WORLD MUSIC AND THE ORIENTALISING OF THE REBETIKA
by Gail Holst-Warhaft [
[Some of the
material in this paper has been incorporated into a larger article to be
published in Anthropology and Musicology (
Before we consider any shifts in the reception and revival of rebetika, it is important to recognise our own shortcomings as observers of a phenomenon that shies away from categorisation and recasts itself anew for each generation. The rebetika, dead or alive, have become a perennial subject of interest and debate in the Greek-speaking world, and this interest itself is worth examining as a cultural and social phenomenon. Changes in the attitude of Greeks to their popular music, like changes in other aspects of Greek culture, reflect the country’s peculiar position between eastern Orthodox Christianity and the western European secular tradition, or more simply, between Asia Minor and Europe. As we have seen in recent decades, this cultural ambiguity has not, as one might have expected, diminished with
insightful study of modern Greek literature “Topographies of Hellenism” Artemis
Leontis speaks of the Greeks’ tendency to exoticise themselves. “Greeks have
regularly sought to recover the primitive element in themselves,” she notes. “To
compensate for what others perceived as backward behavior or bad blood, they
have defined their homeland,
attempts to define the spirit of Greekness have made use of folklore,
especially folksong, as a yardstick. This was so in the 19th century and it has
remained so till this day. Nationalist leaders have been quick to pass judgment
on the sort of music that failed to reflect their notions of national identity.
During the Metaxas dictatorship, from 1936-1940, rebetika musicians were
harassed. Many were exiled to the islands or thrown into prison, and the
hashish dens of
I will not repeat what I and others have already on the debates that were played out from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century in the Greek press over the relative merits of the music of the cafés aman, and the cafés chantants (see Holst-Warhaft: 2000, Gauntlett: 1989, Hatzipantazis: 1986, Holst: 1978). What is interesting about the debate is that it highlights the very ambivalent feeling of Greeks towards their “oriental” past and on how Greek or non-Greek the music performed in the cafes aman was considered to be.
fact that it was, in many ways, a home-grown hybrid, rebetiko was not
associated with the ideal topos of nationalism, i.e. with the Greek
countryside (especially the mainland areas first liberated from the Turks). The
regional folk music of
Among the writers who championed the rebetika was Kostas Tachtsis. His 1964 essay on the zeibekiko (see Holst, 1977: 202-211) offers us a possible explanation for the transformation of the rebetika from a narrow local phenomenon to a broadly popular style . The extreme privations of the German Occupation leveled class differences:
There were no more hungry and satisfied, there were no masters and slaves, everyone was a slave, everyone was hungry, all felt the need to bewail their fate... All the houses suddenly became hashish dens, not literally of course, but in character. Everywhere the spirit of lawlessness prevailed, of constant fear, misery and death. ...
The zeibekiko found room to develop, develop rapidly. Suddenly, it was no longer a dance of the underworld, but of a large number of Greeks, mostly those living in urban centers. Many of the songs which were first heard immediately following the war, had been written during the Occupation and differed markedly from the pre-war, heavier “hashish” rebetika. (1977: 204)
The economic effects of the war were, according to Tachtsis, only one of the reasons for the rebetika’s popularity (in the article it is clear that the zeibekiko dance is being used metonymically to refer to the rebetika as a whole). Another was the promotion, by the Germans, of alternative styles of music. Tangos, waltzes, and other forms of light music continued to be composed and listened to by the more “conformist” elements among the Greeks, and to be encouraged by the occupying forces so to give an impression of false optimism to the population of Athens and other cities:
It wasn’t an unusual spectacle to see German vehicles with megaphones driving around the central and suburban areas, waking up the ordinary folk with the inimitable “in the morning you wake me with kisses...” , which in reality was a wakening by the kiss of death.... So for the first time these songs were given the title of “light songs” (1977: 205).
In contrast to such meaningless songs, the rebetika offered the suffering population songs that dealt with reality, and not only with a literal but a symbolic reality. They were identified, according to the author, with “the spirit of resistance.” Tachtsis goes on to explain that while the Communist-led resistance fighters in the mountains of Greece sang Russian and other imported songs, the Greeks who drank their wine in underground tavernas, listened to rebetika songs that spoke not of the actual situation of the war, but of the “eternal poison of life” (ibid).
