Gerhard Steingress - Sociological similarities between Andalusian flamenco, Argentine tango and Greek rebetika - Hydra Rebetiko Conference, October 2004






Return to Rebetology Home Page – Return to Archive Index






by Gerhard Steingress [University of Seville, Spain]


[Hydra Rebetiko Conference, October 2004]




The following exposition deals with three ethnicitarian [1] music styles, with musics that not only express the feelings and experiences of ethnic, social and cultural groups in society, i.e. their mentality, but also are used as a challenge within the process of collective identification. Independently of the formal peculiarities of each of these music-styles, my intention is to demonstrate the extraordinary semantic and socio-cultural similarities of these musics, it tries to emphasize and explain the expressive and interpellative [2] character of flamenco, tango and rebetika as the result of certain historical, social and cultural circumstances that allow to understand them, independently of their former peculiar, exclusive ethnic and national characteristics, as manifestations of intercultural communication.


Andalusian flamenco, Argentine tango and Greek rebetika are not only music-styles that refer to the historical background of the millenarian Mediterranean culture, but also to social exchange and cultural hybridization: they originated between 1850 and 1920 as musical expressions and consequences of the collapse of the old European empires and pre-modern societies, and the rise of the modern nation state, with its urban, industrious society. Unlike the traditional ethnic culture resigned to be a “natural”, ritualized expression of the everyday’s life of the popular classes, modern ethnicitarian music-styles  turned into an element of symbolic identity-construction of the lower and middle classes within a society exposed to social change and mobility. This is, as far as I can say, the most outstanding characteristic of the mentioned music-styles.


1. Characteristics of rebetika, flamenco and tango


Ethnic musical styles play a romanticizing role in the process of establishing different kinds of collective identities and of becoming an artistically defined and manipulated object of intercultural communication. However, new and critical scientific investigation must consider and analyse above all the historical, social and cultural determinants and backgrounds of these ethnic musical styles in order to localize common structures and dynamics that figure into transcultural processes in contemporary societies, characterized by a growing worldwide entanglement and implication of cultural patterns by art performanceBut this phenomenon could not really be explained without considering the crucial influence of changes in consumer’s attitudes: anybody interested in music avoids reducing his musical taste to what his own, national culture offers him. Today`s musical experience extends far beyond national limits – an extension facilitated by modern technology, a highly developed entertainment-industry and a global market, all of which enables one to "receive" world-wide musical expression at any moment and in any place.


Relying here on studies of flamenco, tango and rebetika, we emphasize the important socio-cultural determinants and phenomenological particularities of this newly emergent musical experience, namely nationally defined, ethnically loaded, highly sensual types of “passionate musics”.[3]  These three previously mentioned styles originally appeared within the period between about 1850 (flamenco) [4], 1895 (tango) [5] and 1920 (rebetika) [6] as synthesized models of artistic popular music, related to urban subculture and marginalised groups, alcohol and drug-consumption, prostitution and crime. This social background created new attitudes in music, a kind of expressivity narrowly merged with ethnic musical traditions but adapted to the new necessities of urban subcultures. It was probably this ambiguous affinity not only to modern urban culture but also to nostalgic traditionalism that turned these musics into vehicles of identity-construction in a supposed chaotic social environment. Due to professional artistic efforts, tourism and modern mass-media, they became part of modern popular ethnic-music. They point to a series of similar structural conditions and socio-cultural determinants within societies caught up in processes of modernization, i.e. the transition from traditional, agrarian, pre-capitalist society into modern, urban national capitalistic society. Their common peculiarities are summarized below, referring to some of the characteristic manifestations of each of the discussed styles:


a) In its origins we find a clear reference to certain kind of social marginalised groups, outcasts and otusiders, who opposes the newly established social and political order of bourgeois society. The fact that these marginalised groups did not -would not- conform to the conditions of modern life may explain not only the intensity of emotion in their musical expression, but also their frequent ardent nostalgic attitude towards the past, traditional life-stile and its values. So we find ballads and heroic poems (romances) related to romanticized popular heros: the gaucho (Martín Fierro) in the case of tango; the gitano (Gipsy) and the bandolero (Diego Corrientes, El Tempranillo) in the case of flamenco; and the koutsavakithes, vlamithes, tsiftes and rebetes (outsiders), what refers to rebetika.


