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Rebetiko Retreat - Falmouth Massachusetts, November 2007

Thursday, January 26, 2012


By Kosmas Vrouvlianis

September 2011

 Censorship has been imposed on people by various regimes since ancient times, to control or suppress the flow of information, which is normally disseminated by the press, by publications, the performing arts or the electronic media. The official justification for censorship has been to protect the public from immoral or obscene material, the social and religious institutions from heretical or blasphemous thoughts, and the national security from treasonous actions. It is often that censorship is imposed to enable a regime maintain its power, and to assure obedience of its citizens through political indoctrination and control of information.

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.

Urban legends
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:

Myth 1:
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.

Myth 2:           
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.

While all these political and social changes were unfolding, the rebetiko phenomenon was evolving through the early recordings of musicians such as, Panagiotis Tountas, Markos Vamvakaris, Vangelis Papazoglou, Kostas Roukounas, Mitsos Gogos (Bayianderas) and many others. The theme of most of their songs was the rebetiko life style and the underworld: prison life, smoke dens (tekedes), disobedience and disdain towards the police, etc. It was during that time that Yiannis Papaioannou, emerged in the rebetiko scene as a young musician with the love song “Faliriotissa” (girl from Faliro). There are stories and urban legends circulating around, on how Papaioannou met with Metaxas and asked him to reconsider his decision to ban rebetiko recordings. He also brought his bouzouki and played for Metaxas his hit song “Faliriotissa”. Metaxas was so impressed with Papaioannou’s Faliritissa that he issued an order to allow rebetiko recordings to resume and lift the bouzouki playing restrictions. The true story is not quite like this. The following is part of an interview from the early 70s that Papaioannou granted to journalist Lefteris Papadopoulos, that sets the record straight.

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.”

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

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Problem of the Etymology of "Rebetis" and "Rebetika"
by Ed Emery [Institute of Rebetology, London]

The etymology of the words "rebetika" and "rebetis" has been a puzzle for half a century, and remains so.

In the course of work on a separate project (related to Arabic influences in and around Dante's Vita Nuova) I believe that I have found some possibilities of an answer.

Namely a derivation from the Arabic "ribaat".

This potential derivation seems not to have been examined in the available Greek literature on rebetika. This would seem to reflect the historically engendered and wilful ignorance of Greeks as regards Islamic, Ottoman and Arabic culture.


Stathis Gauntlett, in his thesis (1978), went looking for a possible Turkish/Arabic derivation of "rebetis". He wrote: "The only instance of 'rebet' that I have found is in the 14th century Cypriot 'Assizes', where to judge by the context it appears to denote a type of imported liquor – thus DuCange glosses the term: 'Vox Arabica, potus species'. I have not, however, found another attestation of 'rebet' as such in Arabic."

In my "Songs of the Greek Underworld" I list various other potential derivations that people have suggested over the years. [Note 1]

These include:

"Rembet", an old Turkish word meaning "of the gutter"; "rebenٍk" (pl. rebia'ta), a Serb word meaning "rebel"; "rab" (also reb, ruba'a, arba'a) Arabic and Persian words meaning variously "four", "quatrain", "God", "Lord"; "rab", a Hebrew word, from which derives "rabbi"; "remvastiko", a Greek word meaning "meditative", deriving from "remvo" or "remvazo", meaning "I wander". [Note 2]

There is also the well-known, sporadically occuring and habitually unsourced attribution to "rebet asker" ("an irregular soldier"), to which I shall return at the end of this paper.


The rebetes habitually referred to themselves as "dervishes"… and their hashish dens as the "tekke". Both of these are terms from the Sufi/Dervish tradition. It is worth examining whether the term "rebetis" might derive from that same cultural area. [Note 3]

This requires us to go back and look at history.

In the Dervish orders, the master was a revered sheikh. The pupil lived with him, shared his religious practices and was instructed by him. In times of war against the infidel, the pupil might accompany him to the threatened frontier and fight under his eye.

The term for this student who combined the religious life with the military was "murabit" ("one who pickets his horse on a hostile frontier"), derived from the root r-b-t. The Arabic "ribat" means "a frontier fort". By association with the militant religious orders, it then comes to mean a "monastery". [In post-Arabic Spanish this becomes "rapita", a term which still exists today in Spanish place-names.]

"Ribats were an Islamic creation – small forts in frontier areas occupied solely by warriors who had dedicated themselves for a year or two to the defence of the faith." [The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture,  UNESCO, Paris, vol. iv, pt. 2 forthcoming]

The usage was already well established in the 11th Century, when Ibn Arabi of Murcia speaks, in his "Risalat al-quds" (para 23) of a young man who left his mother to join a "rapita" in Jerumenha (Portugal). In fact the dynasty of ascetic emirs from North-West Africa who ruled Spain in the period 1061-1146 was known as the Murabtis (Almoravids, from the same r-b-t root), from the fact of their strict religious observance.

[In North Africa the term "murabit" lives on today as "marabout", the figure of the holy man, latterly become wandering musician-cum-philosopher.]

In Greek culture the qualities of the "rebetis" include poverty, basic human decency, a philosophical self-view, and a willingness to resort to armed action. These are the qualities that might have been found in the "murabit".

In more recent history the root r-b-t takes on further connotations. The Wehr-Cowan dictionary tells us that the Arabic word "ribaat" means inn for travellers, caravanserai, hospice (for Sufis or the poor).