not the war cemented the popularity of the bouzouki-based,
It was Vassilis Tsitsanis, the man who claimed to have transformed the rebetika into the laika, who reintroduced the “oriental” into the popular rebetika-style music of the 1940’s and 50’s. Throughout the history of the rebetika, from Anestis Delias and Markos Vamvakaris to Vassilis Tsitsanis and Manolis Hiotis, there are songs that employ the orient as a metaphor for the exotic, usually the erotic exotic. When Ilias Petropoulos published his “laographic researches” into the rebetika (1968) he divided the songs into categories defined by the thematic content of their lyrics. One category was “Oriental and other exotic songs”. Only 21 song lyrics are reproduced in the sections of his book, 12 of them by Tsitsanis. Petropoulos’s list is not exhaustive, and includes several pre-war songs by other composers, including the famous “In the Baths of Constantinople” (also called “In the Harem Baths”) by Anestis Delias, first recorded in 1936. In this fantasy of a male paradise as in almost all the “exotic” rebetika, the orient and female eroticism are indistinguishable.
The “oriental fantasy” songs may constitute a small proportion of rebetika songs; even as a proportion of Tsitsanis’s total output of recorded songs they represent little more than 3%, but among them are some of his greatest successes and they continue to revived and recorded.  The exoticised “oriental” rebetika, most dating from the 1940’s and 1950's, are first of all exotic in terms of lyrics. Secondly, most but not all of the exotic songs of Tsitsanis and other rebetika composers are tsiftetelia, that is, they are in the rhythm associated with belly dancing, which is one reason for their renewed popularity in the 80’s and 90’s when the tsifteteli craze took hold. They are not generally associated with oriental modes (the song “To kainourio tsifeteli” refers to “Turkish tuning” (douzeni Turkiko ) but re-tuning of instruments to perform certain modes was a practice that had all but died out in rebetika by the 1930's).
The most famous of Tsitsanis’ exotic-oriental songs is probably “Arapines” (Arabian Girls):
Magic nights, nights of dreams
wanton loves, forgotten in foreign lands!
My minds races to the past
I speak to you with sorrow, with heartbreak
for all the mad follies I miss!
Lustful, amorous Arabian girls (n.b.in some versions “black Arabian girls”)
with whiskey, with sweet guitars
parties and booze!
Arab girls, with eyes of fire
bodies made like snakes
oriental fantasy, complete with whiskey and guitars, suggests Dorothy Lamour in
body-paint and veils rather than anything from
At the same
times as Tstitsanis was composing his orientalized rebetika, if rebetika is the
right term for them, a singer whose voice was markedly different from singers
of rebetika or neo-rebetika began to make his name in the Greek music world. His
name was Stelios Kazantzidis. Listening to his 1950’s recordings of songs by
Aposotolos Kaldaras, it is hard to put your finger on where this difference
lies. His voice has none of the raspiness of Vamvakaris, the dry staccato of
Tsitsanis, the unsentimental flatness of Bellou. It is closer, in many ways, to
embracing of rebetika by Theodorakis and Hadzidakis and their incorporation of
many of its elements into a new sort of popular music privileged a particular
type of rebetiko song and a particular kind of performance at the expense of
others. The choice of Bithikotsis, Iotia
identification with the rebetika was part of a broader nostalgia for the
earlier rebetika that took hold during the dictatorship, and whose motives were
politically and socially driven. These were also years of political upheaval in
In 1978, a
group of Savvopoulos’ young friends, led by Nikos Xydakis and Manolis Rasoulis,
most of whom had worked with him in the preceding years, produced an
influential record. It was called “I Ekdikisi tis yiftias” (“The Revenge of the
Gypsy Style”). Having listened to their songs, Savvopoulos gave the record his
blessing and wrote a nice little story about how he had come up with the title
for it while travelling to
arrived at "French" songs with a bit of bouzouki thrown in. The plebs
immediately reacted against this with an oily kind of song that was later
named, by the supporters of the purity of the race, as Indian-style, Turko-gypsy
style, or gypsy-style. It is the opposite of the archondorebetiko. The
archondorebetiko or light popular songs (elafrolaiko ) are rebetika
The single example of this turn towards the east that Savvopoulos gives in popular music is Stelios Kazantzidis. The singer whose “gypsy” style was so popular in the late 1950's and early 1960's is re-embraced by Savvopoulos, the song-writer-savant as having rescued the “true” popular song from westernisationand high culture. Now Savvopoulos annoints a group of young musicians who, in their turn, have rescued the music of the 70’s by producing a record that is truly “popular” and he himself chooses the title. He is pleased with himself. The title has a nice ring “like a spaghetti western” as he says (1978).
