Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Remnants of Rembetika

Turks and Greeks have warred with each other for millenia... Many battles were fought and lands occupied back and forth, but WWI finally brought an end to the Turkish Ottoman Empire's clear domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Believing that the Allies would provide support, a large Greek army invaded Western Turkey in 1922, but Kemal Ataturk (soon to be dictator/president and so-called "father" of modern Turkey) and his forces drove them back, along with hundreds of thousands of fleeing resident Greeks who'd lived there in relative peace prior to the incursion, the two rich cultures having intermingled significantly. But thousands of Turkish Greeks were massacred--though not on the scale of the (still denied today) genocidal killing of Armenians in Eastern Turkey some years earlier. The surviving Greeks fled to the region stretching from Athens back to the sea, which was soon housing maybe a million refugees as a result of the ethnic/religious settlement treaty which decreed that Orthodox Greeks had to vacate Turkey while Muslims and/or Turks had to leave Greek territory.

And that series of brutal actions is memorialized, right at the epicenter, in the Turkish port of Izmir (likely more familiar in its original Greek name Smyrna) where a grand harborside statue poses Ataturk heroically atop his horse, pointing west, driving all Greeks before him.

In the summer of 1956, on the day we Leimbachers arrived in Izmir/Smyrna scheduled to live there for two years, the U.S. military officer who met my family as welcoming chaffeur made us kids avert our eyes as we drove by one sunny wall where (I was told later) the bodies of two dead Greeks were hanging!

Yet, as we came to learn, in the usual complex way of Asia Minor and the old Mediterranean Near East (think Lebanon), Greeks and Turks continued to live in some places side by side, albeit uncomfortably, even while their national governments refused to talk to each other and the divided island of Cypress remained a smoldering powderkeg. Izmir was the home of SEATO (NATO in Southeast Europe and Asia Minor), and I recall at least one Greek army officer assigned there. Although the number of resident Greeks left in Western Turkey--along the Aegean coast so close to the Greek Islands--must have been small, some Greek influences remained in the food and architecture and clothing and, the point of this story, even the Smyrnaic music.

Originally the tunes played by those Greeks living in Constantinople (Istanbul) and southward before WWI sounded quite oriental, played on violin and accordion and lute-like stringed instruments--the lengthy instrumental intros (taximi) and keening songs sometimes accompanying tsifteteli dancing (familiar oriental belly-dancing, seen for example in the James Bond movie From Russia with Love). This elegant soundtrack for the cafes and coffeehouses--a music of sadness and erotic longing and lamentations for lost homelands (often sung in Turkish)--was considered (looking back later, anyway) as being in "the Smyrna style," and it was carried west through the islands to mainland Greece by those displaced residents. Some referred to it as rembetika (the "mb" combination without much "m"), an unknown word evidently of Turkish origin.

But there the style of the rembetis musicians collided with rougher music already being played in tavernas and underground drug dens (known as tekedhes)-- and from the 1920's on, a remarkable rocking, grumbled, quasi-blues music developed, a rowdier rembetika that held sway in the hashish hangouts and jails and underworld dives to be found from Western Turkey on up the coast and around as far as Salonika and back down into Athens and, especially, in the grubby port of Piraeus.

For nearly 40 years then (until government censorship interfered), thousands of 78s were recorded and released, in cities from Istanbul to Athens and on to New York, celebrating the rembetika sound and lifestyle--featuring lyrics immortalizing thieves and prostitutes, fat policemen and emaciated prisoners, knife-toting men (petty criminals known as mangas) and grieving women, alcohol abuse and drug dependence, and all performed on Eastern Mediterranean instruments as typical as the baglama (tiny lute), santour zither, and bouzouki (the dominant instrument after the mid-Thirties) and as rare as the stringed saz and oud, with the performances usually incorporating jazzy improvised passages.