I can provide no direct etymological link, bringing this word into the Greek, but it seems to me that there is a very interesting case for deriving "rebetis" from "ribaat" and "murabit". Namely that the "ribaat" existed as a social structure within the Ottoman Empire, and Anatolia in general. As such it would have been familiar to Greeks in Asia Minor. And the musical culture prevailing in such a cultural space might have been, grosso modo, "ribaatiko".


There is a tantalising possibility here. For a while when I began this research I thought that the terms "ribaat", "murabit" were more characteristic of Western Islam (Spain, North Africa etc). I had not come across them with this Sufi/dervish meaning in Turkey/Asia Minor.

Therefore I hypothesised that it might have been brought across the Mediterranean by the Sephardi Jews, who were expelled from Spain in the 15th Century and ended up living under the Ottoman empire. We know (a point made by Gail Holst-Warhaft) that Jews and Greeks often played together in bands in the Ottoman period – Salonika, Smyrna, Sarajevo and Istanbul were major cross-over places for Sephardic, Muslim, Orthodox culture. [Note 4] However on the Jewish connection, unfortunately, the trail soon went cold. [Note 5]

It is clear that the "ribat" is a historically and culturally specific institution. It is Arabo-Islamic in its origins. Therefore one would expect it to go into other languages and other cultures as a loan word, rather than being translated into local equivalents. [Note 6]


Then I hit on a refinement which began to look promising.

As a testimony of the cultural durability of words deriving from the root r-b-t we have a further development of usages that were apparently widespread in the Ottoman Empire (and therefore available to Greeks whose habitat that was).

Reckoning that a Turkish dictionary of the Ottoman period might produce a result for "rebetis", I consulted "Redhouse's Turkish Dictionary" (J.W. Redhouse, pub. Bernard Quaritch, London 1880).

Redhouse gives the meanings with which we are already familiar, from the Arabic:

"Raabita": A band of union; system; regularity.

"Ribaat": A strong and secure place, formerly always fortified, where travellers, caravans, or military expeditions can take up their quarters on their journey, or on an enemy's frontier.

"Murabit": One who devotes himself entirely to the service of the faith, either as a warrior to guard the frontiers against external foes, or as a man of piety to pray for the welfare of the church and combat internal enemies."

However what is extremely interesting is the entry for the words "rabıtalı" and "rabıtasız" (given in Arabic script, which I cannot reproduce here).

The first, "rabıtalı", is given as meaning "Good. Capital. Excellent."

The second, "rabıtasız", is given as meaning "Bad. Not as it should be."

[The Turkish languages places "li" (or "lu" etc) after a word, to signify "with" something. So, if "sos" means "sauce", then "soslu" means "with sauce". Placing "siz" after a words signifies "without" something.]

Therefore "rabıta-lı" means "with rabita" or "having rabita". In formal terms (see above translation of "rabıta") this would mean "having union" or "having system" or "having regularity".

However I think, from the general context, that here we may be dealing with a widespread usage in Ottoman Turkish – a phrase meaning "OK, fine, all in order, rock-steady" etc.

Redhouse does not set out to give rare usages in his dictionary (no Sufi, no dervish, no tekke etc). His words are middle-of-the-road common usages, chosen in his capacity as a fellow of the Ottoman Imperial Academy of Sciences. If we find a word in Redhouse it is fair to assume that it has currency throughout the Ottoman Empire (ie throughout Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor, insofar as Turkish is spoken there).

And by that token, it is reasonable to assume that "rabita" has a very everyday quality. It has "the quality of OK-ness... the quality of rock-steadiness... the quality of being regular".

The word "rabita" evidently has a fairly indefinable quality. If "rabıta-sız" (ie not-having-"rabita") means "bad, not as it should be", then this implies that "rabıta" also has a sense of "as it should be"... "comme il faut". And once again, if applied to persons it could reasonably mean "a proper person".

[My Langenscheidt Turkish dictionary obligingly provides "rabıtalı" as meaning orderly, well-conducted, level-headed person, coherent, consistent.]

Thus at this point, setting aside for a moment the possible Sufi, philosophical, dervish etc connotations examined above, it became tempting to think of "rebetis" as a Greek-derived word from an Ottoman Turkish usage in turn derived from the Arabic original of "ribaat". It could thus mean a person who has "rabıta". A "regular", "proper", "comme il faut" sort of person.

There is of course the problem of the implied vowel changes (a, i, e etc). How could "ribaat" transmute into "rebet"? In fact I think this presents no great problem. For instance the "ı" in "rabıta", the undotted Turkish "i", is pronounced as an indefinable "uh" and could very easily become an "e". The "a" (formerly a long "a") is another problem, which would have to be looked at. Certainly it is a relatively closed "a".

The adding of the "-is" to the end of the word is common Greek practice with Turkish words. For instance "tembel" (Turkish for "lazy") becomes "tembelis" (Greek slang for a lazy person).

[In passing, it would be tempting to think of "rebet" as one of those words which is massively present in popular culture, but almost entirely lacking from dictionaries and language-courses. Such as the Arabic kuwayyis, meaning nice, good, fine, pretty etc – spoken on every street corner, but missing from the "official" language.]

