Paul Vernon traces the roots of the Greek recording
industry, with a focus on Rebetica
Picture this: "In a little Athenian side-street there lies hidden from sight a small underground cafe patronised by soldiers, boot-blacks and taxi-drivers. It is called the 'Elatos', or, as we should say, 'At the Sign of the Fir Tree'. Here alone in Greece's capital can you see the Greek dances, as opposed to the Foxtrot, Black Bottom and Rumba performed in smarter places of amusement. Here we used to meet Ilias Andoni and his friends Sergent Aristotle, Corporal Socrates and others whose names had an equally familiar ring. The band consisted of a fiddle, a pot-bellied mandolin of exotic appearance and zither. The correct procedure, having ordered drinks, was to drain your glass, hand ten drachmas to the band, and, having thus paid your piper, to call your tune. You then formed your chain) there was never room for more than one) and began to dance.
"I have seen feats of virtuosity at the Elatos which would make a man's fortune on the halls, if not in the Russian Ballet. One heavily built N.C.O. from Missolonghi used, while dancing, to bend over backwards, until his head touched the floor, and the handkerchief which linked him to his neighbour threatened to tear under the strain. Then with his hair full of sawdust he would leap to his feet again. Another specialised in the feat of swallowing a pint of beer from a mug held by his lips alone, while both his thumbs clicked in the air like castanets and he spun round and round on his feet, or bounded into the air. Always while they danced (they) had a curious trick of hissing through their teeth. These, strange as it may seem, were the dances to which Byron gave the name of 'dull Romaic round!"'
(Rodney Gallop, The Traditional Dance, 1935)
While Greek music in all its variety is a complex and often hotly debated subject, the basic ingredients are simple; classical and Byzantine music and a wide range of traditional dance styles. That said, the kaleidoscopic range of sounds that can be called traditional Greek music needs some further examination in order to understand how they relate to one another and where the influences lie.
Most Folk Roots readers must certainly be aware of Rebetica, for it has arguably become the most high-profile Greek musical export, and with good reason. It's tough, streetwise, colourful, dangerous and exciting, just like the Blues to which it is often compared.
Rebetika also produces a great deal of gritty poetry, the stuff of which myth and legend is made:
Waves, snow, and storms never scared me as much as you did, damned poverty.
Not one of my poor dreams is coming true, you scattered them all, damned poverty
Wherever you noticed me in love and in life you never once failed to wound me, poverty"
Poverty by Khatzikhristos, 1939
The world of the Rebetika singer, the Mangas, the hash-dens of Piraeus, is not as musically isolated as some might assume. Despite social rejection, the Rebetika singers borrowed freely from a range of other Greek musics to hone their particular style.
Traditional dances such as the Chasapikos, Kalamatianos, Klephtikos, Syrtos, Tsamikos and a wide range of regional folk song styles were all, at one time or another, employed as vehicles for messages delivered by Rebetika singers, Cafe Aman performers, and folk singers from a variety of regions.
These styles were also something else: uniquely and intensely Greek. Whether sung in 'pure' form or transposed into the urban milieu, they retained qualities that at once set them apart form both Western and Eastern music.
Geography and history together has contrived to produce a range of musics that are both diverse within their own framework and quite unlike any other regional World Music, often aggressively so. As the trio of Rebetes Markos, Tsitsanis and Tsaousakis put it on record: Vrase Ti Roumba Ke Ta Souing (To Hell With Rumba And Swing).
The dances were all traditional in origin, and rather than being part of any ersatz revival, passed from generation to generation in a continuum that demonstrated the vitality and relevance of Greek music to its own culture.
Geography and history
Fortunately it is possible to gain a real sense of what Greek music is, in all its delicious variety, by re-examining the aural evidence from 1910 onwards. Probably the first Greek recordings ever made were secured by Arthur Clarke, of the Gramophone Company, on a visit to Smyrna in about mid-1910. The city, although nominally Turkish, had long supported a substantial Greek community. When Clark visited with his one-and- a-half tons of recording equipment, he sought out and preserved over 350 recordings. Included in this cache were the first examples of the so- called 'Smyrna Style' that, for tragic political reasons, was to be injected into Athenian music twelve years later.
In 1922, when the next significant Greek recording session was held in Athens, the material was of a quite different nature. The session that the Gramophone Company conducted, in January and February of that year, yielded largely classic, but somewhat restrained versions of the heroic Klephtic ballad tradition, choral music, the Italian influenced 'Cantada' songs accompanied by mandolins and rather stiff renditions of folk song and dance. Taking 118 recordings, the Gramophone Company had enough material for its then marginal Greek market to last a good while. As a result, they didn't go back for four years. What they missed, and by only a few months, was the impact of thousands of refugees from Smyrna following Greece's disastrous war with Turkey. The arrival of this huge population, Greek in origin but culturally at least as much Turkish, not only placed a great strain on an already crowded city; it also impacted on the cultural framework and, by extension, profoundly influenced the sound of urban Athenian music.