b) According to their social status as outsiders and/or immigrants, these groups appeared in the suburban and subcultural environment of big cities and with their typical social and ethnic local colour of prisons, brothels and taverns. It is the case of the arrabales (suburbs) and the lupanares (brothels) of Buenos Aires, or that ot the Andalusian corrales (corrals), ventas (inns) and cafés cantantes, as well as the Café Amán and teké.


c) The subcultural origin of these styles is reflected in a peculiar music, dance and manner of singing, marked by extremely passionate, expressive and highly sensitive attitudes related to love, sorrow, pain, loneliness, death or to overwhelming delight and sensual eagerness expressed by the voice and the body. Explicit erotic female attraction is present especially in the tsifte-teli (belly dance/rebetika), the bule­ría/flamenco and the tango in general). In the case of flamenco and rebetika, eroticism is related to the image of sinful female Gypsies. What in tango-history refers to the milonga (or sandunguera) as a charming, but superficial woman, is the Andalusian flamenca; both types of female singers and dancers used to be related to prostitution in certain moments of the history of the corresponding music-styles.


d) All three kinds of music-styles originated in eclectic compositions based on different local and ethnic traditions of dances and songs [such as the milonga, habanera, tango andaluz (tango); canción andaluza, bolero, seguidillas, tonás (flamenco); casaka (cossack dance), allegro (slavic dance), tsifte-teli, zeibekiko, jail-songs (rebetika)] and converted in new types of song and dance within the cafés, brothels and neighbourhoods. Besides traditional influences in these musics, other modern tendencies in music also played and still play a decisive role, including the operetta, the chanson, jazz, rock and so on.


e) The representative types of these styles are characterized by a pronounced male chauvinism (machismo) as a reflex of the general cultural attitude of the social environment: the Argentinian compadrito (fellow), reo (tramp, rea: bitch) or lunfa; the Andalusian flamenco (as the former Gipsy-like majo or fellow), and the Greek manga or rebetis. Pronounced extravagance in dressing and appearance, the attitude of carrying knives or sticks and the relation to the world of the Gypsies is frequent, not only in the case of flamenco, but also in rebetika (giftos means as well "musician" as "Gipsy"), although less in the case of tango (La Moreira).


f) Regarding their manner of speaking, every one of these three subcultural groups generated and used their proper slang in their songs (lunfardo/tango; flamenco or caló/flamenco; mangika/rebetika).


g) The subproletarian, subcultural and ethnically multicolored environment of these music-styles found its artistic representation in the tanguero or tanguera/tango; the flamenco or flamenca/flamenco and the rebetis/rebetika. As a result, the former "outsiders" became professional artists and representatives of a peculiar artistic subculture, which are often considered as objects of (national) identity, especially by the lower social classes and the bohemians.


h) In general terms, these music-styles represent a kind of subcultural music characterized especially by the conflictive relation between social and ethnic factors. What in flamenco relates to payos and gitanos, in rebetika also points to the conflictive relation of Asia Minor Greeks an continental Greeks, as well as of Turkish and Greek culture. And in the case of tango, the massive immigration of Euoropean lower-class people at the end of the nineteenth century also created conflictive social, cultural and ethnic situations.


2. Explanatory model


In a second step I will try to systematize the social, cultural and ethnic factors in a kind of explanatory model that takes into consideration the origins, functions and consequences of subcultural popular music as an artistic manifestation within societies in the process of transition towards modernity. According to this end, the following propositions are made:


a) The above-mentioned subcultural musical styles appeared in conjunction with the transition of agrarian societies and traditional rural culture into modern industrial societies with civic urban and bourgeois culture as a hegemonic system of habits and beliefs, submitted to the necessities of the modern state. According to social-class differentiation in high and folk culture, the former traditional rural culture became an object of reinterpretation and adaption to the needs of lower and middle urban popular classes by a new generation of artists. The effect of this new artistic orientation was the transformation of the traditional agrarian culture in nostalgic folklore and the modern mass-produced popular culture (see Abercrombie et al. 1992: 131 f.).


b) This transformation included a double tendency in the use of the cultural/ethnic heritage: on the one side, it expressed the necessities of popular classes to redefine their cultural identity in terms of nationalism within the newly established bourgeois society in a predominantely non-industrialized, agrarian area. On the other side, it was strongly influenced and even submitted to the romantic idea of seeking this new identity proceeding from the re-animation of the heroic historic past and certain idealized popular social and cultural patterns. The newly created urban popular music caused enthusiasm not only in the lower and the marginalised social classes, but also in those sectors of the pauperized middle and upper class-society which were unable to adapt themselves to the new social order. Accordingly, the Andalusian society of the second part of the 19th century constructed a spontaneous cultural expression out of the polychromatic pot-pourri of old-fashioned folklore, nostalgic reminiscence and imitation of the so called traditional dances and airs – but at the same time mixed up with modern popularized Spanish operetta-romances and Italian opera-arias. In this sense, flamenco is just one example of music-styles that can be seen as a sensual manifestation of the need for adaptation of lost traditional culture and cultural traditions to upcoming new cultural necessities of modern society and the claim for continuity and cultural identity in a changing world.


