Greek Music

Historical origins

Greek music gave rise to Rebetike songs, like any other genre of music, be it popular, folk or artistic, it is the corollary of many genetic factors. Its birth and spread have been marked by historical events, social unrest, cultural interaction, ethnic mixing and strong personalities. Consequently, a necessary condition for a coherent understanding of the song rebetika is a brief reference to the turbulent history of the geographical area of ​​Asia Minor and Greece , where this music was born and developed. The starting point of this historical presentation is the fall of Constantinople into the hands of the Turks, in 1453. This historical event marked the end of the Byzantine Empire., whose main cultural characteristics were Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity. Byzantium was defeated by the Ottoman Empire, and the Turks and the state religion, Islam, were now dictating the rules. The Ottoman Empire included within its domain a mixture of nations and cultures, the interaction of which was constant. Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Slavs, Jews, Albanians, Greeks of Albanian origin, all lived and moved within the borders of the Empire. The effect of the civilization and traditions of the Persians and Arabs was also profound, as the Turks borrowed various cultural elements from them in reaching the Middle East.

This status quo lasted for about four centuries. In 1821 the Greeks revolted against the Turks; after a lasting struggle for independence and with the support of the great European powers, the modern Greek state was founded in 1830; the Europeans imposed the Bavarian Otto as king of Greece . However, the political life of the new state was particularly tumultuous for many years to come, highlighting strong internal tensions. The prisons were full of criminals as well as political prisoners. In addition, an important change was involved in the social organization of the country, as a large part of the population moved from the villages to the cities. The dawn of the twentieth century sees Greece expand to new territories: Heptanissa, Thessaly, Epirus, the Aegean islands, Crete, Macedonia and Thrace are gradually annexed. The native Greek populations had inhabited these territories for centuries, each of them with their own traditions and habits. However, the predominant event in modern Greek history remains the so-called “Asia Minor catastrophe” of 1922. Its origin can be found in the national aspirations widely cultivated by the Greeks , known as “the Big Idea” and which aimed at the resumption of Constantinople, capital of Byzantium, by the Greeks. The Greek government , motivated by: a) the common desire of all Greece b) the indubitable fact that for thousands of years Asia Minor had been inhabited by a Greek population so numerous that at the beginning of this century it reached more than a million people and finally c) by the nonexistent, since ‘this resulted’ later , support of his allies (the ENTENTE), decided to militarily invade the city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor.

In 1921 the Greek army invaded Turkey at the instigation of England, France, Italy and Russia. The Ottoman Empire was in a state of collapse and the Great Powers, eager to divide the territory, let Greece understand that if it tried to occupy the coasts of Asia Minor where, since ancient times, two million Greeks lived , could have counted on their support (they had been using Greece for their purposes ever since the Italians had invaded from the south and were marching north; they wanted, through the Greeks, to stop them from occupying the entire coast of Asia Minor.) The Greek army reached Ankara. Wrong political and military choices and the underestimation of the Turkish forces under their new leadership, Kemal Atatourk, determined the disorderly retreat of the Greeks following the launch of the assault by the Turkish general. In the meantime, France withdrew from the agreement. This prompted the other powers to withdraw their support so as not to start another world war. In an attempt to save their lives, panicked Greek soldiers and native Greeks of Asia Minor (the population Local Greek , who did not wish to be there when the angry Turks disarmed the city, joined them) stormed the port of Smyrna; the city was set on fire and many drowned in the sea in an attempt to save themselves, while the ships of the allies who are anchored in the port did not give any help, in order to avoid coming to a confrontation with the Turks. The Greek-Turkish war came to an end with an international peace treaty which led the two sides to a mutual transfer of their populations. A huge wave of refugees from Asia Minor, the Caucasus, East Thrace and many other regions populated since ancient times by the now devastated Hellenism, submerged Greece . By 1922, there were two million refugees in the country.

