Rebetiko – The Music and its People: Majestic, Controversial, Unique

Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus (1933)

Rebetes in Karaiskaki, Piraeus (1933)

What is Rebetiko?

Rebetiko is the music developed in the early 20th century in Greece, mainly in big ports, such as Piraeus, a city identified with rebetico songs, Thessaloniki, Volos, Patras, and gradually expanded throughout the whole country.

Influenced and enriched by the music tradition brought to Greece by the Greek refugees who came to the country after the Greek-Turkish war and the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922, rebetiko songs, which can be defined as urban folk songs, are the backbone of the modern Greek music tradition.

For many researchers, rebetiko songs are paralleled with the blues music developed in New Orleans, the samba music developed in Brazil and reggae in Jamaica.

Rebetiko manages, in a superb unity, to combine words, music and body movement. From the composition till the execution, are instinctively created the conditions for this triple co-existence of expression, which sometimes when reaching the limits of perfection reminds of the ancient tragedy in terms of form. The music composer is at the same time the poet and the performer. Rebetiko song is authentically Greek, uniquely Greek.
Manos Hatzidakis, Lecture on Rebetiko, Athens,1949

Rebetiko: Etymology

rempetisThe provenance of the word “rebetiko” and “rebetis” has been a highly controversial issue for both music experts and linguists. A prevailing theory for years has been the one supporting that the word “rebetis” (noun defining the man who plays/sings rebetiko) derives from the ancient Greek word “remvomai”, a verb meaning “dream, err, drift”. In an extended use this explanation could apply to the men playing and singing rebetiko, usually leading a marginalized life, associated with hashish use, always in trouble with the law.

On the other hand, the Greek Linguist and Professor at the University of Athens, Yorgos Bambiniotis totally rejects the theory mentioned above. According to him (Etymology Dictionary of the Modern Greek Language, 2nd Edition, Lexicology Center 2011) the word “rebetis” probably derives from the Turkish word “ribat” (see also Persian word “rabat”), meaning “barracks” or “distant frontier outposts”. When these barracks gradually went abandoned by the central administration, the men living there became irregular soldiers engaged in stealing and plundering. Impoverished, they ended up begging, bearing a bad reputation. Gradually the word “rebetis” got identified with the word “marginalized”, a term applied to the rebetiko composers who, when first appeared, were considered as such.

Finally, Elias Petropoulos (1928-2003), a Greek author and probably the greatest Rebetiko researcher states: “rebetis means revolted, untamed”. Petropoulos is the first who will use the term “rebetiko” to include a wide range of songs (mourmourika, amanedes, smyrnaiko) in the mid 1960s.

The People: “Rebetes”, the Destitutes who Changed Greek Music Forever

For some, the fact that almost illiterate and uneducated people, living impoverished, came up with these exquisite pieces of art, seems striking.

In the slums of Piraeus, their dream of the day would find a place to settle. And from this very material, the people’s dreams, Markos (Vamvakaris) would create his songs. And all these poor, desperate people listened to their misery and troubles becoming a song, they sang it, fooled themselves and kept on living.
Stelios Vamvakaris, son of Markos Vamvakaris

Outcasts, refugees, excluded, those who wouldn’t fit in the norms of an ultra-conservative society, living in turbulent social conditions created poetry, music and dance, telling their stories and at the same time echoing the problems of a whole era. Striking? Not really.

The Origins

Mentreses Prison in Plaka

Mentreses prison in Plaka

In the 1830s, the first rebetiko sounds make their appearance. Mourmouriko songs (the term derives from the Greek verb mourmourizo meaning murmur) are sung by the convicts kept in Mentreses Prison in Plaka, Athens.

The prisoners, most of whom were convicted to death, used to make up short lyrics accompanying them with rudimentary stringed musical instruments. Both the music and the lyrics were based on improvisation. The convicts murmured their songs so that the guards wouldn’t hear them.

