Athens, Greece, late 1920s. The crescent moon hangs over the meyhanes of Athenian ghettos. They are filled with men smoking their nargile, sipping their coffees and drinking a glass of raki. The small stage in front of them features a small group of bouzouki players, a kanun (santouri) player, accompanied by an oud and dumbek. A lead singer, female, opens her mouth and delivers the words of pain and sadness, using the makam style of singing, honing in on the traditions of the world they lost in Asia Minor. This is Rebetiko, also known as the Greek blues.
Singers lament over love lost, death, despair, their intoxication of drink and smoke are all that’s left to heal their wounds. The music was later refined in the 1960s and ‘70s, evolving into a global phenomenon among the Greek Diaspora.
Fast forward to 2010, and the sounds of the Athenian ghettos rings throughout the restaurants and clubs of Istanbul and Izmir; the Asia Minor refugees have left their legacy which lives on today with the Turkish youth. The Turkish nights ring with the sounds of Greek Ottoman subculture, with groups like Buzuki Kemal and GarajIstanbul playing live Rebetiko every week in downtown Alsancak and Beyoglu.*
Having lived in Izmir for a long period of time, as well as visited Istanbul twice, I was amazed by the variety of music that played throughout the cities. From Rock to Latin, Turkish folk and Orientale style, the range is remarkable. But there is something special about Rebetiko. This style of music is directly influenced by Asia Minor, its culture and history, becoming one of the cities’ lost traditions. With its singers hailing from Beyoglu (named “Pera” pre-1922), Konya, Ayvalik, and Alsancak, many of the songs lyrical inspirations derive from the time when Greeks and Turks lived together, up until the Asia Minor catastrophe.
A reflection of a time where people were violently divided, the music plays today bringing both Greeks and Turks together again. It is no doubt that out of a dark time came one of the most influential musical eras in the eastern Mediterranean.
Today, singers like Izmir-born but Athens based Fide Koksal, have made a strong and significant impression by singing the popular music of Greece and Turkey in both languages. Her expertise in the Greek language, and love of Aegean culture, catapulted her to be wider notoriety in the popular Greek TV series Matomena Homata (Troubled soil), singing one the main theme songs “Dertli Topraklar”. The show was based on the book Farewell Anatolia, written by Dido Sotiriou, who was born in Aydin Province. You can see Fide’s performance on Greek TV:
Whether in Istanbul, Izmir, or Athens, one must take an evening out and submerge themselves in a night of rebetiko. Doing so, you will inherent a history of cross-cultural love and strife that has moved several generations of deep emotional expression. After decades of fighting and tension, rebetiko is the music that is bringing people together again.