REBETIKA – A BRIEF HISTORY
by Ed Emery [Institute of Rebetology, London] *
From about the 1850s, in the side streets of Asia Minor’s
Smyrna, the popular quarters of Istanbul, the back alleys of the port of Siros
and the working-class areas of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki – not to mention
the United States, and all parts of the world where emigré Greeks had flocked
in their thousands – a new music began to be created: popular song, and the
style of song that we now call rebetika.
It spread rapidly. First among the Greeks of Asia Minor, then
in emigré communities in the
Rebetika reached the height of its popularity between the
two world wars. It was standard musical fare in clubs and bars and featured
largely in the discography of 78 rpm records that were produced in
The support enjoyed by rebetika at the popular level was not
matched among the arbiters of morality and cultural values. The music was
heavily censored in the 1930s. But the censorship did not kill rebetika; far
from it. Immediately after the Second World War it witnessed a major boom in
During the past twenty years all the main exponents of
rebetika – the heirs of the singers and composers who came from
The purpose of this introduction is to sketch some of the background and history of rebetiko music.
And, despite the best efforts of Greek nationalists to prove
A shifting, changing entity
As regards its formal borders, the original Greek state, carved
out of a 400-year subjugation to the
As regards the diaspora, Greeks were to be found wherever
there was trade. They are, after all, a major maritime nation. In the 1790s a
Greek was mayor of
The population shifts and migrations were many-fold and all contributed to the great magmatic, largely urbanized, multinational conglomerate which now constitutes ‘Greekness’.
This phenomenon of urbanization, with country populations
moving into cities, went hand in hand with an outward migration. Over the
30-year period 1893–1924, the
Setting the scene
To give an idea of the social ambience in which rebetika originated, we have the following picture provided by Lysandros Pitharas, who made an excellent documentary on rebetika for British television:
It’s 1935, in a working-class bar on the Athenian waterfront. From the outside, the bar looks like a ramshackle hut, but inside, the atmosphere is furious. In air thick with the smoke of narcotics and incense, a small band sits on a stage. The lead bouzouki-player – eyes half shut – plays a lingering solo (taxim) to shouts of ‘aman... ’. Suddenly, the other players thump their feet and begin playing a harsh, incessant rhythm, with the singer’s voice rasping:
Stash up my weed, sister,
Go get some weed,
When we’re stoned together,
A bouzouki’s all I need.
ÔóïíôÜñçó’ áäåñöïýëá ìïõ
Íá ðéïýìå ôóéìðïõêÜêé
Ìáæß íá ìáóôïõñéÜóïõìå,
Íá ðáßî’ ôï ìðïõæïõêÜêé.
(Markos Vamvakaris, Alaniaris, 1935)
The crowd, made up of poor people, mostly men, roars its approval. One of them, hat cocked to one side and jacket hanging from one arm, rises to the floor. Eyes shut and body swaying, he dances, bringing his hand now to his forehead, now to the ground, all the time beating the rhythm of the music with the soles of his shoes. This is the dance of the mangas [spiv], a dance known as the zeibekiko. The music he is dancing to is rebetika – a Greek blues... 1
The meaning and derivation of ‘rebetika’
Like all subculture musics, rebetika poses difficulties of classification. And these difficulties begin even with the meaning and derivation of the word ‘rebetika’ itself. Individual rebetologists each have their own explanations, duly averred, and if one is true then it follows that the others, equally firmly asserted, are not. What follows is merely a selection:
The most likely derivation is rembet, an old Turkish word meaning ‘of the gutter’.
Some people claim that it derives from the Serb word rebenòk (pl. rebia’ta), which means ‘rebel’.
The Turks called their irregular troops rebet asker. Thus the rebèts were people who would not submit to authority.
It very probably derives from the Persian and Arabic root reb, rab, ruba‘a or arba‘a, which mean four. In the plural form ruba‘at or arba‘at mean fours but also quatrains... In Arabic, rab also means God and Lord...
The word may have its roots in the Hebrew rab, from which the word rabbi is derived.
The word rembetiko is a corruption of the archaic and also modern term remvastikos (meditative) and is derived from the verb remvo or remvazo, which means ‘I wander’... literally... and in the figurative sense of ‘my mind is wandering in an anxious mood’.