All Greeks who had never lived in Greece . They had come from the fertile lands of Anatolia but were now forced to live in a small mountainous country that could not support them, or in refugee settlements in Piraeus and Thessaloniki. It was in the cafes near these establishments that what we know today as Rembetika music began. The refugees brought with them their own culture, traditions and habits which were quite refined and urban in character, until they thrived in their homeland. But now they had to face the specter of famine and unemployment as their absorption into Greece it soon turned out to be extremely difficult and slow. Imagine yourself as a refugee: in Asia Minor you could have a business, a nice house, money, friends, family. But in Greece all you have is how much you could take with you from Turkey and your dreams shattered. You’ve gone from the middle class to being invisible in a foreign country that doesn’t really want you there. Rembetika was the music of these disadvantaged people. The lyrics reflected their surroundings: poverty, pain, drug addiction, police oppression, prison, unrequited love. It was the urban Greek blues. There was never a complete integration of the Greeks into the “Turkish” society, but there was certainly enough collaboration between the artists, many Smyrnaiike and Rebetike songs contain the lyrics in both Turkish and Greek and some songs contain phrases and words in Ladino, Greek and Turkish. When we talk today about the history of Smyrna, about fire and dislocation, it is often in terms of “genocide” (the Greek point of view) or “a population exchange” (the Turkish point of view).

The Greek view seldom recognizes the effect that “population exchange” has had on Turkish citizens of Greece who have been expelled; the Turkish one denies considerable fatalities and attempts to justify the actions of the newly formed Turkish army in legal terms. There is much documented evidence of the devastation the moment suffered, by the American ambassador to Turkey and others, also preserved as a kind of oral history in many Rebetika and Smyrnaiika song lyrics. A major film that was produced in 1980 documents the plight of several famous Rebetika stars. Many of the scenes in the film “Rebetika”, directed by Costas Ferris, take place in shelters and bars where opium and hashis were smoked and people speak a mixture of Greek and Turkish. This film describes the different movements of Rebetika music, including the classical Rebetika, the Rebetika Smyrnaika and the “modern” styles (1935 onwards).


Rebetiko is the music played and sung by the Rebetici. The term “Rebetic” implies an attribute. It describes a characteristic type of man, of particular mentality, behavior, position and way of life. Etymologically the word derives from the Turkish meaning “of the rebet” the insoluble, the rebellious, the without-rules. Rebetiko is a nonconformist par excellence. He rejects institutional power, but in no case does he adhere to military action against it. He proposes himself as an external element of social conformity, being thus often considered a ban. Despite this, he does not identify with the underworld. He is voluntarily provocative, adopts a “slang” language and almost always wears a weapon. A Rebetiko however belongs to poor, ordinary and unprivileged people. The institution calls him a “foreigner”. The debut of the Rebetica in the Greek social reality is undeniably correlated with the emergence of the first large urban agglomerations. Around 1900, the Shadow Theater – a popular form of entertainment – included the Rebetics among its characters. This is indicative because the Teatro delle Ombre, in Greece so in the Ottoman Empire, constantly renewed its characters inspired by the prevailing social condition, thus maintaining a lively and modern style at all times. The supporting evidence regarding the outcome of the Rebetic apparition is provided by many Greek writers and philologists.

In 1891 Andreas Karkavitsas published his travel notes on a tour around the Peloponnese in southern Greece in the literary newspaper “Estia” , in which he reported hearing the Rebetike songs sung in the Palamidi prison. Palamidi was the most renowned prison in Greece in the last century. Also many years earlier, in 1850, the French knight Appere reported similar observations in his study of the conditions of prisons in Greece during the reign of King Otto. According to Elias Petropoulos, the Rebetiko theorist, the popular discontents of the anonymous unemployed fighters of the Greek revolution of 1821 and the new Greek condition established must be attributed to the Rebetic phenomenon. In Athens in 1890, the group of anti-conformist Rebetics is at its peak. They now make up a particular social phenomenon and their persecution is one of the top priorities of the Greek police.

Greek music Rebetiko

The basic part of the Rebetiko has its roots in the geographical area of ​​modern Greece , its main vehicle, which consists of these peculiar “down-and-outs” plebeians, are the Rebetics. The prison and the so-called “tekes”, the bars where the Rebetics meet to smoke hashish, were the main places where the Rebetiko played and was listened to, exclusively by men; the main instruments were the bouzouki and the baglamas. From a musical point of view these songs were not very refined and naive and the subject matter of the verses was limited to the suffocated, restricted social environment of the Rebetics.

However, at the end of the nineteenth century, another genre of music appeared: coffee ‘ Aman emerged in the large urban agglomerations of Greece , but especially in Asia Minor, such as Constantinople and Smyrna. These were musical cafes , where middle-class Greeks entertained themselves. Their name probably originated from the old Turkish cafes , in which the singers of “two-three” improvised verses in the form of dialogue and coined the exclamation “Aman!”, In their effort to buy time to think about the next verse. The music played in the cafe Aman was rich and shrewd, able to satisfy the demands and tastes of an educated and high-ranking public, both socially and in terms of their education.

