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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some hashish, a bouzouki, and the blues...

By 1922, approximately two millions Greeks had come to Greece - Greeks who had never lived in Greece.  They came from Anatolia, where most had comfortable, if not rich, lives.  Many arrived in refugee settlements in Athens and Thessaloniki, with only what they could carry.  One of them was my grandmother.

Outcast, in a strange country where they were not particularly welcomed, they played music with lyrics that reflected their pain, poverty, political oppression, violence, drug abuse, and betrayal, along with the usual unrequited love and sorrows of everyday life.  This music was the music of the Greek underground, originating in the hashish dens of Athens and Thessaloniki, and eventually it merged with other strains of folk music.  It is rembetiko – the Greek blues.

Along with them these refugees brought Turkish traditions – hashish dens and tekedes, which were underground cafes.  The earliest rembetiko musicians were often itinerants, criminals, and ex-prisoners.  They would smoke from hookahs and improvise on their bouzoukia, a type of lute.  Eventually rembetiko moved from the slums into mainstream nightclubs and tavernas and became very popular. 

Because of the lyrics, rembetiko was repressed by the Metaxas dictatorship in 1936, and hashish dens and bouzoukia were outlawed.  During the German occupation and the Greek Civil War all songs with references to disreputable or criminal activities, including drug use, were not recorded, but most likely still played.  The suppression seemed good for it, and when rembetiko came out of the closet afterward it was much stronger.  New innovations were added, notably by musician Manolis Chiotis.  He added foreign influences, and most importantly began using the new four-string bouzouki, instead of the traditional three-stringed instrument.

The bouzouki was perhaps the most universally important contribution to the music world.  Once introduced into Irish music, it became very popular.  It also indirectly influenced American guitar playing.  Dick Dale, arguably the father of surf music, played a staccato style on his electric guitar that he learned from his uncle, a bouzouki player.  Dale’s friend, Leo Fender, built an amplifier for Dale to augment the sound of his playing.  The rest, as they say, is electric guitar history.

In the 50s, rembetiko gave way to the laika style of music, a broader style of popular music that included songs with the bouzouki.  Around 1960, a rembetiko revival began as musicians sought to record some of the early songs.  Then, in the 70s, 78 rpm LPs were reissued and many are still available on CDs.  There was interest in recapturing the original stylings.  The songs’ associations with political conflict added to the public interest, as people were protesting and resisting the military dictatorship of the Junta years (1967-1974).  Rembetiko lyrics, though often not openly political, still smacked of subversion and rebellion.

Popular now internationally, rembetiko is currently the subject of research, and scholars and music historians are just beginning to publish works on it.  Below are words to one of the popular songs in English.  (Note:  a baglama is an instrument.):

O Kyr Thanos (Mr. Thanos) by Gigoris Bithikotsis

Mr. Thanos died grumbling,
At two o’clock at Hatzithomas’ tavern.
Lately he knew poverty, the poor man,
He even pawned his baglama.

His brother, the baglama,
Who used to cheer him up.
He pawned him, and died.

If anyone would’ve paid a few of his debts,
He would have his instrument,
He would be living.
But no one ever asked why he cries.
Nobody cares about another person’s pain.

His brother, the baglama,
Who used to cheer him up,
He pawned him, and died.



  1. Wow. And I thought Irish songs were depressing.

  2. I lot of people don't like rembetiko because it is depressing! But then a lot of people don't like the American blues for that reason. But pain makes great artistry, I think.