By the beginning of the 20th century mourmouriko songs have evolved and expanded to the poor urban neighborhoods, becoming the mourmouriko rebetiko songs. At the same time (1900), the first rebetiko songs known as yaladika (due to the repetition of the Turkish word “yala”) make their appearance in Piraeus.

Listen here to a sample of Mourmouriko - Zeimpekiko, recorded in Athens and released in America, 1930

Café Aman

Café AmanFirst appeared in Northern Greece, part of the Ottoman Empire at the time as early as 1668, Café Aman were cafés where sailors would enjoy their coffee smoking hooka and listening to amanes singers (amanes is a Turkish song named this way because of the repetitive “aman” in it lyrics). Gradually a stage was added and Café Aman offered singing and dancing entertainment to their audience.

The first Café Aman in Athens opened in 1873 and within less than 15 years Athens was full of them. The song repertoire in Café Aman consisted of a mixture of Turkish and Arabic songs interpreted in Greek, Turkish and Armenian. And of course, there also were Smirneiko songs.

Venues of entertainment for the masses, Café Aman were a controversial issue at the time, with the Press being divided into two camps: those against Café Aman demanding that they be closed down, and those for, valuing the quality and the importance of the music of the Orient. Gradually the Café Aman’s popularity will start fading away. In 1937, the dictator Ioannis Metaxas will ban the operation of Café Aman. Amane songs are also banned from public places throughout the country.

Café Aman, operating long before rebetiko made its appearance and throughout the years of rebetiko music development, could be considered as the first public places where some of the most essential musical elements of rebetiko made their appearance.

Listen here to two samples of Smyrneiko song

Rebetiko Musical Instruments



Baglamas is the musical instrument closely connected with rebetiko, the other two being bouzouki and the guitar. Baglamas is used mainly as a rhythmic instrument while sometimes it can play solo to accompany the sound of bouzouki.

Bouzouki is the solo instrument that plays the melody while the guitar plays the rhythm, actually functioning as a bass guitar.

At times the violin, the piano, the accordion and the contrabass are also used. The cymbals used are the musical spoons and the zills, also called finger cymbals.

In some recordings a sound like glass is heard: it’s the sound made when “komboloi” (rosary) is banged on a glass. At the time, the audience used to keep rhythm of the song in this way.

Content of the Songs

Manos Hatzidakis in his lecture on the rebetiko song in 1949 describes the content of rebetiko as follows:

An unsatisfied love, starting from the most cynical attitude, reaching – in a primitive intensity – the broad Christian boundaries of love, but also an escape morbidly imposed by weakness, since the conditions remain as hard as metal for the man who sets ahead to love within all his strength and as much as possible.
Manos Hatzidakis, Lecture on Rebetiko, Athens,1949

Along with love, topics related with drugs (“Hashish songs”), prison and outlaws are fundamental part of rebetiko songs content.

The Forbidden Songs

Without any doubt, rebetiko songs and hashish are closely associated. In the first three decades of the 20th century, the Piraeus Peninsula with its unfrequented areas, caves and hills was the ideal refuge for hashish smokers. Rebetiko composers gathered in “tekedes”, places where hashish was smoked, and turned their everyday worries into songs.

Markos Vamvakaris (1905-1972), undoubtedly the most emblematic figure of rebetiko, composer of some of the greatest rebetiko songs and creator of the Quartet of Piraeus, a hashish smoker himself, states in his autobiography:

Tekedes were all the same. A room could be a tekes. A small house could be a tekes…
Once the hashish users have smoked, they won’t care whether they are dead or alive…
Calm and peaceful, they hurt nobody…
They don’t care if the tekes is a slum…
Markos Vamvakaris' autobiography

tekesSince very often the police would do raids in tekedes, hashish smokers sought for safer places to smoke. “What {they} sought was good stuff to smoke and tranquility, away from the police. That’s why they would often go to the mountain, in the caves“.

Hashish smoking is a recurrent theme in rebetiko songs, especially those written before 1936. There are also songs referring to heroine and cocaine as well.

