Rebetika Part 3 – The soul of Rebetika

While I’ve always enjoyed Rebetika more than any other kind of Greek music, I didn’t form the visceral connection to the genre until I watched Costas Ferris’ film Rembetiko about a decade ago.

If pressed, I would probably list it as my favourite film of all time. Not in any objective or purely quality-based sense. I see all the flaws: odd pacing, some questionable acting choices, an over-reliance on pure melodrama. But it is a film that I connected to, on an emotional level that I hadn’t before, or since, a film that had resonating consequences for my life since, and a film that I feel the need for an almost reverence when discussing—and isn’t that what great fiction is meant to do?

Rembetiko’s story is semi-biographical. It’s based on the life of famous Rebetika singer Maria Ninou, and the birth of the Rebetika movement, from its roots in Asia Minor to the emigrant slums of Athens and eventually moving into the mainstream, while taking a lot of artistic liberties with the content. Getting a decent copy of the film is a complicated, and costly affair. Finding a good English subtitle translation is almost impossible, especially when it comes to all the songs, which are a vital and essential part of the story—in fact, there’s not much a of movie without them. The film received quite a lot of world/arthouse cinema attention outside Greece, and it is credited as one of the major factors in Rebetika regaining popularity in the 80s. The musical score of the film, while written specifically for it, is absolutely glorious, and does a perfect job of capturing the very soul of the original Rebetes.

(Most of the online subtitles for the songs are…frustrating, to say the least, so once again I provided my own efforts to render the meaning.)

I’ve been seeing this particular song make the rounds a lot lately, in YouTube political statement videos, using musical montage to make a point about the hopelessness and frustration that is the current state of Greece in the global arena. While not exactly brimming with originality, I can see the emotional reasons for choosing this song. The circumstances might be quite different (and resonant to me, as a descendant of Asia Minor emigrants), but the underlying emotion of despair, betrayal and overwhelming disappointment is the same.
A bit of context, for the next song. The film’s heroine Marika has grown up in abject poverty, in Rebetiko hashish dens (more on those forthcoming in the next Rebetiko post), a particularly harsh life that included her father killing her mother in a jealous rage. The bit of the movie that most encapsulated the spirit of Rebetika is from a scene before. As her childhood friend encourages her to try out a solo singer, she expresses doubts about whether she has a good enough voice, to which he replies: “A voice? You don’t need a voice! Have you felt pain?” And that, in a nutshell, is what Rebetika is all about. Not just acknowledging suffering, but welcoming it like an old friend.

I could go on listing all my favourite songs from the film, but that would essentially involve me replicating the film’s soundtrack, which in my eyes is absolutely flawless. Instead, I’ll include a couple of songs from Marika Ninou, the film’s spiritual muse:
This song has been covered a lot, most famously in Melina Merkouri’s early film Stella (a 50s Greece take on Carmen), but I still find the Ninou original the most resonant version:

Another excellent song, which is not originally Marika Ninou’s (rather the 40s singer Sophia Vembo), and which is one of the most covered Greek songs for female vocalists. Greek music tends to recycle/homage/outright plagiarise a lot, but a find it significant that something in the simplicity of the song’s sentiment can appeal to so many generations.

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Snapshots of a crisis


Trying to describe what the financial crisis is like here is hard.

There’s the obvious signs; the closed businesses, the slashed salaries and pensions, the unemployment, and the media and economists with their very disheartening estimations and future projections.

But the truth is, you feel it the most through the little things.

It’s in the fact that half my phone contacts are out of date. The friends and acquaintances they belonged to are currently dispersed all over the globe, in search of greener pastures and employment.

It’s the fact that for the last two years, my apartment building has not had central heating because half of the residents simply cannot pay for the gas. And before it gets all a bit Dickensian, I’m personally fine. Air conditioning and more layers than a nineties teenager discovering grunge keep me warm, but don’t know how the pensioner lady in the third floor is doing.

