In 2008, I went to Athens with producer Laura Parfitt and made a programme for Radio 4 called Greek Blues – in which I explored the roots of the music that I grew up listening to. Here is the programme, and beneath it is the newspaper article I wrote about the experience.
The taxi driver taking us from the airport into town needs no hesitation when I ask him to tell me what the local indigenous music sounds like. “You want to hear the real stuff?” He reaches over to the passenger seat and produces a listings magazine. Having arrived to record a programme for Radio 4 called Greek Blues, I have an idea of what I’m looking for – and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that I might find that here in Athens.
As it turns out, the jaunty bouzoukis that serenade diners at Monastiraki area near the foot of the Acropolis may tally with some people’s idea of what Greek music amounts to. As long as you don’t make me eat there, I don’t have a problem with that. But that doesn’t represent the stuff of Greekness any more than Daniel O’Donnell represents Irishness. The stuff I’m after is exotic, tarry and faintly foreboding. I’ll know it when I hear it, because I grew up listening to it.
In fact, it was the first music I ever heard. On Sundays in suburban Birmingham, when my parents’ fish and chip shop was closed, it chimed forlornly from the radiogram in the room above. While I was let loose on the pinball machines, these strange, sad songs filled up the whole building. I didn’t think I was paying attention, but decades later, I realised that I had memorized every one: the sorrowful stupour of Vassilis Tsitsanis’s Cloudy Sunday; the illicit love described on Markos Vamvakaris’s Francosyrian Girl; and the sonorous female tones of Haris Alexiou on When A Woman Drinks: “You tell me not to get drunk, Because it’s not allowed, But you have no idea of the pain in my heart.”
Greek blues. To someone unfamiliar with this music, the term might sound like a contradiction. In fact, it’s more like a tautology. Four centuries of Ottoman rule prior to the 20th century might have been tough for a once-proud empire to stomach – although we Greeks hardly needed any encouragement. Even at the peak of Greek civilization 2,500 years ago, when things were going pretty well for us, we still made time to invent Greek tragedy. When pressed to define “real” Greek music, our taxi driver pointed us to rebetika. So the Greek blues has a name, and this is it. But rebetika was a word I never heard in my childhood, mainly because, by the time my parents were growing up, rebetika had been supplanted by its more well-scrubbed offspring laika – or to use its literal meaning “popular”.
As a child, my parents never stopped to tell me the real history of Greek music in this century – and, when I grew up and made my own inquiries, I realised why. The music that Greeks have come to recognize as their own was created in the hash dens or tekedhes that lined the port of Piraeus – much of it by Greeks and Turks forced to flee Smyrna (now Izmir) after the catastrophic Greek assault on the city ended in capitulation in 1922. The songtitles speak for themselves. Rosa Eskenazy’s Why I Smoke Cocaine; Anestis Delias’s The Junkie’s Complaint; Smoking The Hubble Bubble For Hours by Vamvakaris – songs written to the rhythm of the zeibekiko, the heavily sedated dervish dance of the Piraeus teke.
If none of those songs made it to the turntable back at our chip shop, it’s hardly surprising. Vamvakaris was the Robert Johnson of rebetika, with a backstory just as mythical as Johnson’s crossroads encounter with the devil. Having stowed away as a child from the island of Syros, he vowed to chop his hand off with a meat cleaver if he didn’t learn to play the bouzouki within six months. On Why I Smoke Hooka Tobacco, recorded in 1933, he sounds barely conscious – scratching out a minimal modal accompaniment on his bouzouki which wouldn’t sound out of place on the first Velvet Underground album. If middle-aged Greeks in the 1970s weren’t overly keen on sharing this aspect of their history with their children, it isn’t hard to see why.
In fairness, my parents would have struggled to find this music on any existing records at the time. In 1936, the Greek music industry was in its infancy when Ioannis Metaxas’s fascist Government came to power. That Greece was adopting a form of music as its own that hailed from Asia Minor was a huge source of embarrassment to Metaxas, who thought that, like him, everyone ought to be listening to Mozart.