c) True to the ideas of Romanticism and Neo-Romanticism, cultural identity had to be sought in the traditional popular manifestations of the historical past of the new-born nations. Nation-building often requires the construction of collective identity based on popular culture. But in order to demarcate one’s own identity from those of  others, only the most singular, most exotic and most fascinating elements of ethnic expression were accepted in order to imagine national culture. By roughly 1850, Romanticism had already cleared the way for a more realistic perception of culture; thus, stereotypic ascription of "mentality" was being advanced as a kind of positivistic reification of social and cultural patterns, that is cultural essentialism.


d) Due to the social dynamics of the industrial society and the rise of modern democracy, the decline of traditional (folk)culture emphasized the existence of modern mass-culture as a highly diferentiated compound of social subcultures. The dominant romantico-idealistic approach towards identity-construction converted certain marginalized social-groups into objects of long-sought national representation (see Salinas 1898). Accordingly, the creation of a national image was based on the existence of certain, predominantly marginalised social groups, whose cultural attitudes and aesthetic expression became an independent (alienated) ideological construct in order to create national culture as an eclectic compound of what was considered popular art.


e) This new kind of popular art mined the quarry of traditional folk-culture in order not only to invent a second-hand-folklore or folklorism (see Martí 1994, 1996) as an ideological concept, but also to strengthen popular identification with the nation state as the political institution of the social class system.


f) Consequently, in their origins, flamenco, tango and rebetika must be considered artistic expressions of certain marginalized and ethnically multi-structural urban social groups, but with a still strong nostalgic (romantic) hang-over from the past traditional culture. Due to this fact, the manner of speaking, dressing, moving, singing and dancing were considered as elements of typical national representation and the related music became a kind of popular philosophy that was estimated not only by the lower classes. Notwithstanding, as a symbolic manifestation of mentality, these musics also stimulated folklorism and populism as ideological instruments to cover social and cultural antagonisms.


g) Today, as the consequence of artistic popularization and nationalization of former subcultural styles, tango, flamenco and rebetika have lost very much of their original notoriety within the frame-work of Modernity and have become either national representations of regional folklore, or elements of the creation of transcultural musical styles within the postmodern phenomenon of world-music. This fact makes it necessary to differentiate clearly between the social and cultural background of the mentioned music-styles and its use today.


3. Ethnicitarian music in the postmodern age


The relation between romanticism and postmodern feeling is highly evident. The significance of traditional popular and “exotic” music-styles for the postmodern idiosyncrasy can’t be denied. As we can see today, the existence of those marginalised social and ethnical groups (Gipsies and cheats, robbers, beggars, prostitutes and souteneurs, immigrants etc.) only influenced the latter musical styles in their origins. The flamencos, lunfas and rebetes or manges were soon converted into models of extravagant and – at the same time- nostalgic behaviour, represented above all by bohemian artists and imitated by members of (urban) lower and middle classes. Within the field of symbolic game,  these excluded "others" soon became "objects of desire" (Featherstone 1992: 283) and the identification with their artistic expressivity is commonly received as a symbolical gratification for their former social discrimination. The common romantic identification with ethnic music-styles is still seen as a gesture of sympathy with the marginalised social and ethnic groups in modern society. But there is no doubt that according to the demands of the growing artistic market, the original, spontaneous music-styles were rapidly developed, transformed and adapted by professional or semi-professional musicians and dancers: the former wild and primitive music and dances received special attention and accentuation by the bohemian artists as specialists for subcultural behaviour and emphasized sensual amusement. Given  the romantic appreciation of the primitive, the crude and unorthodox expressivity (e.g. of "deep song"), related to the "celebration of the grotesque body – fattening food, intoxicating drink, sexual promiscuity" (Featherstone 1992: 283; see also Mitchell 1994: 43 f.), the new genres responded  to the psychology of the working and the new middle-classes and their necessity for erotic pleasure in a highly repressive environment. Hence, the craze for amusement or even melancholy thoughtfulness of working-class people was frequently considered and criticised by factory-owners as unproductive attitudes and idleness, as bohemianism or even anarchism (see Martín 1995). Voluptuousness and capitalistic labour-discipline did not fit together, although contemporary leisure-society soon became adapted to its contradictory constitution. Consequently, social and sexual oppression are  still important reasons for the postmodern search of passionate expression with the help of ethnic music. The tragedy not only refers to social relations, but also to gender-conflicts.


