Blog 14 12/07/2015 Rebetika:Music of Love, Joy and Sorrow.

Posted in on 12 July, 2015 in News

 Rebetika: Music of Love, Joy and Sorrow

Rembetico Image

Greek music known as Rebetika has often been compared to American Blues, flamenco, fado, bal-musette and the tango in that it is music created by a marginalized lifestyle that originated out of despair – crime and imprisonment, drink, prostitution, disease, lost love, death and exile

Cafe view

Cafe in Piraeus

The word is thought to derive from the Greek word, rebetis, thought to mean a person who embodies aspects of character, dress or behaviour and ethics associated with a particular subculture. The earliest source of the word is found in a Greek-Latin dictionary published in 1614 in Leyden, Holland and is defined as a wanderer, blind, or misguided.

manos Hadzidakis

Manos Hadzidakis

Manos Hadzidakis, the famous Greek composer, summarized the key elements in three words with a broad presence in the Greek language: meraiki, kefi, and kaimos (love, joy, and sorrow). They are words used frequently in Greece today. Much of what we know as Rebetika originated in the ports and shanty towns of Pireaus, Salonika, and Volos the early 20th Century.  In these cities, the displaced and marginalized often took solace in the hashish dens known as tekedes.

Elias Petropoulos

Elias Petropoulos

 Elias Petropoulos (1928-2003), a man who holds a unique place in the intellectual life of Europe and  who wrote extensively on rebetika, states that “The womb of rebetika was the jail and the hash  den (teke). It was here that the early rebetes created their songs. They sang in quiet,  hoarse voices, unforced, one after the other, each singer adding a verse, and a song often  went on for hours. There was no refrain, and the melody was simple and easy. One  rembetis accompanied the singer on a bouzouki or baglama (a smaller version of the bouzouki, very portable, easy to make in prison and easy to hide from police), and perhaps another, moved by the music, would get up and dance. The early rebetika songs were based on Greek folk songs and the songs of Smyrna and Constantinople.”

Outdoor cafe scene. Rebetica

A group of rebetes and refugees in the fish-market in Piraeus

After 400 years of Turkish rule, Greek cities and ports underwent series of industrialization programs increasing their size and population. In the face of change, the lower classes turned inwards for support and strength. Defying traditional behaviour, they scorned work, hated the police, refused to marry and considered going to jail as a badge of honour. In this environment, underworld activities thrived. In their favourite hangouts in Piraeus, Athens and Salonika, they ran brothels, gambling houses, organized lucrative hashish markets and the smuggling and distribution of goods. Those at the top of this hierarchy were known as mangas, a word still commonly used today in modern Greek. These snappy dressers were quite startling, somewhat equivalent to the Regency beau. A manga typically wore a dark, tight suit, collarless purple shirt, narrow pointed shoes with high heels, a fedora hat, and a heavy sash around his waist. As in the days of his forefathers when a sash was part of a Greek man’s dress, money, tobacco, a knife and a gun could be kept in it. Needless to say, persecution by the police was intense and their songs reflected it.

Mangas 2

A manga begins to dance

Although rebetika existed before 1920, its heyday was the 1920’s and 1930’s. After the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1919-1922, and the population exchange of 1923. Over 1.500,000 refugees settled in Greece. Even before this, Greeks had been fleeing Turkey on a regular basis as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. With hundreds of thousands of Ottoman Muslims fleeing the Balkans on a regular basis since the late nineteenth century, many settled in Anatolia. More and more, the Christian population found themselves at the mercy of disgruntled immigrants and as the skirmishes and atrocities grew Greeks slowly began to leave for Greece. Nostalgic for their Turkish homeland, they brought with them their culture which merged within that already existing in Greece. During this period, rebetika merged with the cafe aman music existing in Constantinople and more importantly, Smyrna – the major trading port and cultural hub of Turkey during the Ottoman Empire.

