The origins of the music now known as rembetica lie in the mid-nineteenth century, or even earlier. The genre can be roughly divided into two schools. The first was created by the Greek population of the great port cities of the Ottoman Empire, such as Constantinople and Smyrna. Based on the makams (modes) of Eastern music, it was mainly played in public places of entertainment, such as Cafe Aman, by skilled professional groups featuring violin, lyra, santouri, kanun, guitar and mandolin, fronted by a male or female singer.
Meanwhile, chiefly in the demi-monde of Greece, there developed another, rougher, form of rembetica, played on bouzouki or baglamas, in enclosed places such as “tekedes” (hash dens) and prisons. This style developed into the ‘Piraeus school’ - songs of thieving and addiction, desire and betrayal – made famous in the 1930s by such artists as Markos Vamvakaris and Yiorgos Batis. Many of these musicians were hash smokers and odes to getting high were popular, although the use of hard drugs was frowned upon.
Sound engineers from England and Germany first visited Constantinople as early as 1905. Until 1914, they made many visits to the Near East to record Greek and other local musicians. However, the First World War was followed by the Greek – Turkish War (1919 – 1922). Greece’s defeat and the enforced exchange of populations led to over a million Greek Christians leaving Asia Minor for a “homeland” they had never seen. Many fine musicians were among these exiles, bringing with them the cosmopolitan influences and oriental traditions that enriched the music of the mainland.
International record companies switched their attention to Athens, setting up makeshift studios until permanent recording and manufacturing facilities were established in the Athenian suburb of Rizoupolis in 1930. Between 1925 and 1937, a wealth of material was recorded, much of it referring to drugs and the underworld – a phenomenon apparently unique in world music.
In 1936, the Metaxas fascist government seized power and introduced censorship, banning subversive lyrics and ‘Oriental’ elements from Greek music. This took a while to be fully implemented, but from 1937 onwards hard-core rembetica was forced underground. Gradually, rembetica gave way, at least on record, to the more mainstream “laika” (or popular) songs of the Greek working class.
Today, few genuine rembetes survive, though renewed interest in the music has led to the release of many historic recordings.
Lexicon of Rembetica
Rembétis one who scorns straight society and its conventions
Mángas smart operator on the fringes of society
Mórtis streetwise guy, both tough and elegant
Meraklís aficionado, one who deeply knows or feels
Alítis idler, bum, drifter
Alaniára good-time girl
Daís hard man, a ‘heavy’
Hasiklís, hasánis habitual smoker of hashish
Argilés, nargilés, loulás, tsimboúki, toumbéki, chimboúki pipe for smoking dope
Mastouriá, mastourlíki stoned, high
Teké place where hashish can be bought and consumed
Aman alas, mercy!
Hanoúmissa Turkish or Muslim woman
I Póli The City, i.e. Constantinople
Words by Charles Howard