« on: July 20, 2012, 10:35:06 PM »
i wrote this paper on rebetiko while at the university of cincinnati; this was a draft and the citations are in my own format - though the end notes will refer anyone who is interested to the sources i used.
Through the course of this paper we will examine the musical genre of rebetiko, and use it as a lens through which we can ascertain some of the aspects and characteristics of the urban poor and working class of Piraeus - and other Aegean port cities as well. By examining points of intersection between rebetika and other forces, such as modernization, industrialization, nationalism, and the internal and external socio-political tensions that such forces created, we can perhaps account for not only the character of the music itself, but also arrive at a broader understanding of the dynamics of urban life in the fin de siècle Ottoman-Greek world.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, Greece’s participation was modest by Western European standards. The Greek state was in the throes of establishing itself politically and economically. The population was largely rural and decimated from years of conflict. . At that point in time industrialization was almost non-existent - resources were under-developed or unused. 1yag82 The Greek exhibit featured agricultural products, (currants, tobacco, honey, figs, etc) and assorted textile/craft items (embroidered native costumes, religious ornaments, jewelry, sponges, decorative marbles, etc.) 2-yag86 Owing its political existence to the protection of Western European powers (namely France, England, and Russia), the Greek state looked to the west economically as well, and its participation in the Great Exhibition can be viewed as a mutual window of opportunity between investors (Western European) and a willing recipient for capital investment and development ( the Greek state and merchant class.)3-yag 84
Throughout the second half of the 19th century Greece sought to modernize - and be modernized – along western models. Infrastructural improvements to facilitate economic growth were embarked upon. Improvements to harbor facilities and transportation arteries to link port cities to the agricultural interior occupied much of the government’s economic energies. Industrialization was increasing; steam horsepower, in the last quarter of the century, rose by 250 percent.4-gal50 But it was not only in the economic sector that this orchestrated drift towards westernization progressed; the drift also manifested itself in other directions.
Athens was the focal point of concerted efforts to engineer a New Greece; efforts that sought to remove the cultural elements of its Ottoman and Byzantine past and replace them with a new national awareness – Hellenism. Conceptually, Hellenism linked the New Greece to its ancient past while at the same time sidestepping, ignoring, or erasing the realities of its Ottoman Greek culture and past. The Greek state, in the attempt to subsume and appropriate the Orthodox Church’s influence on the hearts and minds of the masses, declared, in1833, that the Orthodox Church of Greece was autonomous, and no longer under the influence and direction of the Patriarch in Istanbul.5gal69 It took time to meld Orthodoxy into the secular realm of nationalistic identity, but as Gallant states in his work, Modern Greece: “The process was neither easy nor quick, but over the course of the nineteenth century it was achieved.”6-gal69
The Greek state also sought to create a national identity through the medium of language. The Greek spoken by the masses was known as dimotiki and it evolved, as all languages do, incorporating elements of Turkish, Albanian, and Slavic; it represented the cultural and historical realities of the experiential life of the people. But to a state keenly aware of western attitudes – attitudes that were in themselves subject to the prevailing winds of an orientalist paradigm that cast Ottoman cultural aspects as a denigration of the glory that was once Greece – the living language of the people had to be modified to suit a new national identity; one that was in step with nationalistic program of Hellenism.7-gal71-2 Katherevousa became the language of the state and the written form of the Greek language. The schools taught it; the newspapers printed it; the government espoused it; but the people, by and large, had difficulty in embracing it and for the most part continued to speak in the demotic.8-gal72
Concurrent to these developments (and indeed part of the same process) was the rise of a western European-styled bourgeois culture that was acutely aware, and imitative of, cultural trends from the west.9gal50 Just as in fin de siècle London and Vienna, urban architecture reflected the aspirations of both the state and the bourgeois class that held political and economic sway. Towns devastated by warfare with the Turks were rebuilt utilizing a westernized street grid; some were even renamed in Greek rather than in the original Slavic or Turkish.10gal73 Public buildings were built in the neo-classical style, visually underscoring the link to Classical Greece and the prevailing political attitudes of Western European republicanism - much as the founding fathers of the United States endeavored to achieve in its public and institutional architecture. It was an architectural style that declaimed power and social permanence.
