THE METAXAS CENSORSHIP OF REBETIKO
By Kosmas Vrouvlianis
Even in the democratic society of ancient Athens, censorship was often imposed. Socrates was censored, and eventually charged and executed for not accepting censorship of his teachings. While Socrates advocated free and uncensored discussions and exchange of ideas, Plato believed that censorship may be exercised, particularly in the arts, if it does not adhere to principles of morality.
Since the establishment of Modern Greece in the nineteenth century, the imposition of various forms of censorship was the work of local law enforcement authorities, loyal to one political party or regime, and in many cases, lacked legal support or official governmental policy. Local authorities continuously used or abused their power to censor various articles and publications of political and “moral” content. Censorship of the arts involved mainly parts of, or entire theatrical performances and very seldom musical works. During the1920’s the recording industry was established and gramophone records were produced featuring mainly two genres: the first was music with western roots, such as the Greek “operetta”, which was marketed to the urban middle class, and the other was based on eastern scales and musical traditions. The two styles were often competing for a higher share of the market. Although censorship was not an official governmental policy, by the 1930’s there are cases where early recordings and even entire operettas, were censored. Two such operettas are, Theofrastos Sakellaridis’ “Θέλω να δω τον Πάπα” (I want to see the Pope) 1920 and “Sacra Famiglia”1926.These cannot be considered as isolated cases or the work of a partisan local police official, but rather calculated moves by the Venizelos government to suppress the negative publicity that was generated by the press and the theatrical satire against his party. This was the prelude to the law that was about to be enacted by the Metaxas regime a few years later.
In April of 1936, King George II appointed Ioannis Metaxas, then minister of wa
r, to the office of interim prime minister. Labor unrest by the
tobacco and other industrial workers in May of 1936 are used as justification
by Metaxas to declare a state of emergency, suspend the parliament and many
articles of the constitution, and pave the way to his dictatorship on August 4th,
1936. His regime adhered to principles of a nationalistic and fascist ideology,
where the government had absolute control over public life, and carried out policies
to suppress any political dissent, banned any literature considered to be
“anti-Greek” and censored any material associated with, or in reference to life
styles deemed “unacceptable” for the modern Greek society and public life. On
the cultural front, he encouraged the public to embrace anything of cultural
value that had its origin in the West, and to reject customs and habits
associated with the Ottoman Empire and the eastern traditions, in general. His
vision was to see the Greeks aligned with western culture and to embrace
European classical music. Previous governments also, officially or
unofficially, promoted Western European culture and rejected Eastern culture,
labeling it as “backward” and viewing it as a symbol of decline.
How does all this relate to music?
Greek music has evolved over the years based on eastern musical traditions. After the establishment of the Independent Greek State in the first half of the nineteenth century, there was a tendency by the urban class to disassociate itself from customs and traditions that had eastern roots, and to embrace cultural elements of western origin. During that time and up to the late 1880s the Italian opera was the most popular form of entertainment in Athens. Following that, an effort to create Greek songs based on western scales began with the Ionian Islands Serenade and the Athenian Serenade (Αθηναϊκή καντάδα). Other institutions of western culture had already been established, such as, the Athens Conservatory in 1871, and the Athenian Review in the 1890s.
There was also the other urban genre, a fusion of Byzantine, Ottoman, and other eastern musical scales, known as Smyrnaic style, which was favored by groups loyal to the eastern traditions. The dividing line separated the urban middle class that had adopted the western musical culture, from the other groups loyal to the Smyrnaic style. The recording industry in the 1920s, was predicting that western style music would dominate over the eastern music, because it was the preferred music of the urban middle class that had the power to influence situations and events. It was also the urban middle class that could afford the expensive gramophone and buy records. With low sales and limited promotion, the eastern music would eventually fade away.
But quite the opposite happened. The treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey in 1923 repatriated many Greeks from Asia Minor to the Greek mainland. Many of them were gifted and educated musicians in eastern music. They performed in night clubs and soon their music, known as Smyrnaika (Smyrna style), became very popular and attracted a sizeable segment of the urban population. While sales of records with western type of music remained flat, sales for the Smyrnaika genre soared, and some of their musicians held executive positions in the recording industry.
With the 1930’s a hybrid genre, known as the Piraeus style (which later will be known as rebetiko), appeared in the musical landscape with the early recordings of the Piraeus Quartet, members of which were Markos Vamvakaris, Giorgos Batis, Stratos Pagioumtzis and Anestis Delias. This genre borrowed themes from the underworld (prison life, disdain of the police, use of banned substances) and appealed initially to “marginal” groups, but rapidly gained favor with other groups of the lower socio-economic strata, that also lived and operated at the edge of the law, and had their own life style and rules of social behavior. They were not the obedient type that could easily be organized into civic groups to be controlled and “manipulated” by the police, political parties, or the government. Instead they mistrusted the authorities and seldom cooperated with them. Coupled with a music that touched on social problems (poverty, injustice, disobeying authority, substance abuse, etc), this phenomenon (we can now call it Rebetiko) was on a collision course with the Metaxas regime, where innocent joyful love songs for ideal societies were promoted and absolute control over public life was applied. Metaxas proceeded to apply control on the production of recorded music after securing legitimacy through the law A. N. 45/31-8-36 which authorized the ministry of Press and Tourism to review and approve or reject any material prior to being recorded. The law in general terms stated that, before any recording session takes place, the record company shall submit an application to the Administration of Popular Enlightenment of the ministry of Press and Tourism, requesting permission to record. The review committee would not issue a permit if, based on their discretion, the song or parts of it, insult the public ethos, corrupt the artistic taste of the people or dilute and distort the pure cultural spirit of Greek music.
