"Come back here when you've learned to sin"-paraphrase of Sam Phillips to Johnny Cash, 1950s.
When you're down and out and in the darkest recesses of alcohol-induced torpor, you'd do worse than to discover rembetika. What is rembetika, you ask? A short and highly simplified definition: A south Aegean genre that probably originated in the Ionian cities and Constantinople. It arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and blossomed in the Piraeus after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-23 and the Population Exchange of 1923. Musically, rembetika is an eastern Mediterranean phenomenon that I'm not technically knowledgeable enough to comment on. Lyrically, topics included love (and loss thereof), drugs, crime, and the dissolute lifestyle any reasonable person would have lived at the time, given the conditions (in Turkey, a terminally decaying Ottoman Empire and mutual atrocities after World War I culminating in this, and in Greece the Venizelos and Metaxas dictatorships, followed by a horrific Nazi occupation). The men and women that made rembetika lived fast, died young, and most of them only recorded 2 or 3 songs, at most, before vanishing in a haze of nargila and ouzo. That's a worse record than American blues musicians.
Speaking of which, if you love the American blues, these folks in the Aegean littoral were on the same page as Charley Patton and Skip James, at the same time. They were just getting wasted on hash and raki melo instead of whiskey and weed. The music, structurally, isn't similar. But the fierce joy in the face of suffering is. It's the sort of attitude that says to the world, "Yeah. You suck, you dealt me a shit hand. But so what? Life is beautiful, and I'm going to have as much fun as I can while I'm here, so pass the booze!"
Antonis Kostis (Αντώνης Κωστής) -a pseudonym for Kostis Vezos (Κωστής Βέζος) -was one of the baddest muthafuckas of this genre as far as I'm concerned. He recorded a handful of songs in the 1920s and '30s, including some Hawaiian slide guitar cuts that aren't as trite as you'd think. He died in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Greece. Check out his music.
I first heard examples of rembetika when I was much younger and didn't come 'round to it until recently, after a lot of disgusting living. Maybe the listening experience is different if you're Greek, but for me, these are songs of experience, in Blake's words. It's hard to like this music if you haven't lived in the world long enough to get dirty, shameful, filthy, sinful, and still come up loving life no matter what it throws in your face.
CHECK IT OUT. I cobbled together this mix from various rembetika compilations. The most comprehensive collection is, undoubtedly, the Greek Music from the Underworld series. A fantastic single-volume introduction is the Cafe Rembetika LP. Mississippi Records' Bed of Pain compilation is, of course, out of print, but they also released a discography of Marika Papagika's recorded output, which you can buy here.
1. Νίκος Πουρπουράkης-The Offenders
2. Α. Κωστής -Τουμβελεkή
3. Στρατός Ραγιουμτζής -Minor Key Song from the Taverna
4. Σταυροσ Ρεμουνδχος -Μάνες Χιτζασκιάρ Πιρεοτικός
5. Ανεσθης Δαλγας -Καροτσιέρης (The Coachman)
6. Στεφαναυα Γ. Πενχεβυα-Σελσκα Ρατσχεντιτζα
7. Στελλάκης Περπινιαδχης-Μάγγες, Μου Συμοφορθίτε!
8. Ρόσα Εσκενάζι - in the Taverna with the "Laterna"
9. Cavadhias Popular Orchestra-Karsilamas Tekirdag
10. Γιοργιοσ Κατσαρός-[untitled]
11. Εφ. Ραγιουμιδζης-Σφουγγαραδχες ("The Sponge Divers")
12. Κ. Ρουκούνας -Μη Μου Λες βος Δεν Με Θελήσ ("Don't Say that You Don't Want me")
13. Ρένα Στάμου-Bed of Pain
14. Γιώργιος Τράkης-Τα μάγια στο πηγάδι
Greek-speaking/-reading readers, please let me know if I've made any glaring errors in this post. I did the best I could with transliterating the song titles and performers' names; if any of you can help me, get in touch.
I know that the last track, by Giorgios Trakis, isn't rembetika, strictly speaking, but it's beautiful and deserves a wider audience.