lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 17 08:31:00 MDT 2004
Last night the World Music Institute presented "Women of Rembetika" as part
of their 5th annual Greek Festival.
The program notes define the genre as follows:
"The rembetika are Greek songs associated with an urban low-life milieu
frequented by rembetes or manges, street-wise characters of shady repute,
may of whom smoked hashish. The genre occupies a similar place in Greek
culture to that of the tango in Argentina, or to flamenco in Spain."
Two leading vocalists were backed by a 5 piece band that included bazouki,
a string instrument that is as essential to rembetika as the bandoneon, or
accordion, is to Tango. Maryo is an older singer whose voice has a kind of
hoarse urgency that is familiar in flamenco. She was joined by Giouli
Tsirou, a younger singer who is considered a rising star.
They performed songs made famous by a group of 11 female rembetika singers;
all are deceased, but one. It is a testimony to the horrors of 20th century
ethnic strife and warfare that most of these singers were born in Turkey.
In 1921, imperialist powers instigated an attack on Turkey by the Greek
army. In a successful counter-attack, Mustafa Kemal drove out the Greeks. 2
million Greek civilians who had lived in Turkey their entire lives were
forced out as well. In Eric Ambler's "A Coffin for Dimitrios", there is
vivid description of the anti-Greek pogroms in Smyrna, a seacoast city now
known as Izmir.
Rosa Eskenazi, one of the most famous and honored of the 11 divas, is
typical of the kind of ethnic gumbo that existed in Turkey prior to 1921.
Born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 19th century to a Sephardic
Jewish family, she recorded over 500 songs during her career. After moving
to Greece, she ran a tavern during WWII and sheltered anti-Nazi resistance
Musically, rembetika has its roots in the popular music of the Ottoman
Empire. This would explain the affinity between rembetika and flamenco,
which both are ultimately rooted in musical forms influenced by Islam. If
you listen carefully, the incantory quality of the flamenco or rembetika
singer will remind you of the muezzein's call to prayer.
In the 1950s rembetika became as stylized as tango. This is where the image
of people dancing in Greek nightclubs while smashing dishes became
something of a cliché. The real thing is much more intense, however. If you
you can hear samples of rembetika as well as some insightful commentary on
One of the great tragedies of bourgeois nationalism is that it drives a
wedge between peoples who have powerful affinities. Even in Izmir, the
scene of brutal ethnic cleansing, there is a lingering affection for the
city's Greek heritage. When people are allowed to live in peace, the
cultural cross-fertilization can often generate new and surprising
art-forms. The rembetika is one of the best examples.
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