Sunday, January 25, 2009

Opa at the Stoa Athanaton: Rembetiko from Guest-Blogger Hüseyin

This weekend we finally got out of the house, in an effort to appreciate something in Athens not of the ancient variety. We decided to attend the Stoa Athanaton ('Arcade of the Immortals'), to here some rembetiko, a traditional form of Greek music.

The place was full, a sit-down club on the second floor, a soaring roof of wooden rafters, black and white pictures of past rembetiko groups adorning the walls. The band was already playing when arrived at our table. Reservations were made in advance, and we were warned that the night would be extraordinarily pricey.

Throughout the night, vocalists would join the group, sing for a bit, trade spots with others. There was a great animated female vocalist who impressed, but none could surpass this dude (who you can see in the links below):

The place was packed tight, smokey and energetic. As one apt description notes,"Old-timers with cigars shower musicians with flowers, and, when the mood strikes, dance to gritty songs of heartbreak." Once the whiskey and wine were flowing, the crowd belted out the songs and took a turn on the dance floor, everyone from macho young males to white-haired old ladies.

What is rembetiko? Here's 'guest-blogger' Hüseyin Çınar Öztürk to tell you. (This comes from an email he sent to all who would be in attendance, minus the bad words and cut down and adjusted significantly from the original length. Feel free to skip down to the links to get an idea of what we heard.)

"I write this to inform you about this rebetiko (pl. rebetika) business. Actually, even the pronunciation of the word is not certain, rembetiko would go as well. The etymology of the word is not known, Greeks think that it should be Turkish, but it is not certain. Anyways, a little history: In İzmir - Smyrna, during the first decades of the 20th century, a certain type of urban folk music was born. It was played and sung by Smyrniote Greek in the so called "café aman"s, and was a mixture of Anatolian scales, rhythms, and western influence (Izmir, at the time, was a huge harbour and many Italians and French tradesmen lived there - the so called Levantains). Then, the rebetiko instrument par excellence, which is called buzuki, was not invented yet; and local Near Eastern instruments like oud, kanoun, kemenche, and the like were used alongside guitar and violin. (This very early Anatolian phase of rebetiko songs is now called Smyrnaika, and are considerably different than the Piraean style, see below). -The melodies and the rythms were quintessentially Anatolian, which break the general minor-major western scales, and many classical Ottoman makams (scales) were used. (note for all: Classical Ottoman music was itself a combination of byzantine church music and near eastern music).

-The rythms were also pretty Anatolian, instead of your typically Westener 4/4, the most used rythm is 9/8; 11/8 or 7/8 were also not uncommon. You will hear these rythms many times tomorrow night. And that's why Europeans cannot dance to this music, because their ears are so used to 4/4 or 6/4.Enough theory. This early stage of İzmir rebetiko was a lower class urban music, although it incorporated rural folk melodies and rhythms of West Anatolia as well: the Zeybek (a Zeybek was a local Anatolian bandit, and that style is now called in Greece Zeimbekika).Then, a strange thing happened. After the 1st world war, and the Turkish war of indepence (which, in Greece, is called the Asia Minor Catastrophe [note the similarity: the Greek War of Indepence from Ottomans is called in Turkey "the Greek Rebellion"; well, let's blame the French Revolution for all nationalistic movements, as an easy way out]), Venizelos and Kemal Atatürk decided that a population exchange was the only way to prevent further complications. As a result all Greeks of Anatolia were transferred to Greece, and all Turks from Greece came to Asia Minor (exceptions being Greeks of Istanbul, and Turks of Western Thrace). Hence, approximately 2 million Greeks and 1.2 million Turks became poor immigrants. Note that many Greeks from inner Anatolia did not even know Greek, and many Turks from the islands did not know Turkish at all, tough times for everyone.

Anyway, back to music: The Greeks from Western Anatolia settled in Piraeus; and the second stage of rebetiko started. Soon after their arrival, the instrument buzuki was invented. The Anatolian Greeks were using Anatolian saz or baglama (tuned to "bozuk"[broken or out of order] tuning); and in Greece they could not find any. So the instrument which you will hear tomorrow was created in Athens in early 20s. In Piraeus, accordion and flute also became a part of the tradition (flute soon died). Since they became very poor immigrants in Greece, the lyrics also changed accordingly, prostitution, drugs, street fights, and lower class struggles became favourite themes. Buzuki has a very distinctive sound, and so the sound of the music changed considerably; however, Anatolian scales and rhythms continued. Even now, if you buy a rebetiko songbook, you would see Ottoman makam names like Saba, Ussak, Rast, etc. instead of A minor. On the other hand, the major scale started to get used pretty often.Under the Metaxas regime, for some time, rebetiko was banned in Greece, for it was considered "turkish". In the 40s, composers coming from the other parts of Greece, like Tsitsanis from Thesalloniki, adopted the style; and rebetiko became very popular. In late 50s and 60s, rebetiko also influenced the Greek singer-songwriter tradition deeply; and in the songs of laika singers like Kazancidis (in Turkish, "the cauldron maker"), or later Dalaras, you can still hear rebetiko influences.The Greeks who migrated to America and Australia from Athens/Piraeus in the 30s composed many rebetika as well; and it would be fair to say that, after Athens/Piraeus, Melbourne and Chicago are pretty strong centres of this genre.

A very important note: Greek folk music is very diverse. So in Thrace, you would hear Balkan rhythms and melodies, in the islands it's a whole different ball game; and the cheesy popular Greek music has nothing to do with the real Piraean rebetiko (do not confuse Britney Spears with Muddy Waters). With rebetiko, you would dance zeimpek (zeybek) which is a solo dance. Another important note: In the Near Eastern/Anatolian tradition, there is a musical form, which is called GAZEL (or "uzun hava" - long breath). It is basically a vocal improvisation upon a repeating instrumental motif. The word Aman (Help! in Arabic) is used very often, and that's why this form is called "amane" in Greek. Usually it is used as an introduction or as the middle part of a relatively slow, sad song. (remember that the rebetiko taverns were called "café aman"s in Smyrna). So, if one of the singers starts shouting "aman" tomorrow, don't be surprised, it happens pretty rarely in taverns though.)
Now the links: A song composed by the great Vamvakaris - one of the 1st generation Piraean composers. 'Oli I Rebetes tou Dounia': Classic. Another great song, great singer. By the way, you will see this moustached guy tomorrow night, he'll be singing at the tavern. Now, probably, 70-something. The moustache is still that impressive. However, I adore the "sad" use of the major scale, see right here. Sinefiasmeni Kiriaki: Cloudy Sunday. D Major scale, yes. But, it could not be more touching. About the Nazi invasion of Greece. The most famous composition of Tsitsanis."

Thank you for that, Hüseyin.


Anonymous said...

Now, this is living in Greece.

Ben said...

I'm into it.