12 June 2009

Cafe Rebetika

In Eleftheria in Melbourne I observed what a great Greek city Melbourne is.

A marvellous example of this was the recent production of Cafe Rebetika, conceived and directed by Stephen Helper.

Rebetika is the music which emerged between the wars from the slums, tavernas, hashdens and prisons of the major Greek cities. In the early years after World War I these cities absorbed an enormous number of refugees from the Great Catastrophe – the destruction of Smyrna (Izmir) in 1922 – and also Greek refugees from the Crimea following the Bolshevik Revolution, many of whom had at first been camped in miserable conditions on the Gallipoli Peninsula before being forced to move on. The homeland Greeks ostracised the refugees as scum, even though (or perhaps because) many of them were better educated, more cultured and had been more affluent than those who rejected them. Needless to say they were absorbed into the poorest parts of the major cities, including areas like the port of Piraeus.

They brought their music with them, and developed the fusion which emerged as rebetika. It has diverse roots, being a fusion of Middle Eastern, Anatolian, Balkan, Sephardic Jewish, Irish and traditional Greek folk music. To give an example of the diversity that could be incorporated in a single singer, the famous Roza Eskenazi, who made recordings from 1929 right up to the 1960s, was born in Constantinople some time in the 1890s, of a Jewish family who emigrated to Greece. She found work initially with an Armenian dance troupe, dancing and singing in Armenian, Turkish and Greek.

The songs cover the themes one would expect – love, life and death, dispossession, memories of parents or lost loves, the pleasures of hash, the appreciation of simple kindnesses. The music, and the people who were associated with its culture, were regarded as deeply subversive by right wing regimes. When General Metaxas seized control of Greece in 1936, he outlawed rebetika music (including playing the bouzouki at all) and set out to shut down all the hashdens and incarcerate drug users, mangas (a particular class of urban tough guy, characterised by their dress styles and a code or philosophia based on personal integrity and mutual respect) and the rest of the “low life”. During the regime of the Greek Colonels in the late 1960s-1970s the famous historian of rebetika, Elias Petropoulos, was jailed for five months following the publication of his book Rebetika Traghoudhia (Rebetika Songs), which documented the lyrics and instrumentation of the music and the lifestyle associated with it, and thereby scandalised the regime.

Cafe Rebetica is set in the slums of Piraeus in 1935-37, during which period the Metaxas crackdown takes place. It is set for the most part in a cafe, but some scenes are set in a prison cell or at the port. It flips skilfully between Greek and English; the songs are in their original Greek, with English surtitles, some shorter exchanges – greetings etc. – are in Greek, but where the conversation is important it is rendered in English. The effect of this is that the English-speaking listener has enough of the sound of Greek in the ear to add to the authenticity of the experience, but one is never left unable to follow the plot.

The action was ably supported by the live band Rebetiki, which is on-stage behind the action throughout the production and gave some magnificent renditions of classic rebetika songs which were known to me from recordings. The musical director was the wonderful Achilles Yangoulli, lead singer of the haBiBis who performed so well as the introductory act for Eleftheria Arvanitaki when she performed at the Melbourne Arts Centre (see Eleftheria in Melbourne).

I regret that I am unable at this stage to find any references to future performances of Cafe Rebetica in other cities. It would be a great pity if this were to be a one-off.

For those who would like to find out more about rebetika, I recommend this rebetika site, which contains links to other sites such as the Markos Vamvakaris Archive and The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Rebetika Musicians.

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