Rebetiko, the Source of Modern Greek Music

Rebetika is one of those Greek words that has no translation in English. It has been referred to as ‘Greek blues music’ except that it is very different to what we call blues music in English. Today we can go into a Greek record shop and see rebetika music  either in its own section or just scattered around as ‘laika’ or popular music. Much of it has been written recently, it has become ‘cool’ today, so to speak.

But where did the rebetika music come from, who were the original rebetikists? In Greece around the turn of the twentieth century, the very early 1900s, sad songs were occasionally sung but it wasn’t until 1922 when rebetika music entered Greece with some force.

Just before 1922, the new nation of Greece, freed by the Great Powers just 60 or seventy years previously, decided that they wanted to protect all the many Greeks who lived in Asia Minor. The head quarters of the Greek Orthodox church was in Istanbul (known to Greeks as Constantinopolis even today). South of Istanbul, the whole of Western Anatolia – modern Western Turkey – was predominantly Greek. This is what Greeks call Mikra Asia or Asia Minor.

Support was given by the Great Powers, predominantly the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, for the Greek army to invade Asia Minor. The prime minister of Greece was the Cretan, Eleftherios Venizelos who had lobbied hard for an expanded Hellas (the Megali Idea) at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 to include Thrace and the predominantly Greek areas of Asia Minor – in particular the area of Smyrna, modern day Izmir. The situation in Turkey was politically in a shambles. The remains of the failing Ottoman Empire were vying with rebels who were trying to create a new state of Turkey.

In the massive city of Smyrna, however, life went on. It has often been said that the Greeks of Smyrna were more sophisticated, richer and more cosmopolitan than the Greeks of Greece. They supported the idea of bringing Smyrna into the State of Greece so that the future for them would be a Greek future, safe and secure in line with Romiosini. After all, Greeks had lived here since the Bronze age three thousand years ago. Then though, the young Turkish government were enacting genocidal policies towards minorities – for example the Armenian Genocide had just happened – so what better than to be a part of the State of Greece. Future in a country ruled by Turks brought only uncertainty.

It is a long story but not a very long war. Greek forces invaded Turkey through Asia Minor and secured the city of Smyrna to the delight of the Greeks who lived there. With the encouragement of Lloyd George, Venizelos gave the order to take some of the area to the east of Asia Minor to secure the region of Smyrna. Then there was an election in Greece in 1920 in which Venizelos fell from power. The new prime minister Dimitrios Gounaris appointed inexperienced monarchist officers to senior commands and King Constantine of Greece took over in Smyrna.

The rest of the war went downhill for the Greeks. A new young Turkish Army commander called Kemal Attaturk was on the rise, Britain pulled out of their agreement to support the Greeks and the new Soviet Union was helping the Turks. Having progressed almost to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, the Greeks faced a massive counter attack. The Greek lines were thin and they had little support from behind. The victorious Turkish Army marched westward gaining support from more Turks on the way. They were heading for the predominantly Greek city of Smyrna.

The Turkish cavalry entered the city of Smyrna on September 9th 1922. The Greek government resigned the same day and the Greek army was driven into the sea as Smyrna burned. The Turkish army massacred a significant number of the Christian population including the brutal lynching of the Orthodox Archbishop of Smyrna. Many simply fled taking just what they could carry on the long march north, across the Bosphorous, through Thrace to Greece.

This was followed very quickly by the treaty of Lausanne, the most important part of which was the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. All Christians had to leave Asia Minor and return to Greece. All Muslims had to leave Greece and return to Turkey. So during that winter a long line of Christians walked to Greece, most of whom were born in Asia Minor. Similarly a long line of Muslims from Greece walked back to Turkey, most of whom were born in Greece.

