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28 December 2007



Why "Rebetika: Oriental or Greek"? Are they mutually exclusive?

I believe the interpretative framework is wrong. The Orient is contained in Greek just as is the Occident. The symbolic meaning of the double headed eagle, looking West and East, was that Byzantium, Hellenism, Romionsyni was balanced in equal measure between the metaphysical East and the physical West. This is why others are considered barbarians because they have too much of one and not the other.

Once we interpret the dichotomy of Orientalism and Occidentalism within Greek, then the vexed question of Rebetika, its origins and its place in Hellenism is made obselete.

I hope you understand what I mean.


I understand and agree with your viewpoint, others may not.


It is odd the anti-rembetika alliance of opinion that existed between communists and rightists – both of whom preferred the bracing songs of Epirus and regarded rembetika lyrics, subject matter and exponents as decadent and un-Greek; and indeed all those songs about hashish, cocaine and so on are problematic. You don't want popular culture that encourages and glamourises drug use and being stoned. Personally, I try and see all those hashish songs as metaphors for disillusionment with society and a desire to escape everyday reality – which is a legitimate expression of song and poetry.


Right now I'm short on time, but my husband and I look forward to reading this post and the associated links in-depth. The picture that you posted of the rebetes was our screen-saver for months until I finally convinced my husband to put something more cheerful on for Christmas! :-)


Thanks for pointing out the Rebetiko Online site.

The journalist you quoted is an unbelievable idiot. Morally superior music!

I had a quick look at the other two sites, and they don't seem to mention the very strong influence of the Sephardic musical traditions of the Ashkenazi Jews living in Thessaloniki. There's a very interesting essay "Κειμένη επί ακτής θαλάσσης..." by Αλμέρτος Ναρ. It's called "Εβραίοι και Ρεμπέτικο".

You're absolutely right in embracing rembetiko music as an integral part of Greek culture, but I question the notion of "more purified expressions of the Greek soul". Purified how? Morally? Music cannot serve a moral purpose. Purified racially? Purified of foreign influence? The first is nationalist nonsense, and the second cultural nonsense. No art is without strong ties to other cultures and other artists; in other words, without influence.

Perhaps you mean that rembetiko music was somehow lower socially, it wasn't "high art", that it was concerned with more vulgar aspects of life. That could be argued. In other words, you embrace it as you embrace other less "λαϊκές", or popular, expressions of the Greek soul.



For me Rembetiko is primarily an expression of the hopeless aspects and difficulties of life. Although they may be seen through the stupor of a hashish or alcohol induced haze, they do touch a nerve, don't they?


I look forward to your future comments and his, given that he is so much closer to the music than I.


Asia Minor where Rembetiko has its origins, was populated by Armenians, Assyrians and Jews, Turks as well as large numbers of Greeks. You can hear the influence of these cultures in the music. It evolved further when the music was imported to Greece and influenced by people living there. I'm sure none of this is news to you. Thank you for pointing out the role of other musical traditions in its evolution.

Not all music is influenced to the same degree by other cultures. If that music develops in an isolated area such as the mountain villages of Epirus it may in fact be a more purified homegrown musical tradition. That does not make it racially or morally superior but it does make it more "pure." For example, the polyphonic songs of Epirus (which I have written about previously) are just such an example. They can trace their origins to antiquity.

I have no quarrel with the evolution of Greek music that inevitably happens in our shrinking world, however, I would hate to see our very rich homegrown musical traditions die as a result of this foreign influence.

Part of the draw of Rembetiko, for many, is its multi-cultural character. I accept that entirely yet I also accept that its essence is entirely Greek and that there are, in fact, Greek musical art forms that have not been as heavily influenced and are thus more purified, if not superior, expressions of the Greek soul. If that makes me a nationalist (rather difficult in my situation) then so be it.


Not all music is influenced to the same degree by other cultures.

I never spoke of degree.

No art is isolated. No music is homegrown. You can demonstrate this just by looking at the kinds of scales and rhythms that are found in various kinds of music.

You can say the zeimbekiko is essentially Greek. Or you can say, as a musicologist would, that the zeimbekiko is the time signature of nine-eighths. But you cannot say that the nine-eighths time signature is essentially Greek, or Greek at all. It's no more culturally specific than the sound a drum makes when you hit it, or a string makes when you pluck it.

It would be unreasonable to expect a Balkan country, for example, to naturally produce country and western music, out of nothing, in a "homegrown" manner. It would be out of place. It would lack any continuity with other Balkan music, no matter what variations of this kind of music you can find in the various Balkan regions. There would always be some similarity connecting them.