Unlike the generally collective character of folkloric dances, the sensual attraction of the male and female body was cultivated and particularly pronounced by the new subcultural and highly individualistic popular genres as a mostly unconscious expression of ambiguous gender-relations. Notorious in flamenco is the psychological drama of the male, involved hopelessly in the wickerwork of emotional relations between his mother and his bride as the reason both of his fear of castration and male-chauvinist reaction, which relates the flamenco with the alcohol dominated juerga, the tough-guy and the environment of prostitution. In the case of tango, it is quiet the same (see Reichardt 1981: 167 ff.), and Rebetika also deals with carnal desires of hashish-smoking and sexual attraction. By the way: the most recent example is Algerian rai, it confronts the explicit prohibition of alcohol and liberal sexual love in Muslim cultures as one of the main themes – similar to rock-music in the sixties, with its combination of drugs, love and hot music (Schade-Poulsen 1999).


Besides harboring these elements of individualism and corporeality, tango and flamenco, as well as rebetika (and probably other similar bohemian ethnic musics) can also be analysed as sites of intercultural communication and interpellation (see Frith 1990; Middleton 1989; Vila 1995). According to this concept, it is the audience itself which assigns signification to the music. Postmodern collective identities consequently are constructed in the course of a bargain: "What is adopted as a mark of identity has first to be negotiated" (Vester 1996: 99). This concept (based on earlier works of Collier & Thomas, 1988; DeVos & Ross, 1982 and McCall, 1976) allows one  to analyse popular music styles as mass media supported artistic events which transmit certain symbols and significance, values, habits and rules of behaviour all of which figure into the production of social identities in situations of postmodern transculturality. This "sharing" of identifying attributes as a prerequisite of identification of the "self" with "the others" appeals, for example, to gender relations or to relations between different social or ethnic groups, national minorities or generations. In any case, one must attend to the given historical background and situation where this aesthetically and musically edged bargain takes place. It is also necessary to include the dominant paper and the effects of the market, as well as the socializing function of a music whose peculiarities are preformed by economic and hegemonic interests (see Adorno 1980).


As the case of flamenco shows, for example, its value and function in modern Andalusian culture has changed very much, but it still represents the probably most important medium for Andalusian (and Spanish) Gitano self-identification and cultural self-esteem. I think, something similar could be said with respect to rebetika. As Robertson and others point out, cultural globalization is far away from pushing us toward a unique global culture. It is better to speak of “glocalization” as a global process of transcultural hybridization, where local cultures merge with others at the same time that they pronounce and develop their own peculiarities. It is true that the origin of this kind of acculturated bargain of collective identities and self-concepts via popular music dates to the nineteenth century, but contemporary society claims for a new collective identity as an ideological basis for strengthening social cohesion in the face of increasing social and nationalistic conflicts.



1. "Ethnicitarian" (adj. from "ethnicity") refers to those ethnic/cultural characteristics which become a special reference-frame for national/ethnic identification. Whilst "ethnic music", for example, means that kind of music that belongs to the every-day's life of a singular (mostly pre-modern, traditional) ethnic community, "ethnicitarian music" (see: "musical nationalism") is a construct in order to create national/ethnic sentiments and consciousness. As we can see with respect to the mentioned music-styles, the ethnic and the ethnicitarian (the spontaneous and the functional) usually are closely related and interwoven.

2. "Interpellative" refers to situations of mutual challenge or appeal: ethnicitarian musics "provoke" a reaction (either identification or delimitation) by part of "the others". As Pelinski points out, "the interpellation is an imaginary mechanism of mutual recognition where ideology constitutes  individuals as subjects of experience (...). In this process, ideology works in a way that it 'recruits' subjects between the individuals (...), or 'transforms' the individuals into subjects by the action of interpellation or hailing..." (Pelinski 2000: 166). In our case, the concept "interpellation" in music (or by music) helps us to explain the construction of social identities under the strong impact of hegemonic ideology (for example: nationalism, ethnocentrism).

