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.