Nowhere was the creation of a new national identity more evident – materially, socially, and ideologically - than in the rise of Athens and its port, Piraeus. Athens was the seat of government – the capital city. Through the span of the 19th century it grew from a provincial backwater (pop. 7,000 in 1821) to almost 300,000 by 1920. Piraeus, which was basically non-existent in 1920, grew to around 135,000 within the same time span.11gal108 Early on, much of the population influx was due to in-migration of mid – to upper class Greeks attracted by employment in the ever-growing government bureaucracy and the business opportunities produced by the growth of Piraeus as a regional entrepot. Athens was becoming the showpiece of Greek westernization.
But Athens did not only attract the educated and well-to-do, it attracted the rural peasantry displaced by near-incessant territorial warfare endemic to the Balkans during the century. A chance at gainful employment was better than no chance at all. And there was employment; there was a need for dockworkers, for the construction trades, for unskilled workers to service the needs of the upper and middle classes.12gal109 But as the century wore on through the closing decades of the 19th century, the influx of migrants “could not be absorbed by the under-developed industrial economy of the time.”13gal110
Modernization along Western European lines was attractive for the growing middle class - for those who could afford what the west had to offer; there were avenues for advancement both economically and socially. There was the excitement of newness – new fashions, products, and other cultural, technological and ideological influences; but for the migrant peasant or the increasing number of refugees that were arriving in Athens/Piraeus and other port cities, this “newness” might have been alluring, but it was also largely inaccessible.14mon111 For the poor and dispossessed, the prospects were quite different. Even before the population exchange following the Lausanne Agreement, the flow of refugees from Asia Minor had been on the increase. Initially coming to Salonika, many were re-directed to Athens and Piraeus, but the struggling economy was simply not developed enough to provide employment or even adequate living conditions. Intense competition for what few jobs existed created an exploitable situation for factory owners who could get labor on the cheap15maz349 So for many in Greece, the drift towards Western European modernity was a drift towards proletarianization and ghettoization.16-maz347
Within Athens and Piraeus in urban enclaves like Psyrri and Karaiskaki, the lumpenproletariat developed an alternative economy that served their own needs, and in many respects, the needs and desires of the urban populace in general. Drug smuggling, dealing, and consumption in both hashish, morphine - and to a lesser degree, cocaine – were part of this localized economy; an economy that stretched, and duplicated itself, from port city to port city across the Eastern Mediterranean. Prostitution, gambling, trafficking in stolen goods – pilfered from the commerce coming in and out of the docks – were part of this economic and social underworld.17-butpet12 It was a city within a city – a world within a world.
How can we access this world? How can we see it on its own terms? We can approach this world comparatively; similar phenomena can be found in similar conditions in port cities, but though conditions may be similar, each has its own peculiar permutations subject to its own time and place. One could examine the press media of the time and glean some degree of illumination. But the illumination gleaned often tells more about the position of the government and those to whom the media is catering to – the Greek middle and upper-class – than the working-class and poor. Greek newspapers, which were numerous and read with zealous enthusiasm by the Greek citizenry, were part of the same modernizing apparatus; they were “the new instruments of mass politics” tied, for the most part, to the political agenda of Hellenism and irredentism.18mazpaper901 It was a press geared to, and generated by, an educated and well-to-do segment of the population – a social minority, whose views speak more about themselves – their aspirations and fears – than the objects and subjects of their discourse.19tra4
To gain an insider’s look – to access the social and cultural milieu of people who have little or no written voice of their own – to get into their heads, so to speak, one might be better served by examining the artistic expression of the people themselves.
During the closing decades of the 19th century, musical cafés were proliferating in various cities in Greece and Turkey. Some, like the café chantants, catered to the upper class and featured Western European musical fare.20tra6 There were also the café-amans that featured music and dance performed in the traditional forms and regional stylings of the Ottoman-Greek musical heritage. Often, the lyrics were created extemporaneously in verse dialogue between the singers who would wail “Aman, Aman” as a pausing device to give them time to improvise .new verse.21hol20 Sometimes small orchestras called kumpanias would perform in the various styles of their varied regional origins. Though predominantly frequented by the lower-economic classes, the café-amans attracted people across class divisions.22tra11 Despite the western focus of the state, these cafés were more representative of the actual cultural reality of the Greek people – a cultural reality that had its feet firmly placed in the Ottoman world. Regardless of the political agenda and cultural overlays of Hellenism, the café-amans spoke the musical language of the people and were thus very popular in fin de siècle Greece.