Smyrna 1900

Smyrna 1900

Whilst the musical style of amanedhes had the laments, the cafe aman style was quite different. Travellers to Smyrna in the late 19th and early 29th Centuries noted that the city was lively – full of gaiety and that music of all kinds was enjoyed by the population. Smyrna boasted many theatres, a grand opera house, and a multitude of elegant cafe’s where all types of musical entertainment could be found most days of the week. The music enjoyed in the cafe aman usually centred around a Kumpania, an orchestra with musicians of various ethnic backgrounds- Slav, Greek and Turkish – who added their own cultural voice and musical instrumentation. Neapolitan ballads with their beguiling melodies and harmonic structure were also popular at this time. The result of this convergence of music resulted in an atmosphere of theatre lacking in early Greek rebetika. The music of the amanedhes came to be known in Greece as the Smyrnaic style. The language was peppered with Turkish words and the melodies derived in most cases from Turkish modes, more commonly known as a makam, a long wandering series of notes, the final result of which is known as a road. One component common to music with Eastern musical spheres is the improvised prelude which can occur at the beginning or in the middle of the song. It is also a feature used by belly dancers and is known as taksim. The musician works with the singer or dancer allowing a freedom of creativity in the music, much as we see in jazz. In the songs, the phrase Aman, Aman, would be held over a long series of notes by singers in order to find time for spontaneous composition.





Unlike the early Greek rebetika, the bouzouki was not well-known in Smyrnaic, cafe aman music. That music mostly      comprised of the accordion, lyra, clarinet, kanonaki, oud, Turkish saz, santur, tsimbalom, violin, violincello and finger    cymbals.

With the influx of the refugees, many of whom were reduced to a state of poverty, the laments  of the cafe aman music,  with its nostalgia for a lost homeland,  expressed itself in its music. A cry of bitterness rang out and it was one that the  rebetes associated with. It was inevitable that the two forms of music would merge forming what would later be known  as the soul of Greek music. Hungry for the old life, the refugees soon began to gather in places where entertainment  reminded them of the old country. With a wider choice of venue, the skilled musicians of rebetika gradually moved out of  the tekes and into the night clubs. Recordings companies – the gramophone company, (later HMV) and Odeon set up in  Greece.

This fusion that we later came to know as rebetika prospered until the mid thirties when in 1936, censorship was introduced by the 4th of August Regime under the dictator Ioannis Metaxas. Tekes were closed down, and composers were forced to submit song lyrics for approval and radio stations were banned from playing armanidhes as the oriental influence was considered unpatriotic. The songs of hashish, crime and the ever present nostalgia started to die. A new type of rebetika emerged and with it some of the voices and musicians that have become legends in Greek music.

The names of the greats of rebetika are far too many to list here and deserve a blog of their own, but there are some that have gone on to become legends; their names synonymous with the history and social fabric of modern Greek culture as much as the virtuosity of their music.

Markos Vamvarkaris. Born 1905 on the island of Syros, is often called the father of rebetika. His songs are some of the most memorable and his voice is unforgettable. Two of his most famous songs are Frankosyriani (Catholic Girl from Syros) and O Kaloyeros (The Monk)

Markos Vambakaris

Markos Vamvakaris

Vassilis Tsitsanis. Born 1915 in Trikala, is considered to be the finest rebetika composer, Tsitsanis wrote over two thousand songs. He also recorded with some of the finest female rebetika singers of his day. His song Synefiasmena Kyriaki. (Cloudy Sunday) written during the Nazi  occupation, is considered to be one of his finest.

                                                                                 Cloudy Sunday, you look like my heart 

                                                                          Which is always cloudy, Christ and the Virgin.

                                                                              You’re a day like the one when I lost my joy.

                                                                              Cloudy Sunday, you make my heart bleed.

                                                                     When I see you rainy, I can’t find a moment’s peace.

                                                                             You make my life black, and I sigh deeply.


Yiannis Papaioannou. Born 1914 in Kios in Turkey (now called Gemlik), went on to become one of the most popular singers of both rebetika and laika (popular music). His song, Kapetan Andreas Zepos (Captain Andreas Zepos) is one of his most famous.

ioannis papaioannou

ioannis papaioannou

Roza Eskenazi. Born 1895 in Constantinople, was a Jewish Greek singer who was part of The Smyrna Trio along with Semsis and Tomboulis. A personal favourite is Enas Mangas Ston Teke Mou ( A Mangas in my Teke)

Rosa Esk

The Smyrna-style trio of Rosa Eskenazi, Semsis and Tomboulis.