I now turn to the additional associations of r-b-t with Sufi hostelry, dervish, inn, caravanserai etc, as noted above.


Call in at the bookseller's. He has dusty tomes of Arabic and Persian primers on a top shelf. At risk of my life I climb his little ladder and pull down a 100-year-old Persian dictionary. This attests that in 18-th century Persian "rebat" means an "inn, caravanserai, station for horses". [Note 7]

This is rather important. Several things have happened here.

First: We already know that the word Arabic-derived word "ribaat" has at least a 500-year-long currency from the Western-most to the Eastern-most shores of the Mediterranean... extending into Ottoman Asia Minor... With this Persian usage attested, it now extends as far as Persia. For all that time and in all those domains it has meant (in addition to its other meanings) an inn, caravanserai, hostelry, staging post for travellers.

Second: As regards the word's pronunciation, we seem to have moved from the "ribaat" of the Arabic to the "rebat" of the Persian. A vowel change has taken place, which brings us tantalisingly close to the "rebet" of "rebetis".

Third: "Ribaat" is accented on the second syllable, between the "b" and the "t". "Rebetis" is also accented between the "b" and the "t". It feels as if this fact ought to be significant. I shall examine it further at another time.

Fourth: We might surmise that the "ribaat-rebat" was one of the key social institutions of the Asia Minor world. We might surmise that Greeks had familiar with, and contact with, this social institution. And we might surmise that (for once) the Greeks do not have their own word for it. In other words, "ribat" is so culturally specific that it enters Asia Minor Greek as a loan word rather than being translated into Greek. In the same way that the culturally-specific American "bar" also comes into Greek as a loan word rather than in translation – as "μπαρ".

The ribat as "inn, caravanserai, staging post for horses" must surely have been one of the main places of public socialising available to local people. It was the place where travellers came and went and merchants displayed their goods...

We need historical accounts from the 18th-19th centuries, to be able to fill out the picture. I imagine that it was largely a male world. I wonder whether there was an association with prostitution. I wonder whether there was an association with hashish. I wonder whether people may have smoked and drunk. I wonder whether stories were told. I wonder whether people may have danced and sung. I do not have sources to confirm any of this. However, it might provide precisely the place and the ethos of the "rebetis" and "rebetika".

The best source for this would probably be the host of painters and drawers who thronged to the Near East in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, drawing and painting whatever they found for the Orientalising tastes of Western Europe. However, for the moment I have no such sources.

[Incidentally, we would also need to establish the relationship of the word Arabo-Persian word "ribaat" with the Turkish word "han", which also means "inn and  caravanserai". Langenscheidt does not give "ribaat" as a Turkish word for inn, giving instead "han". But Redhouse is perfectly clear that "ribaat" meant inn, caravanserai etc under the Ottomans.]

Surely the word "ribaat" as "inn, caravanserai, staging post for horses" must have been entirely familiar to Asia Minor Greeks. And this opens a simple possibility:

 "Rebetis" could be, purely and simply, a person who hangs out in a "ribaat".

[I should point out that there is an irritating and provocative  research wrinkle here, as regards a possible derivation of "rebetis" from the Arabic "kharaba  [Note 8].]


By way  of a diversion. My particular area of research is "Arabic influences in and around Dante". So there I am, in the library, quietly minding my own business, browsing through a book on "Gli Arabi in Italia" (Gabrieli and Scerrato). In a close-printed and densely-worded Appendix there is a text dating from AD 973 – a description of the island of Sicily by the Iraqi traveller Ibn Hawqal. Translated into Italian by the wonderful Michele Amari.

Suddenly my eye lights on the word "ribat". And there, in a description from a thousand-and-something years ago, we have a definition of the reality behind the word.

I quote:

"Giaccion su la spiaggia del mare molti ribat pieni di sgherri, uomini di mal affare, gente di sedizione, vecchi e giovani, ribaldi di tante favelle, i quali si son fatta in fronte la callosita delle prosternazioni per piantarsi li a chiappare la limosina e sparlar delle donne oneste. La piu parte son mezzani di lordure o rotti a vizio infame. Riparan costoro nei ribat, come uomini da nulla che sono, gente senza tetto, [vera] canaglia."

A rough translation: "Along the shore of the sea, there are many ribats full of blackguards, low-life characters, people of a seditious nature, young men and old alike, full of fancy talk. They've got callouses on their foreheads from prostrating themselves, so that they can put themselves there and demand charity, and talk badly about honest women. Most of them are pimps for vile habits, or given to vices. They hang out in the ribats, like the people of no account that they are... people with no roof over their heads... a real rabble..." [Note 9]

So here, wonder of wonders, we have a detailed account of the kind of low-life characters who might hang out in a "ribat".

Leaving aside the calloused foreheads [Note 10], it comes pretty close to the ambivalent characterisation of the "rebetis". And that is in AD 973!

So, now we have the word "ribat" present as an "inn-cum-staging-post" in the central Mediterranean – in Sicily – as well as being extensively present in the eastern and western Mediterranean. [Note 11] We have also proven that the term has longevity (its history is now at least 900-years-long). [Note 12] And we have it as a socialising space for poor people, sociopaths, homeless people, sexual reprobates, abusers of women and layabouts. Add song, dance, drinks and smokes and you have a close approximation to the "rebetes".


