Rebetiko > Biographies > Hatzidakis 1949 Lecture

This is a very interesting and (possibly) important lecture, given in the year I was born, which I heard of some time ago. When I found it on the web, I asked the owners of the web page if I could use it. I asked very politely. Twice. Since they didn't answer, I have assumed they don't care. Here it is.

Hatzidakis 1949 Lecture on Rebetiko

I should like first of all to advise you that despite my good intentions what I have to say this evening is neither new nor does it contain any words of wisdom. Nevertheless, I'll do the best I can to convey to you what enthrals me and makes me appreciate the city's hitherto roving tune.

Now if this laudatory talk on rebetiko songs had been delivered two years earlier, its manner may have been somewhat different: more biased, let us say, and more enthusiastic about the treasure hidden in the zeibekiko and the hasapiko rhythms. Possibly, we may not have been able to avoid the bouzouki's fascinating hyaline echoes in order to get to the root of our subject matter, and perhaps even unable to maintain a detached, objective attitude for this purpose. You'll ask, can this be accomplished today? I can't bank on it; but the outspread of the rebetiko in the last two years gives room for hope, albeit precariously premature.

Without a shadow of doubt the rebetiko has made its presence felt, positively or negatively, whether we admit it or not. At the same time it seems to have become fashionable, and naively so, thus incurring our not unwarranted reaction against it and our doubts about the future and the qualitative development of the genre. (In this respect, I take its distinct quality for granted.) Both in this country and abroad everything has to experience a voguish period. Could it be that fifty years ago our demotic songs were spared of this trend as a result of the uprising of advocates of the demotic idiom? Then again, two years previously, didn't the same occur with folkloric art when Theophilos and Panayis Zografos were ranked with Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas?

Who can put a stop to this? Indeed, who will not recognize the need for such a spell of faddishness (let's call it that) until things settle down and return to normality? To my mind, we must wait for this to happen with rebetiko songs. It would be foolish to believe that the hasapiko can or ever will replace the tango. Folk rhythms have something more than it takes to provide for evenings of entertainment, regardless of the fact that this kind of music is standard among the lower classes.

Again it wouldn't be true to say that we can let ourselves go with these stark and so simple rhythms. Only those who drink or use other agents can forget all about social barriers and conventionalities, even if it's only for an hour or so. When we consider the attributes of these rhythms, their dynamic quality fills us with awe, urging us to get to know better this force, which, forthwith, as if by magic, brings us in direct contact with its melodic element. But all this can be tiresome if you don't see it beyond its everydayness. Any attempt at routinizing rebetiko songs is not only frivolous but also doomed to fail. But doesn't this also apply to other music, the one we call serious? Can anyone possibly imagine that Beethoven's Sonata No. 11O can drive dull care away?

You might well ask what does the rebetiko have to do with Beethoven. I shall come to this later with other comparisons, but for now I can tell you that there's no connection whatsoever.

So the snobbish way that people look upon rebetiko songs should not dissuade us from studying their qualities, thereby appreciating their sincerity and power. These songs are so much part of us, there's nothing to rival them.

Before we take a closer look at this type of song, please indulge my wish to turn to the not-too-distant past so that we can all follow the developmental process of the poetic atmosphere peculiar to rebetiko songs within their own strict confines.

Wartime. I'm walking with a friend along an empty, frozen road lit by the pale moonlight alone. The delicate but penetrating sound of a bouzouki, as though reflected on the asphalt, is following us step by step. My friend is trying to explain to me the escapist tendency and the persistence to this end of the four notes in the roving, at the time, song, "Tha pao eki stin arapia" (I'm off to Arabia/Africa). In vain did he try to convey his emotion to me and also show me the relation of this "escapist tendency" as he called it, to the occasioned atmosphere in the city of Athens. For my part, justifiably, perhaps, due to my young age, I kept contradicting him with the usual arguments so common to Athenians of a certain age: that the songs were crude, cheap, vulgar and suchlike. But he wouldn't let up, stressing his every word to the rhythm of "Tha pao eki stin arapia", perhaps wanting to lend a rhythmic attestation to what he had to say about the song.