In 1937, Ioannis Metaxas, dictator at the time, bans all the “hashish songs”, while hashish smoking has been a felony since 1930. Some of the rebetiko composers, such as Markos Vamvakaris, adapt their lyrics, avoiding references to drugs, while others, like Delias and Batis stop writing at all.

After the end of World War II, in 1946, the forbidden songs are once again recorded, this time by Vassilis Tsitsanis, the greatest composer of modern Greek folk music.

Listen here to two samples of hashish songs

Rebetiko Through Time

Until the 1920s

MagkasPeople living from hand to mouth, society’s outcasts, “magkes”, those were at the time the ones singing rebetiko. Rebetiko songs were made and kept within their communities. “Magkas” is probably the word most closely related to rebetiko. Word of albanian origin, “magka” initially meant a group of armed men.

Later on and by disambiguation, it came to define a certain type of man: magkas is a man coming from lower urban social layers. He follows a certain dress code, speaks slang and usually carries a knife or a kind of weapon. With a sense of pride of his own, a magkas gets easily offended and many’s the time when he is in trouble with the law. He’s an outcast, but with an attitude.

Listen here to two songs talking about Magkes


Minor Asia catastrophe refugeesThese are the years when the elements of Smyrna music tradition are dominant. Following the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922), 1,500.000 Greeks living in Asia Minor came to Greece as refugees (Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1923).

These people settle down in various areas of Greece. Piraeus, a city with a population of around 133,000 people at the time, receives 130,000 refugees. The newcomers bring along with them their traditions and customs and above all, their deep love for music. Smyrneiko songs, with the characteristic oriental melody and the repetitive “aman” in lyrics deeply influence rebetiko.

Listen here to two samples of oriental songs

1932-1942 … “The Piraeus Quartet”

The Piraeus Quartet

The Piraeus Quartet

These are the classic years of rebetiko, mainly because the Piraeus Quartet is formed and some of the greatest rebetiko songs are written. In 1934, four men sharing the same passion about music, Markos Vamvakaris (composer and bouzouki player), Yorgos Batis (baglamas player), Anestis Delias (bouzouki player) and Stratos Payioumtzis (singer) meet in the neighborhoods of Piraeus and form the famous “Piraeus Quartet”, the first rebetiko band.

They first appear in the tavern of Sarantopoulos in Drapetsona. The success of the Piraeus Quartet is immediate and the rebetiko song of Piraeus takes off. Piraeus becomes the heart of rebetiko. This is actually the period when the greatest rebetiko songs are written, while the first recordings are also made.

What makes rebetiko song of Piraeus stand out is on one hand its music, played with a baglamas and a bouzouki, occasionally accompanied by a guitar, and on the other hand, its lyrics, clear and concise, communicating the creators’ feelings and troubles in the most direct and everlasting manner.

Listen here to two samples of the Piraeus Quartet

1942-1952 … the Years of Wide Acceptance

rempetiko_undergroundA music kind developed in tekedes, infamous taverns and brothels, with a repertoire of songs openly talking about hashish and drug use, telling stories of outlaws, with its composers being chased by the police and imprisoned at times, rebetiko was for long regarded with disdain while rebetes were a synonym for people of the underworld.

In 1935, during Metaxas dictatorship, rebetiko music form is forbidden, while Nikos Zachariades, General Secretary of the Greek Communist Party, describes rebetiko as the music of “people pulling knives at fights, music of the decadence”. Therefore, no country for “rebetes”. However, rebetiko manages to penetrate deep in social layers, reaching a progressively wider audience, especially after World War II and mainly due to Vassilis Tsitsanis, a virtuoso bouzouki player who writes songs combining a unique artistic beauty with technical perfection.

After the war, the content of rebetiko song is enriched and slightly differentiated, gradually leaving out drug and outlaw topics. Along with the renewed repertoire, comes a change in the venues where rebetiko music is performed, away from tekedes and brothels. Now, places where rebetiko bands perform are popular night life destinations.