That migrating population, approximately three million of them heading for Greece made up songs that described their situation, their fear and their starvation walking through burned fields. Some of these songs can be bought today on a CD called Mikra Asia by George Dalaras. This was the core of the music of Rebetika. These refugees arrived in Greece and were allocated across the country as best as was possible. Many came to Thessalonika and Athens where they lived in tent like cities until houses could be built for them. Many too arrived in Crete and to other islands. Greece had lost around half of Thrace and all of Asia Minor. The battle that was referred to as the Megali Idea – the Great Idea, became known as the Catastrophe.

In Athens especially, which almost doubled in size with refugees, times were very hard. There was little or no work. Many decided then to emigrate and they were given support by the Greek government. They went mostly to America and to Australia where their families still live today, mostly still speaking Greek as well as English

But for some of them, living in cities like Athens and particularly Pireus, formed small groups of musicians with instruments that they had brought from Turkey, the bouzoukia for example and several others, and they sang songs in the Smyrna style which became known as Rebetika.

Rebetika, (singular rebetiko) also often written as rembetiko or rembetika, became the music of what the Greeks called the Manges. The manges were seen as usually smartly dressed men and women who spent most of their time in ouzeris, cafes, brothels and even prisons. The music was full of passion, melancholy tales of the hashish smoking habits that came with them from Smyrna, of love, death and of daily life. Mostly they had a sadness to them that spoke of the pain they had seen and the life that they now had to live. The source of the word is obscure but is often said to have come from the word Rebetis (plural Rebetes) which means petty criminal, person of the underworld which is how the manges were seen by the original people of Greece.

This was a bit unfair to people who were more musicians than thieves, but food was short and life pretty desperate for them in those early days on the mainland of Greece. As the years went on, Rebetika music became more and more popular as it expressed the individuality of people, it underlined their desire for freedom. The bigger clubs and tavernas in Athens began to employ more and more rebetika bands and records were made, some names became famous such as Sotiria Bellou and Vassilis Tsitsanis and others. The music could all be danced to by several different dances, but the most important one by far was Zeibekiko. This was an intensely personal dance, mostly quite slow and danced by one man at a time. Anyone else joining in was not welcome and anyone who applauded may well have been starting a fight. The dance originated from the Zeybek warriors of Asia Minor and was introduced into Greece following the exchange of populations. It grew very popular and in more recent times the dance has allowed men to wait until one has finished and can hand over. Today I have seen even women dance the Zeibekiko but it is not common. In this dance, a man would dance for himself. He may even stand on a glass of wine or lift a table or chair or perform other complexities, but it was just himself and the music that mattered – which is why applause was never sought, even disdained.

Rebetika was always seen by authorities, particularly fascist or extremely right wing authorities, as a bad thing. The people who sang and danced rebetika lived their own lives, nobody owned them and nobody was going to own them. When in 1936 the Greek dictator, Ioannis Metaxas took power in Greece he made rebetika illegal. But even the man who famously said ‘no’ to Mussolini could not kill rebetika. It had become the music of the heart, even the soul, and now it was going underground.

During the German occupation of Greece, which similarly banned rebetika among many other things, rebetika was still sung by the manges bands and it was growing in power. In the 1950s after the occupation and the following Greek Civil War of 1945 – 1950 rebetika music became very popular, in fact so popular that the music and songs themselves were becoming less and less rebetika and more and more laiki – or urban pop, if you prefer. There were many arguments about this, but as always, time rolls on. But it is without doubt that the music of rebetika gave birth to today’s popular music in Greece. So much so that the rebetikists of the 1960s decided that a revival was due and that rebetika was one thing and popular music was something else. So they re-recorded the old greats of rebetika and issued vinyl singles and LPs of pure rebetika.

Great Greek artists like Manos Chatzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis used the bouzoukia in its various shapes and sizes in their music and wrote songs largely influenced by the original rebetika. But there was more trouble to come. In 1967 the colonels or the junta dictatorship seized power in Greece. Many still remember the signs of the soldier in front of the phoenix rising from fire placed in every Greek village. This government also banned rebetika. It also imposed a new and cleaned Greek language called Katharevousa which had to be taught to children in schools and was the official language of Greece, even in spite of the fact that day to day almost everyone in the state of Greece spoke Dhimotiki, the language spoken before the colonels and also the language of today’s modern Greece. Mikis Theodorakis was imprisoned and then allowed to go to France in exile. Again, underground, rebetika was played secretly and passionately. Theodorakis gave concerts in France and elsewhere that came even closer to rebetika.