Having arrived at this point, I say once again that I have no direct etymological evidence for the transition of "ribat" into the Greek language as a potential origin of the term "rebetis". However the circumstantial evidence seems substantial. And certainly deserving of further analysis.

At this point I would return to the question of "rebet asker".

Commenting on an earlier version of this paper Kostas Vlisidis pointed me to an article [Note 13] in which the author, Kostas Karapotosoglou, argues (as I do) the derivation of "rebetis" from "ribat". This is encouraging.

However Karapotosoglou makes an odd assertion when, at the start of his article, he specifically negates any possible derivation from "rebet asker". To my knowledge, "rebet asker" is simply a Turkified equivalent of the Arabic "ribat askarii", meaning "a soldier of the ribat". In other words, the "rebet" which Karapotosoglou rejects is the same word as the "ribat" which he accepts. Would that we all knew Turkish and Arabic better than we do…!

This paper is not intended to be conclusive. It is intended to open up terrain. If anyone has opinions on its contents, I would be very happy to hear from them.



Note 1: Songs of the Greek Underworld, trans. / ed. Ed Emery, Saqi Books, London 2000.

I should add that there is also great disagreement over WHEN the term "rebetis-rebetiko" first enters the Greek language.

In my book I cited the late Ole Smith (a stickler for precision in research) to the effect that "it can be shown beyond doubt" that the generic term rebetiko "made its first public appearance as a musical term among the Greeks in the US". However, as in so many other "beyond doubt" statements about rebetika, this turns out not to be the case. Hugo Strotbaum points out two instances, one on the FAVORITE record label (German, founded 1904) and the other on ORFEON (Turkish, founded 1911), which are definitely pre-World War I. [Personal communication regarding the Rebetika Conference at Rethymnon.]

Note 2: Sources, variously, Stathis Gauntlett, Costas Ferris and Gail Holst.

An obvious difficulty in deriving "rebetis" from "ribaat" would be if we accept the spelling "REMBetis" rather than "REBetis". However it is clear that when Greeks take a foreign word which has a "b" sound, it is rendered as "mb" (everything from "beer" to "bouzouki"). If the derivation is from "ribaat", it would certainly have come into written Greek as "remb…", "ρεμπ…".

Note 3: Stathis Gauntlett [personal communication] suggests that the "dervish" and "Sufi" aspect cultivated in Rebetika may be ironical. That may be so. However the title of the very well-known song "Oli rebetes tou dounia" suggests, rather, an immersion in an area that has Sufism etc as one of its coordinates. "Dunya" is, apparently, a Koranic word, meaning not merely "people, mankind, world" [Oxford Dictionary of Modern Greek, 1965], but the base, mortal, earthly state of humanity prior to enlightenment. [Ibn 'Arabi, Felicità… Red Edizioni, Como 1996, Note 12, p. 84]

Note 4: Personal communication. And if one happened to have a taste for adjunct meanings, the similarly-rooted phrase "ribaatat al-ja'sh"  means a person who is composed self-controlled, calm and intrepid. And "raabita" means link, bond, union (as in "raabita al-sadaaqa", bond of friendship).

Note 5: In response to a query, I received an e-mail from a Sephardi organisation in Israel. The author, a Ladino-speaker from Izmir in Turkey, tells me that he knows of no occurrence of "ribat", "rebet" etc in the Sephardi language.

Note 6: In the 12th century, the Italians found that they had no suitable word for the institution of the caravanserai-style inn, so they adopted the Arabic "funduq" (derived initially from the Greek "pandocheion") and turned it into the "fondaco" that one finds in Venice and Tuscany. They similarly derived their "arsenale" (a shipbuilding institution which they did not previously have) from the Arabic dar sina'a. Not to mention "tarifa", "dogana" ("tariff", "customs duty") etc.  It is possible that the same mechanism applies, in bringing "ribaat" into Modern Greek – being a foreign institution, for which no native word existed in the Greek.

Incidentally: In translating the "Ars Rhetorica" of Aristotle into Arabic, the Arab translators used "ribaat" to translate "syndesmos", meaning conjunction. "Syndesmos" also means the bonds of union that keep, for instance, a city together. It also means sodomy. These derivations appear to be of no particular use to us.

Note 7: An Iranian friend confirms that the usage "robat" as old-fashioned Persian, meaning
caravanserai, staging post… particularly during the Safavid era (1502-1736).

Note 8: In Ottoman Turkish (cf Langenscheidt) "harabat" means (i) ruins; (ii) wineshops, taverns. Gauntlett (in "Rebetiko Tragoudi as a Generic Term") cites the Redhouse dictionary (1921 edition – hence Ottoman usages) for "harabati" meaning "dissolute vagabond, especially a confirmed drunkard". It would be very tempting to tie all this up with "ribaat".

However (pending further dictionary work) it appears that all these meanings of "harabat" derive from the Arabic kh-r-b root ("kharaba" – to destroy, wreck), and therefore NOT from the "r-b-t" of "ribaat". There would be no reason for Greek usage to drop the initial "h-a", since it derives from the "kh-a", a letter which would be available in Greek, as "chi-alpha" – "χα" .]

