Rebetika: An Historical Introduction

Rebetika is a form of Greek urban music from the early twentieth century. Although the origins of the music certainly stretch into the 19th century—and earlier— it was especially important and vibrant during the 20s, 30s, 40s, and early 50s. It was the music of the lower ends of the socio-economic spectrum—those who stood outside “mainstream” culture in certain although not all respects. The music contains a lexicon of its own, and it uses terms such as mangaskoutsavakirebetisteke, and many others which are difficult to translate, but nevertheless understandable within this unique social milieu. The music was closely associated with the Greek “underworld,” and, as a result, it was controversial until the Junta fell in 1974 (though one could say that it remains so even today, in certain quarters). The manges and rebetes—those who wrote and performed the rebetika—tended to live in or around Piraeus; they frequented the tekedes (hashish dens); many spent time in jail, either simply for performing their music, or for engaging in other criminal behavior, such as smuggling, theft, or smoking hashish (it is important to note, though, that some of the musicians never set foot in a teke, and that they were certainly not violent criminals). The music is grounded in this social experience. The songs are about love, loneliness, despair, xenetia and the diaspora, jail, hashish and drugs, women, misfortune and misery, social injustice, current events, the Aegean and its waters, fishing, the landscape, poverty, death, daily life, violence, mangas culture, and so on.

A range of musical traditions influenced the development of rebetika, from the demotic folk music of mainland Greece to Byzantine church music to late Ottoman café aman music. Sorting all of this out is a difficult thing to do, but here I’d like to highlight the transformative role that the refugees of the population exchange had on the development of rebetika. After the conclusion of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 and the Asia Minor Catastrophe an exchange of populations was agreed to between Greece and Turkey. Some 1.5 million Ottoman Christians were sent to Greece and 500,000 Muslims living in Greece were sent to Turkey. Although most of the Christians sent to Greece spoke Greek, many did not. For example, the Cappadocian Christians (from central Turkey) spoke mainly Turkish, but because they were Christian, off they went. Likewise, many Armenians were included in this exchange—which was based on one’s religion, not one’s ethnicity (in this sense it was formulated under an Ottoman framework). Previous to this formal exchange, Christians and Muslims had been migrating across parts of the old Ottoman world for some time—or to America—for a variety of reasons, too (mainly having to do with nationalism, the Balkan Wars, etc.). In effect, the formal exchange merely ratified what had already happened to Anatolian Christians through war and displacement, while forcibly removing Muslims from Greece, mainly because the Greek government needed land and homes in which to settle the refugees. In any case, there were many professional musicians among the 1.5 million refugees (who swelled Greece’s population some 20%), who had formal musical training and wrote and performed in café aman style in Smyrna, especially, or Constantinople or elsewhere. They brought their knowledge, instruments, and, perhaps most importantly, the zeïbekiko rhythm, the most important of the rebetika rhythms, to Greece with them.

Over the next decade, two distinct musical traditions intermingled in the poorer neighborhoods of Piraeus and Athens (and elsewhere in Greece), where both the refugees and rebetes lived: the “native” peiraiotika rebetika of Greece and the café aman-style Smyrneïka of the refugees. It was a rich and complex exchange and blending of musical traditions that shared similarities, certainly, but also contained important differences. To give only one example: Vassilis Tsitsanis, perhaps the most important rebetika musician of 20th-century Greece, first turned toward rebetika because he heard refugees playing heavy zeïbekika in a refugee settlement outside of Trikala, his home town. After this, he turned away from his formal western musical training, went off to Athens (to study law!), mingled with the manges and rebetes and subsequently became one of Greece’s most popular rebetika musicians.

Tsitsanis young

A young Vassilis Tsitsanis 

For the next two decades rebetika gradually rose to prominence, occupying an ever-increasing place in Greece’s popular music scene. The 30s were a time of great expansion for the music, when it came out of the tekedes and into more mainstream clubs throughout Athens—e.g., the famed Piraeus Quartet, which consisted of Markos Vamvakaris, Giorgos Batis, Stratos Payioumitzis, and Anestis Delias performed during this time. Many of the Smyrna refugees—e.g., Vangelis Papazoglou and Panayiotis Toundas—were also writing, recording, and playing (and some occupied important positions in the recording industry, as Toundas did).


The Piraeus Quartet (from top left, clockwise): Markos Vamvakaris, Anestis Delias, Giorgos Batis, Stratos Payioumitzis

Until the imposition of censorship by the dictator Metaxas in 1936-7, the rebetika scene in Athens was a mixture of peiraiotika and smyrneïka styles—that is, the music of the café aman and the more native style of Piraeus and Athens (the instrumentation was quite different between the two). But censorship proved a bitter pill to swallow for many smyrneïka performers, since it outlawed “Turkish” or “oriental” melodies and instruments; thus, the amanes practically went extinct, while some musicians simply stopped recording altogether in response, Papazoglou among them. Lyrical content from this time on had to be run past a government board. Underworld subjects, or even eastern ones, were generally not cleared. Nonetheless, many musicians adjusted (e.g., by changing the setting of a song from the teke to the taverna; modifying melodies, etc.) and continued to write and record right up until the Nazi occupation of Greece in 1941.

The occupation was especially brutal in Greece, and it was followed by a protracted civil war (1946-49), which pitted Greek communists against the western-backed government in Athens. During the occupation all recording activity ceased, though some musicians continued to play live, especially in Thessaloniki, where Tsitanis played during the war. He wrote some of his best and most well known rebetika songs during the war, including Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki (Cloudly Sunday), a sad song about the occupation itself.

After the war, the musicians returned to the studios and rebetika experienced an Indian summer of sorts until the early 50s, when, as a result of many factors (changing musical tastes, loss of social context, different audiences, etc.), rebetika ceased to be what it had been and took a fundamental turn toward laïko. This era witnessed the rise of the arhondorebetes, the first generation of bouzouki players who got rich from playing and performing. They over amplified their bouzoukia, added drums and other electric instruments, and played in absurdly expensive clubs.

As such, during the late 50s and 60s rebetika wasn’t a central feature of the music scene in Greece (e.g., Markos Vamvakaris, one of the most popular rebetika musicians of the 30s, spent this time touring Greece with demotika groups). But under the Junta, which ruled Greece from 1967-74, there was a revival of interest in the music, due in no small measure to its subject matter—the fact that it spoke from the perspective of a social stratum that was marginalized and that resisted the norms and power structures of Greece. After the Junta fell, the rebetika revival emerged in full view, and various rebetadika opened in Athens, the first of which was Rebetiki Istoria.

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