The Greek colonels junta was probably as stupid as King Constantine’s Smyrna ideas. They forced the independent Greek country of Cyprus to create a coup, backed by the American government whose foreign secretary was Henry Kissenger. The coup took over the government of Archbishop Makarios and put an idiot in power. His name was Nicos Sampson. This coup initiated an invasion of Cyprus by Turkey and the seizure of the north of Cyprus that exists to this day. In Greece the colonels junta fell and Konstantinos Karamanlis’ New Democracy Party was elected as the government in 1974, Karamanlis also legalised the the Greek Communist Party, the KKE. This time was known as ‘Metapolitefsi’ or the restoration of democracy. The monarchy was abolished and the third Hellenic Republic had begun. The military junta of the colonels arrested 87,000 people of whom 2.800 were tortured and they assassinated, to our knowledge, at least 88 people.

The original rebetika music was, as I said recorded on LPs but after the colonels junta regime people seemed to want a newer music, the laiki or popular music, the music of a new Greece, a Greece free of strife, a Greece moving into the new and hopefully happier world of tourism and a better income. All this came along, of course, tourism grew as did the Greek government and the world came into the 1990s and the new millennium. What happened to rebetika?

Well it is really an extraordinary story. One of the forgotten rebetakists of the 1950s and 1960s was Loukas Daralas. He did at least one great song and that was ‘To Vouno’ or the mountain. This great player of rebetiko music and songs had a son, A tiny baby boy that today is known as George Dalaras. George has done a great deal for rebetika, he is probably the most well known artist in Greece and has published many more records and CDs than anyone else. He published the very early album called Mikra Asia, as I have mentioned, and he published many more old and new rebetika songs.

Today the young people of Greece, like all young people search for what is new and what are their roots. They are being supplied by the new and the modern rebetakists. The music is not so much the need and the passion for Smyrna and a land long lost to the Greeks, but for the sadnesses of today and, of course, for the beautiful rebetika personal dance of Zeibekiko.

John Sooklaris’ Latest Video Crete 1961

I just had an email from John Sooklaris that said:

Ray, If I had realized that these movies that I sat and watched when I was a kid, and fell asleep to, as my father would show them to all of our relatives, time and time again, would create such interest in the world, I would have posted them a long time ago when my father was alive. Alas, I am happy with the interest that we have received by people like yourself, and my mother is, no doubt, flattered by the interest as well. Yes, I just happened to visit your site yesterday, before receiving this message and even changed the one about Akrotiri in which you said I was confused. I wasn’t really confused, but just ignorant to all of the places in these videos. With the help of people, like yourself, we’ll get this all straightened out so we can properly inform our viewers. But I did take your word for it and changed it to the Agia Triada in Akrotiri. I will read your other comments on the other videos as well, as I do care about the quality of information that I post. Thanks for your help, as I continue to post the remaining videos from that time. John Sooklaris

Here is the latest video from John – part 1 0f 2:

I don’t recognise the first memorial, but the second after a minute or so is certainly the memorial south of Hania on the Omalos road at the Alikiarnos junction. This is a memorial to those dead in the last war when the Germans occupied Crete. There is listed the names of those killed in around five local villages. In the basement of this memorial is a glass ossuary containing many skulls of those killed, each with a bullethole over the right ear.

Later in this movie I see the hospital in Rethymnon which was newly built in those days. The big ceremony/festival near the end of the movie is certainly in Eleftheriou Square (Freedom Square) in Iraklion. That’s the one with all the crowds and marching soldiers. If you watch carefully you will see the Iraklion Morosini  Fountain twice.