The strongest assertion as to rebetika’s historical origins,
and perhaps the most suggestive for us, is the following, by the late Ole Smith
It is now possible to give a much more balanced view of the
emergence of the term ‘rebetiko’, which
can be shown beyond doubt [my emphasis] to have made its first public
appearance as a musical term among Greeks in the
The social setting of rebetika
What we can say is that rebetika was the music of the rebetes. So now the question is, ‘Who were the rebetes?’, in the sense of the people who lived and created the songs and music of rebetika. The present book is an attempt to provide the answer to that question. But I would like to begin by sketching the elements of the broader social and musical setting.
In the rapid growth of population on the Greek mainland from
1850 onwards, there was a large migration to the cities. In part, this was made
up of people leaving the countryside. In part, it was the massive arrival of
refugee Greeks from various parts of the diaspora community.3 From
Russia after the Revolution... from Pontus and the shores of the Black Sea...
and from that part of Asia Minor (Smyrna in particular) which is now Turkey. From
The effect of these forced migrations was to shatter the
previously existing social and economic structures of
So the violent break-up of traditional social structures was
accompanied by another violence, in the ways in which
social spaces and living conditions were organized for the newly arrived
migrants. Large slum communities, shanty towns, grew up around the big cities,
The transition, from 1832 onwards, from a rural to an urban-based economy brought into being a new form of song – the urban song – in the same way that, in the US, the blues songs of the countryside developed into ‘urban blues’ when black labour-power was drawn into jobs in the cities. Within this generic urban song, the distinctive style that we now know as rebetika began to emerge.
It was a musical sub-culture, a music of the lower classes. And this we could call the first phase of rebetika. Petropoulos explains:
The womb of rebetika was the jail and the hash den. It was there that the early rebetes created their songs. They sang in quiet, hoarse voices, unforced, one after the other, each singer adding a verse which often bore no relation to the previous verse, and a song often went on for hours. There was no refrain, and the melody was simple and easy. One rebetis accompanied the singer with a bouzouki or a baglamas [a smaller version of the bouzouki, very portable, easy to make in prison and easy to hide from the police], and perhaps another, moved by the music, would get up and dance. The early rebetika songs, particularly the love songs, were based on Greek folk songs and the songs of the Greeks of Izmir and Istanbul.4
In the large urban ghettos that had developed around
The dynamics of this urban song were transformed utterly by
the arrival of the
In a 1993 interview, Mikis Theodorakis (
Rebetiko music is based on musical modes – it is a modal music – whereas the music of urban songs is tonal. Modal music had its origins in the modes of the ancient world. In ancient Greek music, the modes were a series of eight descending sounds which were characterized by different orderings of tones and semi-tones. There were three main modes – the Dorian, the Phrygian and the Lydian – but there were also others, such as the Ionian, the Mixolydian, the Hypophrygian, etc. In fact Plato himself, in his Republic, distinguishes between Western and oriental music, between the Ionian and the Dorian, and says that oriental music should be rejected...
Both these modes passed into Greek popular song – and also into Arabic and Turkish music. Byzantine scales also had a great influence on Turkish and Arabic music – and the Byzantine scales were based on the Dorian, Ionian, Aeolian scales, etc...
Theodorakis then describes the musical revolution that took
However, rebetiko song significantly remained within the modal tradition, which is
characteristically oriental and ultimately derives from classical
So, at the end of the nineteenth century and the start of
the twentieth, Greek folk song was predominantly modal. In the
But then the refugees arrived from
At this time, the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, was
influenced by tonal music, European music. On the
But the ordinary folk loved and sang Turkish music, with Turkish words, and rebetika, with words in Greek, because these gentle melodies were more in tune with their bitter experiences of life [...] The chosen instruments of the rebetes were the bouzouki and the baglamas (the latter because it was small and could be easily concealed), and these were the instruments played in the prisons... These were men of great sensitivity, who lived in city environments, and whose state of mind could not be expressed in the serenades of the islands, nor in the imported European music, nor in folk song, nor in the Byzantine hymns and the music of the Church. But their feelings could be expressed fully in the rebetika and the bouzouki...8
To this Costas Ferris adds a note about the role of Giovanikas:
The great explosion and development of rebetika came with
the growing popularity of the Smyrnean Minore mode (also known as the ‘Minore
of the Dawn’), which was created towards the end of the nineteenth century by
the violinist Giovanikas. Born in
Markos Vamvakaris and the manges
Sociology apart, the social setting of rebetika is perhaps best summed up in the figure of Markos Vamvakaris. In the words of Lysandros Pitharas:
The 1930s were the Golden Years of rebetika and the life and
times of its most famous composer, Markos Vamvakaris, gives a flavour of what
this era was like. He was born in
On reaching the mainland, he found work loading coal, but quickly discovered the underworld of this tough city. The petty hoodlums and smugglers of the port soon became his friends and by his late teens Markos’ companion was an older whore, and his life that of the tekkedes [hash dens].
