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.