A further interesting "harabat" connection was brought to my attention by Hugo Strotbaum (personal communication). He cites Mark Slobin's Music in the culture of Northern Afghanistan (Univ. of Arizona Press):

"He [Sher Ali Khan] settled them and their families in a district of Kabul that was later termed  the xarabat (from "xarab: ruined, debauched, indecent"; Steingass 1970: 451). The xarabat became the center both of lower-class musicians' dwellings and of Sufi (mystic) gathering places, a situation that prevails today..."

The "musician" and "Sufi" connections are tantalising here.

Note 9: Ibn Hawqal also makes reference to the "raabita del sovrano" (from the same r-b-t root) , which is glossed as "the sovereign's bodyguard". An interesting connotation of an elite of armed men.

Note 10: Muslims when prostrating themselves in prayer touch the ground with their foreheads. Doing this to excess produces callouses on the forehead – which the beggars show as a sign of their religious devotion.

Note 11: We need a way of assessing how common the "ribat" was, as an institution, as a staging-post for horses. A.W. Kinglake provides useful information in "Eothen" (1834):

"The distances between our relays of horses varied greatly: some were not more than fifteen or twenty miles; but twice, I think, we performed a whole day's journey of more than sixty miles with the same beasts." (p. 20)

This would suggest that on any given cross-country route there would be numbers of "ribats" strung out along the way – possibly every 15-20 miles.

[Incidentally, this passage occurs in his description of crossing Turkey; when crossing the desert, on the other hand, pack animals are hired all at once, for the full duration of the journey.]

In a useful  passage Kinglake also describes the caravanserai:

"A caravanserai is not ill adapted to the purposes for which it is meant. It forms the four sides of a large quadrangular court: the ground floor is used for warehouses, the first floor for guests, and the open court for the temporary reception of camels, as well as for the loading and unloading of their burthens and the transaction of mercantile business generally. The apartments used for the guests are small cells opening into a kind of corridor which runs through the inner sides of the court." (In Gaza – p. 162)

Note 12: Another Arab traveller, Ibn Jubayr [travelling in 1184-85], describes a ribat in the city of Ra's al-'Ayn: "The right-hand stream passes through a convent, also called al-ribat, built for Sufis and for foreigners, next to the spring." (Viaggio in Spagna, Sicilia..., p. 233)

In a later passage, etymologically interesting, he describes a ribat near Damascus: "As for the ribat (hospices), which they call hanawiq, they are many in number and are used for the Sufis. They consist of vast decorated edifices, all supplied with running water, which in itself is the finest sight that could ever be seen". [He continues, with observations on running water, and on the life of the Sufis, with its good order, song and dance.] [Ibid.]

It is important that he says "they are many in number". This was a widespread social institution.

Note 13: The article appeared in the Lexigrafikon Deltion Akadimies Athinon, Vol. 16, 1986, under the title: "Synkritikes dierevniseis sta Nea Ellinka: rebetis". It confirms that "ribat" existed in Asia Minor, in the Arabian military settlements. Thus Karapotosoglou's proposal predates my own by 15 years. See also P. Karolidhis, "Simioseis Kritikai, istorikai and topografikai", Epistimoniki  Epetiris tou Ethnikou Panepistimiou 1905-1906, p. 191. This material awaits further research.


In the interest of widening the debate on my proposed derivation from "ribaat", I include below other illustrative materials relating to that term

1. "Ribat" has long had a sense of steadfastness and military duty in the service of religion. The present-day Order of the Murabitoun ("Order of the Ribat") in the USA provide a quote from the Qur'an:

"Be steadfast, hold each other to steadfastness, help each other to be firm (lit. make ribat) and have Towqah of Allah in order that you may be successful." [Qur'an 3:200]

2. In that light, the site at http://www.ummah.net/sos/caravan.htm contains the following reference:

"This is Ibn al-Mubarak, who used to perform the ribat for two months or more every year – leaving aside his trade and the lessons of hadith, and going out for ribat, bewailing the fact that he has not performed ribat all his life, and that he has occupied himself with learning instead…"

3. The present-day Palestinian National Authority is preparing studies of the ribats to be found in Jerusalem. There is a fine picture of the Ribat al-Mansuri located on the Internet at   http://planning.pna.net/jerusalem/57.jpg

The description reads: "The sultan Qalawun al-Mansuri ordered the construction of his pilgrim hospice for poor [Muslim] pilgrims to Jerusalem. In Ottoman times this ribat housed the African Guards of the Haram."

4. For a major treatment of the ribat at Susa, Tunisia, see the site at:


5. Similar photographic websites are also available for the ribat at Monastir, Tunisia, giving an idea of the scale and layout of these buildings.

6. The doctor Ibn al-Jazzaar (d. AD 980) lived and worked in Qayrawan (Kairouan), Tunisia. Each summer he travelled to al-Munastir on the Mediterranean coast, where he would stay in a famous Sufi cell. This "famous Sufi cell" was presumably the ribat of Monastir.

7. Kirsti Thorsen, lately engaged on post-graduate studies at King's College London, deals comprehensively with the possible relation between the rebetes and the world of Sufi in her dissertation "Mangas tha pei dervisis" (unpubl. 1999). I suspect that it is in this arena that the proof of my thesis will (or will not) be found.

8. Regarding Greek attitudes to Turkey, the following charming entry in D.N. Stavropoulos's Oxford Greek-English Learner's Dictionary (Oxford University Press 1989) is perhaps actionable under the Race Relations Act (as happened in the case of the the Babiniotis dictionary, which had to be withdrawn after its publication in Greece because of a racist reference to Bulgars):

"λάδωμα […] bribe[ry], kickback, pay-off, graft: το λάδωμα δίνει και παίρνει στην Τουρκία, bribery / graft is rife in Turkey."