Markos had two great loves in his life – smoking hashish and bouzouki. It was not long before he started to become known as a mangas. The nearest English equivalent to the term mangas is wide boy, or spiv. The culture of the manges was so underworld that even Greeks disagree about what they were. Generally, they were twilight characters living on the edge of the law. Many of them spoke their own street dialect (koutsavakika) and dressed with a streetwise swagger (hats, spats, suits). They were involved in the petty crimes of the ghettos, often carrying knives. These were the characters behind the most underworld themes of rebetika – the songs about smuggling, prison and so on.
By 1933 Markos had won their admiration with his music. He
had teamed up with two
I’m a wide boy wandering the streets,
So stoned I don’t recognize anyone I meet.
Óôïýò äñüìïõò êáß ãõñßæù
Êé áð’ ôçí ðïëëÞ ìáóôïýñá ìïõ
ÊáíÝíá äå ãíùñßæù.
(Markos Vamvakaris, Alaniaris, 1935)
But life was cruel to the mangas. Markos’ brother, for instance, died of a drug overdose early in the 1930s. His second brother became a knife-carrying thug, spending most of his life in prison. Artemis too died in 1943 from a drug overdose, an event he prophesied in the most famous rebetiko junkie song, The Junkie’s Lament:
From the time I started to smoke the dose,
The world turned its back on me.
I don’t know what to do.
From sniffing it up I went onto the needle,
And my body began to melt...
Áð’ ôüí êáéñü ðïý Üñ¸éóá ôÞí ðñÝæá íÜ öïõìÜñù
Ï êüóìïò ì’ áðáñíÞèçêå, äÝí îÝñù ôß íÜ êÜíù
Áð’ ôßò ìõôéÝò ðïý ôñÜâáãá Üñ¸éóá êáß âåëüíé
Êáß ôü êïñìß ìïõ Üñ¸éóå óéãÜ-óéãÜ íÜ ëéþíåé.
(Kostis, Apo tote pou archisa, 1910, recorded again by A. Delias, 1934)
The social acceptability of rebetika
Rebetika had its travails. As a musical form, it was banned by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936. The rebetika musicians became targets for arrest and victimization by the authorities. Tekkedes were frequently raided, and if people were caught singing rebetika (or indeed playing the bouzouki), they were likely to be taken for dissolute hash-smokers and shipped off to internal exile.
And the smoking of hashish was no small part of rebetiko
culture. In the
Vassilis Tsitsanis, one of the greats of rebetika, was
apparently singing songs featuring hashish right through the period of Nazi
occupation, but these could only be issued as recordings after 1946, when the
record factories reopened in
The first public sign of rebetika’s emergence into
respectability came in 1948, right in the midst of the fratricidal war that was
Shortly afterwards, with the Civil War ended, rebetika was
‘discovered’. It came out of its low-life backwaters and into night clubs where
rich people went. And at this point the character of the music changed. The
bouzouki went electric, everything went electric, and the players began to
perform for the upper bourgeoisie. Rebetika became a fashion. You only have to
see the photos of Giorgos Zambetas playing for the Kennedy family and Aristotle
Onassis to understand how far it had come from its humble beginnings. The music
became heavily commercialized – over-orchestrated, with insipid lyrics –
especially with the mass production of long-playing records in
At this point we should go back a couple of hundred years to
look at what had been happening musically in
For a Greek to dance, any time of the day is suitable. The
And in 1878 the folk-musicologist Bourgault-Ducoudray wrote:
In the smart salons they sang romantses (a Spanish song-form) with piano accompaniment. The ordinary folk had the ‘cafe-amans’, or musical cafes, which is where the dais13 would hang out, as described by a Smyrniot poet whose name has not come down to us:
I am a dais, and when I dance the khasapiko, the ballo, the
karsilamas and the tsifteteli, with the sweet violin of
Giovanaki, all of
I’m a dais, and ouzo is my god [... ] I have a good time, I dance, I drink and I get drunk, with santouris, and violins, and drums.
