Rebetiko, the Greek Blues

Following my article about the connection of Travel and Music i will dedicate this post to Rebetiko, the type of music I am listening, studying and playing for many years now.
Rebetiko was inscribed on UNESCO’s 2017 representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and according to the organization’s announcement, it was selected because it contains “invaluable references to the customs, practices and traditions of a particular way of life, but above all the practice is a living musical tradition with a strong symbolic, ideological and artistic character.”
The etymology of the word remains the subject of dispute and uncertainty and the most common theory is that the origin of the term dates to the period of Turkish Occupation of Greece, and it describes the outlaw, the one who doesn’t live with the predominant rules of society. It is a musical genre that is expressed through songs that they were written during the last decades of the 19th century until mid-20th century, mostly at the outskirts of city centers like Athens and in major ports that were connecting Asia Minor with Greece like Piraeus and Syros.

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A Greek musician told me once that the most accurate thing that could be told about Rebetiko is that “They belong to the East Mediterranean”. The Greco-Turkish war and the exchange of population of 1923 played an important role on that, as a significant number of refuges came in Greece and brought with them their musical instruments and musical elements. It is a musical and cultural expression directly linked to song and dance that initially spread among the urban lower and working-class populations, giving them a sense of social identity. Like several other urban subcultural musical forms such as the Blues, a music genre originated by African Americans in the deep South of the United States around the end of the 19th century and Samba, a Brazilian musical genre and dance style, with its roots in Africa via the West African slave trade and African religious traditions, Rebetiko grew out of particular urban circumstances. Often its lyrics reflect the harsher realities of a marginalized subculture’s lifestyle. Thus, one finds themes such as crime, drink, drugs and poverty, but also a multitude of themes of relevance to Greek people of any social stratum: death, exile, war, the mother figure, love and marriage.

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The first rebetiko songs to be recorded, were employing instruments of the Ottoman tradition such us Oud, Kanun and Tubeleki but during the decade of 1930, as rebetiko music gradually acquired its own character, the Bouzouki began to emerge as the emblematic instrument of this music. It was during that time, when one of the most emblematic figures of Rebetiko Markos Vamvakaris recorder the first song with bouzouki in Greece, in a disk with only two songs.
After 1936 and the dictatorship of Metaxas the Rebetika songs were censored due to their lyrics and during 1940-45 there was a big change to the musical style, the aesthetics and rhythm of them, which led to the almost total eclipse of Rebetiko by other popular styles. What is interesting about Rebetiko is that new songs stopped to be generated although a significant number of important musicians and songwriters of the genre were still alive and by the late 1950s, it had declined and it only survived in the form of archontorebetiko (“posh rebetiko” or “bourgeois rebetiko”), a refined style of Rebetiko that was far more accepted by the upper class than the traditional form of the genre.

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During our days and despite the prevalence of various kinds of music, the rebetiko never seizes to touch the soul of simple men and today, Rebetiko songs are still popular in Greece and new generations of musicians and performers study and present them.

Written by Dimitris Papageorgiou

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