Rebetiko encompasses various styles of Greek folk music traditionally sung by poor people in urban areas and certainly dates back as far as the 19th century. The lyrics reflect the hard realities of everyday life and include subjects such as drug taking, prostitution, crime and violence as well as more universal themes of romance and loss.
Rebetiko blends European music traditions with that of the Byzantine past and Ottoman neighbours. This blending, never quite fitting with any standard mode, has made rebetiko a point of interest for musicologists over the years and reflects both the location of Greece and the diversity of the urban population.
Greece in the Early 20th Century
From the late 19th to the mid 20th century Greece saw great upheaval. The Greco-Turkish War of 1897 (also known in Greece as the Unfortunate War) was an unmitigated disaster for Greece. This war resulted in ongoing political instability leading to a military coup in 1909. By 1912 Greece and Turkey were once again at war, this time Greece reclaimed Crete and other territories previously captured by the Turks. In 1913, King George of Greece was assassinated by a Greek anarchist, Alexandros Schinas, and was succeeded by his son, Constantine I. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War II, Greece proclaimed its neutrality, however this decision created internal conflict. King Constantine favoured neutrality whereas Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos wanted Greece to join the allied nations. Although Greece never officially entered the war the country was divided and once the Russian Revolution began, King Constantine, without support from his cousin Tsar Nicholas, fled Greece without ever abdicating the monarchy. By 1919 Greece faced not only internal conflict with royalist militants making attacks on the government, but a third war with Turkey which resulted in approximately 1.5m Christians and 0.5m Muslims crossing the borders from Turkey and Greece respectively. This sudden influx of refugees put additional strain on an already struggling Greek government.
The Great Depression of 1926 hit Greece badly and a monarchist coalition was elected. Political polarisation continued with minor uprisings a constant threat, until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Although the president at the time, General Metaxas had introduced many policies allied with Nazi Germany, ties between the Greek and British royal houses proved to ensure Greece rejected the axis powers. In 1940 the Italians invaded and later the Germans. Greece suffered particularly badly during the war resulting the Great Famine between 1941 and 1944.
On liberation Greece was soon plunged into civil war between the Communist and Monarchist forces. It is estimated that 100,000 were killed and over 700,000 were displaced, many moving to the USA or Australia. During this time many ethnic minorities were also expelled, with only a small Muslim minority still existing in Western Thrace today. A truce was held in 1949 and until the military junta in 1967 Greece maintained an uneasy democracy.
The Music of the Marginalised
As with so many art forms of the ‘poor’, Rebetiko has face many social and political battles for its survival. Within the historical context a project of nation building was taking place. The Greek leaders intended to establish a coherent, positive and strong identity to unify and stablise the country. Rebetiko, the song of the urban poor, of the immigrants and of the immoral did not fit their idea of national culture. The right were unhappy with its frankness about the experiences of the urban poor whereas the left showed objections to the ‘celebration’ of dissolute lifestyles. Neither felt rebetiko was a suitable music for modern Greece.
Neither the bouzouki nor rebetiko music itself was ever banned, despite an oft-stated belief that this happened, but attempts were certainly made to control the nature of both. John Hood
In spite of the establishment opposition there was still the popular support for rebetico. Perhaps it represented a unity, a normality that politics was so detached from. As battles were being fought down ideological lines, rebetico simply reflected the day to day loves and losses of the ordinary citizens.
Instruments used in Rebetiko
The bouzouki is a pear-shaped lute with a long neck and played with a plectrum. Although seen as the traditional instrument in Greece many claim it arrived in the country with immigrants from Turkey at the beginning of the 20th century, although it is likely that similar instruments had been played in Greece prior to this. It was quickly adopted by rebetiko musicians and is now viewed as the key instrument of the style. Another type of bouzouki used in rebetiko is the baglamas. The baglamas is very similar to the bouzouki but it is smaller and pitched an octave higher with unison pairs on the highest four strings. Baglamas are particularly prominent in the Piraeus-style rebetiko.
Other Instruments of Rebetiko
A guitar is often seen as part of a rebetiko group but many other instruments have been included in rebetiko recordings over the years. Instruments include, amongst many others, the clarinet, santur, oud, cimbalom and accordion.
Notable Rebetiko Performers
This is of course not a comprehensive list but it might be a good place to start!
Márkos Vamvakaris was born in 1905 in the Greek island of Syros. He came from a poor farming family and left home at 12 to work in Piraeus, a large port city on the mainland. Whilst working many menial jobs he decided to teach himself the bouzouki and quickly began composing his own songs. After playing with the pioneering rebetiko band Legendary Quartet of Piraeus, he released his first solo recording called Karadouzeni in 1933. By 1937 he was attracting up to 50,000 fans to his concerts. However, by the early 1950s he had stopped playing bouzouki due to arthritis and his music was no longer fashionable. In the 1960s, however, thanks to support from the younger generation of Greek musicians, Colombia Records released a new album of Vamvakaris’s recent recordings. These later recordings cemented his reputation and earned him the nickname of ‘the patriarch of rebetiko’.
Widely regarded as the founder of modern rebetiko, Vassilis Tsitsanis was a prolific composer and bouzouki player. He was born in 1915 in Trikala in central Greece and in 1936 moved to Athens to study law. A keen musician from an early age, Tsitsanis learned bouzouki on arrival in Athens and had made his first recording by 1937. During the German occupation in World War II he lived in Thessaloniki where he owned an ouzeri (a bar serving ouzo). His fame as a musician and composer grew and in 1946 he moved to Athens to focus on his recording career. Tsitsanis wrote for many of the greatest rebistas of the time too, including Sotiria Bellou and Prodromos Tsaousakis. His collaboration with Armenian-Greek singer Marika Ninou between 1949 and 1951 was particularly popular.
Sotiria Bellou was ‘discovered’ by a friend of Vassilis Tsitsanis, singing for small change in a taverna near the Athens Polytechnic in 1947. Born on the island on Euboea in 1921, Bellou had had a turbulent life, escaping a violent arranged marriage to being tortured and imprisoned by the Nazis as an active member of the Greek resistance during World War II. Her mother had deemed the life of a singer inappropriate for a young woman, but her determination to pursue a career was to finally bear fruit. Bellou became one of the first women to be a professional rebetista. She was widely applauded by both critics and the public but fell into obscurity, dying of throat cancer in 1997. Since her death her work has begun to be appreciated again and she is widely hailed to be one of the great rebetiko performers.
Born in Piraeus in 1949, George Dalaras is of a younger generation of musicians to embrace rebetiko. His father was noted rebetista, Loukas Daralas but George rejected folk music initially and embraced the rock scene of the 1970s. He became a national, and later international success after his 1972 album with Haris Alexou, Mikra Asia went gold. In 1975 Dalaras returned to his roots and released Peninta Chronia Rebetiko Tragoudi (50 Years of Rebetiko Songs). Although some accused him of sanitising the content of the lyrics, the album became extremely popular and led, in part, to what is referred to as the Rebetiko revival. Suddenly there was a renewed interest in the rebetista of the past and many of the great musicians were in demand once again. Dalaras released another rebetiko album in 1980, Rebetika tis Katohis which was a more faithful homage to rebetista of the past.
Find out more about Rebetiko
The Patriarch of rebetiko song – ellines.com
Obituary: Sotiria Bellou – Independent
A History of the Bouzouki and its Music – John Hood
Greek Rebetiko from a Psychocultural Perspective: Same Songs Changing Minds – Daniel Koglin