Many of rebetika’s foremost practitioners may have been refugees, but their survivalist instincts and camaraderie created an entire subculture of sharply-dressed, streetwise men known as manges. Just as Jamaica had its rude boys and hip-hop spawned male archetypes who identified themselves as “gangstas”, rebetika had the manga. “Hey Mangas,” begins Poser, written in 1935 by Anestis Delias, shortly after acquiring the heroin addiction that ended his life, “If you’re going to carry a knife, You’d better have the guts, poser, to pull it out.” If Metaxas’s instinct was to outlaw the people who made this music, what he actually did was far cleverer. He co-opted them. Tsitsanis removed cadences from his music that might be deemed “Asian” in character – although listening to the secondary harmonies on Cloudy Sunday, you suspect he didn’t try that hard. Nevertheless, to this day, recorded versions of his song The Dew have yet to reinstate the references to cannabis that littered its first incarnation. Vamvakaris also followed suit. “He simply had no choice,” says his son Stelios – now also a well-known Greek musician. “The lyrics had to be generalized. If he wanted to carry on putting records out and feed his family, he needed to be careful that he didn’t fall foul of the censors.”
The effects of Metaxas’s censorship have resounded throughout Greek life long after Metaxas himself expired. Take the case of Manos Hadjidakis, the man behind the arguably the most well-known piece of Greek music in the last 100 years, Never On Sunday. In 1949, Manos Hadjidakis delivered a speech at the Arts Theatre in Athens, urging Greeks to embrace rebetika as an authentic expression of their own Greekness. Hadjidakis’s words were greeted with such vilification that he was urged by the Greek chief of police to lie low for two or three months. As his adopted son, George Hadjidakis explains, “The feeling out there was that how could this man have the temerity to drag the rebetes, with their hashish, with their drug problems onto the boulevards of uptown Athens.”
Undaunted, Hadjidakis assimilated rebetika melodies and lyrics into his own music. His achingly beautiful Six Folklore Melodies album was both political and artistic act – a deliberate bid to turn people on to the qualities of this music. “It didn’t matter where this music had come from,” says George Hadjidakis, “After so many years under Ottoman rule, he realised that Greece didn’t have a classical music to call its own, That’s what he set about doing, using rebetika, traditional rural folk songs and Byzantine influences.” Next to the job at hand, celebrity was a mere distraction for the composer. In 1964, months after Hadjidakis received his Oscar for Never On A Sunday, his cleaner retrieved it from a bin bag after noticing that the rubbish was strangely heavy.
Hadjidakis’s indifference to his own popularity – or lack of it – is now one of the very things that Greeks have come to love about him. Further decades of political instability, have nurtured the anti-authoritarian tendencies of Greeks and, in the process, taught them to accept their wild rebetika forbears for what they were. As the latter-day superstar of Greek music, George Dalaras’s 1985 album Rebetika Of The Occupation planted many of these songs into the mainstream for the first time. But any actual drug songs remained conspicuous by their absence. “You have to keep in mind,” says Dalaras, “that, at this time we still had censorship. We wouldn’t have got permission to play these songs at a major venue.” In the interim, though, something appears to have changed.
Hence the release this year of a live album, Songs With Substance, which saw 57 year-old Dalaras and a floating cast of guest singers atoning for previous omissions with a string of songs boasting titles like Hashish and Hash Den Rumba. Newspaper leader columns attempted to whip up a little outrage. By and large though, it seemed as though the mere act of hearing Dalaras – a Greek national treasure on a par with, say, Bruce Springsteen in America – extolling the virtues and vices of the narcotic life made it acceptable. “These are songs that [a whole generation of Greeks] didn’t know existed,” explains the singer, “And now they do. Whatever, you think of them, that has to be a good thing.”
Back at the foot of the Acropolis though, those bouzoukis still sound no less cheerful than they did two days ago, on the evening of our arrival. Just hours until my flight now. Where to find some proper rebetika? With time running out, the one safe bet lies a short ride away from the harbour where it first arrived. Squirreled away behind the drawn curtains of his modest Piraeus flat, 60 year-old Stelios Vamvakaris opens his bouzouki case and plays something exotic, tarry and faintly foreboding. I might have been brought up on Greek blues, but Vamvakaris sounds like a man convinced that as long as he keeps playing, this music can never die. To watch him is to feel the same.