 Rita Abadzi. Born 1918 in Smyrna, was another singer of the cafe aman style, she made many outstanding recording. Amongst them are Hanoumakia (A word that means Little Lady in Turkish but in Greek it is synonymous with someone who visits tekes – a good-time girl), and To Pasoumi (The Turkish Slipper).

ita Abatzi

Rita Abatzi

 Sotiria Bellou. Born 1921 in Euboea was one of the last great women of that era. During her life she sang with many of Greece’s most famous musicians. She has one of the most recognizable voices of rebetika; deep and husky. On her death in Athens in 1997, she was given a state funeral.

Sotiria Bellou

Sotiria Bellou

With music playing such an important part of Greek life, I could not have written The Embroiderer without giving it an important role in the character’s lives. In Part 2, Sophia has left Constantinople for her home town of Smyrna. Her chauffeur and bodyguard, Kapitanos Vangelis goes with her. But when Sophia discovers he is a fine louto player, she encourages him to join a Kumpania at the famous Cafe Aprhrodite. Unbeknown to them, in five months time, their lives will lie in ruins. The following is an excerpt.


 The Embroiderer

Part 11 Chapter 17

Smyrna, April 1922

Café Aphrodite was already full when the family arrived later in the evening. The manager ushered them across the room to a table that had been reserved next to a raised platform with a row of seven empty high-backed chairs.

‘Drinks are on the house tonight,’ he said to Soterios. ‘The Kapitanos draws a large crowd and we have you to thank for that.’

He clicked his fingers at a passing waiter who promptly brought over platters of mezethes and two bottles of his finest wine.

The air was heavy with smoke and an obvious sense of excitement filled the room. There was nothing that the Christian population of Smyrna loved more than to dress up for an evening of entertainment in a convivial atmosphere, accompanied by plentiful food and good music. Over the past decade a number of such establishments had sprung up to cater for this growing demand. Café Aphrodite was considered to be the best. Every musician and chanteuse aspired to play here.

Maria helped herself to a borek stuffed with spinach and pine nuts. Leonidas—uncharacteristically nervous—couldn’t eat. This was the first time he’d seen Vangelis play in public and the mixture of anticipation and anxiety was almost too painful to bear. He fidgeted incessantly on his chair until Sophia put her hand on his shoulder to calm him. Moments later the audience began to applaud as each member of the Kumpania wove their way through the tables and took their seat on stage. Leonidas jumped up and clapped loudly. Vangelis, seated at the far end of the row, looked over and gave him a wink.

‘Sit down,’ said Maria angrily. ‘We can’t see.’

Embarrassed, Leonidas resumed his seat. One by one the musicians were introduced to the audience.

‘Ladies and gentleman,’ began the compere, ‘tonight I present to you…Georgos on the santouri; Stratos on saz and baglama; Kayseri Katsiyannis on bouzouki; and, ladies and gentleman…’ he continued, with the flourish of a showman, ‘our own tragoudistria—the beautiful Nitsa from Smyrna.’

At the very mention of her name, the singer—a sultry young woman in her early twenties—stood up and took a bow. The audience applauded.

‘And on our left we have Mikhaili on the dog-skin drum; Ayvali Apostoli on the violin; and finally, ladies and gentleman, the newest member of our group.’ His voice grew louder. ‘From Constantinople…Kapitanos Vangelis on the laouto.’

The audience clapped wildly. During the first part of the evening the group played a selection of old favorites, interspersed with Neapolitan Cantalides. Nitsa—with her lilting and seductive voice—sat with her legs crossed, tapping out a rhythm with her foot and occasionally shaking a tambourine. She held her admirers spellbound. Every now and again she rose, moved away from the group, and began to dance the Tsifteteli—a slow, sensuous dance in the same rhythm as the belly dance. Clasping her finger cymbals over her head, she moved her hips to the rhythm in a swaying motion. Before long the stage was awash with long-stemmed flowers thrown to her by ardent admirers, each one hoping that she would pick up his flower—a sign that they had not gone unnoticed.