One of the early cases that went to trial even before the law went into effect, was the song “Varvara” (Barbara), released in 1936 with music and lyrics credited to Panagiotis Tountas. Its satirical lyrics and sexual connotations made it a hit throughout Athens and the provinces and a source of criticism and negative publicity by the press. The song was banned and its composer Tountas and singer Stelakis Perpeniadis, along with the director of Columbia Record Company, Themistocles Lambropoulos, and some ninety owners of record shops went on trial on December 21, 1936. (Urban legend: The song was mocking the loose behavior of Metaxas’ daughter Varvara and her extravagant life style as a “party girl”. The truth is: Metaxas had no daughter named Varvara. He had two daughters named Loucia and Nana, and their character should not be judged based on rumors and gossip.) Although the law theoretically would apply to all recorded music, very few western-style songs would be submitted for review. The law was targeting mainly the rebetiko genre. All rebetiko artists were called by Mr. Psaroudas, the presiding member of the review committee, to be “educated” on the guidelines. Most complied and refrained from using lyrics with references to underworld activities on new recordings, others accepted the committee’s suggestions to “improve” the lyrics by deleting certain words, even entire verses, for their songs to be approved. The exception was Vaggelis Papazoglou (kato sta lemonadika) and Jovan Tsaous (pente manges tou Perea). In Papazoglou’s case, the committee rejected thirty six of his songs and, for the rest of his life he refused to submit another song to the committee. The songwriters who complied with the committee’s guidelines started introducing into their music western scales and chord progressions mixed with eastern macqam (modes), to produce a fusion of the two styles that will evolve through the decades from a marginal (περιθωριακό) rebetiko into a popular (λαϊκό) genre. The lyrics were scrutinized even more than the music, which resulted in a more gentrified verse with no references to underworld activities. Censorship stripped an emerging music of its character, diluted its sources of inspiration, banned its unique vocabulary (argot), and forced it to limit addressing social issues such as alienation, substance abuse, and prison life.
The Metaxas law on censorship of the recorded music was often misunderstood and misinterpreted by the general public, the musicians and even the law enforcement authorities, which led to the propagation of various myths and urban legends around it, some of which are listed below:
Metaxas banned, all rebetiko music and the bouzouki, and closed all the rebetiko night clubs.
The real story:
Metaxas did not ban rebetiko. He censored all rebetiko music before being recorded and released, and did not ban the bouzouki, nor he closed all night clubs. He discouraged and defamed the bouzouki as an instrument associated with the underworld and closed the smoke dens (tekedes) for being places where banned substances were used. He allowed musicians to work in clubs, and any harassment by the police that often occurred was the result of misinterpreting the law or the police officials abusing their power etc.
The Metaxas censorship law was repealed after Yiannis Papaioannou met in person with Metaxas (see story below) and played his hit song “Faliriotissa” for him, in an effort to convince him to abolish it.
The real story:
Papaioannou never met with Metaxas. He had a meeting with the president of the censorship committee (see story below.) The law remained into effect until the early 1980s when it was officially repealed, but from the mid 1970s and beyond it was sporadically enforced, which allowed the record companies and the composers, whoever was still alive at the time, to record their songs that were previously censored, in their original form.
Lefteris Papadopoulos. Didn’t Metaxas ban the Bouzouki?
Yiannis Papaioannou. Metaxas banned the bouzouki recordings. He imposed strict censorship and appointed someone named Psaroudas, an older guy with a goatee. He banned the laiko (rebetiko) from being recorded, not our jobs………
LP How long did that last?
YP About a year. Then we went and met with them. If the late Minos Matsas was alive he would have told you. I went there with a bouzouki, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. I had paid 4.500 drachmas. A lot of money. I was saving it for a long time.
LP I read somewhere that you went to Metaxas.
YP I did go, but not to Metaxas. These are myths. I went to the censorship committee…..I put on a blue suit, took a friend with me, and with bouzouki on hand, off we went. My friend was Konstantinidis, he passed away. He did harmonies on some recordings with me. I had the bouzouki in a cloth case. When I took it out, the world lit up because the mother-of-pearl wasn’t plastic, it was the real thing. Just think, the maker couldn’t find more of it….and all that silver. It was a very pretty bouzouki but it wasn’t “yelling” and we want our bouzoukis to “yell”.
LP And what did Psaroudas say?
YP He said: “Is this a bouzouki?” and I said “yes”. He looked at it. Then I started playing for him. Konstantinidis picked up his guitar and we started playing some duets….. the man liked it and that’s where the story ends. Now, if Markos would‘ve gone, with the “ah” that he would‘ve done, we would‘ve been arrested. We played some duets, in other words our sorrow, with sweetness.
In the words of Irish-born playwright George Bernard Shaw, “All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.”
REFERENCES AND SUGGESTED READING
1. What is Censorship, glic.org
2. Mogens Pelt, The Establishment and Development of the Metaxas Dictatorship in the Context of Fascism-Nazism, 1936-1941, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 2, 2001.
3. Νίκος Πολίτης, Η λογοκρισία στο ρεμπέτικο τραγούδι, Η Κλίκα, διαδικτυακό περιοδικό για το λαϊκό τραγούδι, Μάιος, 2010.
4. Μανώλης Σειραγάκης, Η λογοκρισία στο τραγούδι ως τον Μεταξά, Η Κλίκα, διαδικτυακό περιοδικό για το λαϊκό τραγούδι, Ιούνιος, 2010.
5. Λευτέρης Παπαδόπουλος, Μάγκες πιάστε τα γιοφύρια, Εκδόσεις Καστανιώτη, Αθήνα 2010.FREEMUSE – The world fo