Within the poorer urban enclaves of the port cities, an oral musical tradition developed that mirrored the lifestyle of the economically and socially marginalized inhabitants. Performed in tekes (hashish dens), prison cells, and gambling haunts, the music reflected the experience of its practitioners.23tra49 It was called rebetiko – the music of the rebetes.
The rebetes, or manges (there are many appellations,) were men who embraced and displayed behavior that enhanced their prestige within their social network. Aggressive masculine displays to protect one’s honor, how one handled oneself in the rough and tumble underworld milieu, love affairs, prison stretches, longing for home – for family, the smoking of hashish, the lonely isolation of the transient, and the approach of death’s cold hand – these are the predominant themes of the manges’ world and music.24zai2 Even their instruments of choice – the bouzouki and baglamas – have a underworld connection, as they were often clandestinely made within the prisons out of hollowed gourds.25hol23 As noted earlier, this was an oral music tradition; it remained within the social milieu of the manges, and though we have no extant recordings (the first recordings are from the early 1920’s) – we do possess songs recorded in that tradition and style.26tra48
Secretly In A Boat I Went
Secretly in a boat I went
And came out at Drakou’s cave.
I saw three men stoned on hashish
Stretched out on the sand.
It was Batis and Artemis
And Stratos the lazy one
Hey you Strato! Yes you Strato!
Fix us a fine narghile,
So old Batis can smoke
Who’s been a dervish for years
And Artemis too
Who brings us all our stuff.
He sends us hash from Persia
Because we are all heads,
And fine Persian tobacco.
The mangas sends it without any fuss.27holst107
The song was written in 1936 by Yorgos Batis. Batis was a member of the Tetras tou Pireos – The Piraeus Quartet – who played in the Piraeus rebetiko style; a style that utilized the bouzouki as the featured instrument, along with the baglamas and guitar.28tra56 The vocals in this style are rough – hoarse and masculine – as if the singer’s voice had been abused by years of smoking hashish, which indeed could have very well been the case. The lyrics reveal not only the pleasure of hashish, a drug consumed throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, but also its smuggling and the camaraderie of the manges’ world - a friend should share his hashish “without any fuss.” At this point in time, the consumption of hashish was illegal; it was seen by the state as a behavior rooted in the Ottoman past – antithetical to their western-oriented agenda and vision. But if you were working on the docks of Piraeus for long hours and little money – shoveling coal or stevedoring – smoking hashish with some pals or a lady friend was a relaxing reward for a hard day’s work. By 1936, with the Metaxas dictatorship, the tekes were becoming a thing of the past and hashish smoking became a clandestine affair to be enjoyed on the sly in Drakou’s cave (caves on the Piraeus waterfront) or someplace similar.29hols35
You there, mangas, if you’re going to use your knife
You need to have a soul, a heart to take it out.
Those things don’t go down with me, so hide your sword
Because I’ll get high and come over to your place.
I told you to sit down quietly or I’ll fix you.
I’ll come with my gun and blow your brains out.
Go somewhere else, show-off and do your bragging.
I’ve been smoking and I’ve got a crazy high.30hols48
Written in 1935 by another member of the Tetras tou Pireos, Anestis Delias (he died in 1944 from the debilitating effects of heroin addiction,) the song illustrates the manges’ disdain for pretentious behavior - as if to say: don’t talk the talk unless you walk the walk.31hols38 It also intimates at some aspects of masculine behavior that was prevalent among the young Greek males that came from rural areas to find work in the city. Violent crime was on the upswing in the population-dense environs of turn of the century Athens/Piraeus. Gone were the social controls of village life where kinsmen could occasionally intervene or mediate; instead defending one’s honor could, and often did, escalate into knife-fights that could end in death or disfigurement.32gal111 Also, the proliferation of guns – of small arms – due to prolonged territorial conflicts made existence in the ever-growing, densely populated working class environs of Athens and Piraeus a little dicey.
