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Rebetiko, plural rebetika, (Greek ρεμπέτικο and ρεμπέτικα respectively), occasionally transliterated as Rembetiko, is a term used today to designate originally disparate kinds of urban Greek folk music which have come to be grouped together since the so-called rebetika revival, which started in the 1960s and developed further from the early 1970s onwards (see below).[1] The genre embodies a synthesis, in varying proportions, of elements of European music, the folk music of mainland Greece and the Greek islands, Greek ecclesiastical music, and the modal traditions of Ottoman music.[2]

Like several other urban subcultural musical forms such as the blues, fado, and tango, it grew out of particular urban circumstances, and its lyrics often reflected the harsh realities of an oppressed subculture's lifestyle. Thus one finds themes such as poverty, alienation, crime, violence, drink, drugs, and prostitution, but also a multitude of themes of relevance to people of any social stratum, such as love, matchmaking, the mother figure, death, exile, army life, war, exotica, work, illness, and divers other everyday matters, both happy and sad.

A perhaps over-emphasised theme of rebetiko is the pleasure of using drugs, especially hashish.[3] Rebetiko songs emphasising such matters have come to be called hasiklidika (gr. χασικλίδικα).[4][5][6], although musically speaking they do not differ from the main body of rebetiko songs in any particular way[7].

Initially a music associated with the lower classes, rebetiko later reached greater general acceptance as the rough edges of its overt subcultural character were softened and polished, sometimes to the point of unrecognisability. Then, when the original form was almost forgotten, and its original protagonists either dead, or in some cases almost consigned to oblivion, it became, from the 1960s onwards, a revived musical form of wide popularity, especially among younger people of the time.

Most rebetiko songs are based on traditional Greek or Anatolian dance rhythms. Most common are the zeibekiko in its various forms, the hasapiko, and the serviko, while the tsifteteli, the karsilamas, and the syrtos are fairly common; other rhythms are used very occasionally.

The word "rebetiko/rebetika" is generally assumed to be an adjectival form derived from the Greek word "rebetis" (plural: rebetes). The word is closely related, but not identical in meaning, to the word "mangas" (plural: manges). The etymology of the word "rebetis" remains the subject of dispute and uncertainty; an early scholar of rebetiko, Elias Petropoulos, and the modern Greek lexicographer G. Babiniotis, both offer various suggested derivations, but leave the question open.[8][9]



The origins of rebetiko were probably to be found in the music of the larger Greek cities, most of them coastal, in today's Greece and Asia Minor. In these cities the cradles of rebetiko were likely to be the taverna, the ouzeri, the hashish den, and the prison. In view of the paucity of documentation prior to the era of sound recordings it is difficult to assert further facts on the very early history of this music.

Although Petropoulos, for example, divides the history of the style into three periods,[10]:

  • 1922–1932 — the era when rebetiko emerged from its roots with the mixture of elements from the music of Asia Minor and mainland Greece
  • 1932–1942 — the classical period
  • 1942–1952 — the era of discovery, spread, and acceptance.

this division, though useful as a rough guide, is slightly misleading as it excludes not only the unknowable pre-sound recording era, but the relatively few, but no less significant, recordings made during the first two decades of the 20th century. In the wake of the population exchange of 1923, huge numbers of refugees settled in Piraeus, Thessaloniki and other harbour cities. They brought with them both European and Ottoman musical elements and musical instruments, particularly Ottoman café music, but also, and often neglected in such accounts, a somewhat Italianate style with mandolins and choral singing in parallel thirds and sixths.

During the decade which followed, these relatively sophisticated musical styles met with, and cross-fertilised, the more heavy-hitting local urban styles exemplified by the earliest recordings of Vamvakaris and Batis.[11][12]

This historical process has led to a currently used terminology intended to distinguish between the clearly Asia Minor oriental style, often called "Smyrneïka", and the bouzouki-based style of the 1930s, often called Piraeus style. The term "Smyrneïka" is slightly misleading, as it is used to refer to the urban Ottoman-Greek café music styles not only of Smyrna but of Constantinople/Istanbul and other cities, and even to USA recordings by artists with no connection to Smyrna.

The Bouzouki

Gradually, rebetiko music acquired its own character, and during the second half of the 1930s the bouzouki began to emerge as the emblematic instrument of this music, gradually ousting the instruments which had been brought over from Asia Minor.