8. STOP PRESS: The Encyclopedia of Islam has a magnificent section devoted to the phenomenon of the "ribaat". This includes a note to the effect that, at a certain point and in some places, "ribaat" is co-terminous with "tekke". We are all aware of the rebetiko songs which cite the "tekke" as the focal point of  rebetiko culture. Was "ribaat" co-terminous with "tekke" in the Greek communities of Ottoman Asia Minor?  If so, that would bring me closer to proving my case...

9. DITTO: It is suggested that  the elusive term "rebet asker" has a derogatory aspect. It may be worth noting the following comment in relation to the 1952 revolution in Egypt, "He then directly attacked the Revolution, describing its leaders as 'askar' (a derogatory term for officers)". Reem Saad, Egyptian Politics and the Tenancy Law, in Bush, R., ed., Counter-Revolution in Egypt's Countryside, Ze Books, London, 2001.

10. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) which provided the framework for the transfer of populations between Greece and Anatolia is careful to make provision for preserving the integrity of Anatolian social institutions. Including the "tekke". This moment deserves further research.

11. Kree Arvanitas points me to the social institutions of the Barbary pirates (multi-racial, with Greeks among them), which include reference to the "ribaat". I shall pursue that reference further.

Jana Gough points me to the highly significant point raised in the Encyclopedia of Islam entry on "ribat": "It can be stated with confidence that to define it as a 'Muslim military monastery' is evidence of extrapolation and misinterpretation. It cannot be denied that the urban residences [my emphasis] of Sufis were subsequently known as ribat."

As regards the possibility of transition from "i" to "e" (ribat to rebet), Leonidas Drisis points out that "there is another very similar (and well known case). It is the word 'sekleti' (worry, frustration), which is also known as 'sikleti', and it appears with both forms in several songs (which I cannot recall at the moment)".

[Paper presented at the Hydra Rebetiko Conference October 2001]

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


It is not easy to accurately define rebetiko. Many who study and research the subject would prefer to give a description rather than a definition. One may say that Rebetiko (singular) or rebetika songs (plural) are songs written during the period of the late 1800’s to mid 1950's that express the musical folklore of the urban centers. Others may describe it as songs of the Greek underworld, while a subjective description, as expressed by the early rebetes (rebetiko musicians and aficionados), is that rebetika songs are songs written by rebetes for rebetes.

Rebetiko reflects the social history of modern Greece (from the end of the 1800' s until the mid 1950s) and particularly the development of that segment of the population that was underemployed and was kept outside the system, the institutions and mechanisms of the newly developing Greek State. This segment of the population was concentrated in the outskirts of urban centers and had limited social and geographical movement r lack of opportunity, their own rules of social behavior, their own slang, all of which bonded these groups into a unique subculture. Through this cohesion they created also a unique lifestyle, and the need to seek some kind of social identity and express themselves through music. Similar phenomena can be seen in the case of the urban blues of the African-American neighborhoods of New Orleans and Chicago, the Samba music out of the poor neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and the Reggae music of Jamaica and various other types of music associated with groups and populations living in the margins of society.
Although rebetiko is relatively recent, we do not precisely know its place of origin, but most likely it is attributed to port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, Smyrna (Izmir), Constantinople (Istanbul), Thessaloniki, Piraeus, Ermoupolis. Its evolution is intertwined with the music of the Café Aman, or Smyrnaic style music, the music of teke, or smoke dens, and that of the prison population.

The cafe-amans were popular night clubs in major port cities of the Eastern Mediterranean from approximately 1900 to 1930. The music was happy and lively and the atmosphere festive. In these night clubs one would find musicians performing on stage and women singing and dancing. Smyrna and Constantinople had the most famous cafe-amans.
The musical instruments used by the groups (or mousikes kompanies as they were called) are the oud or outi, the violin, the tambourine, the nei or nai (a long flute), the canonaki or canoun (a trapezoidal instrument with 72 strings that are plucked), the santuri (similar to the hammer dulcimer) and the tumbeleki or dumbek. The bouzouki and baglama are not yet into the picture.
At the cafe-amans we see dances such as karsilamas, tsifteteli, syrtos, balos, hasapiko, zeibekiko / and even dances of Slavic origin such as hora, alegra and kazaska. The hasapiko dance was the characteristic dance of the butchers of Constantinople and together with the zeibekiko would become exclusively the dances of rebetiko.
The zeibekiko was the dance of the zeibeks, a group of warriors, possibly of Thracian descent. The zeibeks never obeyed the Turkish authorities. The Sultans, in order to have them under some kind of control, would give them certain privileges, by using them as paramilitary units helping the police. They, very often, would abuse their power and clash with the police. In 1833 the Sultan sent his army to disarm and disband them. The zeibekiko dance at the cafe­-amans was danced by two men facing each other.
The music of the cafe-amans identifies the era of the Smyrna style song, (the Smyrneiko style) of Asia Minor.
While the music of café-aman was popular entertainment music and open to the public, the music of the smoke dens and the prison cells was private and directed only to a limited segment of the population, which operated close to the limits of the law and lived on the margins of society. With lyrics referring to the darker side of life, injustice, alienation, prison life, hashish, repression and disdain for the law, this was the music of the underworld. The songs were sung exclusively by men and the instruments were, initially the baglama, and later the tzoura and bouzouki.
The two styles, although initially were evolving independently, they later formed a musical fusion, where, with the influence of certain political and world events, the Pireaus style of rebetiko evolved.
Three milestones influence the rebetiko to evolve from a marginal song to a popular song (laiko tragoudi):
(1)               The 1922 Asia Minor Catastrophe and the 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey that followed.
(2)               The Metaxas dictatorship in 1936.
(3)               World War II with the Nazi Occupation and the Civil war that followed.

