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Rebetiko is the music of the poor, the broken, the disaffected, the exiled; and it’s thriving again

Con Kalamaras is the director of the inaugural Melbourne Rebetiko Festival at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday, March 10.  The afternoon and evening festival features Pliri Ntaxei (Greece) pictured above, Chrysoula K and Purpura (Greece), Zourouna,  Melbourne Rebetiko Ensemble, Pascal Latra and the Philhellenes, Melbourne Bouzouki Orchestra with Dean Georgalas and the Manasis School of Greek and Dance Culture.

We asked Kalamaras to explain Rebetiko – often called the ‘Greek Blues’ –  to those unfamiliar with it.

How do you describe Rebetiko?

It is an urban, improvised music which melds Byzantine, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish Sephardic and later jazz, and even Latin music. It is the music born in Smyrna (Izmir) and Constantinople (Istanbul) around the turn of the 20th Century but really took hold when over two million Greeks were expelled from Turkey in 1921 during the horrific Greco-Turkish War. They settled in the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki – as disposed refugees. The music took on – like the African American Blues – the pain, wants, love and lives of the poor and broken and the outliers of polite society.

Rebetiko is storytelling spanning love, loss, drugs and refugee tales. It is no coincidence that Rebetiko is often called the Greek Blues. Like the Blues, the music grew out of a specific, urban sub-culture and reflected the harsh realities of a sub-culture’s lifestyle. Interestingly, the first recordings of Rebetiko were made in New York in the same studios that recorded Jazz, Blue Grass and Blues.

Rebetiko has been called the music “of the underground, the disaffected, the exiled and the subversive”. Why?

It was absolutely seen with horror by the Europeanising middle classes of Athens and Thessaloniki in the 1920s. These people were so desperate to ‘wash off’ Asia from their lives — anything that even remotely sounded Asian or Turkish was immediately considered unclean. You have to remember that Greece was under Ottoman Colonial Occupation for 400 years, so from the 19th Century onwards, there was a concerted effort to be ‘European’ whatever that meant.

So suddenly these Eastern Greeks from Turkey bring in this weird new sound. Along with it comes, hash, heroin, unemployment, criminal activity, alternative lifestyles, open sexuality  -it was very confronting to the new bourgeois of Greece. In the mid ’20s Greece had the facsist Metaxas Regime that actually made the music illegal.

By the 1930s and ’40s under Nazi Occupation the Rebetiko sounds became a more articulate and intellectual music of the Resistance (and) by then it was increasingly becoming influential in progressive and intellectual circles.

It is very cross-cultural music mixing Jews, Turks, Gypsies, Greeks, Armenians and Arabs. One of its greatest exponents in the 1920s was Roza Eskenazim a Greek Jew from Turkey – the new Europeanising Greeks in power —  the new bourgeoisie –did not like this.

Rebetiko is storytelling spanning love, loss, drugs and refugee tales.

Does Rebetiko thrive in politically uncertain times? 

Rebetiko changes. By the ’40s it had become more melodic, incorporating guitar, accordion and four part harmonies and it was increasingly being influenced by Italian canto. There were great masters of it like Tsitsanis and others who popularised the form.

A real surge occurred in the revival that thrived in the late ’60’s and ’70s as it highlighted the resistance and revolt against the military dictatorship, given it’s anti-authoritarian references.

After the fall of the 1967-74 Colonels’ Military Junta, Rebetiko became a major force in progressive youth circles. People tired of it a bit in the heady high-finance times of 1995-2005. I mean it’s hard driving a Porsche while listening to a sour tune about poverty and love. But as Greece collapsed again, post 2007, they have come out again. Pliri Ntaxei, (pictured above) for example, are a great case of using 1930s type sounds with new lyrics about life in Greece and Europe. 

This is the inaugural Rebetiko festival. Why now?

Melbourne has a long tradition of a Rebetiko scene dating back to the late ’70s. The festival concept was conceived by Kon Karamountzos and produced with me and a pilot festival was organised late 2016. From this, we’ve brought in Fotis Kapetopoulos to expand on the concept and broaden it’s reach even more so outside of the Greek Community and Melbourne at large. (The event has the support of the City of Melbourne, Multicultural Victoria and also Sydney Greek Festival and the Greek Centre of Melbourne.)

A dedicated following has evolved for this music in Melbourne. Traditionally, it’s been second generation Greeks who have come to shows but in recent times new migrants from Greece have also been turning up, especially university students who now reside in Melbourne. Local musicians have also turned their interest to this music, Greeks and non- Greeks alike.

Has it been ‘ghettosised’ as ethnic music in the past?

Yes and no. The Brunswick Music Festival under the lead of John McAusland in the 1980s did much to revive and develop a unique Melbourne Rebetiko style. You hear some of that in Head On, the film based on Christos Tsiolkas book Loaded. Look at the work that Jim White and George Xylouris is doing now. Rebetiko is a bit like Flamenco or Ethiojazz, it’s more than folk music.

What are your long term plans for the festival? 

To grow it to become an annual event, and also expand on cross cultural collaborations. I mean, look at Zourouna one of the groups (in the  festival) it has a four great musicians representing Israel, Turkey, Lebanon and Greece. We also want to bring some amazing Cretan style and some new Afrogreek style Rebetiko.

Where is the current centre of Rebetiko in the world right now?

The epicentre of this music is still Athens and Thessaloniki, however there are vibrant centres in Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, New York, Istanbul, Melbourne and Chicago.

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