By the time of these recordings, and to a degree because of the technology and marketing capabilities of the recording industry, rebetico was reaching a broader audience – a different audience that appreciated it for different reasons. It was no longer the music of, and for, the marginalized world of the manges. Some enjoyed it almost voyeuristically, vicariously experiencing a glimpse of something exotic, much as a flaneur might peruse the seamier side of a city.33tra50 It had spread to the tavernas where it was being performed live or through recordings amplified through hung speakers – the music resonating out into the streets of the city. Women were not only singers or dancers, as in the traditional Ottoman café music and café milieu, but were now in the audience as well. But, what must not be overlooked is that regardless of class interest or antagonisms, be they political, cultural, or economic, the historical truth is that the music was an outgrowth of the Greeks’ cultural roots. It was familiar in an emotional sense and resonated with experiential legitimacy; a legitimacy that refused to be buried beneath political agenda or a westernized program of cultural aspirations and proclivities.
The Turkish Slipper
When I see you in the evening
Walking through the narrow streets,
And you’re wearing Turkish slippers,
I lose my heart to you.
They’re red and they squeak
And wake up the neighborhood,
Break all the hearts
And make them suffer.
Your shoes, your slippers,
Suit you a treat little one.
Wear them and good luck to you,
Wear them and keep me happy.
When you go to Athens
Make sure you wear them, my doll.
Two pairs a month
I want you to go through
I look at you and I’m jealous.
You walk like a partridge.
I’ll work night and day
For you to wear them. 34hol101 and 103
Written in 1934 by Demetrious Semsis, the song offers a nostalgic glimpse into a world that was becoming, by this time, temporally and spatially remote. In many songs of the era, the Ottoman world, embodied usually by a woman, becomes almost fantasized – a place longed for and remembered. There are songs about Arab and Turkish women, like the one above, that have a dream-like character to them, as opposed to the catty, flirty, and heart-breaking infidelity of the mangiko mikro (little mangas girl), who were like female versions of the manges in habits and character.35tra34 Women were subject to the same forces of modernity as the men. Many worked in the tobacco and cotton industries. In the inter-war period, almost half the tobacco workers in Salonika were women. Working alongside men, they were often free-spirited and active in labor strikes and disputes.36maz364 Women worked as shop-assistants, as dress and hat-makers, and (as noted earlier) as singers and dancers in entertainment venues.37maz363-64 Many worked the brothels of the port cities. Mazower, in his book on Salonika, paints a vivid picture of the brothels in Salonika’s red-light district of Bara where many unfortunate Greek refugee women were employed.38maz365-66 As Mazower notes: “… in 1928…street-walkers outnumbered civil servants.”39maz364
Getting back to Semsis, Semsis was a virtuoso violinist who played in the so-called Smyrna style. Usually accompanied by the santouri (a hammered dulcimer) and a female singer, the style had a more pronounced Turkish feel to it – vocally and in instrumentation - and was closer to its traditional Ottoman roots than the bouzouki-anchored style of Piraeus rebetika which was more of a syncretic phenomenon.40pen4
When considering the musical genre of rebetiko, several problems arise. There is a polarity of perception that is rooted in the nationalistic character of much of the discourse. Relations between Turkey and Greece have been violent at times and tenuous at best; it is no surprise that issues of cultural inheritance and origin - of what is Turkish and what is Greek – would come to the fore. And although historians attempt to stand objectively outside the continuum of historical eventualities, they – and their discourse – are part of that continuum and subject to its influences. For example, there is a strong tendency in Greek discourse to view Smyrna as the main center and birthplace of the Smyrmieka style of rebetiko, and that the music arrived with the Greek refugees following the burning of Smyrna and the Lausanne Agreement.41p4 This view ignores both the creative and economic influence and allure of Constantinople, and the reality of a pre-existing multi-regional, inter-city – if not international – cultural network that was the Ottoman world. Constantinople had the wealth; it had a thriving café/cabaret scene; it had the music schools; it was a magnet for artists; and, perhaps most importantly, it was a cultural nexus for varied ethnomusicological influences.42p3 Many of the compositions that are traditionally considered part of the Greek-Smyrna rebetika corpus were composed and written in Constantinople, and once transliterated and performed in Greek rather than the original Turkish, became part of a Smyrna-based, Hellenocentric-viewed Greek national repertoire.43p3-4 This perception is linguistically based and ignores the structural, instrumentational, and traditional aspects of the compositions themselves.44-p19 Urban Ottoman-Greek café music would be a more apt way of perceiving and describing the musical reality of the situation.