"Pure" means nothing. There is no impure music. We're using terms incorrectly. Even "influence" isn't an accurate term: it suggests a conscious borrowing. There are simply links between different kinds of music. And music cannot be shown to "emigrate" the way people do, except in some unusual cases, and in those cases, it does not supplant the native music.

I have recordings of ancient music, and it must be remembered that it is largely speculative. No one really knows what it sounded like with the sort of accuracy we're used to in modern times. And what we have is limited; there is much more that is lost forever. So how do we know these ancient roots of polyphonic music you mention are "pure" in the sense that you mean? Purified of what? Of the music we're totally ignorant about? How can we know this?

If there are links to ancient Greek music and links to other music, how is the first pure and the second not?

You are, I think, trying to talk about things you only feel. Never mind whether it's entirely Greek or not, can you even say specifically what the essence of rembetiko (or any) music is? Is this essence the same for everyone? Isn't it possible that someone in Turkey, for example, might not hear it and think that the essence was entirely Turkish, something the Greeks took and added things on to? Why would you be right and the Turk wrong? Or the Ashkenazi Jew? Simply because of what you feel when you hear it?

Can you even say what the "Greek soul" is, and are you sure that I, or any other Greek, will agree?

None of this really has anything to do with music, but with one Greek's, or some Greeks', but not all Greeks', sense of national identity.

(I mentioned the Ashkenazi Jews in my first comment as distinct from the Jews in Asia Minor. They came from Spain, and spoke a Spanish sort of dialect called Ladino. If you listen closely enough, you will hear traces of Spanish music in rembetiko music, which is not traceable to Asia Minor. But if you listen closely to that Spanish music, you will hear traces of Arabic music, from the days when the Moors controlled Spain. What a musical soup it all is!)



I defer to your superior musical knowledge. I am speaking here only for myself. These are merely my opinions since I have no musical background other than that of one who enjoys listening to music of all types.

A culture's music is influenced, first and foremost, by all other aspects of that culture. This is especially so in a culture as old as that of Greece. The emotions and ideas that music expresses, the situations in which music is played and listened to, and the attitudes toward music players and composers, are all culturally driven. Music does not evolve in a total vacuum but I would argue that a particular form can emanate exclusively in only one culturally specific place. The more isolated that place is, the less it succumbs to outside influence.

Perhaps the word "pure" is indeed misplaced, I couldn't think of another. That said, aren't there certain aspects of a culture's music that are emblematic of that culture such as language? I couldn't refer to Greek music as pure for example if it was sung in French. If the polyphonic tradition can be traced back to a culture's musical tradition thousands of years ago and it still finds expression in music used today by people who call themselves Greek, can that not be considered culturally relevant?

I'll grant you that purity may be in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless I find it difficult to equate Greek rap music with Greek folk music. One is borrowed and glazed over with a thin patina of Greek language while the other is the product of centuries of Greek culture in all its forms. We can disagree about which one we prefer as Greeks but certainly not which one is more representative of the Greek cultural legacy.

As someone who has been exposed to many different forms of music in many different countries I can honestly say that I enjoy most of it and find myself tapping my foot no matter how strange it may sound.

For me Greek music is special. It has a certain pull for me. If it appeals to others that's OK. If they want to make it their own that's Ok, too. Music wasn't made to be hoarded away for private use.

Whether you admit it or not however, Greek music, is part of our legacy and part of a Greek identity. Something that makes us who we are just as Ladino is part of who an Ashkenazi Jew is. (BTW, I said that Rembetiko was influenced by people living in Greece, including Jews there, when it was brought over by the refugees from Asia Minor.

As for the Greek soul or essence, if you want to know what it is, read our history, literature, philosophy, poetry, listen to our music, dance our dances, speak our language, eat our food. I'm sure you have done just that, so there is no need to define it.

susan bournelis

Stavros, As you know my husbands Pappous came from Asia Minor. He always listened to Tsaousaki growing up.
Rebetika was a part of the culture for the Asia Minor Greeks.
Zeimbekiko as far as Petros remembers was a group or an area of people who were dancing this dance. He isnt sure but thinks they were called Zeimbeks(?) Do you have any information on this??
Happy New Year to you and your family.



Ask and you will receive:

Best wishes for the New Year to you and your family as well.


"A culture's music is influenced, first and foremost, by all other aspects of that culture."

I definitely agree. But one of the aspects is contact with other cultures. It's no coincidence that we find individual people who have little of this contact insulated, parochial and uncultured.