It’s my favourite dive bar. All drink prices slashed to ridiculously low, even by today’s standards, because God bless old anarchist Exarcheia bar owners and their social conscience. And of course, the mandatory for Greece complimentary crisps or nuts are a thing of the past.

It’s a friend telling me how people go back to the supermarket to return an extra packet of pasta they bought just so they can offset the price of buying some cheap cut meat.

It’s young people stating, without a hint of irony, that they’re not doing ‘too bad’ on a 360 euro a month salary. That’s partly due to not paying rent, because moving away from your parents’ house even in your thirties is impossible. For survival rather than some old quaint Greek ‘family first’ concept.

It’s walking fast and trying not to make eye contact with the countless homeless people in the city centre, which is something I’d become used to in London, but used to be unimaginable here. Even the extended family and friends safety net we used to have here, in lieu of a proper social state, has become shredded to bits.

It’s older relatives, family friends and neighbours, everyone from the pharmacist to the baker, meeting my announcement of moving to the UK with a brief ‘good for you’. And while this might sound reasonable, one thing the essence of Greece has never been is that. Just a few years prior, I would have gotten meddling, ridiculous and often hilarious comments.

“But what will you do, all alone abroad?” Ignoring that grew up abroad and I’m a grown woman.
“But what will you eat there?” Because adults able to cook for themselves is a radical concept.
“They are different from us there!” Something I am quite comfortable with.
But the gist of those arguments was always: “But why would you ever want to live anywhere else?”

That question is unthinkable now. I never had that absurd certainty of living in the ‘best place on earth’ due to my own inability to fit in there. The loss, however, of that absolute almost religious certainty by those who had it, hurts more than I ever expected it to. Like the older generation’s non-reaction to most of the young people pouring out like blood surging from a mortal wound, it’s just confirmation that we are a dead country walking. Still breathing and moving but has lost something that will never be regained.

It’s the absolute absence of hope.

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Rebetika, Part 2- The irrepressible spirit

There is a lot I love about Rebetika: what they mean in their historical context, the simple yet captivating melodies, and the personal connection I feel to the genre due to a piece of my family history. But above all, for me, Rebetika is about attitude. Traditional Rebetiko in particular speaks of poverty, hardship, heartbreak, crime, drugs and a hard life, but through it all there is an undercurrent of sheer stubbornness and defiance that keeps it from ever sounding defeatist.
Or to put it even more simply: Rebetika is just badass.
Grigoris Bithikotsis  “Tou Votanikou of Mangas”  (The Mangas of Votanikos)


Rebetika embodied the spirit of the Mangas subculture, so I thought it fitting to include one of the better-known examples of a “Mangas” song. It’s also a typical example of a song with a sad theme and very upbeat attitude. While it may be about death, the tone and lyrics are very much a celebration of life.
Sotiria Bellou “To foniko” (The murder)


Even heavier content-wise than the previous song, yet another piece written for a male singer and performance with her usual take no prisonners attitude by the immortal Sotiria Bellou, this is a perfect illustration of celebrating pain. Can you imagine a more cheerful tune about loss?

Vasilis Tsitsanis “The kano dou vre poniri (I will make an onset you clever woman)”


Rebetika often sees love and relationships the way it sees everything else: as a battle and another hardship to overcome. Originating in the ultra-macho underground culture it did, the lyrics are often extremely un-PC by today’s standards, speaking of treacherous wicked women and referring to crimes of passion, but there is a certain tongue-in-cheek aspect to most that offsets the bordering on abusive undercurrent throughout. Case in point, this song by Vasilis Tsitsanis essentially promises to murder a cheating woman, but the lightness of the performance and the lyrics means that I have often put my feminist sensibilities aside and found myself singing along to the lyrics.

