Censorship in Rebetiko from 1937 onwards, and a specific case involving Vassilis Tsitsanis and Markos Vamvakaris [Draft version]
by Nikos Politis [
Looking back into historical
aspects of censorship issues in
beginning of the 20th century, the international record industry made its first
breakthrough into the Greek-speaking market, producing a relatively large
amount of recorded material of Greek interest. Recordings were taking place not
Let us now
take a closer look into the musical and sociological events in
Greek musical tradition is an oriental one, from ancient times on. But starting
perhaps in the 18th century, an initially small part of the Greek society
commenced looking towards the Western civilization in all aspects, including of
course music. This tendency grew bigger with the years. In the 20th century the
“western” oriented part already makes out a significant percentage in the big
cities. It is thus understandable that this part of the society is not at all
happy when kinds of music like the Smyrneika style or the proto-rebetika songs
are gaining publicity and strength. Indeed, in more and more parts of the
cities the gramophones play more and more of the “oriental” type of music,
especially as the refugees from
Another important parameter is the increasing use among the low-life of drugs and related stuff. And this is mirrored directly into the textual content of the song. A significant part of newer or older songs is dealing with this aspect and the good or the bad associated with it.
Under these circumstances the conservative, solid bourgeoisie easily came to correlate refugees and other, non-integrated parts of the society with both drugs and orientally-influenced music. There has always been sporadic criticism in the press against “oriental” music, already from the 19th century, but there have been positive statements too. However, especially after the inflow of about one million refugees from Asia Minor into what was then still the small Greek state, the dislike among the “western oriented” establishment became increasingly pronounced as we entered the second and especially the third decade of the century.
press of the period we often find comments where
Another comment, from the year 1917, is signed by a well known poet of the time: Describing his feelings when listening to those songs of the Orient, he wonders:
this crying Greek? Who has put those lowly wails into his mouth?”. He then goes on asking for “ruthless chase of the Turkish
musical state established within the free Greek state and for the pitiless
taxation of the santour, the “asian piano” (he probably means the
Kanun). Every import of music records from Smyrna should be prohibited, he
adds, and continues: “orientalists will perhaps mourn over the chasing of a
music so passionate, but I suppose that the very passion of this music is the
barbaric element in it, a non – structured passion revealing a nomadic and
fatalistic race full of grief and not capable of expressing something clear
about her misery. And in the end, to speak clearly, the presence of this music
The man directly associates the
songs he dislikes with plain crime, and he is not alone in this direction.
Other scholars, on the other hand, were fond of the popular songs of the time,
the rebetiko that is, or at least tolerated them. One of the best- known Greek
composers of the 20th century, although having studied in
But no one, of course, tolerated drugs or crime. From the triangle “rebetiko music, drugs, crime”, which public opinion saw as being responsible for the musical decadence of Greek society, the only element remaining uncontrolled was – the rebetiko music.
So, what could have been easier than just imposing a ban on rebetiko, it is that simple. But here we should not forget that we were (still…) living in a liberal society. A ban on songs was somewhat difficult to digest. And suddenly, something happened that changed things dramatically: in the year of 1936 a dictatorship was established in the country, under the leadership of the almost legendary Ioannis Metaxas.
The Metaxas regime had all the characteristics of a national-fascist regime of the time. In an interview with his daughter Barbara Metaxas, featured in a film by Luc Bongrand in the 1990s, she recalls “My late father was dreaming of the Greeks listening to western classical music only”…
Only weeks after having taken power, the regime supplied the legal background for controlling practically everything in public life, by establishing the so-called Ministry for Press and Tourism. But even before this ministry had the time to prepare or pass any relevant legal procedures for a control of musical records or anything at all, the first case of prohibition of a song appeared: This was the “Barbara case”.