Nitsa was a slip of a woman with a mesmerizing presence. She wore her thick dark hair cropped with a low, full fringe that served to emphasize her seductive eyes. She was dressed in a calf-length ivory satin dress, bordered in beaten silver threadwork that shimmered under the soft lights. Maria was fascinated. Nitsa reminded her of a Hollywood screen goddess—the very ones she had watched in the Theatre de Smyrne next door. She noticed how easily the men succumbed to her charms and vowed that one day, she too would have her name in bright lights and be the object of every man’s desire. That evening would remain etched in her memory for the rest of her life.

With their slicked-back hair, waxed glistening moustaches and freshly manicured fingernails, the musicians had their own share of admirers. Vangelis told Sophia many stories of the near-death fights some of these men found themselves in with many a green-eyed husband. Ayvali Apostoli, a notorious womanizer, was still recovering from a knife wound inflicted upon him by his fiery girlfriend.

Finally the part of the evening that everyone had anticipated began. With the same plaintive cry of Achhh…Aman…Vangelis sang his new composition. Not a soul stirred as he poured forth his heart in the verses that Sophia had heard earlier that afternoon.

 In the mountains of Smyrna

I look for my love.

I wander about and my soul suffers.

Only you can ease this torment.


Bitterness and sorrow are in my eyes.

I waste away because of you.

Have pity on this wretched soul.

Only you can free me from this torment.


 She felt the same shiver run through her spine. His rendition of the words combined with the mastery of his instrument reduced his audience to tears. They gave him a standing ovation. The family shone with pride and none more so than Leonidas.

As the evening progressed, every conceivable space between the tables was filled with dancers. Couples clasped arms around each other and men danced alone, wrapped up in a world of their own. No one wanted the evening to end. Sophia noticed a group of men standing by the door, deep in conversation with the manager. Minutes later he came over and whispered something in Soterios’s ear. His face paled. Sophia and her mother exchanged glances.

‘Please excuse me, my dear,’ he said to Photeini, his voice trembling. ‘I have urgent business. You mustn’t leave on my account. Stay and enjoy yourselves.’

Photeini reached out to touch him. ‘What is it, my husband?’

He could barely find the words to answer her.

‘The Paris Peace talks have broken down. Greece accepts an armistice but the Turkish Nationalists refuse to sign without the assurance of a Greek evacuation of Asia Minor. Time is running out for us.’


 Part 3 Chapter 26

Athens, 1932

Through the smoky haze of the darkened room, Sophia’s eyes fell on the shadowy figure of a man seated on a wooden chair. With his back towards her, he smoked a narghile in front of a burning brazier. A young boy—not much older than nine or ten—crouched on the dirt floor next to him, tending the coals. The man leaned over and whispered something in the boy’s ear. The boy discreetly went out of the room, leaving the pair alone.

Sophia would have recognized those strong muscular shoulders anywhere. After all, she had spent a good few years observing them from the back seat of her car.

‘Hello, Vangelis. It’s been a long time.’

Vangelis did not answer, nor did he turn to face her. She took a step towards him and in a gesture of tenderness, laid her hand on his back.

Sophia’s heart pounded like a drum. ‘Vangelis,’ she said in a low voice. ‘It’s me, Sophia.’

‘Don’t!’ he snapped, getting up and walking away. ‘You shouldn’t have come.’

His tone frightened her. Why wasn’t he pleased to see her? And why wouldn’t he face her? It felt like a bad dream. This dingy room at the back of a small lean-to in the seedy area of Piraeus—a place well known for its hashish dens and whorehouses—was the last place she had expected to find herself. Who was this man, hiding away in the shadows like a frightened animal? Was this the same Vangelis who had looked out for her? The man who had disposed of her enemies in the olive barrels without a second thought? Was this the same man who had cared for her children as if they were his own?

She moved closer towards him. ‘There was a time when you and I were like brother and sister. What happened to—’

He cut her short. ‘You should leave now. The Vangelis you knew died in Smyrna. Remember him as he was.’

‘A part of all of us died in Smyrna, but we carry on…if not for ourselves then for those we left behind.’ Her voice shook with emotion. ‘Look at me…After everything we’ve been through, do you really want me to leave?’

Vangelis turned around. His eyes were lifeless and hooded from years of hashish.