A haunting example of the rarer, earlier rembetika is "The Song of Exile," recorded in the mid-Thirties by yearning emigre Efstratios Payioumidzis--or the strikingly beautiful instrumental titled "Halkias's Minore." But the tougher mangas style filled disc after disc after disc. One landmark underworld song was "The Junkie's Complaint," written and sung in 1934 by the already-dying young man known as Artemis:

From the time I started to smoke the dose
The world has turned its back on me, I don't know what to do.
Wherever I stay, wherever I go, people bother me
And I can't keep my soul together--it cries out for a fix.
From sniffing it up I went on to the needle
And my body slowly began to melt.
Nothing was left for me to do in this world
Because the drugs have led me to die in the steets.

But ordinarily such griping was subdued, even comical, and the commentary subtler, as the manges reveled in their doper lives; this merry piece (by Batis) namechecks some of the major musicians lazily smoking a water-pipe:

Secretly, in a boat I went
And came out at Drakou's cave,
I saw three men who were all quite high
Stretched out on the sand.
It was Batis and Artemis
And Stratos the Lazy One:
Hey, you Strato! Yes, you Strato,
Fix us a fine narghile.
So old Batis can smoke
Who's been a dervish for years
And Artemis too
Who brings us stuff wherever he goes.
He sends us hashish from Constantinople
And all of us get high;
And fine Persian tobacco.
The mangas smoke it in peace.

A song by Tsitsanis strikes the more typical balance:

Such youth and goodness
The black earth will eat.
That's why I enjoy my life now
And come what may.
I live it up in the tavernas
And so get rid of sorrow.
In this false world
We're just passers-by.
Before we know it we've lived our life
And hurried through it.
I put everything behind me
And now I live the Bohemian life.
When I've got it I spend it
And keep nothing in reserve.

Even in Izmir in the Fifties I could still hear some of those exotic sounds drifting from open windows and coffeehouse doorways, and I can remember stopping in the street to listen. But I never thought much about any of it... and the family moved on, and I forgot about the strange music... until 20 years had passed, and a mail-order import-records company I was buying LPs from (DownHome Music) began carrying records straight from Greece documenting the rembetika era and underworld mangas style, much like the reissue labels dedicated to American blues of the Twenties and Thirties. The catalog descriptions were tantalizing, and I ordered a half dozen albums and a small book (Road to Rembetika by Gail Holst) and began learning about these "songs of love, sorrow & hashish"--and even revisiting a few forgotten memories.

Soon I could recognize the rembetis masters--female vocalists Sotiria Bellou, Roza Askenazi, and Rita Abadzi (the music's Billie Holiday figures), basso-voiced bouzouki powerhouse Markos Vamvakaris (think Howlin' Wolf), other bouzouki and baglama whizzes such as Stratos (Payioumidzis), Yiorgos Batis, and Vassilis Tsitsanis--all three mentioned above. But there were scores more who remained mysterious names only; and the flurry of U.S. interest that had briefly opened a door for me and others proved sadly short-lived, over by 1980 or so.

The revival waxed and waned back in Greece too, and it wasn't until computers and the Internet significantly shrank the world and knocked down old cultural barriers that rembetika resurfaced beyond Europe. Lo and behold, suddenly one could find CDs galore, and most importantly a four-CD box from JSP Records. Released in 2006, Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underground proved so successful that a second box set was issued this year. Both are available cheaply through Amazon's sub-sellers, so anyone with the slightest curiosity can easily test the waters now... revisit the tekedhes, so to speak.

But it will always bother me that in the mid-Fifties I was living right at the center of the Smyrna style and the historical beginnings of rembetika, but--an ignorant young teen--wasted that rare opportunity to experience some major research in ethnomusicology, not to mention exotic and downright daring fun.

Oh well, light up that narghile and press Play.


elkibra said...

Very nice post!
If you are more interested of rebetikas deeper bottom I´m inviting you to my blog

If you understand Greek there are more which you can find through typing the word elkibra in Google.

Best regards
Kostas Ladopoulos (elkibra)

I Witness said...

Thanks for the kind words and useful information. I'll be reading you!