Although well-known in this context from at least the turn of the century, and often referred to in song lyrics before it was allowed into the recording studio, the bouzouki was first commercially recorded not in Greece, but in America, in 1926.[13] The first recording to feature the instrument clearly in a melodic role, was made in 1929, in New York.[14] Three years later the first true bouzouki solo was recorded by Ioannis Halikias, also in New York, in January 1932.[15]

In Greece the bouzouki had been allowed into a studio for the very first time a few months previously, in October 1931. In the hands of Yiorgios Manetas, together with the tsimbalo player Yiannis Livadhitis, it can be heard accompanying the singers Konstantinos Masselos, aka Nouros, and Spahanis, on two discs, three songs in all.[16] However, it was a whole year later, in October 1932, in the wake of the success of Halikias' New York recording, which immediately met with great success in Greece, that Markos Vamvakaris made his first recordings with the bouzouki. These recordings marked the real beginning of the bouzouki's recorded career in Greece, a career which continues unbroken to the present day.


In 1936, the 4th of August Regime under Ioannis Metaxas was established and with it, the onset of censorship. Some of the subject matter of rebetiko songs was now considered disreputable and unacceptable. During this period, when the Metaxas dictatorship subjected all song lyrics to censorship, song composers would rewrite lyrics, or practise self-censorship before submitting lyrics for approval. The music itself was not subject to censorship, although proclamations were made recommending the "europeanisation" of Turkish music, which led to certain radio stations banning "amanedes" in 1938, i.e. on the basis of music rather than lyrics. This was, however, not bouzouki music. The term amanedes, (sing. amanes, gr. αμανέδες, sing. αμανές) refers to a kind of improvised sung lament, in ummeasured time, sung in a particular dromos/makam. The amanedes were perhaps the most pointedly oriental kind of songs in the Greek repertoire of the time. [17][18]

References to drugs and other criminal or disreputable activities now vanished from recordings made in Greek studios, to reappear briefly in the first recordings made at the resumption of recording activity in 1946.[19] In the USA, however, a flourishing Greek musical production continued, with song lyrics apparently unaffected by censorship, (see below) although, strangely, the bouzouki continued to be rare on USA recordings until after WWII.[20]

The Postwar Period

Recording activities ceased during the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II (1941-1944), and did not resume until 1946.

With the resumption of recording activities in Greece in 1946, Vassilis Tsitsanis became a leading personality in postwar rebetiko music. His musical career had started in 1936, and continued during the war despite the occupation. He was both a brilliant bouzouki player and a prolific composer, with hundreds of songs to his credit. After the war he continued to develop his style in new directions, and under his wing, singers such as Sotiria Bellou, Stella Haskil, Marika Ninou and Prodromos Tsaousakis made their appearance.

Parallel to the post-war career of Tsitsanis, the career of Manolis Hiotis took Greek popular music in more radically new directions. Hiotis was a bold innovator, importing South American rhythms such as the mambo, and concentrating on songs in a decidedly lighter vein than the characteristic ambiance of rebetiko songs. Perhaps most significantly of all, Hiotis, himself a virtuoso not only on the bouzouki but on guitar, violin and outi, (oud), was responsible for introducing and popularising the modified 4-course bouzouki (tetrahordho) in 1956. [21] Hiotis was already a seemingly fully-fledged virtuoso on the traditional 3-course instrument by his teens, but the guitar-based tuning of his new instrument, in combination with his playful delight in extreme virtuosity, led to new concepts of bouzouki playing which came to define the style used in laïki mousiki and other forms of bouzouki music which could no longer really be called rebetiko in any sense.

This contributed, during the 1950s, to the almost total eclipse of rebetiko by other popular styles. In fact, somewhat confusingly, from at least the 1950s, during which period rebetiko songs were not usually referred to as a separate musical category, but more specifically on the basis of lyrics, the term "laïki mousiki" (gr. λαϊκή μουσική), or "laïka", (gr. λαϊκα) covered a broad category of Greek popular music, including songs with bouzouki, and songs that today would without doubt be classified as rebetiko. The term in its turn derives from the word laos (gr. λάος) which translates best as "the people".

The Revival of Rebetiko

The first phase of the rebetiko revival can perhaps be said to have begun around 1960. In that year the singer Grigoris Bithikotsis recorded a number of songs by Markos Vamvakaris, and Vamvakaris himself made his first recording since 1954. During the same period, writers such as Elias Petropoulos began researching and publishing their earliest attempts to write on rebetiko as a subject in itself.[22] The bouzouki, unquestioned as the basic musical instrument of rebetiko music, now began to make inroads into other areas of Greek music, not least due to the virtuosity of Manolis Hiotis. From 1960 onwards prominent Greek composers such as Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis employed bouzouki virtuosi such as Manolis Hiotis, Giorgios Zambetas and Thanassis Polyhandriotis in their recordings.