Here is part 2 of 2 of this film.

The first part of this film is obviously a trip eastwards from Iraklion towards Agios Nicholas. The first part of the film is a stop at St Georges church in the gorge of Selinari near the village of Vrahassi. I remember this place on the first bus I took when I arrived in Crete going to Agios Nicholas. No Cretan can pass this shrine without stopping. The whole busload got out and said a quiet prayer here.

Most of the rest of the film is taken in Agios Nicholas – you can clearly see the small lake with the boats that connects to the sea. The final part of the film is I feel taken on a trip to the Lassiti Plateau – you can see the windpumps/windmills.

If any of you out there can do better than me and identify more of the places in the film, of which there may be several, then I and John would be grateful. Please post a comment.

I would appreciate it and so would John Sooklaris. In memory of his father who took these great films.

Celebration at Agia Triada 1961

This is another of Anthony Sooklaris’s movies published by his son John Sooklaris.

I think that John is a little confused about the whereabouts of this movie but I see it clearly as at the monastery Agia Triada, the monastery of the Holy Trinity in Akrotiri. I don’t know if the day was a special celebration or just a welcome for the Cretan Americans but it all happened in 1961.

Here is what John had to say about this movie: “Akrotiri Chordaki Sternes 1961

This video takes place in what appears to be Chordaki Akrotiri Crete Greece, and then moves on to Sternes at the home of Kosta Verganelakis. Early on the video, I believe I recognized Themistocle Tsouchlarakis as well as Antoni Panagirakis who is the dancing Chorofilaka.

Beyond these few faces, I don’t know anyone else in the video. I would love to hear your comments and hear from you if you recognize anyone, the villages, the reason for the get-together, and anything else that you would like to share.

Because I noticed a female lyratzida, I selected the music of Tasoula to serenade you while you watch this movie clip.”

The word lyratzida means violinist.

The link to the website of Agia Triada is here

I hope that you enjoy this unique movie.

O Pramateftis – Iraklion 1961

This next video is taken in Iraklion in 1961. It has been posted by John Sooklaris but the man behind the camera is his father Anthony Sooklaris. They visited Crete on a ship sponsored by the Pancretan Society of America in 1961.

This film shows Iraklion very well. You clearly see the old market in Iraklion with all the butchers and fruit and cheese shops unlike now when it is mostly tourist shops. You then have some clear shots of Eleftheriou Square (Freedom Square where I used to work in 1968 on) and the Morosini fountain.

In the closing shots of the film you see a man walking across the road. This is the later very famous musician Nikos Xylouris the great singer of Crete.

Here are Johns words about the movie: “O Pramateftis. While this video clip is more the life and times of Heraklion, Crete, in 1961, it does tell a story that Mountaki so eloquently tells in this story of the poor peddler. You will see peddlers selling their wares at or near the Agora. I just love the shot of the traffic cop.

Anthony Sooklaris so keenly captures the moment in this amazing footage of what life was like. Make sure to catch the traffic cop. It’s a classic solution to a then “new” problem of how to deal with more cars on streets that were once more populated by horses and donkeys, than by motor vehicles.

It was a more simple life, and it will no doubt remind us of fond memories of this most precious past.”

Here is the movie:

Enjoy, but see also how much this island has changed in 47 years.

Film of Hania in 1961

In 1961 a cruise ship called the Queen Frederica set out from the United States to visit Crete. On board were a large number of American Cretans coming to see again – or see for the first time, perhaps, their homeland.

Luckily, one man had what we used to call a Super 8 movie camera. The kind that takes 8mm wide film that you have to have developed professionally. He took some film of the trip and what they saw and where they went in Crete. These old movies, amateur movies but well filmed have now been converted by a man called John Sooklaris in America, and submitted via Youtube for me to display here on my Cretan website. John, thanks for doing this, these films are quite unique and priceless.