This was, almost certainly, the music that Rodney Gallop describes; the 'safe Aman' style of such legendary figures as Rosa Eskenazi, Rita Abatsi, Demetrius Semsis and Nouros.
These were newly-dispossessed, and they mixed naturally with the outcast Mangas society in the rough and tumble of Piraeus. Drawing upon traditional themes, the newly arrived contributed a Turkish influence that included the Tsifli-Teli and, most especially, the Zeibekiko. Dance became sung, and the singing style, with the grief and cynicism that both the indigenous outcast and the newly-arrived shared, started to cross-influence and blend.
By 1924, when the Odeon company began making regular recordings, there was a considerable pool of talent ready for them. As a result, Odeon quickly established a lead in the Greek market. Using previously proven tactics, they appointed a local firm, Messrs. Abravanel and Benveniste of Salonika to act as agents. This company knew its market well, and it was they who made the choices of who to record. Odeon simply sent in an engineer to make the masters which were then shipped to Berlin for processing and manufacture. Odeon, like all major companies at that time, cared little about what they were recording as long as it sold. The difference was that they were canny enough to allow local experts to make the A&R arrangements based on the very sound theory that these people knew what they were doing.
By the time the Gramophone Company woke up to what was going on, around late 1925, Odeon had conducted some eight separate sessions in Athens and were undoubtedly the market leaders. Columbia Records had joined the race around 1923. In an internal report on the state of the Greek record market compiled in 1930 a Mr. Sheard of the Gramophone Company noted:
"Columbia have a very well organised advertising system, which is always original. All over the town, on the kiosks, where cigarettes, sweets, chewing gum, etc. are sold, vie sees the name Columbia, as well as on show-cards in Cinemas and Theatres. Each new series of records which appears is announced by postcards to all dealers, which is a very good method of advertising. The Columbia firm pay one third of the advertising of the non-exclusive dealers, and have this year alloted an advertising budget of 5,000 for distribution on Greece."
To a lesser extent, the market was shared by Polydor, Pathe and Edison Bell. These three, however, were relatively minor players. The major battle was a three cornered affair between The Gramophone Company, Columbia and Odeon.
Then, in 1931 these protagonists became a menage-a-trots with the formation of EMI. Although, as elsewhere in the world, the company logos remained unchanged, separate firms vying with each other now effectively became one. The public, if it cared in the first place, probably never noticed.
Meantime, in America, expatriate Greeks has begun making sporadic recordings as early as 1917. The first in the field were Victor, a company that had aggressively set out to capture a wide variety of 'ethnic' American markets as early as 1912. Columbia launched a major series of ethnic recordings in 1923, Odeon followed a vear later while Brunswick only thought about competing in 1928. There were, in addition, a number of small Greek-owned labels with limited distribution. All the majors issued not only Greek- American recordings but also masters made in Athens which they leased from their European counterparts. By 1945 the American Greek community had been exposed to some 2,000 78rpm record releases.
In Athens, recording activity increased throughout the 1930s, The EMI companies dominated the market but there was competition for them from Polydor and the newly-formed Decca. The period to 1936 was a golden one not only for sales but also for quality of music. The first 'classic' period of Rebetika song was handsomely captured on disc, and included many tough hashish, jail and crime themes.
You thought rock 'n' roil was dangerous? Here's a song by Delias, recorded in 1934:
"From the time I began to snort smack, the world turned away I don't know what to do. The junk I sniffed started me on the needle ond slowly my body began to waste, Nothing in the world was left to me to do after smack drove me out on the streets to die. "
From The Time I Began
The Greek government passed a censorship law in 1936 requiring all recorded material to be screened by government officials. Since the Mangas who produced Rebetika music saw the Government as their natural enemy, and vice-versa, hashish songs and, indeed, much else considered 'dangerous" by the authorities was effectively suppressed from 1936 until the late 1940s.
Mme. S. Mary and the Antoniou Brothers
However it was not just Rebetika that was being recorded. Many regional folk styles came before the microphones; most folk dances, and especially the syrtos, were recorded in quantity. The Smyrna style persisted, as did the 19th century tradition of heroic Klephtic balladry. Music from the Aegean, Dodecanese and lonian islands, songs and dances from central Greece, the Peloponnese, Thessaly, Epirus and Macedonia also found their way into the catalogues.
There was also a remarkable body of traditional music from Crete to be found on record. The classic Cretan sound is that of the lyre and lauto. The Iyre is a short fiddle held upright on the knees, while the lauto is a member of the lute family. The interplay between two good traditional Cretan musicians can be intense enough to create orgasmic goose bumps on the average listener. In many cases, the artists obviously forgot they were being recorded, so sudden is the end of many a Cretan performance from the 78rpm era. It is not difficult to imagine a worried engineer engaging in frantic, silent semaphore attempting to gain attention. For, in those days of direct recording, if you overrun your alloted time you ruined the master and had to start again.