Ironically, it's the isolated places that show their influence the most clearly. They have less exposure to other areas and peoples, and so we don't get the soup effect.

I once blogged about seeing Savina Yannatou sing a Greek song as if it were Chinese. ( The melody had not been changed, nor had the lyrics. But it didn't sound Greek any more. It sounded Chinese. I wish there was a way I could play this for you. It's disorienting precisely because it upsets our notions of cultural difference and how we relate or don't relate to other cultures, and how those cultures may or may not speak for us.

When you say you find it difficult to equate Greek rap music with Greek music, I'm not sure what you mean by equate. Why would anyone say that Greek rap music is Greek folk music? But if you mean that you find it less Greek, that I understand. So do I. But that's just us, and our subjective response. A lot of people find that early StereoNova, for example, speaks directly to them in a way that rembetiko music no longer does. This is the murky area of personal response. There's little anyone can do but stand back and let this sort of thing happen. Most people are moved more by the utter crap that is played in σκυλάδικα than by rembetiko music. It speaks more to them now than rembetiko, or all the other kinds of music I imagine you and I both love. What can you do? That's culture.

(My personal response: Sometimes it's better to just move on and let something stay a part of the past instead of bastardising it this way. Why do they insist on dragging the bouzouki through the mud like that? Why insist that it has to be present for modern Greek music to be Greek?)

"As for the Greek soul or essence, if you want to know what it is, read our history, literature, philosophy, poetry, listen to our music, dance our dances, speak our language, eat our food."

I don't think there's an essence there. You're describing smaller parts that come together to form something bigger. A mosaic. Perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps not. I don't know. The essence of something lies deep in it. Culture is formed by adding. It's not the eggplant or aubergine that is Greek, nor the ground beef, nor the bechamel, nor the spices. It's the mousakas. And of course, this whole discussion could be moved from music to cuisine, and we could start all over again. Lots of cultures put meat on a stick. Only Greeks make the souvlaki emblematic.

Sorry for how long these comments are, but I'd like to quote Nikos Dimou here about language. This is from the entry in his Ειρωνικό Νεοελληνικό Λεξικό:

γλώσσα (ελληνική): Αναλλοίωτη στους αιώνες. Π.χ. στο παζάρι ψωνίζεις από τον μπακάλη, το μανάβη, το χασάπη ή από το σούπερ μάρκετ. (Κανένα ελληνικό ουσιαστικό -- τέσσερα τούρκικα και ένα αμερικάνικο.) Στο μπάνιο κλείνεις την πόρτα, ανοίγεις το ντουλάπι, μπαίνεις στην μπανιέρα και κοιτάς το ταβάνι. (Δύο τούρκικα, τρία ιταλικά.)

Έλληνας (ο από 3.000 ετών): Ο τυπικός Ρωμιός είναι λεβέντης, μερακλής, τσίφτης, ασίκης, χουβαρντάς, ντόμπρος, μάγκας, βλάμης, μπεσαλής και καπάτσος. Καμιά φορά τεμπέλης, το ρίχνει στο χουζούρι και στο ραχάτι, μαχμουρλής, στο ντιβάνι, κοιτάει το ταβάνι. Του αρέσει ο παράς, το μπαξίσι, το κέφι και το γλέντι. Άμα τον πιάσει ο σεβντάς ή ο νταλγκάς για καμιά νταρντάνα, γίνεται νταής (μπελάς, ο γρουσούζης!) κι άμα τον χτυπήσει ντέρτι και σεκλέτι, γίνεται μπεκρής και τον πονάει ο ντουνιάς. (Όλα τα ουσιαστικά ονόματα αυτού του κειμένου είναι ξένα. Είκοσι πέντε τούρκικα, τρία αλβανικά, δύο ιταλικά και ένα σλάβικο.)

μεράκι: Σεβντάς, σεκλέτι, ντέρτι, κέφι, νταλκάς, μαράζι... Είναι άραγε τυχαίο πως στη γλώσσα μας οι λέξεις που δηλώνουν πάθος είναι τουρκικές και αμετάφραστες; (Πώς λέμε "μεράκι" στην καθαρεύουσα;)

What makes this even funnier is the fact that a lot of these words are old now and are considered traditionally Greek. They're the stock phrases from rembetiko music, too.



You and I are the products of a multi-cultural environment and therefore feel a kinship for the mosaic. It has its rightful place and surely we are better for having had that experience. Yet I (and I think you) also have an abiding respect and love for the parts. Especially the Greek part. We are not so far apart it seems.