Later on, this same friend, along this same road, spoke to me about something new. But now it was summer and the asphalt smelled. The darkness was similar, only the heat melted the voices into fixed shadows across the houses. There was something fluid all around us. A new rebetiko cry - new to me, that is - spread on the narrow, dirty pavements of Piraeus and Athens. We listened to the first strophe: "What I went through to win you over, my noblewoman, powerful enchantress". And my friend spoke, touching on the unfulfilled eroticism that made the atmosphere so stifling. He also tried to explain to me the song's tragic side in the face of an age when only slogans widely and freely circulated. Only much later did I come to appreciate how true his words rang, seeing that at the time I was merely toying with true values completely unaware.

A few years passed whose strain rendered them endless. Many things happened meanwhile and went on happening. Came the liberation of Greece from the German yoke. My generation matures before its time, having behind it the crucible of war. The rebetiko, having played with extreme and instinctive humour at intervals around dramatic circumstances, delves into its basic and important themes with greater anguish: love and escape.

An unfulfilled eroticism which, with primitive intensity, goes from an utmost cynical stance to love's extensive Christian bounds and an escapism brought on - unwholesomely, I'd say - by weakness, since conditions remain as hard a steel when man seeks to love with all his might and as much as possible.

This is basically the rebetiko's main theme to date. And however naive these conditions might seem to us, we cannot deny the fact - at least not to ourselves - that the unwholesome eroticism produced by the long-drawn sounds of the zeibekiko circulates in our midst even in various complex shapes, even from different causes. And now we come to one of the main arguments advanced by "moralists" against the rebetiko. "It's sick", they say somberly, "whereas the demotic songs are healthy, upstanding".

And they proceed to shake their heads meaningfully. I am convinced that our demotic songs are as vexing to them as the rebetiko songs, only they won't admit that they don't like them. It's like saying that they don't like Shakespeare, for example, or something of the sort. They can put up with demotic songs but not rebetiko songs. The latter is something that circulates in their midst and they can discard it - or so they think - considering that for now it hasn't been placed in golden frames.

They tend to forget that our day and age has nothing in common with the time of the klephts, irrespective of the fact that the heroism of our armed forces ranks with the likes of Karaiskakis and Kolokotronis. These people conveniently ignore our times, and also that folk songs reflect with unique brilliance not only class or category of people, but the influences of an entire era upon a nation, a nation and its local customs. Our age is neither heroic nor epic, and the aftermath of the Second World War left problems unsolved and falling into abeyance. These abeyant problems are not confined to the political and social sectors but are diffused with equal force into philosophy and art, and even man's routine living. In addition, our nation continues its almost relentless war, the Greek civil war [1945-9], convinced of final victory - a war arduous and painful, especially today. Under such inexorable conditions, just consider the nation's chaste spirit - chaste, because one hundred years of freedom were not enough for recent European trends to mellow and take roots here. Imagine, then, all this accumulated vitality and also beauty of a nation like ours seeking an outlet, means of expression, contact with the outer world, while being confronted with the aforesaid as principal features of our times and the even more harsh conditions prevailing in the country. Vitality is waning, the spirit is ailing, beauty remains. That's the rebetiko, thus its thematic source. I repeat: an unfulfilled but fervid eroticism whose intensity lends a universal character to it, and an urgent need to escape reality with such intoxicants as hashish and other drugs, whose use typifies the passiveness of the pertinent social class.

You will have doubtless discerned that the ailing condition of today's folk songs is not the outcome of excessive maturity - as the decadence between the two wars, especially in France - and thus not something rotten but a mass of vital energy without an exit, without contacts, suffering - one could say - from robust health.

However, both circumstances spell decadence. But with an important difference. One stems from life and the other from death. For one to ignore reality, and in fact the reality of one's own country, has only himself to blame. These are trying years; and folk songs, which are not written by fugueists and contrapuntists so as to be solely concerned with improvements and improvisations, express the truth and nothing but the truth.

