The dawning of Rebetika

Rebetiko or the song of Asia Minor dates back to the early 20th century, when Greeks from the area near the sea of Marmara (today’s Turkey) brought their own musical tradition from their birthplace and combined it with the elements of their new country.

Namely, refugees from the cities of the Ottoman Empire brought the rebetiko – songs of the urban working class that combined Greek and Byzantine traditions with Eastern influences. This highly improvised Greek music, more often than not compared to American blues, emerged from the underworld of prisons and hashish dens in the port cities of the Aegean sea so the songs’ lyrics speak about drugs, hookers, money, love, and death.

A typical ensemble included a singer, two or more bouzoukis playing melody and simple chords, and a tiny version of the bouzouki called the baglama providing a staccato rhythm accompaniment. Rebetiko is characterised by expressive improvised introductions called taxims, impassioned singing, and bouzouki breaks between verses. Among the most influential of early players, or rebetes, were Markos Vamvakaris, Ioannis Papaioannou and Roza Eskenazi but it was Vassilis Tsitsanis, a fine player himself and a prolific composer, who made rebetiko music more socially acceptable and gave it a more conventional appeal. So influential was he that when he died in 1983, 200 000 mourners filled the streets of Athens, brandishing bouzoukis and baglamas.

It has been suggested that rebetiko rose from the hashish dens and prison cells. In fact,the first ever reference to rebetiko song was made in the mid 1800s. Allegedly, a french nobleman visited Greece in 1850s in order to investigate the problem of conditions that prevailed in ottoman prisons at the time and reported of songs coming from them. Soon, more such references came, this time from Greek authors like Papadiamantis, Dafnis, Karkavitsas and by the 1890s, many of the songs appeared in the magazine “Estia.”

In 1871 Athens Conservatorium is established and that same year the first ever cafe-santan opens its doors in Athens. Soon after that, in 1873 cafe-santour opens which, as of 1886, is renamed into cafe-aman. The Athens of the 1880s is divided into two music currents: the absolute lovers of the songs of Asia Minor and those who, in such songs, saw absolutely no resemblance to anything Greek.

There was suddenly a lot of heated debate around the Eastern music and the Greek music scene, undoubtedly, became a lot more different than it once was. By 1886 Athens was dominated by cafe-aman which is to remain extremely popular for a whole decade. Towards the end of the 19th century, this style of music is slowly dying out, only to be replaced by the shadow theatre and the Athenian comic scene.

“Rebetiko for me, metaphorically speaking, is spontaneous music, a spontaneous song, Simple, traditional, spontaneous. Yeah, music which is simple and direct, I’d say.” Socratis Sinopoulos, August, 2017


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