‘How long have you been addicted?’ Sophia asked.

He shrugged. ‘Since I came here…It was the only thing that blocked out the past and eased the pain.’

Sophia collapsed onto the chair. Vangelis sat on the dirt floor opposite her, took a piece of hashish from a little packet that lay warming by the fire and placed it into the cup of the narghile.

‘Ahh,’ he smiled, his eyes beginning to close over. ‘The best stuff is from Bursa; expensive, but worth it.’

Sophia looked on helplessly. Tears ran down her face.

‘Not a pretty sight is it?’ he said, taking another draw.

After a while, he began to unburden himself. ‘As soon as we left La Maison du l’Orient, Anoush went into labor,’ he told her. ‘I thought we were doomed. How could a woman give birth in that crush and live? It was then we heard gunshots and screams in the next street and I knew that the crowd could go no further. With only minutes to spare, I managed to break open a shop door and drag her inside, just in time for the birth. Minutes later soldiers entered the premises. I tried to shield Anoush and the child with my body. I closed my eyes and prayed that the end would be quick. But luck was on our side. A group of American Marines passed by and came to our aid. The next day we made our way to Piraeus. By the time we reached Greece, news of the fire had reached Athens and the city was in mourning. Anoush and the baby were taken into care by the American Women’s Hospital Service. Shortly after, they left for America.’

Sophia told him about their last days in Smyrna. On hearing of her loss he held his head in his hands and wept like a baby.

‘If only we had left earlier,’ he lamented.

Finding no work in Athens and Piraeus, Vangelis had made his way to western Thrace where he worked in the tobacco fields. In the evenings he played the laouto in the camps. One evening while returning from the tobacco fields, he was set upon by bandits. Leaving him for dead, they robbed him of his money and his precious laouto. It took him many months to save enough money to buy another. In the meantime he became enamored with the bouzouki, finding its rich and sharp metallic sound to be far more suitable for the type of music that was becoming popular in the cafes of Athens, Piraeus, and Salonika.

‘In Salonika, I began to make a name for myself again,’ he said, crushing another piece of hashish between his fingers and dropping it into the bowl. ‘Then I met a dark-eyed beauty known as Roxanne—a dancer at the Beau Rivage…Something about her reminded me of Nitsa, a free spirit—owned by no one. How she pierced my heart—like a needle! Aman…What a woman!’

‘What happened to her?’ Sophia asked.

‘A putana, or a hanoumaikia as we called them back in Turkey, belongs to no one. She was found in an alleyway—stabbed to death by a jealous lover…so they say.’

Sophia felt a chill run down her spine and a flash in his eyes told her not to pry.

‘What happened to make you come back to Piraeus?’

‘Ahh,’ he smiled. ‘I was befriended by a group of musicians. After hearing me sing “In the Mountains of Smyrna” they welcomed me into their group. I owe my life to them. It was them who brought me here.’

The two sat in silence for a while, taking in the enormity of what they had just learned. ‘Who is this mysterious Crazy Nick?’ asked Sophia. ‘And why did those men in Kafenion Mikhailis try to warn us away?’

Vangelis looked at her thoughtfully. ‘That man who brought you here…’

‘You mean he’s Crazy Nick?’

‘None other…He took a great risk in doing that.’ He fished in his trouser pocket and pulled out her business card.

Sophia Laskaris

Haute Couture

48 Mitropoleos Str. Athens

‘That’s a very impressive address, Sophia. Only a wanted man with the police in his pay would wait outside such a place in broad daylight.’ He winked at her.

Sophia reached out and took his hand. ‘Well, we have him to thank for bringing us together again, don’t we?’


 Buy The Embroiderer

The Embroiderer The Embroiderer is a beautifully written novel spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, set against the backdrop of the Greek War of    Independence. It was published on 5th November 2014 and is available to buy in paperback and as an ebook.

You can order from all good bookshops and online retailers.

Purchase directly from the publisher here:

Published by SilverWood Books Ltd.

Cornucopia Cornucopia is the award-winning magazine for connoisseurs of Turkey.
 The Embroiderer can also now be purchased from the Cornucopia web site.

Cornucopia: Turkey for Connoisseurs