Rebetiko Music | The Greek Underground Culture | Unleashing the Soulful Sound of Greek Blues
Updated: Sep 19
George Papadellis | SG Head
with some help from AI
Rebetiko is the urban popular song of the poor Greeks of the period from the late 19th century to the 1950s. Apart from song type, rebetiko was also a type of lifestyle, associated with illegal features and behaviors. Today, rebetiko is considered as a unique music category, but it is actually a mosaic of music elements, namely: music of Greek areas, Byzantine music and European music.
History of Rebetiko Music
The rembetiko was born in the Asia Minor, inside underground tavernas, hashish shops and prisons. The main centre was the port of Smyrni whose musicians had influences both from the east and the west (especially Italy). After the Asia Minor Catastrophe, several musicians from Smyrni settled in Greek coastal cities, and started composing and playing, individually and in groups. In the 30s, the Asia Minor "Smyrneika" style started differentiating from the Piraeus style, of Vamvakaris and Batis. At the end of the 30s rebetiko had formed its genuine classic style, this mixture of Asia, Europe and Greece folk, with its lyrics abandoning the underworld style. In 1936, rebetiko was censored after the 4th August Regime of the Dictator Ioannis Metaxas. Metaxas also closed all hashish shops where rebetiko was growing, allowing however some recordings. During World War II all recording activities stopped. In 1946, the core westernization of rebetiko came with Vasilis Tsitsanis, an excellent composer and uncomparable bouzouki player, who brought up unique singers like Marika Ninou and Sotiria Bellou, and set the basis for the phase of "laiko" category of songs. After Manos Hatzidakis who studied rebetiko in depth, there came Manolis Chiotis, the man who turned rebetiko to totally new directions, adding a fourth pair of strings to the bouzouki and importing Latin and South American rhythms. In 1956, a new change, this time in vocals, was brought with the singer Stelios Kazantzidis, whose expression led the change from rebetiko to laiko, helping however also to the revival of unknown rebetiko songs. After that period, there were two revival dates of the rebetiko music. One in 1960 with Grigoris Bithikotsis, Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis and then during the Regime of the Colonels (1967-1974) with Sotiria Bellou and George Mouflouzelis. After the end of the Junta, there was again a revival of rebetiko with Babis Tsertos, Agathonas Iakovidis, Babis Goles and Giorgos Dalaras.
Rembetes 1933 in Karaiskaki Piraeus | Photo by: Unknown, Rembetes Karaiskaki 1933
The most important instrument of rebetiko greek music, the bouzouki, has been known with this name in Greece since 1835, with the photos of a Greek instrument maker, Leonidas Gailas. Its first commercial recording took place in USA in 1926 by the Peloponnesian musician Konstantinos Kokotis. The first commercial recording in Greece took place in 1931 by Thanasis Manetas. However, the actual beginning of bouzouki recordings worldwide started in Greece in 1932 with Markos Vamvakaris. Other instruments that have a significant position in rebetiko history are baglamas, mandolin, guitar, laouto, kanonaki, accordion, clarinet, santour and more.
Rembetiko rhythms are based on Greek or Anatolian rhythms as mainly bolero, hasapikos, hasaposervikos, karsilamas, syrtos, tsifteteli and zeibekiko.
Piraeus Quartet (1930s) | Photo by: Unknown, Piraeus Quartet
In 2017, the Intergovernmental Committee of the Contract for the Protection of Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO, in its 12th Meeting in Korea (4-9 December), accepted the Rebetiko Music as the 5th Element of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Greece in the Catalogue of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The previous accepted elements of Greece were the Mediterranean Diet (together with Croatia, Cyprus, Italy, Morocco, Portugal and Spain), the Traditional Mastic Cultivation in Chios, the Marble Art of Tinos and the Custom of Momogeri. Congratulations to Rebetiko Greek Music and its main historical representatives: Markos Vamvakaris, Stratos Pagioumtzis, Bayanderas, Giannis Papaioannou, Apostolos Chatzichristos, Vasilis Tsitsanis, Manolis Chiotis, Stellakis Perpiniadis, Roza Eskenazi and more.
Some characteristic historic rembetiko albums produced are:
- A Unique Greek Voice | Apostolos Hatzichristos (2011)
- Bouzouki Pioneer | Markos Vamvakaris 1932-1940 (1998)
- Greek Popular and Rebetic Music in New York 1918-1929 (Marika Papagika) (1994)
- Mortika | Rare Vintage Recordings from a Greek Underworld (2009)
- Mourmourika: Songs of the Greek Underworld (1999)
- Rebetissa | Roza Eskenazi (1996)
- The Rough Guide to Rebetika (2004)
- Women of Rebetika (2000)