Now some of you might say: "Fine. What you've said is true and we go along with it. But what is there to convince us that - as you imply - today's folkloric expression is connected with the demotic and Byzantine musical tradition and not something peculiar to a certain category of people?" Such a question is only to be expected, even though I was quite succinct when I mentioned earlier the strong affiliation between the rebetiko and the public at large. This way, the argument that it expresses personal feelings is totally unfounded. So there remains for us to study its Greek nature: if and to what extent it has an affinity with our folkloric tradition and what elements it draws from it. To enable us to go ahead and certify that there is a definite link, we shall examine it from two different angles: first structural and then expressive.

The rebetiko succeeds to unite in a marvellous way lyrics, music and motion. From the song's composition to its execution, the conditions are instinctively prepared for this triple expressive coexistence, which at times, on reaching perfection, resembles the form of ancient tragedy. The composer is also a poet and instrumentalist. His basic instruments are the bouzouki (a long- necked stringed instrument, probably of Turkish origin, that resembles a mandolin) and the baglamas (a variation of the Cretan lyre and that of other islands, much smaller in size and plucked with a pick).

The song's composition is naturally based on dance movements with three characteristic rhythms: zeibekiko, hasapiko and serviko (the latter not so popular).

The zeibekiko with a rhythmic pattern of 9/8 is the basic tempo of rebetiko music. It obviously descends from the dances of the Cycladic islands and Pontus, only here it has shed its original rhythmic elements, becoming slow, heavy, protracted and more concise. It is performed by a single dancer and allows for unimaginable improvisations, a sense of rhythm being the sole proviso. A good zeibekiko dancer is he who possesses greater imagination and the necessary suppleness, so that every single note on the bouzouki is executed with the corresponding movement of the body. As dances go it is the most difficult and the most dramatic in essence.

The hasapiko is based on a rhythmic pattern of 4/4, and the way it is danced - usually by two, three or even four people - is a projection of the demotic manner, but also bearing certain European influences. I don't know why, but sometimes it reminds me - very distantly - of the French java.

The servikos, whose name reveals its origin, is a quick tempo of little interest, and this only from the aspect of instrumental and dancing execution. It is rarely performed, its vainglorious content satisfying the dancer's footwork alone.

The zeibekiko is the purest of modern Greek rhythms. As for the hasapikos, it has assumed a completely Greek idiosyncrasy. Rebetiko songs are based on these rhythms and when we follow their melodic line we can clearly see the influences of Byzantine music - or, rather, the extension thereof. Not only by studying the scales, which the instinct of folk instrumentalists leave unchanged, but also the descent and specified scheme of tonal intervals and the manner of execution. Their source is quite obvious: the austere and unaffected hymnody. Not that demotic songs have not channelled their elements into rebetiko songs. But not so many. Their presence is manifest, especially in the lighter genre, bestowed with island charm and delicacy. An example is a somewhat older song that some of you may remember, "Par ti varka sto limani/kato sto Pasalimani" (Take the Boat to the Harbour of Pasalimani) and the popular "Andreas Zepos". Both bear the stamp of demotic songs.

But in order to explain this important extension of Byzantine music into rebetiko songs, we have only to look at the similarities between the decline of Byzantium and today's state of decadence. An atmosphere equally oppressive, equally ambivalent, regardless of the fact that in those days it was the result of misapplied religiousness. Thus, the passive expressive elements of a crumbling Byzantium found shelter in rebetiko songs - the modern folkloric kind - wherein they developed and composed the similar passive expression of today.

Demotic songs and their wholesome expressive elements, as something inherited, account for eighty percent of rebetiko music and no more.