The next phase of the rebetiko revival can be said to have started in the beginning of the 1970s, when LP reissues of 78 rpm recordings, both anthologies and records devoted to individual artists, began to appear in larger numbers. This phase of the revival was initially, and is still to a large extent, characterised by a desire to recapture the style of the original recordings, whereas the first phase tended to present old songs in the current musical idiom of Greek popular music, laïki mousiki. It was during the 1970s that the first work which aimed at popularising rebetiko outside the Greek language sphere appeared [23] and the first English-language academic work was completed.[24]

During the 1970s a number of older artists made new recordings of the older repertoire, accompanied by bouzouki players of a younger generation. Giorgios Mouflouzelis, for example, recorded a number of LPs, though he had never recorded during his youth in the 78 rpm era. The most significant contribution in this respect was perhaps a series of LPs recorded by the singer Sotiria Bellou, who had had a fairly successful career from 1947 onwards, initially under the wing of Tsitsanis. These newer recordings were instrumental in bringing rebetiko to the ears of many who were unfamiliar with the recordings of the 78 pm era, and are still available today as CDs.

An important aspect of the revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s was the element of protest, resistance and revolt against the military dictatorship of the junta years. This was perhaps because rebetiko lyrics, although seldom directly political, were easily construed as subversive by the nature of their subject matter and their association in popular memory with previous periods of conflict.

Today, rebetiko songs are still popular in Greece, both in contemporary interpretations which make no attempt to be other than contemporary in style, and in interpretations aspiring to emulate the 'old' styles. The genre is a subject of growing international research, and its popularity outside Greece is now well-established.

Rebetiko in the United States

Greek emigration to the USA started in earnest towards the end of the 19th century.[25] From then onwards, and in the years following the Asia Minor Disaster, until immigration became restricted in the mid-1920s, a great number of Greeks emigrated to the USA, bringing their musical traditions with them. American companies began recording Greek music performed by these immigrants as early as 1896.[26] The first Greek-American recording enterprises made their appearance in 1919. From the latter years of the second decade of the century there exist a number of recordings that can be considered as rebetiko, a few years before such songs began to appear on recordings in Greece.

The music industry in the USA came to play a particular role from the mid-1930s onwards in recording rebetiko lyrics which would not have passed the censors in Greece. This phenomenon came to repeat itself during the period of the Greek military junta of 1967–1974. A notable example of American recording studios permitting some 'bolder' lyrics can be found in the LP "Otan Kapnizei O Loulas", ie "When They Smoke The Hookah", released in 1973. Releasing this album in Greece, with to its overt references to various aspects of drug use, would have been impossible at that time. It is worth noting, however, that the censorship laws invoked in Greece by Metaxas were never officially revoked until 1981, seven years after the fall of the junta.[27] A further characteristic of American Greek recordings of the time was the continued recordings of songs in the Anatolian musical styles of rebetiko, which continued to be recorded in the USA well into the 1950s. Even songs originally recorded with typical bouzouki-baglamas-guitar accompaniment could appear in Anatolian garments.

After WWII, beginning in the early 1950s, many Greek rebetiko musicians and singers travelled from Greece to tour the USA, and some stayed for longer periods. Prominent among them were Ioannis Papaioannou, Manolis Hiotis, Vassilis Tsitsanis, Iordanis Tsomidis, Roza Eskenazi, Stratos Pagioumdzis, Stavros Tzouanakos and Ioannis Tatasopoulos, of whom the latter three died in the USA.


A bouzouki, the main instrument of rebetiko

The core instruments of rebetiko, from the mid-1930s onwards, have been the bouzouki, the baglamas and the guitar. Additional instruments at various times have included tzouras, mandolin, mandola, laouto, oud, kanonaki, santouri, tsimbalo, or cimbalom, tambourine, violin, cello, accordion, piano, Cretan lyra, Politiki (Constantinople) lyra, and finger-cymbals.[28] In some older recordings, the sound of clinking glass may be heard. This sound is produced by drawing worry beads (komboloi) against a fluted drinking glass, originally an ad hoc and supremely effective rhythmic instrument, probably characteristic of teké and taverna milieux, and subsequently adopted in the recording studios.