After the revolution of 1821 the Greek population at that time can be classified into three groups:
The first group includes the Greeks who lived within the borders of the newly Greek independent State.
The second group includes the Greeks who lived within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire.
The third group includes the Greeks of the diaspora who lived in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Right after independence, the population of Greece was only 750,000. However, four times that was the Greek population of groups two and three who lived within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire and the Greeks of the diaspora. By the early 1900's and after the incorporation of Thessali in 1881 and Crete in 1908 into Greece, the country's population reaches 2.6 million. After the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, Macedonia, Epirus, Western Thrace and the Aegean Islands are incorporated into Greece and the population increases to 4.7 million. This is a very important milestone in the evolution of the rebetiko, and particularly the liberation of Thessaloniki in 1912, since it was a major port and urban center.

But the most important milestone in the history and evolution of rebetiko is the year 1922 and the population exchange between Greece and Turkey the following year. We won't go into the specific events and politics of the time, but the fact is that, after the defeat of the Greek army in Asia Minor, Greece and Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne, where, each country was obligated to accept its nationals who lived on the other side. The only criterion was religion: the Greek Orthodox population of Turkey was to be relocated to Greece, and similarly the Muslim population of Greece was to be relocated to Turkey. An additional 1.5 million people came to Greece, increasing the population to 6.3 million, and as it can be expected, 1.5 million refugees without shelter or prospects of employment could easily bring economic and social crisis to a small country with limited resources. Although the government tried to settle them uniformly throughout the country, many of them settled near the major urban centers of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. They lived in substandard housing under overcrowded conditions with bleak prospects of employment. They brought, however their music and musical styles and professional musicians began to perform in night clubs and café-aman similar to the ones they left behind.

The Smyrna style song was accepted by the public and became quite popular for the next decade following 1922. During this decade, we see the first recordings in Greece, with songs from Asia Minor or new songs by refugee musicians. Well known musicians of the time were Gavriel Marinos, Kostas Karipis, Panagiotis Tountas, Kostas Skarvelis, Kostas Roukounas, Agapios Tomboulis, Kostas Nouros and the three women singers Marika Papagika, Rita Abatzi and the legendary Rosa Eskenazi. We also see the two styles of rebetiko influencing each other and a new style emerging with elements from both styles. This fusion of the two styles identifies the new rebetiko era, known as the classical era of the 1930's.
In the meantime, recordings arrive in Greece with rebetika recorded in other parts of the world, in such “hot rebetiko spots”, as New York City, Chicago, and other urban centers of the United States.

Based on documents from the Statistics Agency of Greece, from 1824 to 1889 there are roughly 2,200 Greek immigrants in the United States. By 1907 this number reaches 36,500 and by 1922 there are 400,000 Greek immigrants in the United States. These numbers reflect only the Greeks that came from independent Greece and do not include Greeks that came from areas still under the Ottoman Empire, (Asia Minor, Constantinople, and the Aegean Islands). For those Greeks we don't have reliable data because they were arriving in the United States as Turkish citizens. Also many Greeks were arriving illegally, therefore, we can confidently say the Greek population in the United States at that time was more than half a million. The majority of the immigrants had little education or training and were working in jobs with low wages and under difficult conditions. One way to ease their hardships, and to entertain and express themselves was through their music and their songs. With a market of more than half a million people, European recording companies started importing Greek recordings around 1910. But by the start of World War I these recordings stopped coming, therefore, in 1917 we see the first Greek recording by a singer known only by her artistic mane "Kiria Koula". She recorded for Columbia Records in New York City using violin, lauto and santuri. Other recordings followed by Marika Papagika in 1918 and this trend continued until the mid 1930's. In the early 1930's recording studios had been established in Greece and recordings featuring artists like Rosa Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi were imported in the United States on a regular basis.
In the 1920's the bouzouki was absent from both the Greek and American recordings, because it was not a respectable instrument. It was still considered to be an instrument of the underworld. In 1928 Colombia Records issues the first bouzouki recording in Chicago played by a musician named George Kasaras (not to be confused with the legendary guitarist George Katsaros). Other recordings by Manolis Karapiperis, Vasilis Deniakos and Yiannis Halkias (known to Greek Americans as Jack Gregory) were made in New York the following years and by the early 30's these recordings had reached Greece where they became very popular. Some Columbia executives in Athens wanted to duplicate that sound. After many attempts Markos Vamvakaris, who used to play bouzouki in the smoke dens of Pireaus, secured the rights to record his own songs. Markos recorded in 1933 the first bouzouki recording in Greece. It was a record where the lyrics on both sides of the record were in reference to smoke dens and hashish.
In the next few years more recordings followed, the rebetiko was gaining popularity and was moving out of the smoke dens and into popular tavernas. Markos Vamvakaris and his group that included the other three pioneers of rebetiko,  Stratos Pagioumtzis, Giorgos Batis and Anestis Delias, were now working in tavernas instead of the smoke dens. This style of rebetiko, played by a bouzouki, one baglama, one guitar and sometimes an accordion will prevail during the 1930's. The Smyrna style songs of the cafe-aman were played by one or two violins, one oud (or outi) one santuri, one doumbek and sometimes a canoun.