The first movie that I am putting on here is of the city of Hania and around in 1961. This was five years before I came to Crete over forty years ago. The film is wonderful, it shows the squares and the Agora and some of the beach between the city and the Akrotiri peninsular. It is ten minutes long. Remember that in 1961, Hania was the capital of Crete. It was changed to Iraklion in 1975. So here is the movie in the days before tourism.

I hope that you enjoyed it and I will be posting more of this 1961 trip very soon.

Joni Mitchell – Star of Crete

I have to say here and now that I am a great fan of Joni Mitchell. The posts that I have written here regarding her time in Crete and the video of the song Carey that I placed a week or two ago have generated so much response that I think that perhaps readers of this blog like her too.

Her songs are so unique. They are musically and poetically so different from other songs or artists that perhaps you either love her or loathe her. She has made many albums, some more successful than others but to see her ‘live’ when she sang these songs was the most amazing thing.

She did a concert for the BBC Television in 1970 and she sang beautifully:

Hard to believe that in fact she is older than me. She was born Roberta Joan Anderson on 7th November 1943 and she grew up busking on the west coast of Canada. Her life details are available to all on Wikipedia. The song Carey is available on her album ‘Blue’, an excellent album.

As far as I can make out she was in Crete, mainly in Matala, in 1968 to 1969. She must have written the song Carey about this time I guess.

Today she is approaching her 65th birthday in November this year. She is still singing. One of her earliest songs was called ‘Both Sides Now’. A lovely song of novelty and a freshness about about life. Here it is performed in 1970.

Here is the lyric:

Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all

Moons and junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take, and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all

Tears and fears and feeling proud
To say “I love you” right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way

But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed
Well something’s lost, but something’s gained
In living every day

I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.

It was a song from a young girl trying to understand life and also accepting her lack of understanding. Fast forward forty years and Joni Mitchell on her latest album has decided to sing this same song very differently. The words are the same but the song now seems to contain forty or more years experience. By choosing the same song that made her so popular long ago and singing it today almost in a new light shows her great ability and her dignity.

So here it is: ‘Both Sides Now’ made in the year 2000 – 57 years after she was born.

I hope you enjoyed her.

Matala and Joni Mitchell.

For all those of you who responded to my last posting, here are the words of Joni Mitchell herself regarding Matala in Crete and the song ‘Carey’. It appears that Joni was in Matala, Crete around 1968/69 – three years after 1966 when I went there and it seems that it had developed a bit from my time. . . .

The following extract is from an interview with Joni Mitchell by Rolling Stone in early 1971

Joni on Early Rolling Stone Magazine

“Matala was a very small bay with cliffs on two sides. And between the two cliffs, on the beach, there were about four or five small buildings. There were also a few fishermen huts.

“The caves were on high sedimentary cliffs, sandstone, a lot of seashells in it. The caves were carved out by the Minoans hundreds of years ago. Then they were used later on for leper caves. Then after that the Romans came, and they used them for burial crypts. Then some of them were filled in and sealed up for a long time. People began living there, beatniks, in the fifties. Kids gradually dug out more rooms. There were some people there who were wearing human teeth necklaces around their necks,” she said with a slight frown.

“We all put on a lot of weight. We were eating a lot of apple pies, good bacon. We were eating really well, good wholesome food.

“The village pretty well survived from the tourist trade, which was the kids that lived in the caves. I don’t know what their business was before people came. There were a couple of fishing boats that went out, that got enough fish to supply the two restaurants there.

“The bakery lady who had the grocery store there had fresh bread, fresh rice pudding, made nice yogurt every day, did a thriving business; and ended up just before I left, she installed a refrigerator. She had the only cold drinks in town. It was all chrome and glass. It was a symbol of her success.

“Then the cops came and kicked everyone out of the caves, but it was getting a little crazy there. Everybody was getting a little crazy there. Everybody was getting more and more into open nudity. They were really going back to the caveman. They were wearing little loincloths. The Greeks couldn’t understand what was happening.”

