E S S A Y S  > The Diaspora of Rembetiko

Re(m)betiko – the Greek Blues?

It was a memorable day, that Friday at the end of June 2004 when a remarkably disciplined, fast and impassioned Greek football team swept in as rank outsiders to defeat the drearily uninspired defending champions of France in the Euro 2004 quarter finals. I was watching the match with two hundred Greeks on a huge screen in a Greek tavern in Frankfurt. During the break, a little band played Rembetiko. After the game, sheer ecstasy mingled with the sounds of sirto and zeybebiko as everyone danced around the Rembetiko musicians. Later that night, in the basement tavern Omikron, another Rembetiko group played until dawn, while Greeks of all ages danced wildly and sang along with many of the texts as though they were hymns of praise. Similar scenes, no doubt, were playing at the very same time in the Greek taverns of Amsterdam, Berlin and Stockholm, even in Toronto, New York and Melbourne. When they won the final, I was in Greece. Again, it was Rembetiko that provided the backdrop to the celebrations, the dancing and the singing; even the supporters at the matches and the fans welcoming their European Championship heroes home to Athens had a chant that came straight from a Rembetiko song! Rembetiko also played an important role in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. No saccharine serenades here, but superstar George Dalaras singing Rembetiko and 75,000 people in the stadium singing and clapping along with him. With fifty bouzouki players taking part in these ceremonies, there was even talk of a rehabilitation of this instrument – more than one musician I know has told of his father taking away his first bouzouki and smashing the “wretched thing” against an olive tree.

It may seem surprising that this music, so recently dismissed as the music of the underdogs and the socially marginalised, should play such an enormous role when feelings are running high. But given the increasing solitude, anonymity and homogeneity of social life in the western world, it is no wonder that there should be a renaissance of this kind of music – it appeals deeply to the emotions, its rhythms invite you to dance together or alone in a highly creative way, and the way it is played is aimed at creating a bond between musicians and audience.

Rembetiko began in the sub-culture of the deracinated émigré population in the early years of the last century. It can be traced back to the modal folk music played by an impoverished multicultural mix of people fleeing rural poverty to eke out a living on the fringes of the growing cities. In contrast to the increasingly Europeanised music of the bourgeoisie, they sang Turkish songs with Greek lyrics because, as Theodorakis has noted, “these gentle melodies were better suited to the bitterness of their lives”. Then, in 1922, came the “catastrophe of Asia Minor”: more than a million Greeks were expelled from Turkey and forcibly repatriated in Greece. The refugees settled in the seaports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki. They brought with them their own values and their oriental music. In the tekedes (hash dens) they smoked and played music. It was the first great blossoming of Rembetiko – oriental styles developed alongside tonal styles, and the Smyrna style blended with the school of Piraeus. It was also the heyday of the manges – tough guys, wideboys and gangsters, with their own rules and dress codes that still elicit projection and identification. The world of the Rembetes may have been predominantly male. But in the countless recordings of the 1920s and 1930s, women played an outstanding role – among them such unforgettable and unforgotten greats as Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abadzi. They had a high sense of self-worth and an unconventional lifestyle, prized their independence and were beyond the control of the authorities. In 1936, under the Metaxas dictatorship, the hash dens and the songs sung there were banned. But the classic forms of Rembetiko survived in the underworld. It became chic among certain circles in Athens to make excursions to these secret, smokey places with their “strange ethereal dancing”. During the German occupation in the second world war and during the civil war, Rembetiko songs in times of censorship and hardship became an expression of Greek identity. According to Theodorakis, “In the prisons and forced repatriation camps, these songs had a fundamental importance to the morale of the people. They were the element that united us”. Rembetiko was never expressly protest music against the basic social structures – it was the keepers of order that were the enemy; the songs themselves are predominantly self-assertive expressions of an attitude to life. Prisons were important in shaping the tradition of Rembetiko. Prisoners would build tiny instruments, such as the miniature lute baglamas, which could be hidden more easily from the guards.

There are some who say that there has been no real Rembetiko since the 1930s or, at the latest since the late 1940s, and that it can no longer exist because the subculture in which it was created no longer exists. But a word of caution here: Rembetiko has always been constantly evolving. Ioannis Zelepos prefers to contrast this static view of Rembetiko, prompting unproductive distinctions between authentic and unauthentic, with a more dynamic view that takes into account the revitalisations and musically sophisticated renewals of Rembetiko. There is no doubt that the struggle for cultural identity in Greek music has always led to polarisations: oriental cultural forms went against the grain of the Europeanisation that those in power sought to impose on Greek society – to free it from its “barbarian elements”. For many years, in spite of the efforts of such figures as Manos Chatzidakis or the young Theodorakis to revive Rembetiko in the post-war era, it remained a marginal music, or was distorted by the record industry and the major music venues of Athens into a homogenously simplified folklore that had little in common with Rembetiko. In the past two decades, however, there has been a rediscovery of the exotic subculture that had been all but forgotten and, with that, a revival of Rembetiko. Music groups in Greece and other countries are looking to this form of music again: some reinterpreting old classics, others creating musical innovations or compositions based on the feelings of today. It is this new musical cosmos that we have sought to document here. By way of example: in the late 1990s, our project “At the Cafe Aman” with Niki Tramba, Ross Daly und Labyrinth attempted to reconstruct the old world of the Smyrna style using original instruments played by young musicians who, political correctness aside, had long been interested in the musical heritage of the former Ottoman empire. On this album, we offer an introduction to the huge repertoire of the virtuoso and creative group Apodimi Compania from Australia. Zotos Kompania from Berlin integrates classic elements and demonstrates that some sensitive adjustments need not be in any way detrimental to the original vitality of the music. The Rembetika Hipsters from Canada display an irreverently witty approach to the genre: one of their pieces is called “Strawberry Moussaka for ever”, in another they set the pipe smoking in the erotic atmosphere of a hammam, and they even call themselves “Architects of Narghilé”. The Amsterdam-based group Palio-Paréa combines the musical lines of Rembetiko with modern lyrics and poems by Kavafis. Catalonian Rembetiko lover Miquel Gil sings in Catalan with great depth of feeling. These two CDs also feature lots of taximi – emotionally charged improvised introductions or interludes. The commercialisation of Rembetiko in the early days of the record industry had completely ignored this particular element, mainly due to the limited recording capacity, and this stood in deep contrast to actual live performances in taverns. Now and again we hear this “ah” – surely in no other music but Rembetiko can a single syllable in the right place express such a mixture of pain, yearning and joy.

The revival of Rembetiko in all its depth and diversity, including its oriental roots, could well play an important role in the new social awareness and national identity of the country and the Greek émigré community throughout the world. Living between two great cultures and shaped by both, it is difficult to find a true sense of identity if one side is obscured. Perhaps the revival of this music, in the forms presented here, expressing a blend of orient and occident, will help to send some irrational problems (Europe versus Orient, pure versus inauthentic Rembetiko) up in a cloud of fragrant smoke.

Christos Scholzakis