Giorgos Bithikotsis “Ta nea tis Alexandras” (The news of Alexandra)


Staying on the topic of treacherous women, what I love about this particular gem about a certain Alexandra and her wandering eye is the sound of the backgammon included to punctuates the lyrics, because this kind of discussion would precisely happen in a traditional ouzo tavern or male-dominated establishment of the Kafeneion (where Greek men did, and some over a certain age still do, gathered to drink coffee or ouzo, talk politics and get away from those bothersome women).

Agathon Iakovidis “Vre Manga to parakanes” (Manga, you’ve gone too far)

And just for some variety, a song that actually blames another guy rather than the ever-present figure of the treacherous woman.

Markos Vamvakaris/Angela Greka “Na pethaneis” (May you die)


Looking at some of the above songs, one could be forgiven for assuming that women are just passive figures in Rebetiko song, forever stuck in clearly cut Virgin/Whore roles. But while the historical context of Rebetiko is very much one of systemic and personal sexism, the authentic female Rebetika singers could give back as good as they got, as evidenced by this song where mutual homicidal desires are expressed as a substitute for more traditional romance, in a culture where love and war were often the same thing.
Roza Eskenanzi “Lily I skandaliara” (Lily the mischievous)

I’ll end this post with a song by Greek-Jewish singer Eskenanzi that came out in 1931, yet is as empowering and full of attitude as the anything written in the present day. Eskenanzi was pivotal in raising Rebetiko music’s profile in Greece and her career and life story is one of survival and triumph against all odds. When she sings “And I am not afraid of the knives” (stabbing being the most common threat of male Rebetes against women they’ve perceived to have wronged them), you really believe her rather, it is the men is her world who should beware.

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Plaka in pictures

There is something about the old historical quarter of Plaka that I never tire of, at least when I get away from the main shopping streets overrun by tourists browsing cheesy antiquity knockoffs and ‘humorous’ slogan T-Shirts.

A square in the middle of Plaka


Plaka always feels like being outside of Athens, or to be more accurate, a look how Athens used to be in the first half of the twentieth century.


In the background you can glimpse the Pillars of Olympian Zeus temple.


Given its location, this is not so much a traditional manaviko (greengrocer) as a reasonable facsimile thereof


Plaka has the highest concentration of neoclassical buildings in Athens, and unlike the rest of such buildings in the city, they tend to be inhabited rather that left in complete decay, like sad ghosts of past glory.


Nerium oleander bushes. They’re odourless and extremely toxic, but my favourite kind of vegetation aesthetically, and forever associated with summer in my mind.


The secret to enjoying Plaka is finding any stairs leading to higher ground and away from the crowds. You’ll still run into countless tavernas sporting original names like ‘Zorbas’ and ‘Socrates’ and at prices twice the national average, but you will also find mostly empty streets and the occasional moment of peace.


Sometimes I wish I lived in one of those old houses in Plaka. Imagine waking up to this every day. But then I remember I’d probably quickly get fed up with essentially living in a giant tourist attraction.


No matter how many times I see it, the Parthenon never fails to take my breath away.




The Areopagos rock has my favourite view of Athens, with its mixture of recent and ancient history bleeding into the monster that is modern Athens (though even the concrete buildings gain a certain beauty in the way they almost glow under the harsh sunlight)


It wouldn’t be the Internet without pictures of cats, would it?

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On identity, home and an imaginary Ithaka


‘So, where are you from?’

A perfectly innocuous question, part of the meaningless social chatter most people feel obliged to engage in when introduced to someone. And one that I always feel the need to give a concise and incomplete answer to, because it’s something people ask expecting a one-liner, not a biographical note. Usually I just say Greece, and the people I move beyond the initial acquaintance with get the rest of it in instalments, with plenty of asides and clarifications, that’s I’m certain most people outside of my oldest friends don’t remember, and why would they? I can barely keep it straight myself.

Recently however I got the question that never really gets asked:

‘So, what place do you consider your home? Where do you feel you belong?’

The answer to that one is a lot shorter: Nowhere.