Many refugees joined the Rebetica, familiarizing themselves with their instruments and their music. As a result, the refugee businessmen opened their ” café “Aman ”in which the Rebetici musicians were employed. So, from the moment the rebetiko came out of the narrow confines of the prison and the teke, he began to attract wider social strata. Meanwhile, Greek folk music, the product of an agricultural society, had gradually reached saturation point. After a long flowering, it could not inspire anything else, due to a new urban development in the country. The split was evident; the union of two worlds, the refugees and the Rebetica, came to fill it. In this way the circumstances were created for the Rebetiko to expand nationally. Elias Petropoulos distinguishes three periods of the rebetiko’s prosperity. The “Smyrna” period (1922-1932) in which the style of coffee Aman of Smyrna prevails, the “classical” period (1932-1942) characterized by the return to the Rebetiko of the underworld; and finally the “popular” period (1942-1952), where the rebetiko, mature and free of the underworld syndrome, became a Greek national music .

Influences and style

Rebetiko is a form of modern urban folk song. His style was shaped by the influence of the musical norms that preceded and particularly by: a) Greek folk music produced by the Greek agricultural society which had flourished from the time of Byzantium until the Greek revolution of 1821. It was particularly influenced by pseudo-folk songs; these are the result of the decline of folk music which followed the establishment of modern Greek society and the development of large urban agglomerations; b) the popular songs of the east and especially of Arabia and Turkey, were introduced in Greece through the ports of the Middle East and the refugees of the Asia Minor catastrophe; c) Byzantine chant, which was and still is today the hymn of the Greek Orthodox church d) and finally, the Serenades of the Heptanissa, a music that Greece inherited from the Ionian Islands, which had been under Italian rule until their annexation to the independent continent in 1863. It must be emphasized here that the Serenades Eptanissa were extremely fashionable in Athens and constituted the only influence of Western Europe on the Rebetiko.

Two terms that have always been confused are Smyrnaiika and Rebetika. It is necessary to clearly distinguish the “Smyrna” style of the first decade of Rebetiko’s flowering, as opposed to “classical” and “popular” periods. There is no clear demarcation, except that Smyrnaiika refers to the music of Smyrna, a mainly Greek city forcefully transformed into a modern Turkish city in the early 1920s (Smyrna is now called Izmir). Much of the Smyrnaiika music refers to the politics and situation of the burning, looting and general destruction of the city of Smyrna, while Rebetika is commonly associated with the opium and hashish fumes of the port communities around Athens (which developed as a result of the massive emigration from Smyrna, from the Balkans and Egypt after World War I). There is also the Ladin and Turkish Rebetika, from the same historical period, as many of Safardic’s Turks and Jews were influenced by the destruction of Smyrna. The music of “coffee Aman” prevails during the first decade.

Its characteristics are long, plaintive instrumental and vocal improvisations on a given way, the lascivious female voice and vigorous dances, especially the sexy and provocative “tsifteteli” in 4/4 time, analogous to the Turkish belly dance. The solo instrument was rhythmically accompanied by a second instrument that doubled the melody at the octave. The musical atmosphere of the “Aman coffee” acquires a strong oriental flavor with the evident Arab and Turkish influence. The instruments used were the violin, the lute, the outi, the santouri and the performers were skilled and experienced.

The following two decades mark the return of the old Rebetiko of the “outsiders”, a product of the Greek continent. The main instruments used here are the bouzouki, the baglamas and in the following phase the guitar. The singer is a man and his voice may have a metallic, hoarse or deep tone but in no case is it sweet or lewd. The musical style is simple and deep. The song usually begins with a “taximi” played by the bouzouki. Taximi is an improvisation and a way. It serves as a prelude that introduces the listener to the atmosphere and style of the song and is never an end in itself to virtuosity. Its rhythmic character is free. The taximi is accompanied quite often by the continuous plucking of the open strings of the baglamas set in fifths. A short taximi intervenes between two rooms.

Modes and shades

Most Greek music historically possessed 12 octave notes. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Europe used modes such as “Ionic” (major) and “Aeolian” (minor) in church and secular music. However, Rebetika music has shown a greater departure from this system by including notes belonging to the Arab and Turkish systems. In Egypt, 24 notes are used, equidistant, per octave, and in Turkey there are theoretically 53 notes in the octave! and many of these “extra” notes are notes that are not used in Western music, but appear frequently in Rebetika’s music. Much of Rebetika music is structured more like the melodies of the Makam system (modal system) of Turkey and Egypt than the modal system of Greece. One reason this genre of music is so important is that the melodic organization of the Rebetika has generally been maintained in modern Greek music. In Turkish music theory, over 270 makams are described, most of which are quite obscure. In the hundreds of Rebetike songs, at least 35 makams have been used repeatedly and among these there are certainly “common” and “less common” ones.