3. See Washabaugh (1998), which includes several articles dedicated to the mentioned music styles, especially those from Gail Holst-Warhaft ("Rebetika: The Double-descended Deep Songs of Greece") and Angela Shand ("The Tsifte-teli Sermon: Identity, Theology, and Gender in Rebetika").

4. See Steingress 1997.

5. See Reichardt 1987; also Pelinski 1995.

6. See Holst 1975.



Abercrombie, N. Lash, S., and Longhurst, B. (1992), ‘Popular Representation: Recasting Realism’, in S. Lash and J. Friedman (eds), Modernity and Identity, Cambridge: Blackwell, pp. 115-140.

Asensio Llamas, S. (2002), “The Politics of Hybridization in Rai Music”, in Steingress, G. (ed.), pp. 51-82.

Collier, M. & Thomas, M. (1988), “Cultural Identity. An Interpretive Perspective”, in Y. Yun Kim & W. B. Gudykunst (eds), Cross-Cultural Adaptation, (International and Intercultural Communication Annual, Vol. 11), Newbury Park: Sage, pp. 99-120.

DeVos, G. & Ross, L. (1975), “Ethnic Identity: Vessel of Meaning and Emblem of Contrast”, in G. DeVos & L. Ross (eds), Ethnic Identity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 363-390.

Featherstone, M. (1992), “Postmodernism and the Aestheicization of Everyday Life, in S. Lash and J. Friedman (eds), Modernity & Identity, Cambridge: Blackwell, pp. 265-290.

Frith S. (1990), “What is good music?”, in J. Shepherd (ed.), Alternative Musicologies/Les Musicologies Alternatives, Canadian University Music Review, (Special Number), pp. 92-102.

(1996), Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reichardt, D. (1981), Tango. Verweigerung und Trauer. Kontexte und Texte, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Holst, G. (1975), Road to Rembetika. Music of a Greek sub-culture. Songs of love, sorrow and hashish, Limni, Evia: Denise Harvey. [Third edition, reprinted with amendments 1994].

Holst-Warhaft, G. (2002), “The Tame Sow and the Wild Boar. Hybridization and the Rebetika, in Steingress, G. (ed.), pp. 21-50.

Martí, J. (1994), “Katalanische Volksmusik als ethnisches Konstrukt”, in C. Lipp (ed.), Medien populärer Kultur: Erzählung, Bild und Objekt in der volkskundlichen Forschung, Frankfurt/New York: Campus, pp. 242-251.

 ----- (1996), El folklorismo: Uso y abuso de la tradición, Barcelona: Ronsel.

Martín Corrales, E. (1995), "Pre-flamenco en Barcelona a fines del siglo XVIII y comienzos del siglo XIX", XXIII Congreso de Arte flamenco, Santa Coloma de Gramanet, pp.15-37.

McCall, G.J. (1976), “Communication and negotiated identity”. Communi- cation, 2, River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 173-184.

Middleton, R. (1989), The Study of Popular Music, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Mitchell, T. (1994), Flamenco Deep Song, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pelinski, R. (dir.) (1995), Tango nomade. Études sur le tango transculturel, Montréal: Triptyque.

 ----- (2000), Invitación a la etnomusicología. Quince fragmentos y un tango, Res Cantos/Madrid: Akal.

Salillas, R. (1898), El delincuente espańol. Hampa. (Antriopología picaresca), Madrid: Librería de Victoriano Suarez.

Schade-Poulsen, M. (1999), Men and Popular Music in Algeria. The Social Significance of Raď, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Steingress (ed.) (2002), Songs of the Minotaur. Hybridity and Popular Music in the Era of Globalization. A comparative analysis of Rebetika, Tango, Rai, Flamenco, Sardana, and English urban folk, Münster-Hamburg-London: LIT.

----- (1997), Cante Flamenco. Zur Kultursoziologie der andalusischen Moderne, Frankfurt am Main-Berlin-Bern-New York-Paris-Wien: Peter Lang. [Reedition: ANDA, Münster (2005)].

Washabaugh, W. (ed.) (1998), The Passion of Music and Dance. Body, Gender and Sexuality, Oxford/New York: Berg.

Vester, H.G. (1996), Kollektive Identitäten und Mentalitäten. Von der Völkerpsychologie zur kulturvergleichenen Soziologie und interkulturellen Kommunikation, Frankfurt am Main: IKO-Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation.

Vila, P. (1995), “La nomadisation intérieure. Le tango et la formation des identités ethniques en Argentine”, in R. Pelinski (dir.), Tango nomade, Montréal: Triptyque, pp. 77-108.






Free Web Hosting