Joni Mitchell in 1970

Joni Mitchell – 1970
photo by Henry Diltz

Then during a performance at The Troubadour, Joni introduced the song “Carey” with the following story (transcribed from the tape by Kakki).

“I went to Greece a couple years ago and over there I met a very unforgettable character. I have a hard time remembering people’s names like so I have to remember things by association, even unforgettable characters, I have to remember by association, so his name was “Carrot” Raditz, Carey Raditz, and oh, he’s a great character. He’s got sort of a flaming red personality, and flaming red hair and a flaming red appetite for red wine and he fancied himself to be a gourmet cook, you know, if he could be a gourmet cook in a cave in Matala. And he announced to my girlfriend and I the day that we met him that he was the best cook in the area and he actually was working at the time I met him – he was working at this place called the Delphini restaurant – until it exploded, singed half of the hair off of his beard and his legs, and scorched his turban, melted down his golden earrings.

Anyway, one day he decided he was going to cook up a feast, you know, so we had to go to market because like in the village of Matala there was one woman who kind of had a monopoly – well actually there were three grocery stores but she really had a monopoly and because of her success and her affluence she had the only cold storage in the village, too, so she had all the fresh vegetables and all the cold soft drinks and she could make the yogurt last a longer than anyone else, and we didn’t feel like giving her any business that day. Rather than giving her our business we decided to walk ten miles to the nearest market.

So I had ruined the pair of boots that I’d brought with me from the city because they were really “citified” kind of slick city boots that were meant to walk on flat surfaces. The first night there we drank some Raki and I tried to climb the mountain and that was the end of those shoes. So he lent me these boots of his which were like Li’l Abner boots – like those big lace-up walking boots and a pair of Afghani socks which made my feet all purple at the end of the day and I laced them up around my ankles and I couldn’t touch any – the only place my foot touched was on the bottom, you know, there was nothing rubbing in the back or the sides – they were huge and he wasn’t very tall, either, come to think of it was kind of strange – I guess he had sort of webbed feet or something but we started off on this long trek to the village, I forget the name of it now, between Matala and Iraklion – and started off in the cool of the morning and by the time we got halfway there we were just sweltering me in these thick Afghani socks and heavy woollens and everything, so we went into the ruins of King Phestos’s palace to sit down and have a little bit of a rest and while we were there these two tourist buses pulled up and everybody got off the buses in kind of an unusual symmetry, you know, they all sort of walked alike and talked alike and they all kind of looked alike and they all filed over to a series of rubblely rocks- a wall that was beginning to crumble – lined themselves up in a row and took out their viewing glasses, overgrown opera glasses, and they started looking at the sky and suddenly this little speck appeared on the horizon that came closer and closer, this little black speck.

Cary was standing behind all of this leaning on his cane and as it came into view he suddenly broke the silence of this big crowd and he yells out “it’s ah MAAGPIE” in his best North Carolina drawl. And suddenly all the glasses went down in symmetry and everybody’s heads turned around to reveal that they were all very birdlike looking people. They had long skinny noses – really – they had been watching birds so long that they looked like them, you know – and this one woman turned around and she says to him (in British accent) “it’s NOT a magpie – it’s a crooked crow.” Then she very slowly and distinctly turned her head back, picked up her glasses and so did everybody else and we kept on walking. Bought two kilos of fish which would have rotted in the cave hadn’t it been for the cats.

When we got back from that walk Stelios, who was the guy who ran the Mermaid Cafe, had decided to put an addition on his kitchen which turned out to be really illegal and it was so illegal, as a matter of fact, that the Junta dragged him off to jail and torture was legal over there – they burnt his hands and his feet with cigarette butts mainly because they hated, you know, all of the Canadians and Americans and wandering Germans living in the caves but they couldn’t get them out of there because it was controlled by the same archaeologist that controlled the ruins of King Phestos’s palace and he didn’t mind you living there as long as you didn’t Day-Glo all of the caves and everyone was like putting all of their psychedelia over all this ancient writing. So they carted him off to jail…” (End of tape)