Progress and decline

Widely accepted by refugees in 1922, Rebetiko came out of its obscurity and slowly made its way to the recording studios. The first recordings were made in various cities of the United States in 1897. London and Leipsig followed and around 1930 the first Greek recordings were made by the companies “His Master’s Voice”, “Columbia” and “Odeon”. It is worth mentioning that the BBC has an excellent collection of recordings of Greek folk songs. By the mid-war, the number of dispossessed and “down-and-outs” in Greek society had already begun to increase.

This was mainly due to the Metaxas dictatorship that preceded the Second World War. The subsequent German occupation (1940-1944) spread hunger, terror and despair, destroying the social structure of the country; to conclude, following the German retreat, the ‘civil war that lasted’ until 1948 broke out. The German occupation in particular reduced almost the entire Greek population, regardless of social class, to an unprivileged mass. Then, after the refugees of 1922, Rebetiko once again expressed the unhappiness and grief of the persecuted people, only this time on a national scale. From 1946 onwards the Rebetiko reached its peak and one of its greatest composers was the charismatic Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Tsitsanis almost single-handedly succeeded in ridding the Rebetiko of the prison syndrome, the underworld and the teke. He refined it and spoke to all Greeks, generating genuine popular music. However, the beginning of the “popular” period also marked the beginning of the end. Excessive marketing established the new rules. Manolis Chiotis, the first and perhaps unsurpassed virtuoso of bouzouki, added a fourth string to the bouzouki so as to make the tuning identical to that of the first four series of the guitar; this made the guitar-like accompaniment to virtuosity easier. Furthermore, he introduced the electric bouzouki to increase the volume, as rebetika’s songs were now performed in huge and luxurious rooms and in front of a large audience. The large amount of recordings produced attacked and altered the old, authentic style and the quality inevitably began to decline. From 1960 onwards, trade and easy profit degraded the Rebetiko. During the same period the Greece began to recover, overcoming the social crisis caused by the German occupation and the civil war.

The economy was revived and a robust middle class emerged. The Rebetics no longer existed as a social group; as a result, Rebetika music ceased to be produced. His musical style, however, gave birth to the so-called “popular artistic music” of Greece. Indeed, the death crackle of the Rebetiko was simultaneous to its discovery by the Greek artistic composers Manos Hadzidakis and Mikis Theodorakis. Hadzidakis in particular in one of his lectures in 1949 was the first to use the characteristics of the Rebetiko with the intellectual elite of the country, at a time when it was still considered decadent music. These two composers, who were later joined by Stavros Xarhakos, adopted the musical style, rhythms and instruments of the Rebetiko, Greece . However, according to Elias Petropoulos, “bouzouki is not synonymous with Greece, but with Rebetiko”.


Rebetiko was the product of the underworld. The terrible living conditions in the city during industrial development, poverty and the self-sufficient use of power by governments are all fertile ground for the emergence of underprivileged groups; it was this that secured the material for the Rebetiko to exist. It was never a political incitement. It was simply a protest song: an expression of grief and despair, the refusal of the wrong social garments and the refusal of the “down-and-outs” to be subjected to any system of social coexistence. The combination of the heterogeneous cultural elements that contain it and its final molding took place within Greece, Greek being the language used and the main vehicle and its audience the Greek population. This leads to the conclusion that the Rebetiko is an identity. From 1960 until today the extensive urbanization of the Greek population and the gradual modernization of the way of life based on the Western model, have resulted in the removal of the vital elements of the Rebetiko; the number of foreigners was reduced and the cultural heritage of the country and the east was rejected as it was exceeded. The Rebetiko lasted as long as social and cultural circumstances continued to feed him. These circumstances ended naturally, given the speed of progress and change in the twentieth century.