Part of the nationalistic program of Hellenism was what came to be known as the Megáli Idéa – the Great Idea; a policy of irredentism that promoted the re-acquisition of territory lost to the Ottomans. And though Greece did expand its territory in the Balkans, Crete, and the Aegean, it was when the Greek government and military decided to invade the Turkish interior in the spring of 1921 that the Great Idea came to a screeching halt. Due to a lack of logistical support and lured by the orchestrated retreat of Turkish nationalist forces led by Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, the Greek forces were routed and fled to Greek-held Smyrna.45gal142-43 On September 9, 1922 the Turkish army arrived – a few days later Smyrna was torched. The fire broke out in the Armenian quarter and spread throughout the city killing tens of thousands Greeks and Armenians.46gal164 After the signing of the Lausanne Agreement in 1923 there was a compulsory exchange of ethnic populations along religious lines; over 350,000 Muslims were forced to leave Greece for Turkey and somewhere between 1.25 to 1.4 million Greek Orthodox left Turkey for Greece.47hirs36-7
Refugee neighborhoods formed around the perimeters of Athens and Piraeus and in other Greek cities as well.48gal148 Unlike the refugees that came after the burning of Smyrna, many of the Anatolian Greeks were able to bring their portable wealth, but still faced the trauma of being uprooted and thrust into what was essentially a foreign country.49gal147 There was a social and cultural divide that was exacerbated by the struggling economy of Greece. Hostilities between locals and refugees flared across Greece during the 1920s - particularly in the urban centers. The Anatolians viewed mainland Greece as a provincial backwater – unsophisticated and backward; mainlanders viewed the refugees as “dirty, smelly, lazy, ignorant, and sexually licentious.” 50gal150 And though industrialization reached its peak in the latter part of the decade, in part due to the entrepreneurial expertise of many of the refugees from Anatolian cities and the supply of cheap labor from the urban poor en masse, still for most of the refugees life was indeed a struggle. Not only in the material sense, but it was also a struggle emotionally and psychologically. Uprooted, alienated, and facing hostilities from mainlanders who saw the refugee as a competitor – a rival that was attempting to displace them from their economic niche – however humble that niche may be.51gal149
In the Ottoman past, music served as a bridge for communication between diverse ethnicities and cultures and so it was in fin de siècle and post-Lausanne Greece. Music provided an arena where cultural elements could fuse and where human commonality was brought to the fore. Political overlays and economic exigencies affect everybody involved, but people are still basically people; they live their lives under the same stars; they work, love, dream – they propagate and they die. These are the themes of everyman and they are replicated and expressed with simple eloquence in the rebetika corpus.
The influx of musical talent, accomplished musicians and composers, infused and energized the music scene in the port cities of Greece. Well-traveled musicians, like the aforementioned Semsis, and vocalists like Rita Abatsi and Roza Eskenazy, were now performing rebetika with an Anatolian stylistic twist. The cosmopolitan nature of the café aman repertoire and that of Piraeus-style rebetika was in a process of cross-fertilization and this reflected the social realities of the times.52tra54
In a sense, the agenda of modernization – both in the political and economic spheres (described, albeit briefly, earlier in this paper) - created a climate conducive to the creation of a form of cultural expression that could articulate the sense of angst and alienation felt by those adversely affected – namely, the urban lower class.53mon118 But art is not spontaneously generated, it adapts to new conditions while simultaneously evolving from past traditions, and rebetika should be viewed in that light. It is not the music of the hashish den anymore than it is the music of the harem; you cannot point to it and say this is Greek and that is Turkish. It, like history, is part of a continuum.
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