Melancholy Moods: Rebetika Music

Music as rich in content as the blues and based on real life, rebetika came alive in Greece during the 1920's.

Melancholy Moods: Rebetika Music

Culture Facts

Where: Greece
What’s it about: Asia Minor immigrants equivalent of the blues, songs of hardship, pain and politics
Experience: Heard in the cafes and clubs of Athens and Thessaloniki

History of Rebetika

Music as rich in content as the blues and based on real life, rebetika came alive in Greece during the 1920’s. It was after the destruction of the city of Smirna in Asia Minor by the Turks, and the huge influx of refugees into Greece. In the wake of the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the population exchange of 1923, huge numbers of refugees settled in Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Volos and other harbor cities.

Rebetiko probably originated in the music of the larger Greek cities, most of them coastal, in today’s Greece and Asia Minor during the Ottoman era. In these cities the cradles of rebetiko were likely to be the ouzeri, the hashish dens (tekedes) with hookahs, coffee shops and even the prison.

During the 1930s, the relatively sophisticated musical styles met with and blended  the more heavy-hitting local urban styles.

This historical process has led to a currently used terminology intended to distinguish between the clearly Asia Minor oriental style, often called “Smyrneïka”, and the bouzouki-based style of the 1930s, often called Piraeus style. Also, the use of mandolin was totally vanished.

By the end of the 1930s rebetiko had reached what can reasonably be called its classic phase, in which elements of the early Piraeus style, elements of the Asia Minor style, clearly European and Greek folk music elements, had fused to generate a genuinely syncretic musical form. Simultaneously, with the onset of censorship, a process began in which rebetiko lyrics slowly began to lose what had been their defining underworld character. This process extended over more than a decade.

Rebetika Style and Instruments

The lyrics talk of their hardship, pain, love, drugs, and politics, all of it illegal at that time but facts of real life for people who had lost their loved ones, their homes, their jobs and were violently thrown out form their homeland.

The music is highly influenced by eastern elements, and accompanied by traditional instrumentation from the bouzouki and baglama.

In the early years Rebetika was the characteristic music of the lower classes, and was banned because of its lyrics. Soon, though, it became very popular, and today one of the major markers of Greek culture can be heard in places called ‘Rebetadika‘, mostly in Athens and Thessaloniki where the first refugees settled.

Famous songwriters and performers of that period are Markos Vamvakaris, Papaioannou, Batis, Payoumtzis, Stelakis Perpiniadis and many more.

By Villy Ioannou

main image: Rembetes 1933 in Karaiskaki, Piraeus. Left with bouzouki Markos Vamvakaris, in middle with guitar Yiorgos Batis.

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