Rebetiko (I)

27 November 2016

My friends know (and are duly horrified by the fact) that I have a bit of a faiblesse for a rather strange musical genre: rebetiko. Lately, some rebetika made it back into my daily playlists. So in this post I’ll begin to tell you the story of my encounter with rebetiko. I’ll do it backwards: today I’m going to tell you where I got; in a future post I’ll tell you where I started from. (If you can’t wait that long, click here for a clue.)

Rebetiko is a Greek musical genre (perhaps the word ‘tradition’ describes it better) whose roots are in the musical practice of the suburban (and often interlope) Greek world at the turn of the 20th century. What I like about it, at least in its pre-classical and classical periods (that’s before and, respectively, during the 30s) is the transparency of its eclectic nature. Rebetika draw heavily on the Oriental (Asian) musical traditions. Indeed, initially, they are oriental songs. Here’s a sample: Marika Papagika’s 1919 recording of Smyrneiko Minore. (Funny, it was recorded in New York!)

And here’s a modern take on the song, by Savina Yannatou:

It’s great fun to listen how this music evolves as it blends with the European tradition - or at least with the European tradition of the Southern Balkans. For instance, this is Vamvakaris’ take on the traditional zeibekiko of Asia Minor in the 30s, during the Piraeus period of rebetika:

As the years pass rebetika become more and more European. Listen, for instance, to Mpellou (probably the greatest, wonderfulest, magnificentest voice in the past, present and future of rebetiko) singing Sinefiasmeni kiriaki:

(If you want to learn more about rebetiko, there’s a decent Wikipedia page about it. Even better is Gail Holst’s book Road to rembetika.)