The Rise And Fall Of Rebetiko: "The Greek Blues"

Four Rebetes  Stratos Payioumidzis, Markos Vamvakaris, Batis, and Anestos Dhelias
Four Rebetes

Stratos Payioumides, Markos Vamvakaris, Batis, and Anestis Dhelias.

You’ve had unforgettable holidays in Greece, fallen in love with the country, her warm, hospitable people and danced many hot and sultry nights away, to Greek music.

You may have even learnt, after a fashion, to dance the syrtaki, but, were you lucky enough to familiarize yourself with rebetiko?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably no, it had quite a brief life-span.

Of course, living in Greece for nearly forty years, I was acquainted with rebetiko, often referred to as "The Greek Blues", then, by chance, I saw the film by Greek director; Costas Ferris, depicting the rebetiko era, the emphasis given to Marika Ninou, a "Rebetissa" (The female form of rebetes, rebetiko singer).

"Rebetiko"  A film by Costas Ferris.

A film by Costas Ferris.

Not by chance was this film voted the most popular Greek film in 2000, watch it if you can, it will give you a true feeling and insight into the world of rebetiko.

See details of this unique film "Rebetiko" HERE

Recently, my daughter bought me the book, published for the first time in English:

 "Markos Vamvakaris, the man and the bouzouki"

I could't put it down, I was in there, living alongside Markos Vamvakaris, father of rebetiko!

The book gave me the inspiration to write this post.

Markos Vamvakaris.  Autobiography.
Markos Vamvakaris.


See details and read reviews about the incredible life of  Markos Vamvakaris HERE

Rebetiko, a subculture, appeared around The Mediterranean, usually in coastal towns, around the early 1900s, it's a genre of  music generally associated with poverty, the lower class, crime, drink, prostitution and drug addiction.


Hashish smokers.

 Performers of rebetiko, (The composers, players and singers) were known as rebetes, meaning rebellious, misguided or disobedient, a word related to “Manghes” someone with no respect for authority, someone anti-establishment.


Rebetiko was played in “Tekes” (A Turkish word, originally meaning a monastery for Dervishes)  hash dens, usually a side room off a coffee house or taverna, here the rebetes went to smoke their nargiles and sing “Chasiklidika”; songs dedicated to the rituals of hashish smoking.

Hookah shop in Ottoman Empire  Theophilus Waldmeir. 1832-1915
Hookah shop in Ottoman Empire

Theophilus Waldmeir. 1832-1915

A classic example of a rebetiko group is a two-stringed violin, oud,( A pear-shaped stringed instrument commonly used in Persian, Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Jewish, Byzantine, Azerbaijanian, Armenian, North African, Spanish Andalusian, Somalian and Middle Eastern music) and santouri, (A stringed instrument played with small, soft hammers), but, as yet, no bouzouki.

  Greek children at music lesson learning to play traditional santouri stringed instrument,  in Agiassos on Lesvos Island in Greece  Found on
Greek children at music lesson learning to play traditional santouri stringed instrument, 
in Agiassos on Lesvos Island in Greece

Found on

Rebetes sang about their lifestyle, about what they knew, what they had experience of; family troubles, a nagging wife, being jobless, about being totally and crazily in love, about drugs, drink, gambling and about death, in short, they sang about life.

Rebetes, smoking hashish in a "Tekede"
Rebetes, smoking hashish in a "Teke"

Some of the songs were rather mournful, sung with a sad note, songs known as “Amanades”, from the word “Aman”, something similar to the English word “Alas”

As a result of the “Amanades” music cafes named “Café-Aman” sprung up, in the larger cosmopolitan cities of Thessaloniki, Volos, Aivali and Smyrna.

Aivali. Asia Minor
Aivali. Asia Minor

 Before 1922 an entirely Greek town,

After the fall of Smyrna , known as  "The Catastrophe of Smyrna" (1922) over a million Greek refugees poured into Greece when the forced population exchange was put into action in 1923 (Most of the Muslim population of Greece was sent to Turkey).

The  Great fire of Smyrna.
The  Great fire of Smyrna.

"The Catastrophe"
View from an Italian ship

Greek refugees from Asia Minor
Greek refugees from Asia Minor

The refugees from Asia Minor, mostly settled around Athens and Piraeus, treated as outcasts, and, in the same situation as the vagabond rebetes, they soon joined forces and "Smyrnaica", a Turkish style of music, became popular.