I’m forever making fun of the convoluted geography of my life, history and family (I will point to the title of this blog as evidence), but something about being put on the spot and giving the bare, unadorned truth felt different.  It’s not that I would change my background even if I could—I’d be an entirely different person, and I can’t say I don’t value the richness of experiences and perspective I wouldn’t have gotten if I’d firmly been from somewhere. Whenever I discuss this with fellow mongrels/nomads (and it doesn’t matter if none of the pieces making up the mosaics of our cultural identities overlap, it’s in the fragmentation we find commonality), we always bond over things we notice that monocultural people generally don’t, and how that can make us amused, frustrated and occasionally smug.

There’s a trade-off, however. The thing about having a permanent outsider’s point-of-view is, well, that you’re kind of stuck with it. You get to experience different cultures but never fit in with any, change and adapting to new environments becomes very easy but actually standing still is almost impossible and the one perspective that’s always out of reach is that of belonging somewhere.

I’m generally indifferent to poetry, but one of the few exceptions is this poem by Constantine Cavafy, that keeps popping into my thoughts lately:

Original poem in Greek

The core theme, of course, is about life as a journey and not a destination. But going beyond the accepted popular analysis, what always strikes me about Ithaca is it’s both the ending point and starting point of Odysseus’ voyage. It’s a lot harder to strive towards even a metaphorical destination when you are unclear of where you started off from. A concept that I think Cavafy, whose cultural identity was as murky as my own, probably gets, putting something into his poetry that appealed even to my own decidedly non-poetic sensibilities.

Cultural/national identity is not something that most people think about in their day-to-day. It’s something generally taken for granted, so it’s hard to explain the effect of the absence of one. But those invisible, taken for granted points of reference and ties matter, whether it is years of familiarity with a certain city, having common experiences like school systems and children’s shows or even having a primary language throughout one’s life (I’m grateful for being multilingual, but there’s something slightly disconcerting about 80% of your conversations, writings and even dreams not being in your own tongue).

Lacking that tangible link to something I can’t quite define beyond knowing it’s not mine has always made me try to forge alternate connections. Connections to specific places, like London, whose chaotic, multicultural and reassuringly anonymous character meant that it was the closest I’ve ever come to feeling, if not like precisely part of it then at least as less of an aberration, albeit briefly. Connections to subcultures, that are both something that sets people apart from the dominant culture and can often create communities crossing cultural and national borders (also, let’s face it, geeky things are just cooler than…well, whatever normal people in every place are supposed to be into). And connections to people who are also, frequently due to other factors and sources of identity crisis (because there is more than one force shaping each one of us) standing slightly on the outside from whatever the accepted ‘norm’ is. But exciting and valuable as these things have become to me, like the riches and knowledge Cavafy describes in his verses, I still sometimes feel like I’m drifting at sea at the whim of Poseidon, looking for an Ithaca that only exists in my imagination.

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Rebetika: The Blues of Greece


How can I even begin to explain Rebetika music? The origins of the genre have been extensively written about (here is a very good historical overview of Rebetika— I don’t know what I enjoyed more: the text, or the fact there’s an Institute of Rebetology in London). The very short version is that it started in the hashish dens in the Greek cities of the Ottoman empire, only to be transplanted to mainland Greece after what most foreign historians refer to as the ‘population exchange of 1923’ and Greeks refer to as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’. It remained the music of the underground, was actively persecuted by the dictatorial regime of the 1930s and only started gaining mainstream popularity in the second half of the 20th century.

Rebetika songs are about poverty, oppression, crime, drugs, love, happiness and pain, sometimes all at once, but one things they always seem to have is a core of defiance, both in the robust rhythms, the simple and often riddled with slang to the point of incomprehension lyrics and the frequently gravelly, emotion over refinement vocals. They’ve often been described as the Blues music of Greece, which I can see both from a social origin/ pervasive themes but also in the emotional resonance they hold for me—Blues is the closest I get outside of Rebetika that makes me feel such a mixture of sorrow and joy at the same time. Even in the saddest rebetiko song there is an element of, for lack of a better description, finding enjoyment in suffering.

