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|The music of the outcasts tells a story
December 13 , 2005 - Electra Astrinidou
Markos Vamvakaris, Vassilis Tsitsanis, and Grigoris Bithikotsis shaped Greek music with the sound of the bouzoukia and baglamades. The sounds of the two instruments accompanied their characteristic voices as they sang about poverty, pain, drug addiction, police oppression, prison, unrequited love, betrayal and hashish.
The bouzouki, a lute-like instrument with a pear-shaped body (skafi) made of staves and baglama are the backbone of the rembetika, a popular genre of Greek music.
From its rise in Pireaus and Asia Minor through the Metaxa era, and from the occupation throught the civil war until today, the rembetika invite Greeks to dance, sing, and drink.
The rembetika tell the story of another era. “This music is all about stories of life’s hardships,” said Vassilis, a waiter, as he passed the wine. “You can feel it from the way they sing.”
Rembetika music rose as the music of the Greek Underground, forming the Greek urban blues. It originated in the hashed dens of Pireaus and Thessaloniki in the early twentieth century. The music was influenced by oriental elements that arrived with the forced immigration of two million Greek refugees from what is now the coastal area of Turkey.
The refugees who entered the country had left their businesses, homes and family in Turkey. They dropped from the middle class into an underground status in a foreign country that did not want them.
Rembetika was the music of those outcasts.
In the slums of Athens they embarked on their new lives accompanied by their music.
“They were men that took their music seriously, who lived it, and took great pride in it,” Vassilis said, “After all, it was the only thing they had.”
They clutched the bouzoukia and the baglamades and sang the urban blues in hash dens and tekedes, Turkish underground cafes.
Over the years the sight transformed.
After the civil war, the rembetika came up from underground and moved into the taverns and nightclubs. The mix of followers evolved from the representatives of the urban underground to the representatives of the urban lower-middle class.
In the sixties, the rembetika gave way to the laika, or the urban folk, which represented Greek popular music. The same instruments were used in similar ways.
“I think people then wanted something that wouldn’t remind them of what they had been through and the laika were a good solution,” said Alexi, a university student. “Now, though we are bored of listening to the same songs that have no meaning. The rembetika have a history, and they are a tradition.”
University students, middle-aged couples and elderly men cram into the rembetadika. Carafes with wine and plates with mezedes circulate around the tables. The rembetadika are a popular destination.
From the hash dens to the taverns and nightclubs, the music is now more commonly accommodated in the rembetadika. Exclusively for those who want to drink, sing, and dance to the sounds of bouzouki and baglama, and even recount life’s hardships from another era.
“Things have changed, and Rembetika do not represent what they used to, but they are still loved,” Alexi added.
The music has lost its immediacy in a time of freedom and prosperity, but is still highly respected.
“We are young and can’t really relate to all that this music is about,” said Alexi. “But we love it here, it’s so Greek.”
Although Vamvakaris, Tsitsanis, and Bithikotsis have passed on, their legacies remain in the hearts of Greeks. And for Alexi, as for many Greeks, “They are legends.”