Rebetiko leaves its marginal identity behind, becoming a widely accepted and extremely popular kind of music. The leading figure now, and for the years to come, is Vassilis Tsitsanis. Along with him, new singers appear: Marika Ninou, Sotiria Bellou, Prodromos Tsaousakis.

Listen here to two great songs of Vasilis Tsitsanis

After 1960s

Elias Petropoulos

Elias Petropoulos

This is the period of the first rebetiko renewal. Old rebetico songs are being recorded again, while Elias Petropoulos and Dinos Christianopoulos write books about rebetiko (historical research and song anthology).

For many researchers, rebetiko officially dies in the mid-1950s. The musical forms might remain the same, but with the content totally different from what it used to be 20 years ago, within social conditions having nothing in common with the ones rebetiko was born in, whatever song might be produced, it is a modern Greek urban folk song, but not a rebetiko song.

Another factor contributing to the historical death of rebetiko is that in the mid 1950s makes its appearance “archontorebetiko”, a refined – in terms of content and interpretation – version of rebetiko, its main representatives being Manolis Chiotis and Dimitris Gounaris.

On the other hand, as already mentioned, rebetiko is beyond any doubt the backbone of what we call modern Greek urban folk music. Besides, the rebetiko dances, zeibekiko, chasapiko, serviko, and tsifteteli are actually the melody forms on which ALL the modern Greek folk songs are based.

Vasilis Tsitsanis

Vasilis Tsitsanis

Today, almost in all urban centers, there are venues varying from taverns to theater stages where rebetiko bands appear their repertoire being those old songs, written by Markos Vamvakaris, by Yannis Papaioannou, by Michalis Genitsaris, by Vassilis Tsitsanis, once sung by Stratos Payioumtzis or Marika Ninou.

Within the last two years, a theater performance named “The Piraeus Quartet”, based on an idea of Lina Nikolakopoulou, one of the greatest contemporary Greek lyrics composers, has been presented in various venues throughout the country. Actors, singers and musicians participate in a show featuring all the songs written and performed by the original “Piraeus Quartet” back in the 1930s.

“Rebetiko”: the Film

In 1983, the director Kostas Ferris makes the film “Rebetiko”. Based on Marika Ninou’s (one of the most characteristic female rebetiko voices) life, the film covers a 30-year period, from 1917, when Marika Ninou was born, till the early 1950s, reciting the story of Rebetiko along with the turbulent – at the time – Greek History.

With a Silver Bear in the Berlin International Film Festival and with numerous Greek and international awards, the film Rebetiko is an exquisite piece of art, both for Ferris’ direction and the actors’ interpretations.

But what really makes the film stand out is the original music score and the songs heard throughout the film, all composed especially for the film by the prominent Greek music composer Stavros Xarchakos in 1983.

Our Rebetiko – Instead of a Conclusion

Researchers and music experts and linguists might argue as much as they like about the origin of the word rebetiko or about the official date of its death. I’m afraid I’m not interested in their disputes.

Markos Vamvakaris

Markos Vamvakaris

As for rebetiko, there’s only one thing I know for sure and I want to share with you: each time I hear the first notes from Markos Vamvakaris’ “Ta matoklada sou lampoun” (~your eyelashes are glowing) or Vassilis Tsitsanis’ “Archontissa” (~lady), no matter how many times I have sung and danced “Synnefiasmeni Kiriaki” (~cloudy Sunday), I always have the same feeling of chill in my spin, tears in my eyes, a feeling of regret for the past coming through the 9/8 rhythm only to be soothed by the smiles of those around me singing the same songs.

These very same songs sung in tekedes in the 1930s, in taverns in the 1950’s, in every family celebration and friend gathering then and now. This music created more than a century ago, still having such a strong presence in present, is anything but dead. Rebetiko is alive and kicking.

Listen here to some legendary Greek songs

Rebetiko – The Music and its People: Majestic, Controversial, Unique
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