The name Rebétika refers to melancholic songs from the first half of the twentieth century. These songs were part of the musical tradition of the East. As a socio-cultural phenomenon, Rebétika songs are compared to the American Blues (that is why they are often referred to as the Greek Blues) to which Flamenco, the Tango and the Fado also belong . At a certain point, Rebétika became passé, but in 1970 its popularity was revived. Rebétika has now regained its place within the Greek music culture and is kept alive by artists who sing these traditional songs and by composers who create new repertoires.
Rebétika originates from Greek harbour communities and from Athens around the 1900s. This music was mostly played in tekés (cafés where people smoked hash even though this was banned at the time) and in prison. The songs were sung by the tekés owners or played and sung by semi-amateur musicians who happened to be the company referred to in palio-paréa and were sometimes comprised of one couplet or mingled string of couplets, in which the chorus consisted in repeating the previous lyrics.
The composers and lyrics writers were generally unknown, and the songs were called adhéspota , ‘ownerless' songs (in other words, gypsy songs or would-be traditional music). The music was played on guitar, bouzouki and baglamas . The baglamas is shaped like a small bouzouki and its popularity was attributed to the fact that you could easily hide it under your coat. Because of the ambience where this type of music was played, anyone who was seen in public holding a bouzouki or a baglamas was immediately under suspicion by the police.
Besides the previously mentioned tekés Rebétika , there was another important tradition, which helped develop this genre: the Café Amán style Rebétika , which is also known as the Smyrnaic tradition. Its name originates from the city of Smyrna , the present-day Izmir in Turkey , where a large Greek community used to live. The violin and accordion became more important at this time, and the ensembles were more professional. At a certain point, Smyrna musicians began to play tekés songs. The first recordings were made in this style of Rebétika music. This is why, until 1933, the only Rebétika songs that survived were recorded in the Smyrna tradition.
Although people on the mainland of Greece were somewhat familiar with the Smyrna tradition, things changed after the Asia Minor “catastrophe” and the resulting flux of refugees (ethnic cleansing) because many musicians also migrated. Large numbers of refugees ended up in shanty-towns outside large cities. This produced a link between the existing down-and-outs and the newly arrived poor of the cities among whom, in the first years, the Smyrna tradition dominated. Well-known artists from this period are the female singers Róza Eskenázy and Ríta Abatzí and the male singers Andónis Dalkás , Stellákis Perpiniádis and Kóstas Roúkounas.
It was not until after a gramophone recording had been made in 1932 that the bouzouki became so popular to a wide audience. This was through a recording made in America , the country to which, decades earlier, thousands of Greeks had emigrated. This success made the recording companies in Greece realize that they should search for musical talent in their own country. They came across Márkos Vamkáris from Piraeus who was an excellent interpreter of the tekés style. His first record became so popular that, in 1934, he decided to start a bouzouki ensemble, with whom he later performed in a ‘bouzouki taverna '. Both these activities were previously unheard of. After a short period, the Smyrna style was surpassed by Vamkáris ' Piraeus style and by other bouzouki celebrities, such as Strátos Payioumitzís , Anéstos Deliás , Stélios Keromítis , Michális Yenítsaris (who is still performing) and Yánnis Pappaioánnou . The role of the Smyrna tradition became greatly diminished after the Second World War.
From Rebétika to laíka
By the end of the thirties, another celebrity called Vasílis Tsitsánis appeared. Particularly in the forties, he would greatly influence the expansion of the Rebétika genre, making this music popular with a broader public. This popularity was partially boosted by the censorship exercised by the Metaxas dictatorship after 1936, which made it more difficult to sing in public about hash and criticize the regime. These developments continued after the war and resulted in a breakthrough with the general public. Many songs became immensely popular and even today many Greeks sing these songs with an enormous amount of devotion.
Rebétika music experienced a revival around 1970, and living bouzouki legends from the thirties and forties nobody had heard from in the past years were suddenly asked to play again.