Greece was drawn into the European conflict in April 1941 when the German army parachuted its way in. Quite apart from the general effect it had upon Greek life, occupation stopped recording activity dead in its tracks. On April 4th, EMI received a dramatic telegram from one McKenzie (probably the factory manager in Athens) which read "EVACUATED ATHENS VERY SHORT NOTICE NOW IN CAIRO STOP HANDED OVER TO TOUMBAKARIS INSTRUCTED HIM CABLE YOU."
The defeat of Nazism in Greece was followed by a bitter civil war. Against this background, however, Greek folk music continued to be played, sung and dance. By 1946 the record companies were back. During their absence, there had been both a dogged conservatism and a dramatic change in Greek music. Cretan, Dodecanese, Klephtic and folksong tradition was still in demand and consequently still performed. Down at the Piraeus cafes, however, something was stirring.
Vasilis Tsitsanis, a young middle class Greek law student who had cut his hrst records in 1937, emerged as the hrst Rebetika 'star' of the postwar period. Before Tsitsanis, Rebetika had been a style without a champion. Its performers - even the great ones like Batis and Vamvakaris were still regarded as dangerous outlaws. Tsitsanis, however, was a smooth, good looking, well dressed young man. Deep as well as macho, he wrote great songs, sung convincingly and
played his bouzouki with a passion. In short, he turned Rebetika around by widening its appeal. Gail Holst, in her excellent Road To Rebetika, calls this the "Indian Summer" of Rebetika. Rightly so as Tsitsanis' popularity gave Greek music the jump-start it needed following the traumatic decade that had preceded. It also, in that curious way that fate often decrees, sowed the first seeds of destruction for Greek traditional music.
Throughout the 1950s the full gamut of Greek music continued to be recorded. Although the old 'safe Aman' style was waning, traditional regional music was still alive and kicking its way into the studios. Listening to some recordings made in, say, 1953 one could easily imagine them to be a decade or two older. However, the times were changing and the music was to change with it,
Most history is a complex compound of events. It has been amply demonstrated, for instance, that there was no one single event or person which parented rock 'n' roll. The same is true of the demise of 'pure' Greek music, Tsitsanis's success helped pave the way by jacking up the profile and allowing its acceptance as more than just an underclass entertainment. The spread of radio and the jukebox, the post-war tourist trade, changing political scenarios and social values all contributed in a variety of ways to what was to become the debasement of the old styles; the tourist traps of Athens, the 'Bouziukis'- expensive cafes where tourists could break plates and imagine they had experienced 'real' Greek music, did wonders for the local economy but little for the music itself. They have parallels in Lisbon's 'Tourisoco Folclorico' nightclubs and the expensive jazz clubs along Bourbon Street. It's nothing unique.
W hat did happen in Athens, however, was a cultural backlash. By the late 1960s, when ersatz Greek music was riding the crest of its tackiest wave, a groundswell of interest started to break loose and look back to the roots. Young and often fanatically dedicated Greek men and women re-read their own history, went junking for ancient 78's, found old performers to interview, started picking up instruments and consciously playing the 'old' style. Does this sound familiar? Certainly. The 1960s Blues and Folk revival was a mirror image of Athenian events. The interesting thing is that they occurred simultaneously and almost completely without reference to one another.
Now, in the last days of the 20th century, Greek traditional music is seriously studied. The Rebetika, for so long an outcast in its own culture, is preserved, studied and revered. This is as it should be but let us remember that there is much more in this world that is also Greek, and just as worthy of attention.
Start with Gail Holst's excellent Road To Rebetika, a book written with passion from the inside of the genre.
If you can find it, Rebetika Songs From The Old Greek Underworld by Dragoumis and others is worth absorbing. Most other decent studies are in Greek. Check out your local Greek book store.
There is a vast archive of re-issue material on vinyl, mostly of Greek origin. Much can still be found if you want to apply energy and footwork to it: probably the best place to start looking is Trehantiri, 367 Green Lanes, London N4, tel: 081802 6530.
On CD there are a number of currently available compilations that should be easily obtainable from your favourite specialist. Start with any of these.
Greek Oriental Rebetika 191 1-37 (Arhoolie 7005)
Vamvakaris (EMI (Greece) CO45711262)
Mitsakis (EMI (Greece) CO45711282)
Hiotis (EMI (Greece) CO4571302)
Apostolis (EMI (Greece) CO45711262)
Great Bouzouki Sounds Vol. 1 (EMI (Greece) CO45711262)
Great Bouzouki Sounds Vol. 2 (EMI (Greece) CO45700762)
History Of Rebetika Vols 1-6 (EMI (Greece) CO45703272, 642, 652, 662, 782, 792 & 802)
Rebetika Songs In America (FM627)
Women Of Rebetika (FM632)
Rebetika From Piraeus (Heritage HTCD26)
Rebetika: History Of Urban Folk Songs (Rounder 1079)
Greece: Chansons et Dances 1930-59 (VDE 5521)
With thanks to Bruce Bastin, Gil Cook, Ruth Edge, Nigel Gallop, Diane Mueller, National Sound Archive, Keith Summers.
This article was originally published in the magazine FolkROOTS.
Copyright belongs to the author.
Electronic edition by Lars Fredriksson, April 17, 1997