REBETIKO

Article by Panagiotis Kounadis

The great series of reforms (Tanzimat) that took place in the Ottoman Empire (1839, 1856) under the pressure of the western powers (mainly the British Empire) enabled the economic, commercial and industrial development of the non-Muslim minorities resulting in a cultural explosion in all sectors.
In such a context, in the cities with Greek populations (Smyrna, Constantinople, Alexandria, Thessaloniki, etc.), the new social strata created by natives, by internal immigrants of the Ottoman territory and by population groups of liberated (at any given period) Greece followed a new urban mode of life and social behavior, which shaped cultural needs and standards different from the ones of rural life.
... Older musical traditions were transformed through wrangling, admixtures and exchanges, thus shaping new aesthetic content and producing new forms of urban songs. The main area of development was the multicultural city of Smyrna, and an illustrative example of music was smyrneiko (musical style originating in Smyrna). Multifaceted and multiform, it covered a broad musical spectrum with influences from all parts of the region. Among the various categories of urban songs, the most popular ones, after a number of designations in the early 20th century, ended up being called rebetika. The famous composers and performers who would star in Greece after the Asia Minor Disaster were shaped in this “life-giving” environment.
The appearance of discography at the beginning of the 20th century recorded (1900-1922) in Constantinople and Smyrna a multitude of musical creations, older and newer. These recordings would also cover, with reprints, the entertainment needs of Greek immigrants in the USA, where around 1916-1917 mass recordings of the Greek repertoire began, part of which was recorded for the first and only time.
In the early 1920s, European record labels established branches in Greece and began recording with mobile crews, and in 1930 the first industrial records production unit was created with the operation of the factory of Columbia in the area of Perissos, in Athens.
The fact that almost all those who took over the artistic direction of these labels were from Asia Minor was decisive for the course of rebetiko, as they paved the way for younger authors, such as Markos Vamvakaris, who, as the leader of a bouzoukia and baglamades orchestra, would contribute to the creation of a new genre, the pireotiko (literally the “Piraeus-style”) rebetiko.
In the stranglehold of censorship (1937) imposed by the Metaxas dictatorship, young talented authors, led by Vasilis Tsitsanis, emerged and managed to cope in an exemplary way, evolving rebetiko musically, lyrically and performance-wise.
The number of recordings, the volume of sales and the use of the records reveal that rebetiko, despite being slandered and facing competition from very strong “rivals” (dimotiko [folk music], elafro [light style music], etc.), became the most popular genre.
By the late 1950s, even though the creation of “old-style” rebetiko songs were in short supply, its impact had been so great that it had influenced all the younger authors who appeared in the early 1960s. All of the elements that structured rebetiko since its appearance penetrated and were diffused in the work of Theodorakis, Chatzidakis and their successors, even in the tacky skyladika (the “decadent” form of popular music meaning “doggish” or “doghouse”, derived from the Greek word for dog) that first appeared during the years of the dictatorship of the colonels.
The recollection of the recordings of the phonograph era to the modern memory inspired many young musicians who continue rebetiko’s long tradition.