Rather than attempt and miserably fail at giving an overview of Rebetika songs or the most influential figures in the genre, I’m just going to share some of my personal favourites (in several posts, because I’m simply incapable of making a brief list of Rebetika). Where I can, I’ve included a link to an English translation of the lyrics. The quality of said translations is variable, both because it’s free online efforts but because so many of those songs are essentially untranslatable, at least without extensive footnotes explaining the slang, the Turkish words, and the creative use of grammar.

Markos Vamvakaris “Ta matoklada sou lampoun” (Your Eyelashes Glow)


It’s impossible to talk about Rebetika music, or Greek music in general, without mentioning Markos Vamvakaris. He is one of the most recognizable figures in Rebetika, and someone most Greek musicians have cited as an influence.

This particular song encapsulates for me everything that I love about Vamvakaris’ music and Rebetika in general. The song is simplicity itself, with its straightforward melody, Vamvakaris’ legendary non-vocally skilled delivery (Rebetika voices tend to favour character over technical ability) and the sheer simplicity of the lyrics: as far as love songs go, it lacks any ornamentation, complexity, or traditional romantic imagery, but there is something genuine and downright poetic about that I find a hundred times more effective.

Sotiria Bellou

I refuse to just pick one song from the immortal Sotiria Bellou—she  is widely recognized as the ultimate Rebetissa (the female version of the term Rebetis, a word covering both the music genre and a very specific attitude, background and philosophy).

“Aliti m’eipes mia vradya” (You called me a bum one evening)


Something not obvious in the translation: she is singing from the perspective of a man to a woman (in the Greek, the ‘kid’ is in the feminine form), something that happened frequently when songs where originally written by men and performed by female singers, resulting in a rather subversive effect. It’s got an added significance in this case, since the fact Bellou was a lesbian was the worst kept secret at a time when it was not something most Greeks even wanted to acknowledge existed. Her musical contemporaries referred to her with the male version of her name of Sotiris, and spoke of her frustration early in the career with the pressure she was under to present as more traditionally feminine while on stage.

“Horisame ena dilino” (We parted one evening)


One of her softer performances, both because of her relative youth at the time of recording (the song came out in 1949) and the subject matter. Despite the lyrics being about heartbreak, there is that tone of dignity, pride and hint of regality that characterized Bellou that keeps it from becoming a typical tearjerker.

“Eimai aitos horis ftera” (I am a wingless eagle)

This is the first song I ever heard her perform, and the one that made me into a lifelong fan. This video is of her actually performing the song in the seventies, and demonstrates that while vocal ability is by no means a prerequisite to sing Rebetiko, Bellou had it in spades. She’s sitting a good foot from the microphone but doesn’t deign to lean forward—she has absolute confidence that the power of her voice will carry through.

Vasilis Tsitsanis “Sinnefiasmeni Kyriaki” (Cloudy Sunday)


Technically not the first song by Tsitsanis on this list (he wrote the second Bellou song in the above selection), and undoubtedly not the last. As a songwriter, Tsitsanis wrote more than 500 songs and is considered to be instrumental in shaping the Rebetiko genre. As a performer, he is very much a songwriter singer, though makes it up by his frequently cheeky attitude. This song is anything but cheeky, and his is not my favourite version of it, but I felt the need to include at least one version of him singing one of the most beautifully devastating and iconic songs from his extensive repertoire.


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The revolution will not be televised


Riot police storm ERT headquarters

The above article gives a better account of what happened than most of the foreign media coverage I’ve found, but it only tells you part of the story. I’m not the most qualified person to deliver an in-depth on this. I was away for most of the crucial events of the saga of the Greek government going on the warpath against the national broadcaster, and I didn’t keep up with the coverage.

The bare facts got some of international coverage: State-owned TV and radio organisation ERT (the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation) was unexpectedly shut down by the Greek government. The reasons cited were overinflated staff, a bad business model and being a drain on public resources. Said government proceeded to open a new public broadcaster. The decision led to a firestorm of reactions, both through protests from former ERT employees and stakeholders inside Greece, as well as strong criticism from most major news outlets abroad.