One of the most well known and brilliant composers of the Smyrna school rebetiko, Panayiotis Toundas, “composed” a song under that name: The music was “borrowed” probably from a popular Rumanian folk song, unknown in Greece but of an easily acceptable musical pattern . Lyrics were added and this song was the result:
When darkness falls, our Barb’ra
Spends all night trawling
In Glyfada by the waterfront
Catching fish, big fish
Every evening in her hand
She holds a rod for fishing
And waits for it to twitch
To see what she has caught
And now an eel, a veritable stud
Was very well equipped
To give our Barb a prick
Her lightning rod to wriggle
Barbara did not lose her head
Grabbed hold in both her hands
And squeezed it tight --
She shook with joy and laughter
Watch out Barb’ra girl
And get your satisfaction
An eel like that with such a head
Won’t often come your way
Look out, dear Barb, don’t let go
Slipping through your fingers
To disappear back down again
Keep that head in a good firm grip
She tucks it away inside her creel
And shrieks with pleasure, saying:
“I have the art, I have the skill
And every fish I will make mine
All night I’ll wait for my big fish
My big and juicy fish
To come and bite
And watch as the line stiffens”
The sexual hints are obvious.
What needs explanation is that Glyfada is a sea resort near Athens where
certainly one can go out fishing (trawling too) but, it also was (and is) full
of night clubs, taverns etc. suitable for other kinds of trawling. The song
quickly became the hit of the time. No corner in
“Following a direction from the Minister of the Interior, the Piraeus Police Directorate has communicated a circular to all local departments by which the use of the musical record “Barbara” is prohibited. Individuals singing this song or playing it on gramophones will be prosecuted.”
Days later, records from the shops were confiscated and the composer, singer and legal representative of the record company were brought to court, where they were found guilty anf fined.
spontaneous reaction of the “Minister of the Interior” could have been an
isolated case, likely to have happened in many societies even of
Mandatory law No. 1619 / 1939, Art. 21:
“Before any recording activities an application for record permission is to be submitted to the Directorate for Enlightenment of the Populus in the Ministry, supported by copies of the verses and the music sheets of the song to be recorded. The application is forwarded to the relevant committee composed of the Director for Enlightenment, an official from Inland Press Department, an official from the Enlightenment Department and two artists experienced in popular and folk music. […] The committee has to produce a judgment and to this purpose it may ask for performance of the song by the artist, musical director and instruments planned to appear on the record. The committee may prohibit the recording altogether or ask for modification of either the verses or the music of the piece, in order to give the permission, in case the submitted elements are contradictory, fully or partly, to the morals of virtue or decency, corrupt the artistic sense of the People or falsify the authentic spirit of Greek tradition…”
This was the beginning of a new era in the rebetiko scene. It was serious; these people really meant it. And indeed, the whole scene in Greek musical life changed, as it did of course in every other aspect, too. All established artists of the time had to abide accordingly, the result being that all songs touching important social or other problems disappeared, and of course it was exactly this kind of songs that had given rebetiko the style we know so well. From now on there was only space for harmless love songs or songs of “joy” and of ideal societies with no problems at all.
From the side of music, not many things changed in the so called “light” music, since it was western oriented already. But in the rebetiko scene, we start observing a slow but steady turn of orientation towards western rules. The solo instruments (bouzouki and baglama) were retained, since for many years already they did not support oriental intervals. But more and more, “primo secondo” harmonies are introduced in place of traditional oriental monophonic / unisono melody, other well tempered instruments like accordion or even piano are introduced, the guitar as an accompanying instrument gradually learns chords more complicated than mere major and minor schemes, even diminished chords appear.