What is important in all this is that the musical life of
The musicians who came as refugees were not just semi-skilled amateurs or street musicians:
The musicians, like most of the other refugees, were, in
comparison to the Greeks of the host country, extremely sophisticated; many
were highly educated, could read and compose music, and had even been unionized
in the towns of
Performers and composers of rebetika
The original rebetiko music, as we have said, derived from
In the period 1900–30 these women singers performed in
The distinctive change here was the introduction of the
Western tonal system into the music. Now the Western major and minor scales
entered rebetika alongside the oriental dhromi.15
The key figure in this change was the great bouzoukist
Markos Vamvakaris, born in
Vamvakaris, the composer of the well-known rebetiko song Frangosyriani, set up his famous Piraeus Quartet in the 1930s, which influenced a whole subsequent generation of rebetika performers and composers. His main counterpart in this period was Yannis Papayioannou, the composer of Leave me, leave me... [Ase me, ase me... ].
In chronological terms, the second generation (who came from various parts of the extended Greek community and were all born between 1920 and 1925) included Vamvakaris himself, Dimitris Gongos, Apostolos Kaldaras, Kostas Kaplanis, Giorgos Mitsotakis, Yannis Papayioannou, Stavros Tzouanakos, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Apostolos Hajichristos, Manolis Chiotis, Stelios Chrysinis and Giorgos Zambetas. Some of these had a solid musical training and had no desire to be identified with the older low-life traditions of rebetika – the prisons, the drugs, etc.
In the 1940s there was something of a rebetika revival,
under the auspices of Manolis Chiotis and Vassilis Tsitsanis. Chiotis added a
couple of strings to the bouzouki, thereby extending its potential for musical
virtuosity. Tsitsanis moved the lyrics away from the traditional motifs of
drugs and prison and introduced sentimental and social themes. His ambit saw
the involvement of women singers in the
The Second World War, the German occupation and
During the years of internal exile, first at
In those very difficult years of 1947–49, the terrible years of the Civil War, so full of hatred and death, I believe that the urban songs – discovered by the people, sung at the front by both government soldiers and communist partisans, and sung in the prisons and the internal exile camps – had a fundamental importance for people’s stability of mind. It was the element that united us.16
No account of rebetika would be complete without a note on
the recordings that are available. Here excellent work has been done on the
Internet, and I would refer the reader to my
The richness of rebetiko history prevents any comprehensive list here. Artists to look out for in each of the various periods are as follows:
* For the oriental-style rebetika of the ’30s listen to Rosa Askenazi and Rita Abatzi, the twin stars of the period. Their exquisite voices are especially known for their rendering of the Middle Eastern lament, the amané.
* For the music of the
* For the ’40s and ’50s, look out for the music of Sotiria Bellou and of Marika Ninou, around whose life a famous film, called Rebetiko, was based. In Bellou and Ninou, the name Vassilis Tsitsanis often appears. He is considered one of the greatest composers and singers in the Twilight era, along with Papayioannou, a gangly, grinning composer famous for his lyrical melodies of great charm.
* For the revival period, buy the Giorgos Dalaras records of rebetika. Listen also to Eleftheria Arvanitaki, the best female singer among the rebetika revivalists.17
Elias Petropoulos was born in
Petropoulos is a terrific man of Greek letters. There is a
boldness of conception in the way that he combines sociological research with
biting satire, guaranteed to get up the noses of
The second prison term came three years later, with the publication of his Kaliarda (1971), a unique dictionary of Greek homosexual slang. The next moment of notoriety came with his publication of The Manual of the Good Thief (1979), a shocking description of conditions in Greek prisons, which Petropoulos had experienced at first hand. Apart from its factual content, the book has a biting edge of satire that appalled some and delighted many, and it remains a favourite among free-thinkers to this day.18 It was immediately banned (by this time Greece had emerged from Fascism, but the old laws still applied) and both Petropoulos, by then resident in Paris, and his publisher were sentenced to eighteen months in prison. Today it can be freely bought in any bookstore.
