Rebetiko >

What is Rebetiko?

Rebetiko, I call it, and so do a lot of other people. That's the name for a style of music, which has songs called Rebetika. That's too simple, of course. The word Rebetiko is the English transliteration from the Greek word ρεμπέτικο, which is pronounced "rebetiko". The Greek letter that looks like a B sounds like a V, so the English B sound is represented with the Greek characters that say MP. Not only is this transliteration business a whole interesting topic in itself, it also plays havoc with any web searches you may wish to make, although Google copes quite well with the alternatives. Of course, you could load a Greek keymap, and search on the Google Greek search page. So, let us ignore the spelling, for a start. I shall continue to say Rebetiko, when referring to the style of music. I tend not to say Rebetika at all, preferring to say Rebetiko songs.

The name Rebetiko comes from the name of a grouping in society who were referred to as rebetes. The etymology of this word is much debated, and while you will see it described as coming from the Turkish word rembet, things are just not that simple. The rebetes were an underclass, and many of them were hashish smokers. Hashish wasn't illegal in the Ottoman Empire, but it was in Greece after America persuaded the Greek government to make it so. Naturally, the smokers were not to be so easily stopped, and carried on smoking at home, or in places they called Tekes, and up in the hills, or in caves. "Teke" was the name for the places of worship of the Sufi, and Greek hash smokers had a lot of very imaginative slang of that kind, designed to obscure their meaning from anyone who overheard them. Markos Vamvakaris began his career playing and smoking in Tekes. Quite a few of his songs are about hashish; songs like that are called hasiklidikes.

Some people oversimplify, and say that Rebetiko is "Greek Blues". It's an interesting analogy, the suggestion being that Rebetiko filled a niche in Greek culture that is the equivalent of the Blues in American culture. This would make it a member of a class that includes Rai, Fado and Flamenco. It's not a bad definition, but the problem words in the definition are "Greek" and "Blues". Why? Well, Rebetiko developed when a large influx of refugees with a somewhat different musical tradition amalgamated their music with the Greek music that was extant at that time, so it isn't just Greek. And not all of it is sad, some of it is extremely cheerful, so it's not really Blues either.

Rebetiko didn't just appear out of the blue of course, but developed over a period of time, and other styles of music developed from it in their turn. There were several varieties of music that Rebetiko developed from, and this development was heavily influenced by the events of the period.

Rebetiko developed from a range of musical styles, that include:-

The history of Rebetiko generally gets divided into three periods, but usually starts by discussing what led up to the first period. Large numbers of Greeks emigrated to America from 1890 to well into the 20th Century, and the first recordings of Greek music were made there, for the simple reason that the recording process first became an industry in America. The American studios were constantly looking for different genres to record, simply to sell to more people. Greeks in America recorded songs from Smyrna, folk songs from Greece, instrumentals from the whole Balkan region. These recordings influenced what the studios starting up in the Ottoman Empire, and then in Greece, recorded.

After the Balkan Wars in 1912-13, and the First World War, came an enormous upheaval in the middle east. Smyrna was destroyed in 1922, in what is referred to as The Catastrophe. A negotiated exchange of populations followed, and well over a million refugees arrived in Greece, bringing their kind of music with them. The mixture that resulted is called Rebetiko.

The first period ran from 1922 to 1932, and was characterised by the addition of different types of songs, such as the improvised, makam-based amanades, instrumental improvisations called taximia, and the instruments of the Middle East - santouri, kanoun, kanonaki, saz, oud and others. This music was often performed in places called Café Aman, after the amanades. A high proportion of the singers were women. It was generally a fairly sophisticated style of music. The Rebetiko scales known as Dromi, or roads, differed from those used in Western music, having been derived from the makams of Ottoman music.

In the second period, from 1932 to 1942, there was a gradual change in both the instrumentation and the performers. The rise of the bouzouki, baglama and guitar was very noticeable. The music began to be performed more and more by the underclasses, the poor, the drug users, and people who had been prisoners. It is hard for us to understand nowadays, perhaps, but at the time the bouzouki was regarded as a disreputable instrument, to such an extent that, for example, Papaioannou's mother threatened to throw him out of her house when he bought one. This began to change when an American bouzouki recording by Iannis Halikias, called "Minore tou Teke" became a huge hit.

When Markos Vamvakaris heard the wonderful instrumental, "Minore tou Teke" by Iannis Halikias, he decided that if he could not learn to play the bouzouki, he would chop off his hand with the cleaver he used as a butcher. Fortunately, he became one of the earliest Greek bouzouki stars. After the fascist Metaxas took power, bouzoukis were being broken in the streets by the police, probably the first example of a politically incorrect musical instrument!

The third decade, from 1942 to 1952, saw the arrival of virtuoso players like Tsitsanis and Hiotis. The musical censorship that had begun in 1937 was a strong influence also. Oriental sounding scales were banned, along with songs about drugs, and any songs with political themes opposing the regime. Rebetiko was replaced gradually by Laika, and other styles, though there was a revival in the 70s.

That may seem vague, but to be fair, the Rebetiko of any given time will contain a variety of styles from the above, and mixtures of them. And many people will say they prefer only "the old Rebetiko" or only "the Pireas style". I like some Rebetiko even more than the rest of it, and there are not many recordings of Rebetiko I actually dislike.

Here are some other sites about Rebetiko...

The Rembetika Hipsters Good summary by a rather good band.
Matt Barrett A well researched and written part of the Greece Travel site.
Music traditions article Yet another good introductory article...

Here is an excellent place to discuss Rebetiko with other fans...

Google Groups - Rebetiko

These pages were made by me, Chris Blackmore, with a stylesheet randomly generated by StrangeBanana. I also call myself Dr Dark and The Walrus, for reasons that are not at all important.