Greek Urban Blues
January 8, 2004 7:43 AM   Subscribe

Rebetika, Music of the Greek Underground • "It originated in the hashish dens of Pireaus and Thessaloniki with the forced immigration of 2 million Greek refugees from Asia Minor." Audio samples here, more backstory, photos and a curious site supporting "Rebetiko Dechiotification and Bouzouki Detetrachordization".
posted by dhoyt (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting post. I live in the largest Greek neighborhood in New York City and there's a big Greek-oriented record store near one of the local subway stops. I might have to pop in and poke around. Thanks for the heads up.
posted by jonmc at 8:02 AM on January 8, 2004

Domain Master, that was exactly my thought...
posted by Vidiot at 8:40 AM on January 8, 2004

This is great—I love rebetika, and treasure the albums I picked up in dusty record shops when I visited Greece. I enjoyed the first link; my only problem with it is that it's focused on the period around WWII and after, because that's what Barrett likes best, whereas I prefer the earlier, often Oriental-sounding, stuff. Thus he features the wonderful Vamvakaris (I've got that 40 Khronia Vamvakaris album, it's great) and Tsitsanis but ignores the at least as wonderful Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi. Here's a more balanced site (thorough history here). Actually, I am in sympathy with the "curious site," which in its "a bit dadaistic" way wants to drag rebetika kicking and screaming back to (what in my and their opinion were) the good old days.

I join in Matt Barrett's recommendations of Gail Holst's Road to Rembetika, an excellent introduction, and the movie Rembetiko, which is a lot of fun and has a magnificent soundtrack. (jonmc, I saw a videotape of it for sale at the Atlas market in Astoria years ago and to my lasting regret didn't buy it before it was gone, but they have a lot of good Greek tapes.) And if anybody's wondering why the word is spelled both with and without an m, it's because there's no way to write the sound /b/ in Modern Greek except as mb (because the letter b is pronounced /v/), so the word written rembetika could also be pronounced /rebetika/ (apparently the original pronunciation), and those who pronounce it that way tend to write it that way in English. But I'm subject to correction by actual Greeks (talos?).

I can't resist mentioning that Barrett has a very one-sided and tendentious description of the "catastrophe" of the Greco-Turkish War. "In 1921 the Greek army invaded Turkey at the instigation of England, France, Italy and Russia" is disingenuous in the extreme; the Megali Idea of retaking what had been the Greek heartland of the Byzantine Empire had been burning in the Greek soul for a long time, and Greece had been invading bits of Turkish territory for years. It's silly to pretend they were just invading Anatolia to make the Allies happy.
posted by languagehat at 8:49 AM on January 8, 2004


I have very little to add, but I just have to say that I hear some of this music right outside my window when the weather is fair enough for the musicians to play outside at the tavernas, especially "Omorphi (or Ormofi) Thessaloniki" ("Beautiful Thessaloniki")... and the one about the crab mommy, and the ever so slightly risque "substitution humor" song "Ella", among others. I'm not actually generally a huge fan of Greek music, but the tunes that tend to capture my interest here almost always turn out to be from that period.
posted by taz at 9:17 AM on January 8, 2004

George Pallikaris aka G-Pal is the new Greek underground, along with his label, Swift Records.
posted by cmicali at 9:27 AM on January 8, 2004

Good link dhoyt.
The "dechiotification" site is about the "return" to the "good ol'" three string bouzouki which was the traditional instrument until Manolis Chiotis added in the 50's a fourth string (so he could stun the audience by playing *faster*) and a couple of magnets and a loudspeaker, while importing latin american rhythms and generally western influence. Purists (such as languagehat!) detest this as a sell-out to commercialism - the move was part of the drive to bring rebetika in the mainstream of Greek popular music (the term for Chiotis music was "archontorembetika" - "princely rembetika").
Eskenazi and Abatzi were incredible singers but, unlike Tsitsanis and Vamvakaris, not songwriters. Despite the fact that the "rembetisses" the women rembetes were by the standards of the times incredibly emancipated and independent, there was no woman songwriter in the Rembetika tradition - although one of the best lyric writers of the genre was a woman (Eftihia Papagianopoulou). That explains Barrett's choices I think.
Rebetiko was a very interesting movie with a great soundtrack. It portrayed not only the history of rembetiko but of 20th century Greece as well. It would have been better if it had a bigger budget or a smaller scope, but it's interesting anyway.
Languagehat: The /b/ sound in modern Greek is written "mp". It is pronounced either /mb/ or /b/ depending on the dialect. There is an isoglot running through the aegean somewhere and people from Crete would say Rebetiko (also the refugees from Smyrna) but most mainlanders would pronounce Rembetiko.
You are also right as to the description of the events surrounding WWI and its aftermath. It wasn't as if Greece needed pressure from abroad to land an army in Asia Minor. But Barrett is right in that the "Big Powers" of the day initially gave their OK for Greek takeover of the Smyrna area and Eastern Thrace (areas with majority or large Greek populations). The King and the nationalists then decided to "take advantage of the opportunity" and make a run for Ankara - and everybody dropped them fast. (Which still doesn't excuse the fact that the "Powers" sat and did nothing as Greeks and Armenians were slaughtered in front of their gunships.)
It was some of these destitute refugees from Smyrna (a cosmopolitan urban center) that helped create Rembetiko. With the help of hash houses of course.
posted by talos at 9:58 AM on January 8, 2004

The /b/ sound in modern Greek is written "mp".

D'oh! That's what I meant, of course, but I was betrayed by trying to combine writing and pronunciation in one messy sentence. Thanks for the correction.

There are interesting parallels between rebetika and blues (which also flourished initially in semi-legal surroundings among down-and-out people who made frequent use of drugs and alcohol), and anyone who loves blues (or fado, Miguel) should give its Greek cousin a try. Passion, melody, and that certain je-ne-sais-quoi, it's all there!
posted by languagehat at 1:44 PM on January 8, 2004

Drugs + alcohol + hopelessness + semi-legal surroundings = better music than anything you can watch on TV.

If you like really frenetic, three note screaming insane craziness in your post-Lausanne Treaty Greek refugee music, don't forget the music of the Pontic Greeks. Not as "oriental" as Rebetika, think of it as "The Ramones do Byzantine Fiddle Music". Leigh Cline in Toronto maintains a killer site for all musical things Pontic, whether Greek, Turkish, or Laz.
posted by zaelic at 2:19 PM on January 8, 2004

Wow! I had never seen that pontic music site. Excellent. Thanks zaelic!
posted by talos at 3:38 PM on January 8, 2004

Wow indeed! I add my thanks. I wish I knew what the Stavros Savvidis song "Shamyl" says; Shamyl was the great Moslem hero of the North Caucasus, who fought the Russians to a standstill for years in the mid-19th century—he seems an odd subject for a Greek song.
posted by languagehat at 5:33 PM on January 8, 2004

Leigh Cline just sent me this and said I can post it:

"The reason that Stavros Savvidis & band are playing "Shamyl" (more properly "Shey Shami") is because Pontic Greeks are from the Caucasus and the song is a standard in the repertoire of everyone in that area as well as in Russia proper and Iran. It's a dance form called Lezginka (Dance of the Lezgi of Daghestan) and Shey Shami is the most known melody. BTW all Stavros Savvidis is saying are dance calls."
posted by zaelic at 1:54 AM on January 9, 2004

Thanks! Those Pontic tunes are great; I'm going to have to get a collection.
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on January 9, 2004

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