Elements similar to those of Rebetiko appeared all over the world in terms of its reason for existence, its origins, its success and its decline: the Blues in America, the “vagabond songs” in the nineteenth century in France, the Flamenco in Spain, Tango in Argentina. The following quote from a text by Manos Hadzidakis could apply very well to the aforementioned musical phenomena, naturally maintaining the right proportions: “… the Rebetiko ceased to exist since we held it in our hands – like the frescoes in the catacombs by Fellini , which disappeared as soon as the air of the upper world touched them. Rebetiko only really existed during the time it was illegally produced, in secret and remote places, somewhere around us. He continued to breathe even as he began to effectively express the ordeals and experiences during the postwar years of people still distressed by devastation, battered people who felt the urge to communicate in an erotic way and could not and who felt the need to escape from his reality and again could not. This whole period has produced eighty songs for us. Nothing else. Eighty songs and a myth, as picturesque as Theophilos (traditional painter) and Karagiozis (traditional shadow theater). abused people who felt the urge to communicate in an erotic way and could not and who felt the need to escape from their reality and again could not. This whole period has produced eighty songs for us. Nothing else. Eighty songs and a myth, as picturesque as Theophilos (traditional painter) and Karagiozis (traditional shadow theater). abused people who felt the urge to communicate in an erotic way and could not and who felt the need to escape from their reality and again could not. This whole period has produced eighty songs for us. Nothing else. Eighty songs and a myth, as picturesque as Theophilos (traditional painter) and Karagiozis (traditional shadow theater).

Many of the Smyrnaiika and Rebetika music recordings that can be heard today, on 78, LP, cassette, or CD, come from the archives of Dino Papas, a retired police officer in Detroit, Michigan, who owns a large collection of recordings. Rebetika originals. Other recordings come from the collection of Marty Schwartz, a professor at Berkeley. Unfortunately, little credit has been given to these two individuals, thanks to whom the world still knows about Rebetika music, a style that has almost completely disappeared after 1945. In addition to the work of Papas and Schwartz, there has been a rebetika rebirth of a different species, in America, Australia and Greece: the new bands are covering old Rebetika songs, sometimes trying to recreate exactly the original, sometimes modernizing the pieces with electric instruments and the most complete instrumentation. Ana Bouboula is one of the best known rebirth groups. There is no news of Turkish bands playing Rebetika specifically, except for some works by Yeni Turku which revived some folk songs from that era.

Laika’ or Rembetika?

So what is the difference between Rembetika and Laika ‘? Where can the line be drawn? Well, in a way, you just can’t. In the first place Laika ‘usually means “urban folk” while Rembetika means “urban blues”. There are laika ‘and rembetika musicians who have become popular and commercial and have begun to write in a style that allows them to maintain their popularity by introducing new elements and gradually drawing closer the waters that separated the two different forms of music. Let’s make a comparison with Western popular music, especially rock and roll. In the beginning there were these black and older gentlemen in the rural rural areas of the south singing their blues and at the same time there are also these white dudes who have been influenced by traditional American and European folk. These two groups (long story short) led to Chuck Berry and then to Elvis and eventually to Britney Spears. Now, comparing Britney Spears to these old Mississippi gentlemen is ridiculous but you can draw a line that connects them and in between you would find Little Richard, The Beatles, James Brown, and every true talent and non-talent that has appeared during the last fifty years. or more years. As people added their influences, R&B, rockabilly, soul, heavy metal, folk-rock, Latin-pop, surf music, symphonic rock were born. The same happened with the Rembetika. While the elderly gentlemen were in the tekedes smoking hashish and singing to each other, the rest of the country didn’t look each other in the face waiting for someone to invent music. Each area of ​​Greece had its own traditional music, most of it identifying a particular island or area.

Various influences were also introduced in Greece by the many men who took their ships and began to sail around the world. All these forms of music combined with Rembetika and Laika ‘morphing into Greek folk music or Laika’ and, just as between Chuck Berry and Britney Spears, a line can be drawn that connects Markos Vamvakaris to the more commercial laika’-pop singer. of the day. The most important gift that Rembetika gave to Laika ‘and Greek folk music is the bouzouki. How important is bouzouki for the rest of the world? Since its introduction into Irish music it has become one of the most played instruments. But that fades in comparison to the effect it had on American music. In 1950 a young guitarist named Dick Dale became popular on the West Coast by playing a detachable-style electric guitar he had learned to play from his uncle, a bouzouki player. Dick Dale became the father of what is known as Surf Music and his style influenced the Ventures, the Beach Boys and many generations of musicians. The amplifier developed for Dick by his friend Leo Fender to support this different way of playing the guitar became one of the most popular amps in the world and there are few guitarists who have not owned a Fender for their performances or practice.