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.

6 thoughts on “Rebetiko, the Source of Modern Greek Music

  1. Thanks very much for this great description of Rebetika!
    I’m an Englishman who has spent some time in the Islands, and naturally fell in love with what I always called “rebel music”. It’s a shame I never learned to dance to any of it.

    By the way, let me express my sympathy for the tough times you are having in Greece – I really hope a serious and fair solution comes along soon.

    Maybe this will be the ultimate test for Rebetika?
    Maybe it will be banned again – but the Greek spirit is strong!

    Kalo paidia!

  2. Please allow me to disagree with some of the things mentioned here.
    1) The immigrants from Asia Minor did bring their music, but Rebetiko pre-existed in Athens, Pereus, Thessaloniki, and most importantly the island of Syros. The rebetiko of Smyrna is very different stylistically from that of Pereus or Syros. The first is more melodic, more melismatic, more “eastern”, while the other is mainly syllabic, staccato and “western”. This music has been recorded in the earliest recording in Greece as well as the earliest greek recordings in Germany, New York, London and elsewhere, long before the destruction of Smyrna.

    2) One cannot write about rebetiko and reference Dalaras. Especially if this is only the one of two names that you reference. Also, Dalaras is clueless when it comes to rebetiko. The first name referenced should be Markos Vamvakaris from Syros! Other people who created rebetiko were Anestos Delias, Yovan Tsaous etc. Certainly NOT Dalaras or his father. Also one cannot reference laïko music without referring to Vassilis Tsitsanis. Again, Dalaras has no place here. And please note that my comment on Dalaras is not about musical taste, but on history.

    Thank you

    • Hellenes lived in Anatolia for thousands of years. For your search go to Lesvos and the Alvaliotiko Zembekiko. Markos Varvakaris called it the Miand it preceeded him by hundreds if not thousands of years and modern day Greek musicians call it the Mi. But on Lesvos we call it the Alvaliotiko Zembekiko. This is the heart and its all there for the initiated. Dalaras he is recent history 5 minutes of it.

  3. Thanks for the information on rembetiko, the music of my grandfather, John Pappamarkou, a santouri player. This music is in my blood, and i am grateful to the author and the replies, for taking the time and caring enough to help the music live on. I am doing further research to find the birthplace and travels of my grandfather, who came to America and played throughout the Midwest, Detroit Michigan and other midwestern Greektowns. Again, many thanks.

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