All these changes had started before censorship already. But the new situation accelerates the western penetration and creates a positive climate towards the “modern” approach. It is also remarkable that practically not one artist from the old schools reacted, with only one exception, the big Smyrna School composer Evangelos Papazoglou, who never submitted one single song for approval until his death, several years later. It is interesting, here, to see how Markos Vamvakaris reacted to the new situation. In his autobiography he says: “I started writing what they wanted me to write. I modified my writing, to abide by the rules.”
of the musicians that stamped the new style of rebetiko under censorship is of
course the legendary Vassilis Tsitsanis. The ingenious composer and interpreter
of rebetiko was a native of
As we said, typical rebetiko music was already being performed with well-tempered, Western scales. But despite this, typical oriental modes such as ussak, kurdi, even chromatic modes such as hijaz, huzzam, nihavent, etc. did not disappear. They just changed their names and were all designated as “major” or “minor” accordingly. But in order to keep the structure of a hijaz, for example, a sharp or flat sign had to be introduced so that the three-halftone interval is created. Well, it is exactly these signs that Tsitsanis claimed having erased from the musical text in order to make it look western, according to his opinion at least.
Now we can turn to a specific case where Tsitsanis recalls, many many years later, an example of his work. It is registered in a TV production of the year 1975, signed by Costas Ferris, the famous film director. The production is centered on Tsitsanis and Costas Ferris puts some questions regarding Metaxas regime and the censorship. I have of course to officially thank Costas Ferris for letting me refer to the episode.
Well, Tsitsanis openly admitted, in this production, that he was acting as a “censor” of music at that time. And he gives the following example (I cite):
“Look, Costas, this Metaxas censorship was really necessary after all, it was positive for the music. My job was to help my colleagues correct their melody, by rubbing off the flat signs, so as to pass from the censorship.
“What exactly was this, Vassilis?”
Grasping his bouzouki, Tsitsanis continued:
“Markos (Vamvakaris) had submitted a song for approval, by the name of ‘Alaniara’. In a specific passage he was singing ‘Kathe brady tha SE peRImeno’. This SE (and RI) was one half tone sharper than it should. So I corrected it, rubbing off the sharp sign, and the song was granted the approval.”
“So you are saying that the Metaxas regime wanted to make the songs more western influenced, “European” so to speak.”
He smiled and answered:
“More Greek, I would say.”
To Tsitsanis the “Greek” way was the Western minor scale, not the chromatic one. Lowering the pitch of this critical note by one half tone makes the mode a minor rather than a nihavent, since it turns the chromatic tetrachord into a diatonic one. Neither Tsitsanis nor Markos (who simply obeyed) were aware of this theoretical background but both knew exactly what they were doing.
This is the episode, as recorded by Costas Ferris. However, I have my strong doubts:
The record we are talking about has been published in the year 1935 (exact date is not known, but the relevant catalogue numbers of the record company are known). Given the fact that the “Barbara” song was prohibited in September of this year, a very brief time span of less than three months remains between the time the note sheet was said to be submitted for examination and the date of release of the ready recording. This time span is much too short and, what is more, in the beginning the control of recordings was limited to confiscation of existing records from the shop shelves, while the preventive censorship with control of the note sheets etc. before recording only started in 1939, so the whole episode should be questioned. In any case, what really counts is Tsitsanis’ negative attitude against “oriental” modes, a fact repeatedly stressed by him, and Markos’ readiness to abide by the rules.
The mistake of Tsitsanis is that he was not prepared to accept that Greek traditional music belongs and has always belonged to the family of oriental musics. And, peculiarly enough, this was a fairly widespread view, with one big exception: the great Simon Karas, a researcher who has proved beyond doubt that traditional folk music of (mainland-) Greece, Asia Minor and other Greek speaking regions, together with Greek ecclesiastical music are the two parts of a whole, that of course belongs to this family (of oriental musics). But while the educated ecclesiasticals knew more or less about the theory behind it, the traditional musicians of Greek folk music did not know even the names of the modes they were playing. We owe it to his work that this is widely accepted today among ethnomusicologists in our country and abroad, but the damage is already done.
censorship was established and stayed for quite some decades. Very few years
from 1937, WW II broke out and for five years there was no musical production
CV: Born in
Hydra Rebetiko Conference
13-17 October 2005