The unique nature of the Greek people has always been their ability to maintain their distinctive culture despite millenia of being exposed to all kinds of foreign influence.
Based on my experience which may be different from yours, I believe that it is the people living in the far flung villages of the Greek world where the Greek soul still survives. Not because of their isolation but because their brains have not been muddled by all the inocuous superfluous claptrap that passes for high culture these days.

The Greek soul, that essence that pervades everything Greek, is not about parts. Its about that something, call it what you will, that creates the parts and gives them life, character and in some cases greatness. I'm not talking about DNA, or the shape of one's skull. I've said this more than once, some of the best Greeks I know have not a molecule of Greek blood. They have a Greek soul, a love of things Greek and more importantly they actively partake of Greek culture and learning. Not because it is superior, because they value it.

Yes, Greek rap is less Greek than Greek folk music, yet the Greek soul takes a foreign entity like rap and transforms it into something different. It can infuse it with a certain Greekness that is unmistakable. Foreign though familiar, sort of like your entry from your funny Greek dictionary.

Though I still prefer Greek folk music, the video does make me smile deep down in my Greek soul.

BTW, I like your blog and have linked to it. Bravo.


When I started these comments, I was under the impression that you lived in Greece. Now I see that you live in Maine. I think if you lived here in Greece, you would have a different, less romantic or idealistic view of things. Likewise, years ago I would have agreed with you. My parents, who live in Canada still, would agree with you. But they're out of touch with things here.

A lot of Greeks here in Greece would disagree with you. They would say your view is quaint and old-fashioned. Some would say the Greece you talk about is dying fast, and others would say it's been dead for a long time.*

I understand the need to have a picture that we keep in our heart. I have such an image, an idea of what this "essence" is, but I know it has no basis in reality. I keep it because I like it. It's one of my treasured little illusions. But I know it's an illusion. Now, if I disagree with you about what this "essence", are you prepared to say that I'm wrong about it and you're right? If this "essence" is different things for different people, then how can that possibly be an essence?

I'm finding it difficult to strike the right tone here. I keep worrying that I'm sounding too argumentative. I want to stress that I understand you perfectly and share a lot of your views. But I know it's my personal view. It's something I touched on in my "Nostalgia" post. The homeland is forever lost.

(*Perhaps this is what Gatsos called χαμένη Ελλάδα, or is what Elytis was referring to when he mentioned την ολίγη Ελλάδα που μας επέμεινε.)



You're quite right, I don't live in Greece so I don't have to contend with the Greek reality. I was stationed in Greece during the mid-eighties for two years and return frequently although that still does not qualify me as an expert. In fact, I come from a family that is Greek yet none of us was born or lived within the borders of Greece.

If my view of Greekness and my cultural legacy is idealized it is because I prefer to highlight what I see as worth keeping and passing on to my children. If my view is nostalgic, it is for an ethos that was preserved by those that came before me. If I sound naive about the ever shrinking piece of Greece that exists in our collective memory it is because I am trying to keep it from shrinking even further.

An illusion? Perhaps my friend you have been looking in all the wrong places. As a Greek Cypriot friend once counseled: "Look to the periphery."

I hope you will take the time to read two posts that I am particularly proud of. These posts may help you better understand where I am coming from.

Please continue to come back and comment. I appreciate your insights. I will try to read your blog when I can, it seems to be worth the effort.

Simon Baddeley

I'm delighted to have rediscovered Artemis Leontis. I recall being really interestd in her writing in 1996 and then I gave the book she'd written on Greece back to the library and forget her name, though not the book. Your reference to her jogged my memory. It's strange this thing about culture. I was playing Frangoulis singing songs from Axion Esti off YouTube last night to show a friend of ours something that made the hairs stick up on the back of my neck and brought fullness to my chest and tears to my eyes and she said "yes, it's very nice and isn't he handsome!" I was quietly vexed that that was all she felt, but trying to share things that really matter, especially music, is risky. W.B.Yeats wrote about sharing matters of great sensitivity: "...I have spread my dreams under your feet,tread softly because you tread on my dreams."



I know what you mean about being disappointed when others don't share your feelings about a piece or style of music. I have always been moved by my the music of Epirus, the birthplace of my parents. Most people, including my wife, don't care for it. Perhaps it is an acquired taste.

As for Frangoulis. I was introduced to his music by AntigoneSis. He is only now starting to catch on in the USA. He is quite impressive. I wouldn't be too hard on your lady friend, most women are mesmerized by his looks.


Her husband Vassilis Lambroulos based at Michigan is also very very good.


A recent article and other works by Leontis and Lambbropoulos.



Thank you very much for a very valuable link.