Other, less widely-known facts: one of the highest courts in Greece, the Council of State, has found the government closure of ERT to be unconstitutional and demanded its reopening all the way back in July. ERT journalists and employees have continued to broadcast from the occupied former headquarters of the channel without any kind of remuneration ever since. Initially they were on the airways of another channel which the government quickly blocked, and online ever since. DT (Public Television), the replacement channel the government established on ERT’s old frequencies, is considered a national joke. It’s worth noting than on its first days on the air they were using old movies and documentaries as filler. As a result, they were inundated by calls from Greek directors and producers informing them that they did not have, nor would ever get, permission to use said intellectual property. And finally, the government’s move to shut down ERT marks the first time this happened since the German occupation in World War II— Not even the military junta of 1967-74 dared to touch it.


It’s not that I think the old ERT was perfect. I, in fact, have personal reasons to have mixed feelings about it and its hiring practices after my own experience working for them several years ago. Was there a need for reorganisation and hard look at the politics of how they operated? Absolutely. But what the government did was the equivalent of treating an arthritic limb by amputating it. It’s highly debatable whether their motivation was the proffered reason, or if it was a naked attempt to offer a sacrificial lamb to appease foreign creditors. In the process, they stifled the only TV news that still occasionally offered reasoned checks and criticism. As flawed as ERT was, the fact of the matter is that it was the only palatable alternative to the circus of the absurd that are private station’s TV news in Greece. The norm is unfortunately that stories that should be getting five minutes coverage are getting twenty at the expense of less ‘sexy’ news. Televised debates operate under the principle of outshouting each other. The emotionally manipulative tone and infotainment focus is a clear attempt to poorly imitate lowest common denominator, American-style news. ERT offered sober commentary, respected viewer intelligence, and debates tended to be conducted at normal volume levels. But beyond that, it offered actual quality TV and radio programming, a philharmonic orchestra, and a TV schedule filled with documentaries, quality Greek programs and an eclectic selection of foreign shows and films. In contrast private stations flood their airtime with reality TV, reruns of a handful of questionable quality fil and the occasional interesting program that you can’t actually enjoy due to the constant ad breaks.  It might not have been perfect, but it was the one tiny light of culture and information in the pitch black intellectual darkness.


That was before. The irresponsible, opportunistic and illegal as the government’s move to shut ERT down as it was, led to something amazing. The news continued as before, but suddenly, there was nobody to answer to. If there’s one thing my time with ERT taught me is that journalists with experience, passion and resources know the line between what they are and aren’t allowed to publicly talk about. But once free of all political and business shackles, the result was somewhere between guerrilla television and Plato’s Republic. Watching their online broadcasts over the last couple of weeks, I realized that this is what the journalism I imagined in my more idealistic youth looked like. This is what speaking truth to power looks like. I can understand the reasoning of the current government and their overly aggressive approach, because it must be a terrifying sight to behold.


ERT might have lost another battle, but the information war is far from over. The storming of the headquarters resulted in the unprecedented sight of a news bulletin being filmed on the street, with riot police as a backdrop. I imagine this was set up through sheer defiance and what must have been MacGyveresque technical creativity.  While I have no way of predicting what this will lead to, I can’t shake the certainty that the government overplayed their hand this time. They brought down ERT, but only time will show whether ERT will bring down the government. All I know is that, for the first time in ages, I’m almost allowing myself to feel hope.


Some final items to consider:


– The timing of this latest move happening to coincide with ERT’s promise to cover the upcoming Greek EU Presidency is something that I’m sure had no bearing on the decision.

– The bidding war private stations engage in for frequencies, out of which ERT was legally guaranteed at least four, would explain their general deafening silence on the topic

– Not only did ERT not receive funds from the national budget, but it turned a profit.

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