See also


Much rebetiko is issued in Greece on CDs which quickly go out of print. Since the 1990s a considerable number of high quality CD productions of historical rebetiko have been released by various European and American labels. The following select discography includes some of these historical anthologies, which are likely to be available in English speaking countries, plus a few Greek issues. All are CDs unless otherwise noted. The emphasis on English-language releases in this discography is motivated both by their consistently high sound quality and by their inclusion, in many cases, of copious information in English, which tends to be lacking in Greek issues. See however link section below for one Greek source of historic CDs with website and notes in English.

  • About Indian Cannabis 1928 - 1946 The Greek Archives, 2001
  • Great Voices of Constantinople 1927-1933, Rounder Records, 1997.
  • Greek-Oriental Rebetica-Songs & Dances in the Asia Minor Style:The Golden Years, Arhoolie Records, 1991.
  • Marika Papagika - Greek Popular and Rebetic Music in New York 1918-1929, Alma Criolla Records, 1994.
  • Markos Vamvakaris, Bouzouki Pioneer, 1932-1940, Rounder Records, 1998.
  • Mortika - Rare Vintage Recordings from a Greek Underworld, ARKO records, Uppsala, 2005. CD and book, also issued as 2LP box by Mississippi Records, 2009.
  • Mourmourika: Songs of the Greek Underworld, Rounder Records, 1999.
  • My Only Consolation: Classic Pireotic Rembetica 1932-1946, Rounder Records, 1999.
  • Rembetica: Historic Urban Folk Songs From Greece, Rounder Records, 1992.
  • Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underground, JSP Records, 2006.
  • Rembetika 2: More of the Secret History of Greece's Underground Music, JSP Records, 2008.
  • Rebetiki Istoria, EMIAL-Lambropoulos, Athens 1975-76 - LP series in six volumes, later also issued on cassettes and CDs.
  • Roza Eskenazi - Rembetissa, Rounder Records, 1996.
  • The Rough Guide to Rebetika, World Music Network, 2004.
  • Vassilis Tsitsanis - All the pre-war recordings, 1936-1940 (5CD), JSP Records, 2008.
  • Vassilis Tsitsanis - The Postwar Years 1946-1954, (4CD), JSP Records, 2009.
  • Women of Rembetica, Rounder Records, 2000.


  1. ^ Klein, Tony, Mortika - Rare Vintage Recordings from a Greek Underworld, Uppsala 2005
  2. ^ Pennanen, Risto Pekka, Westernisation and Modernisation in Greek Popular Music Doctoral thesis, Acta Universitatis Tamperensis 692, 1999.
  3. ^ A database search in the comprehensive Greek 78 rpm discography [[Maniatis, Dionysis, I Ek Peraton Diskografia Grammofonou]], Athens 2006, reveals that less than 7% of rebetiko songs have drug-related themes.
  4. ^ Petropoulos, Elias, Ρεμπέτικα τραγούδια. 2nd ed., Athens, Kedros, 1983
  5. ^ Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition. Trans. with introduction and add. text by Ed Emery. London, Saqui Books, 2000
  6. ^ 'Χασικλίδικα Ρεμπέτικο: Suzanne Aulin & Peter Vejleskov. Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 1991. ISBN 8772891343
  7. ^ Klein, Tony, op.cit.
  8. ^ Petropoulos, Elias, Ρεμπετολογία. 2nd ed., Athens, Kedros, 1990, p. 18.
  9. ^ Babiniotis, G. Λεξικό τής Νέας Ελληνικής Γλώσσας. Athens, Kentro Lexikologias, 1998, p. 1553.
  10. ^ See cited works of Petropoulos above
  11. ^ Holst,Gail Road to Rebetika (Denise Harvey & Company, Athens, ) 3rd ed. 1983, pp. 24-27
  12. ^ Pappas, Nicholas G., Concepts of Greekness: The Recorded Music of Anatolian Greeks after 1922, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 17, Number 2, October 1999, pp. 353-373
  13. ^ Pennanen 1999 op. cit.
  14. ^ Ioannis Ioannidis, voc, Manolis Karapiperis, bouzouki, Toutoi Batsoi Pourthan Tora, NY Jan 1929, mat. W 206147-2, released on Col. 56137-F.
  15. ^ To Mysterio-Zeibekiko mat. W 206583-1, Col. 56294-F. See Klein, op. cit., Pennanen 1999, op. cit.
  16. ^ Klein, op. cit.
  17. ^ Pennanen, Risto Pekka, Greek Music Policy under the Dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas (1936-1941) Grapta Poikila I, Papers and Monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, Vol VIII, pp 103-130, Athens 2003.
  18. ^ (Stathis Damianakos (see bibliography) has argued that the rebetiko songs of this first period were mostly the musical expression of the lumpenproletariat.)
  19. ^ Pennanen 1999, op.cit.
  20. ^ Klein, op. cit.
  21. ^ Pennanen 1999, op. cit, Schorelis, op. cit.
  22. ^ Elias Petropoulos Ρεμπέτικα τραγούδια. 1st ed., Athens, 1968.
  23. ^ Holst-Warhaft, Gail, Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish, 1st ed., Athens, Denise Harvey, 1975.
  24. ^ Gauntlett, Stathis, Rebetika, Carmina Graeciae Recentoris, Doctoral thesis, University of Oxford, 1978.
  25. ^ Pennanen 1999, op. cit.
  26. ^ The Berliner company recorded 8 songs sung by Michael Arachtingi in May 1896; see Richard K. Spottswood, A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942, vol 3 p.1135.
  27. ^,70088
  28. ^ Klein, op. cit.