The range and diversity of Petropoulos’ writings over the years can be judged from the Bibliography: Turkish Coffee in Greece (1979); The Brothel (1980), a study of historical and present-day brothels in Greece; Graves of Greece (1982), a remarkable illustrated essay on Greek graveyards; Holy Hashish (1987), a detailed sociology and practical handbook of hashish; Corpses, Corpses, Corpses... (1988), the author’s macabre memories of the occupation of Greece and the ensuing Civil War; and The Moustache (1989), a study of the moustache in the culture of Balkan manhood.
The year 1999 has seen the publication of his illustrated History of the Condom, and a republication of his Cemeteries of Greece is in the pipeline. And rest assured, there is more to come. At the age of 72, Petropoulos is not stopping yet!
Aqua Dolce, Levanto
1. Lysandros Pitharas, Music of the Outsiders, leaflet, 1988. This accompanied the documentary made for British television (Channel Four).
2. Ole L. Smith, ‘New Evidence on Greek Music in the
3. In November–December 1993 the Athens-based music magazine
Defi published a special issue (no.
18) on the Greek diaspora in
4. See Petropoulos’ preface (pp. 13–14) to: Katharine Butterworth and Sara Schneider (eds), Rembetika, Songs from the Old Greek Underworld, with essays by Markos Dragoumis, Ted Petrides and Elias Petropoulos, Komboloi, Athens, 1975.
5. Pitharas, Music of the Outsiders, op. cit.
6. By way of a side note, the complex interplay of Greek
song and dance with the indigenous traditions of
7. As the price for Greek participation on the side of the
Entente in the First World War, the Allied Supreme Council in
8. Vassilis Vassilikos, ‘Interview with Mikis Theodorakis’, Euros, no. 5–6, Sept.–Dec. 1993; similar ground is covered in the George Giannaris biography, Mikis Theodorakis: Music and Social Change, Allen & Unwin, London, 1973.
9. Costas Ferris, CD-Rom Encyclopaedia of Rebetika, in preparation.
10. Suzanne Aulin and Peter Vejleskov, Chasikilidhika Traghoudhia, Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, 1991; Grèce: La tradition du Rébétiko. Chansons des fumeries et des prisons, performed by the Rebetiko Tsardi group, Ocora 558648 (1985/9).
11. Giorgos Dalaras has produced a wonderful record of rebetika songs of the Occupation period, with sleeve notes containing illustrated source materials. Giorgos Dalaras, ÑåìðÝôéêá ôçò Êáôï¸Þò [Rebetika of the Occupation], Minos DAL–MSM 391 (1980).
12. Cited in the special issue of Defi magazine, vol. 18, Nov.–Dec. 1993, devoted to an overview of
the music of
13. The dais (pl. daides) was the ‘tough guy’, usually armed and a sort of hero of the underworld. There were three ‘classes’, or categories: 1. The ‘real, wise dais’: usually a quiet, not-so-young man who had done time in prison (the crime would have been a serious offence, but one respected by all the outlaws as a ‘crime of honour’). This man had now been accepted back into society and would have some independent job such as working as a bodyguard, keeping a coffee-shop, managing workers in the port, etc. He was very fair in his dealings with his clients, whether friends or strangers, and would not harm anybody – unless he was morally offended or insulted, in which case he could kill. He was also very loyal and ready to protect the people he loved and admired (i.e. singers or musicians). He had a very strong sense of justice. 2. The ‘second-class dais’: usually a common criminal who was constantly in and out of prison. He liked to act as a ‘tough guy’, trying to provoke someone into giving him a reason to kill. 3. The ‘pseudo-dais’, or koutsavakis: a young outsider who imitated the real daides by walking lamely (koutsos means lame), dressing like a mangas and wearing only one sleeve of his jacket. He was incapable of handling a real fight and played the ‘tough guy’ only in his dealings with the weak and the very young. [I am indebted to Costas Ferris for this information.]
14. S. Broughton et al. (eds), The Rough Guide to World Music (
15. For further information on dhromi, see my
16. Vassilikos, ‘Interview with Theodorakis’, op. cit.
17. The biggest stockist of rebetika, and indeed all Greek
music, in the
Zeno’s Greek bookshop has a stock of books on rebetika and
orders titles from
18. The Manual of the
Good Thief [Åã¸åéñßäéïí ôïõ Êáëïý ÊëÝöôç], Digamma,
* This article is reprinted from Rebetika: Songs of the
Greek Underworld, ed. and trans. Ed Emery, Saqi Books, 26 Westbourne Grove,