A view of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey)  View of Saint Fotini on the left C. 1900
A view of Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey)

View of Saint Fotini on the left
C. 1900

More and more female singers were working their way into this previously male dominated scene, one of the most famous was was Rosa Ezkanazi.

Rosa Ezkanazi
Rosa Ezkanazi. Refugee from Asia Minor

The most popular singer of the 20s and 30s

Rosa Ezkanazi's first mentor was Panayotis Toundas, himself an Asia Minor refugee and one of the most successful record producers Greek-language recording has ever known.

 Rita Abatzi.
Rita Abatzi
The great rival of Rosa Ezkanazi.

A decade or so after the success of this diverse "Smyrnaica" came the revival of the old, Greek style rebetiko, lead by Markos Vamvakaris from the Greek island of Syros, who today is known as the "Patriarch" of rebetiko.

Mikis Theodorakis, remarked:

"We are all but branches of a tree, Markos is that tree"

Greek island of Syros Birth place of Markos Vamvakaris
Greek island of Syros
Birth place of Markos Vamvakaris

Port of Ermoupolis

With his bouzouki and baglama, Vamvakaris revamped rebetiko, taking it to heights never imagined.

Markos Vamvakaris  "Patriarch of rebetiko"
Markos Vamvakaris

"Patriarch of rebetiko"

The Bouzouki, from the Turkish word “Bozuk”, meaning broken, is a part of the long-necked lute family, similar to the pandouris, believed to have been in existence in ancient Greece.


PANDOURIS Pandouris or pandourion, also called trichord because it had three strings, is the first fretted instrument known, forerunner of the various families of lutes worldwide. Source of our knowledge about this instrument is the Mantineia marble (4th cent BC, now exhibited at Athens Archaeological Museum) depicting the mythical contest between Apollo and Marsyas, where Pandouris is being played by a muse seated on a rock.

The baglamas is a smaller version of the bouzouki, making it easier to be carried, and easier to hide, during the era when most  rebetiko songs were forbidden.


 The name of this instrument comes from the Turkish word baglama, which means bond or knot. The modem baglamas is like a small bouzouki. The baglamas is primarily an instrument of accompaniment. It has 3 pairs of strings tuned like the bouzouki d-a-d.
Found on   

Vocals, usually male, but there are exceptions, are rough and hoarse, a short introduction, on the bouzouki, called a “Taximi” gets the "Kefi" ( Good mood) going, 

D. Semsis, A. Tomboulis, R. Ezkanazi
D. Semsis, A. Tomboulis, R. Ezkanazi

Of course, these rebetes are Greek, dancing to rebetiko was compulsory!

And what dances!

Syrtos (Ancient chain dance of Greece, still danced today), Zeibekiko (The name is derived from the Zeibek warriors of Anatolia), Chasapiko (The butcher's dance, originally from Constantinople).

Zeibekiko dancer.  Henri Cartier Bresson Cafe Piraeus.Greece 1953
Zeibekiko dancer.

Henri Cartier Bresson
Cafe Piraeus.Greece

Owing to the appearance of the characters devoted to rebetiko, upright Greek society saw them as a threat:


The dapper “Koutsavakides”, with their distinctive walk, “Koutsa Koutsa” in Greek, rather like a crab, sporting swirly moustaches and wearing their jackets with the right sleeve left empty, a fedora on their head, singing songs of disrepute to the click, click of worry beads.

How to wear a jacket  “Koutsavaki" style.
How to wear a jacket  “Koutsavaki" style.

Respectable society were slightly more tolerant of the “Manghes” with their "Devil may care" attitude and their street slang, along with the “Mortides” and “Dervisis”, a superior type of “Mangha”, a “cool dude”, someone to be looked up to by their peers.

Rebetes, Karaiskaki.1933  Left, Vamvakaris, with bouzouki, middle, Batis, with guitar.
Rebetes, Karaiskaki.1933

Left, Vamvakaris, with bouzouki, middle, Batis, with guitar.

In 1936, the 4th August Regime, an authoritarian regime under the leadership of General Metaxas, came to power, and with it censorship.

This lead to certain radio stations banning rebetiko songs

It’s interesting, that rebetiko was also rejected by the Greek Left, because of its "Reactionary” character and the drug references.

As rebetiko was on the up and up, poverty in Greece was worsening, with WWII came Nazi occupation and no sooner had that ended, Greece entered into a civil war.


Rebetiko singers poured their hearts out over the terrible and gloomy times of poverty, expressing themselves in their songs.