  • Damianakos, Stathis, Κοινωνιολογία του Ρεμπέτικου (The Sociology of Rebetiko) in Greek, 2nd Edition. Athens, Plethron, 2001.
  • Gauntlett, Stathis, Rebetika, Carmina Graeciae Recentoris. Athens, D. Harvey and Co., 1985.
  • Gauntlett, Stathis, The Diaspora Sings Back: Rebetika Down Under, in: 'Greek Diaspora and Migration since 1700 ed. Dimitris Tziovas, Ashgate, 2009.
  • Gauntlett, Stathis, Which master's voice? A cautionary tale of cultural and commercial relations with the country of origin, Greek-Australians in the 21st Century: A National Forum. RMIT Globalism Institute (2004)
  • Gauntlett, Stathis, Between Orientalism and Occidentalism. The contribution of Asia Minor refugees to Greek popular song, and its reception, in Crossing the Aegean: an appraisal of the 1923 compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey (ed. R. Hirschon) Berghahn, Oxford & New York: 247-60 (2003).
  • Hadjidakis Manos, Ερμηνεία και θέση του ρεμπέτικου τραγουδιού (The interpretation and position of rebetiko song), in Greek, 1949.
  • Holst-Warhaft, Gail, Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek sub-culture, songs of love, sorrow and hashish, Athens, Denise Harvey, 1989
  • Klein, Tony, Mortika - Rare Vintage Recordings from a Greek Underworld, (book accompanying CD, see discography below) Uppsala, ARKO, 2005.
  • Kotarides, Nikos, Ρεμπέτες και ρεμπέτικο τραγούδι (Rebetes and rebetiko song), in Greek, Athens, Plethron, 1996.
  • Kounades Panagiotis, Εις ανάμνησιν στιγμών ελκυστικών (In memory of charming moments), in Greek, Athens, Katarti, 2000.
  • Maniatis, Dionysis, Η εκ περάτων δισκογραφία γραμμοφώνου (I Ek Peraton Diskografia Grammofonou - The complete gramophone discography), in Greek, Athens, 2006.
  • Pennanen, Risto Pekka,The Nationalisation of Ottoman Popular Music in Greece, Ethnomusicology, Vol.48 No. 1 Winter 2004, pp 1-25.
  • Pennanen, Risto Pekka, Westernisation and Modernisation in Greek Popular Music, Doctoral thesis, Acta Universitatis Tamperensis 692, 1999.
  • Petropoulos, Elias, Rebetika: songs from the Old Greek Underworld translated by John Taylor, illustrated by Alekos Fassianos. London, Alcyon Art Editions, 1992. ISBN 1874455015
  • Petropoulos, Elias, Ρεμπέτικα τραγούδια (Rebetika Tragoudia), in Greek, 2nd ed., in Greek, Athens, Kedros, 1983.
  • Petropoulos, Elias, Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition. Translated with introduction and additional text by Ed Emery. London, Saqui Books, 2000.
  • Schorelis, Tasos, Ρεμπέτικη Ανθολογία, (Rebetiki Anthologia), in Greek, four volumes, Athens 1977-1987.
  • Taylor, John, "The Rebetic Songs", Maledicta V. 5 Nos. 1-2 (Summer-Winter 1981) pp. 25–30.

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