Now when it comes to studying the nature of the songs, we immediately discover that basic reserved characteristic, so consistently maintained by virtue of being genuinely Greek. In the melody, the lyrics and the dance there's neither outburst, nor fitfulness, nor tension. There's no passion. There's life in the broadest sense. Everything is given sparingly, unobtrusively, often with astonishing inner power. But isn't this the principal, the grandest element that characterizes the Greek race? Moreover, isn't the awesome grandeur of ancient tragedy and ancient monuments based on clarity, simplicity of form and, above all, an endless sostenuto that presupposes strength, conscience and substance? Nowadays, which of the fine arts in this country can boast of having preserved this elemental Hellenism - the only true inheritance we possess - so paramount for its composition? What music can claim today that it exists beyond that of Byzantium, beyond demotic songs, and at worst beyond the broken columns of the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, there where all these found themselves in their day and age?

Rebetiko songs are genuinely Greek, uniquely Greek.

Allow me now to present to you two genuine and popular representatives of modern Greek folk music: Markos Vamvakaris and Sotiria Bellou with her group of musicians. These musicians, some of the finest or their kind, kindly offered to play for us this evening five typical rebetiko songs, enabling us to get a definite idea of what I have already spoken about. They'll begin with a hasapiko composed by Markos Vamvakaris, entitled "Frangosyriani kyra mou" (My Frangosyriani Love).

The second song we'll hear is again a composition by Markos Vamvakaris, a zeibekiko, "Ego ime to thima sou" (I'm Your Victim).

The third song, also a zeibekiko, was written by Sotiria Bellou, "Stamatise manoula mou na dernese ya mena" (Stop Despairing About Me, Love). Very typical of its kind.

The fourth was written by Tsitsanis in the rhythm of a hasapiko, "Pame tsarka sto Bachtse Tsifliki" (Let's Take a Stroll to Bachtse Tsifliki).

Before we hear the popular "Anixe, Anixe" (Open Up, Open Up), I'd like to say a few words about the significance of this song, a milestone in the rebetiko repertoire, while also begging the indulgence of our friends the musicians for this brief intrusion.

Just before the War, Tsitsanis sang for the first time "Arhontissa mou maghissa trani / kourastika ya na se apoktisso" (My Noblewoman, Powerful Enchantress/What Didn't I Do to Possess You). An ingenuous way - I'd say - of dealing with the erotic subject, whose power and truth bring us close to Kornaros' "Erotokritos", and after hundreds of years close to Lorca's "Blood Wedding". Its melodic line of an amazing content and simplicity, is akin to Bach. This song was written to confront a tormented and difficult period, becoming the first outspokenness of a whole generation.

Two years ago Tsitsanis sang, again for the first time, the song with the lyrics "Nichtosse horis fengari / to skotadi ine vathi / kiomos ena palikari then bori na kimithi" (Moonless Night/Pitch Dark/ But a Young Man Can't Sleep). Eroticism broaches unfulfilment, and expresses delicately but intensively heavy atmosphere boding maybe anguish or a storm. Now this year, Papaioannou conveys to us this entire anguish but with a loud cry, the one and only in rebetiko songs and therefore so genuine, "Open up, Open up". I somehow feel that there is a link between these three songs, which clearly and uniquely express our erotic tragedy.

I could go on speaking about tavernas and the night clubs "Mario" and "Panagakis," the latter near St. Panteleimon, where every night Vamvakaris and Bellou apply themselves to their art.

I could also speak about wet nights with oil lamps lighting shadowy people singing quietly together, as if believing in eternity. I could even speak about the dance of the worrybeads, in which a young man with a carnation in his mouth rolls himself into ball round a string of shiny, amber worrrybeads. I could go on speaking about so many things, for hours on end, as though I were alone. But all these are pure charm.

You heard how dispassionately and stringently these five songs were sung. Not for a second did the rhythm alter to stress something more: the voices uniform, unbending, as though the lyrics held no emotion. That's how it is. Nothing to rouse interest in them, nothing to distinguish them. You have to unburden yourself in order to receive their power. Otherwise you lose them, they won't wait. It's the same with us.

Time will come when all this fuss over them will subside, and they'll continue undisturbed. Who knows what new vitality they have in store for us, the nonchalant rhythms of 9/8? In the meantime, we will have felt for well and good their power. And we will see them raising their voice quite naturally and properly all about us, existing sometimes to interpret us and other times to make us conscious of our deeper self.