Leonard Cohen said:

    "Music is the emotional life of most people"        

He could have talking about rebetiko.     
Slowly rebetiko began to lose its bad reputation, after all, the whole of Greece was in this together, and it came to be recognised as the national music of Greece, the music of life.

Marika Ninou
Marika Ninou

Marika Ninou (1918 – 23 February 1957), was an Armenian-Greek rebetiko singer.
She recorded a total of 174 songs, of which 119 as lead singer. The movie Rembetiko by Costas Ferris is based on her life.

By 1946 rebetiko was at its zenith, Vassilis Tsitsanis being the top performer, now acceptable, there was an increased demand and larger venues were needed for the ever growing audience.

Vassilis Tsitsanis
Vassilis Tsitsanis

Brought respectability to rebetiko

Sotiria Bellou
Sotiria Bellou 

Sotiria Bellou was an openly lesbian rebetissa who threw acid in her abusive husband’s face when she was 17 and then became a communist partisan who was captured and tortured by Nazis during the occupation of Greece in WWII and then subsequently captured & detained by the US/UK-backed right-wing militants during the Greek Civil War.

By the 1960s, the greediness of the recording industry and the temptation of commercialism were endangering the authenticity of rebetiko, its downfall came though, when Manolis Chiotis, added a fourth string, and plugged the bouzouki into an amplifier.

Manolis Chiotis
Manolis Chiotis
Manolis Chiotis (1920 – 1970) was a Greek rebetiko and laiko composer, singer and bouzouki player. He is considered one of the greatest bouzouki soloists of all time. He invented the four-course bouzouki (tetrachordo) and introduced the guitar-like tuning.

There ended five thousand years of tradition.

There have been a few tries to breathe new life into rebetiko, Manos Hadjidakis had a go when composing the soundtrack, for what must be one of the most famous Greek films, starring Melina Mercuri:

“Never On  Sunday”

"Never on Sunday"  Classic Greek film starring Melina Mercuri
"Never on Sunday"

Classic Greek film starring Melina Mercuri

"Never On Sunday" a great Greek classic with Melina Mercuri, music Manos Hadjidakis.

See details HERE 

Mikis Theodorakis, another brilliant Greek composer, tried his hand with the music score for the best Greek dancer ever:


 See details and read reviews of this classic film, created from the book by Greek author; Nikos Kazantsakis., music Mikis Theodorakis  HERE 

Zorba The Greek Nikos Kazantzakis
Zorba The Greek
Nikos Kazantzakis

Zorba The greek, by Nikos Kazantzakis is the only book I have actually read in Greek, from beginning to end!
An amazing book, see details HERE

This music is exceptional, as were the composers, but, it doesn’t have the same feeling, the same passion.
It doesn’t have that unique feel of rebetiko.

Elias Petropoulos, a major historian of rebetiko and self proclaimed “Anthropologist”, says of rebetiko:

“The womb of rebetika was the jail and the hash den. It was there that the early rebetes created their songs. They sang in quiet, hoarse voices, unforced, one after the other, each singer adding a verse which often bore no relation to the previous verse, and a song often went on for hours. There was no refrain, and the melody was simple and easy. One rebetis accompanied the singer with a bouzouki or a baglamas (a smaller version of the bouzouki, very portable, easy to make in prison and easy to hide from the police), and perhaps another, moved by the music, would get up and dance. The early rebetika songs, particularly the love songs, were based on Greek folk songs and the songs of the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople

Alekos Fassianos, Yasar Kemal, Elias Petropoulos, Abidin Dino.  Paris 1977
Alekos Fassianos, Yasar Kemal, Elias Petropoulos, Abidin Dino.

Paris 1977

This then is rebetiko, songs of the working class, the down-trodden, sung from the heart; with passion.

But then, what else would you expect from  Greeks?

Everything they do is with passion, done from the very depths of their souls.

God bless 'em!

"Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underworld -  Baglamas, Bouzoukis & Bravado"  4 CD Box set
"Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underworld -
 Baglamas, Bouzoukis & Bravado"

4 CD Box set 
Can't wait to hear some authentic Greek rebetiko?
Look no further;

 "Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underworld - Baglamas, Bouzoukis & Bravado" 

A four CD box set of  original recordings, digitally remastered, an outstanding collection of eighty nine, well-loved, truly authentic Greek rebtiko songs.

See details for "Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underworld - Baglamas, Bouzoukis & Bravado"


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