ted Petrides and Elias Petropoulos, Komboloi, Athens, 1975.
5. Pitharas, Music of the Outsiders, op. cit.
6. By way of a side note, the complex interplay of Greek song and dance with the indigenous traditions of Asia Minor is exemplified in an extraordinary account from Xenophon’s Anabasis, which I have included as Appendix C.
7. As the price for Greek participation on the side of the Entente in the First World War, the Allied Supreme Council in Paris authorized the landing of Greek troops in Smyrna. The occupation of Smyrna developed into a catastrophic war with Turkey, now under the new regime of Kemal Atatürk. The Greeks, ill-advised or imperfectly restrained by West European politicians, launched a general offensive in Anatolia in January 1921, which was defeated, and then, in July, obstinately renewed. By September they were in full retreat. In August 1922 the Turks launched a final offensive that drove the Greeks out of Anatolia in September. For Greeks this was the ‘Catastrophe’.
8. Vassilis Vassilikos, ‘Interview with Mikis Theodorakis’, Euros, no. 5–6, Sept.–Dec. 1993; similar ground is covered in the George Giannaris biography, Mikis Theodorakis: Music and Social Change, Allen & Unwin, London, 1973.
9. Costas Ferris, CD-Rom Encyclopaedia of Rebetika, in preparation.
10. Suzanne Aulin and Peter Vejleskov, Chasikilidhika Traghoudhia, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 1991; Grèce: La tradition du Rébétiko. Chansons des fumeries et des prisons, performed by the Rebetiko Tsardi group, Ocora 558648 (1985/9).
11. Giorgos Dalaras has produced a wonderful record of rebetika songs of the Occupation period, with sleeve notes containing illustrated source materials. Giorgos Dalaras, ÑåìðÝôéêá ôçò Êáôï¸Þò [Rebetika of the Occupation], Minos DAL–MSM 391 (1980).
12. Cited in the special issue of Defi magazine, vol. 18, Nov.–Dec. 1993, devoted to an overview of the music of Asia Minor.
13. The dais (pl. daides) was the ‘tough guy’, usually armed and a sort of hero of the underworld. There were three ‘classes’, or categories: 1. The ‘real, wise dais’: usually a quiet, not-so-young man who had done time in prison (the crime would have been a serious offence, but one respected by all the outlaws as a ‘crime of honour’). This man had now been accepted back into society and would have some independent job such as working as a bodyguard, keeping a coffee-shop, managing workers in the port, etc. He was very fair in his dealings with his clients, whether friends or strangers, and would not harm anybody – unless he was morally offended or insulted, in which case he could kill. He was also very loyal and ready to protect the people he loved and admired (i.e. singers or musicians). He had a very strong sense of justice. 2. The ‘second-class dais’: usually a common criminal who was constantly in and out of prison. He liked to act as a ‘tough guy’, trying to provoke someone into giving him a reason to kill. 3. The ‘pseudo-dais’, or koutsavakis: a young outsider who imitated the real daides by walking lamely (koutsos means lame), dressing like a mangas and wearing only one sleeve of his jacket. He was incapable of handling a real fight and played the ‘tough guy’ only in his dealings with the weak and the very young. [I am indebted to Costas Ferris for this information.]
14. S. Broughton et al. (eds), The Rough Guide to World Music (London, 1994), which has an excellent section on Greek music.
15. For further information on dhromi, see my Institute of Rebetology website.
16. Vassilikos, ‘Interview with Theodorakis’, op. cit.
17. The biggest stockist of rebetika, and indeed all Greek music, in the UK is the Trehantiri record shop, which has a website and does mail-order worldwide. Address: Trehantiri, 365–367 Green Lanes, London N4 1DY. Tel/fax: 020–8802.6530. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Zeno’s Greek bookshop has a stock of books on rebetika and orders titles from Greece. It also has a website. Address: Zeno Booksellers, 6 Denmark Street, London WC2H.8LP. Tel: 020–7240.1968. Fax: 020–7836.2522. E-mail: email@example.com.
18. The Manual of the Good Thief [Åã¸åéñßäéïí ôïõ Êáëïý ÊëÝöôç], Digamma, Athens, 1979; reprinted Nefeli, Athens, 1979. Here Petropoulos endearingly describes Greece (thinly disguised as ‘Antiqua’) in terms guaranteed to offend: ‘the national drink of its inhabitants is Turkish coffee... ’; ‘the national food is a Turkish dish, imam-bayildi... ’; ‘and all queers who are not priests are regarded as criminals’. As he says elsewhere, ‘I have been amnestied for this and that, but not for my crimes against the Church. I am under sentence from the law that protects the Church. For blasphemy. I write that all bishops are poustis [queers]. I use terrible insults against the Church... ’.
* This article is reprinted from Rebetika: Songs of the Greek Underworld, ed. and trans. Ed Emery, Saqi Books, 26 Westbourne Grove, London, W2 5RH. Tel: 0207 221 9347. Price £12.95 pb.