“gypsy style” means is hard to say. Certainly the record is characterized by a
predominance of tsiftetelia, and the singing style owes something, perhaps to
Kazantzides; the instrumentation, with violin and baglama, sounds like a cross
The record, of course, did not appear from nowhere. If it conveniently marks the beginning of a self-conscious orientalism in Greek music that is still going on today, it also reinforces a trend that had already begun. Most young Greek musicians of the late 1970’s and 80’s were fascinated by western popular music. They were playing electric guitars, listening to rock bands, borrowing chords from jazz. Via the West, they were also becoming interested in Indian and other exotic music. Most of them were tired of bouzoukis. They were also tired of songs with a strong political or social message. They were experimenting with a much greater variety of instruments. It was an era of foreign borrowings but there was still a desire to write songs that were genuinely Greek . One answer was to revive the erotic fantasies of the “oriental” rebetika.
second record (Dithen, 1979) the same group of musicians who had made
“The Revenge of the Gypsy Style” present entitled “The Manghes Don’t Exist any
More.” It is a charming eulogy to the “genuine” manghes of
performance of old-style rebetika begun by groups like the Rebetiki
Koumpania and the Opisthodhromiki Koumpania had concentrated largely
on Piraeus-style songs. The reissuing of recordings of early stars, including,
for the first time, CD’s of Smyrna style musicians, and the interest of
rebetika scholars and others in the oriental rebetika contributed
to the re-evaluation of the genre. For the first time young Greeks could listen
to cleaned up reissues of singers and musicians like Rita Abadzi, Dimitris
Semsis, Roza Eskenazi and Panaiotis Tountas, and they were amazed by the beauty
and virtuosity of the performances. Here was a new wealth of tradition for
musicians to draw on. In order to perform the music, during the late 1980’s and
1990’s, young musicians began to learn instruments that had all but disappeared
During the 1990’s, in popular nightclubs and discoteques, young Greeks danced to western music for the first part of the evening and to tsiftetelia after . The tsiftetelia craze of the 1990’s may have owed as much to MTV as it did to Asia Minor music, or the Bosnian War, in that it was a chance for young Greek girls to move like the gyrating bodies they watched on the screen. But it also marked a continuation of the “Revenge of the Gypsy Style”. The associations of the Gypsy or “oriental” style had always been erotic, hedonistic, unpolitical. For young Greeks who wanted to have it both ways: to be thoroughly modern and western, and yet hang onto something that was unwestern, the discotheque tsiftetelia were ideal.
with the tisfteteli craze came more creative fusions of Greek and “oriental” or
widespread is the acceptance of the oriental in the Greek music. An article
published in the English language newspaper Athens News in April 2001 suggest
that not all Greeks are content with the current turn towards the
This begins to sound remarkably like the rhetoric of Metaxas’s Third Greek Civilisation. The “sunny island ditties” please us, according to the author, because they “break out of the deadening Mixo-Lydian bouzouki mode – in which the do-re-mi scale is replaced by the mournful C-D-Eb with its attendant effects on the mind – into something more refreshing and familiar.” Leaving aside the fact that the author doesn’t seem to know he is talking about the regular European minor scale rather than any weird and mind-warping oriental mode, the tirade is interesting because of its rehashing of precisely the same vocabulary employed in the debates about cafe aman music and rebetika for more than a century.
the same time as our correspondent was lamenting the orientalizing of Greek
How much is what Greek artists do these days dictated by the World Music market, which has embraced the rebetika, especially the so-called “oriental rebetika”? And how much is it likely to be affected by the rhetoric of the journalist that appeared in the Athens News? Now that the oriental is in demand, there is bound to be a pendulum swing, so long as Greek music is still plagued by the sort of identity politics that has dominated discussion of almost every aspect of Greek life since the foundation of the Greek state. The on-going fascination with the so-called oriental rebetika and its influence on modern Greek music is probably only another chapter in the ambivalent history of Greek popular music.
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 The exotic orient is reflected in the titles of Tsitsanis’ songs from 1939: “Haremia me diamantia” 1939, “Maghissa tis Arapias” 1940, “Arapines” 1946, “Sklaves tou pasa” 1946, “I Maritsa sto haremi“ 1946, Arapiko louloudi” 1947, “To Kainourio tsifteteli” 1949, “Youl Bakar” 1950, “Magissa tis Vaghdatis” 1950, “Serach” 1951, “Vavaria” 1953, “Zaira” 1954, “Arapiko tsfiteli” 1958, “I Farida” 1959. Tsitsanis’s recorded approximately 330 songs).
 Panaiotis Kounadis and S. Papaioannou’s series of articles on Smyrna style rebetika, published in the magazine Mousiki (1980, 1981) were both reflective of the growing interest and possiby influential in strengthening it.