Let me begin by saying that I am a fan of Rembetiko. This art form, once relegated to the outcasts of society and akin to American Blues, had its origins in the coastal cities of Asia Minor. Like everything since the establishment of the modern Greek state, it is the subject of endless infighting by proponents of one form or another of Greek identity. One Greek journalist recently described the conflict thus: "The demotika (Greek regional folk music) are Greece’s only genuine musical identity. Musicologically and morally, they are far superior to the adulterated, drug-deadened Turco-Arabic fare which, beginning with the infamous rembetika , passes for Greek music today. Who in his senses would prefer the product of Piraeus hashish dens to the pure, bracing air of Epirus or the sapphire blue of the Aegean Sea, both reflected in their respective musical traditions? But when you’re drugged, you cannot exercise your senses correctly."
Now as far as I am concerned, Rebembetika is very much a integral part of the Greek musical legacy and I embrace it as I embrace other more purified expressions of the Greek soul. John Akritas over at Hellenic Antidote has provided a number of glimpses into the Rembetiko style and Radio Akritas offers an opportunity to partake of some great songs that give one a real feel for Rembetika.
While delving into the subject I came across a paper that was presented at the recent "Researching Rebetika Conference" held in October on the Greek island of Hydra. Written by Gail Horst-Warhaft of Cornell University, it does a superb job of dissecting the evolution of Rembetika in the context of its love-hate relationship with the Greek-speaking world:
"In her insightful study of modern Greek literature “Topographies of Hellenism” Artemis Leontis speaks of the Greeks’ tendency to exoticise themselves. “Greeks have regularly sought to recover the primitive element in themselves,” she notes. “To compensate for what others perceived as backward behavior or bad blood, they have defined their homeland, Hellas, as their native entopia, their coffeehouse, if you will, in which they are aboriginal customers.” The tendency to exoticise oneself is not exclusively Greek, of course, but Greeks experienced a unique combination of the high expectations of western Europeans obsessed with their illustrious ancestry, and low estimation, based on these same unrealistic expectations and the observations of western Europeans. The preoccupation of the modern Greek has been to claim his or her ancient pagan past but to combine it with a Byzantine and Ottoman past and reconcile the diverse strands of his inheritance. The dilemma has never been satisfactorily resolved, and the rhetoric of Greek nationalism or has been obsessed with determining the character of modern Greece.
During the Metaxas dictatorship, from 1936-1940, rebetika musicians were harassed. Many were exiled to the islands or thrown into prison, and the hashish dens of Piraeus were closed down. This was not merely because the rebetes and their hangouts were seen as disreputable, but because they offended Metaxas’ belief in a “Third Hellenic Civilisation” that would draw its character from the folk culture of Greece. Amanedhes were also banned, during the dictatorship, probably as a response to a similar ban placed on them by Turkey’s ruler Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk’s ban was part of a general attempt to westernise Turkey, and de-emphasise its “oriental” character.
Despite the fact that it was, in many ways, a home-grown hybrid, rebetiko was not associated with the ideal "topos (place)" of nationalism, i.e. with the Greek countryside (especially the mainland areas first liberated from the Turks). The regional folk music of Greece, much of which was itself of hybrid origin, was generally defined by association with a particular landscape. The deracinated, urban rebetika, with their foreign derived slang, their shady milieu and anti-authoritarian lyrics were a thorn in the side of nationalists, but for the same reason they were attractive to modernist writers and intellectuals who opposed narrow nationalism, and to working class urban Greeks, many of whom were sympathetic to the Greek Communist Party’s campaign for a more equal distribution of resources.
Among the writers who championed the rebetika was Kostas Tachtsis. His 1964 essay on the zeibekiko offers us a possible explanation for the transformation of the rebetika from a narrow local phenomenon to a broadly popular style . The extreme privations of the German Occupation leveled class differences: There were no more hungry and satisfied, there were no masters and slaves, everyone was a slave, everyone was hungry, all felt the need to bewail their fate... All the houses suddenly became hashish dens, not literally of course, but in character. Everywhere the spirit of lawlessness prevailed, of constant fear, misery and death. ... The zeibekiko found room to develop, develop rapidly. Suddenly, it was no longer a dance of the underworld, but of a large number of Greeks, mostly those living in urban centers. Many of the songs which were first heard immediately following the war, had been written during the Occupation and differed markedly from the pre-war, heavier "hashish" rebetika....In contrast to such meaningless songs, the rebetika offered the suffering population songs that dealt with reality, and not only with a literal but a symbolic reality. They were identified, according to the author, with “the spirit of resistance.” Tachtsis goes on to explain that while the Communist-led resistance fighters in the mountains of Greece sang Russian and other imported songs, the Greeks who drank their wine in underground tavernas, listened to rebetika songs that spoke not of the actual situation of the war, but of the “eternal poison of life.”
Read the whole thing here.