Hi Stavros,
I was prompted by your entry to watch Costa Ferris' 1983 movie 'Rembetiko' again. Have you seen it? I suppose I always thought that for a song to be considered a true rebetiko, it had to be written prior to the 1950s, but this movie's score was written by Stavros Xaharkos in the 80s.
The cool thing about the movie is that the spoken dialogue doesn't tell the story as much as the lyrics of the music being performed. Anyhow, there's one song and its performance in particular by Sotiria Leonardou (who wrote the story of the movie) that most certainly will give you chills:
I recently saw a clip of Glykeria singing it on a Greek music show (Buat Al Gaida), and although I love her and the pathos inherent in her singing, I think the movie version is just plain awesome. Hope you like it.



Thanks for this link. Now I must see the whole movie. Just one more thing on my ever expanding "to do" list.


Antigone, you're very right about the music (and lyrics to the songs by Nikos Gatsos) from Rembetiko. My own personal favourite song is Manou mou Hellas – although you'd go mad if you listened to this song too many times. To Dikty (The Net) is second favourite. The film is based somewhat on the life story of Marika Ninou and the character of Babis, the obsessional musician, is supposed to be Tsitsanis. The film, in my opinion, suffers from being a bit febrile and depressing, but the music more than makes up for any shortcomings and the funeral scene is a great scene. As well as being on Youtube, the film's also available – without subs – at the GreekMovies site.

I also noticed at the GreekMovies site that they've put Spirtokouto (Matchbox) (2002) back up there; this is a really interesting film from a young Greek filmmaker, a grim take on the aggravations of living in Athens, in modern Greek society – authentic and disturbing and such a change from all the terrible sex comedies the majority of Greek films seem to consist of nowadays.


Stavro, why are you still moderating comments? We're behaving ourselves now; or has the power gone to your head?



Ask and you shall receive. I am no longer moderating. It was becoming rather cumbersome.

Have you seen the movie "Agapi sta 16 (Love at 16)?" It is a really a touching movie despite some of the language.

I'll watch "Spirtokouto" next on your recommendation.

BTW, do you think Greek Cinema will ever figure out that English subtitles and marketing outside of Greece is cost effective?


I highly highly recommend the stage version recording of Rebetiko the movie called Aman Amin. It includes all the songs from the movie and some more from Papaioannou, Vamvakaris and Titsanis. It also has a Tsarouchis cover art of Rebetes in Byzantine style including an angel. Polly Panou sings on the CD which is tremendous. Review from here:

You tube clips from the theatre here:


Thanks for the background info, Demo and Hermes. I'm a novice as far as rebetika are concerned, and I avoided watching the movie for a long time. The intensity of the music and the lyrics pulled me in, though. I will pass along the details on 'Aman, Amin'to my husband, the resident rebeti.
Also, Stavros and Demo, thanks for the tips on other available movies. I look forward to watching them.


Just found a link to a full length version of Rembetiko without subtitles:

and here is a superb oldie with Mercouri called Stella with subtitles:


Probably no one is interested but I just found Poly Panou singing one of her classics in what seems like a living room!!

Apologies, for the personal indulgence.

I wish my future wife had Panou's voice - singing to me in the bedroom after a hard day's at the office.

Simon Baddeley

I'm going back a bit here, Stavros, but as a result of a conversation about rebetiko with a schoolfriend on the East Coast I've not met for 40 years and who spoke about Seferis when I was interested in the Beatles at Cambridge and he was going on to manage the Grateful Dead, I came across Hadjidakis' talk about rebetiko in 1949. Sorry if you've read it already. I'm musically among those described by our English composer Edward Elgar who said the English don't really understand music but they love the noise it makes. Anyway this looks like something special - Hadjidakis' first public attempt at explaining a form viewed with disdain by many of his contemporaries:

LECTURE BY THE COMPOSER ON THE "REBETIKO" SONG, being Manos Hadjidakis' first occupation with the genre, given on 31 January, 1949, at the 'Art Theatre' - the first time the lecture is published whole.



Many thanks for the link which I assure you I read from beginning to end although the background almost made me cross-eyed. It appears that the consensus among us and as far as Hadjidakis is concerned is that Rembetiko is Greek through and through. That is good enough for me.

I too am a bit handicapped when it comes to music although I love the noise it makes and the bands that make it. Those of us that appreciate bands like the Grateful Dead and the Beatles are certainly dating ourselves as holdovers of a forgotten era.


If you want an answer you must study greek ancient music and greek middle ages mmusic and you will see that Greek music was different from what we call today western music (but even western music was not always like it is now)

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