Things are about to change with the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas in 1936. The government passed a law authorizing the Ministry of Press and Tourism to censor all new recordings and reject songs that make any reference to smoke dens, hashish and rebetiko life style. The police started cracking down and closing the smoke dens and the bouzouki night clubs. Many musician were forced to leave Athens and seek work in other cities and particularly in Thessaloniki where things were much calmer. In Thessaloniki they felt more comfortable, because the chief of police, Vasilis Moushountis, was a fan of rebetiko and was allowing them more freedom.
Other popular musicians of the 1930’s were Mitsos Bayianderas, Apostolos Hatzihristos, Spyros Peristeris, Yiannis Papaioanou, Mihalis Genitsaris, Yovan Tsaous, and women singers were Stella Haskil, Rita Abatzi, Marika “I Politissa” and Sevas Hanoum.
After 1936 we see a change in the lyrics of the rebetiko, because of censorship. The new songs talk about love, jealousy, poverty, wine, good times, life in the night clubs. But during the Nazi occupation years of 1941 to 1944 most of the night clubs had been closed because the Nazis had imposed a curfew. The few clubs that remained open were frequented by German officers, prostitutes, black marketeers and Nazi collaborators. These people were the only clientele with money for entertainment that kept a few clubs open for business during the hard times of the occupation.  
Right before the war, we start noticing the first signs of stagnation in the rebetiko. We see a lot of repetition of the same themes, and for some time the rebetiko was not evolving. The governmental policies to suppress it seemed to be working. But as it is often the case, suppression results to innovation. It was this time that a new face appeared into the rebetiko scene to give it a new feeling, a new style and to take it to a higher level for the next fifteen years. His name was Vasilis Tsitsanis

Tsitsanis was born in Trikala, in the province of Thessali. At age ten he started playing with his father’s mandola, where he had replaced the short neck with a long neck and made a bouzouki out of it.
Tsitsanis was not part of the underworld. He himself claims that he played only for a few nights at the smoke dens and he wrote very few songs in reference to hashish. While most of the other rebetes had barely finished elementary school, he was a high-school graduate, who came to Athens to attend law school.
He recorded his first song in 1937. He wrote many of his greatest hits during the occupation years but he could not record then until 1946, because the recording studios were closed during the occupation years.
He was able to foresee that the old style rebetiko wouldn't suit the new era that was about to emerged after the war and that people wouldn't be able to identify with it. He wrote songs with lyrics that reflected the feelings of the people. About the mother who patiently waits for her son, to return from xenitia from the foreign land; Or the nurse who falls in love with the wounded soldier. These are themes out of the working class neighborhoods that touch the common folk.
After the war, recording sessions resumed in 1946 and continued through the civil war period of 1947 to 1949. Other musicians such as Giorgos Mitsakis, Kostas Kaplanis, Apostolos Kaldaras, and the virtuoso of all times Manolis Hiotis helped reshape and refine the post war rebetiko sound. The rebetiko of the 1940's is now a popular urban song.
The decade of the 50's brought many changes to the musical climate. Influenced by Latin and Western music and motivated by the increase in sales of records, many musicians create music for purely commercial reasons. People's taste in music is changing. Social values are changing. The old rebetiko does not adapt to this new changing world. Less and less tavernas are featuring live rebetiko music. Many of the old rebetes that refused to participate in this new climate, kept on working in the few clubs that remained dedicated to the old style, but barely surviving. By the end of the 1950’s the rebetiko musicians are sidelined, the night clubs become flashy and expensive and the new music features a mixture of Indian and western sounds as its “new sound”.
Perhaps this generation of rebetes had exhausted their potential and could not advance the rebetiko any further. It would take another decade until Manos Hatzidakis, Mikis Theodorakis and young Stavros Xarhakos would start writing music using rebetiko as their inspiration along with lyrics by prominent Greek poets, that would  refine the sound of Greek music. But this is another era. This is not rebetiko any more.
Kosmas Vrouvlianis,  September 2008

1.        Ilias Petropoulos: "Rebetika Tragoudia"/2nd edition/ Kedros publications/ Athens/ 1983.
2.        Maria Constandinidou: "Kinoniologiki Historia tou Rebetikou", Medusa-Selas publications/ Athens/ 1994.
3.        Tassos Shorelis: "Rebetiki Anthologia"/ Volumes A/B/C/D/ Plethron publications/ Athens/ 1977.
4. Gale Holst: "The Road to Rebetiko" Greek- English publications/ Athens/ 1977.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

To all friends of REBETOPAREA. If you attempted to access our blog, rebetoparea.blogspot.com you probably witnessed that all the posts have disappeared. We are trying to solve the problem and we think we have identified the cause. Hopefully it will be up and running soon. Thank you for your continuous support.