The rembétiko, or rebétiko (plural rembétika), is a musical genre that emerged in Greece in the 1920s and, in many ways, parallels the American blues. Its influence on contemporary Greek music, including the tunes and songs best known outside the country, is as pronounced as that of the Blues on popular music in the English-speaking world. A performer of the rembetiko is called a rembétis (plural rembétes).
In order to understand the rembetiko, one must go back to the circumstances under which it arose. In 1922, the Greek expeditionary force that had taken eastern Thrace and the area around Smyrna (Izmir) from the dying Ottoman Empire in 1919 was defeated and those regions were retaken by the Turks under Mustafa Kemal who would found the modern Turkish state the following year. Recriminations against the ethnic Greek and other Christian populations were savage. All in all, about two million refugees fleeing a campaign of genocide or as part of the population exchange ordained in the Treaty of Lausanne would arrive in Greece bringing with them little more than the clothes on their back and their culture. From the culture of the refugees from Smyrna, their experience and their music, the rembetiko would arise.
Many of those refugees would arrive in Piraeus, port of Athens and stay there trying to eke out a living. Although Greece was the motherland, it was totally incapable of supporting a number of refugees equal to one quarter of its population. Unemployment among the new arrivals, especially those who spoke no Greek, only Turkish or local dialects, was rampant and many took to crime as a means of sustenance. Drug use was common and The "tekés," the hashish den, was an institution. Here is where the rembetiko was born.
The word rembetiko is traceable to rebeskés, a rebel or outlaw. Men who had left behind them their burning hometown of Smyrna, who did odd jobs if they could get them, to whom crime was no stranger and hashish was a consolation, had also brought with them the music of their homeland and the instrument that would redefine Greek music in the 20th century and transform it from regional folk tunes into a genre recognised around the world: the bouzouki. Another instrument that necessity created was actually a miniature bouzouki crafted to be hidden from prison wardens since the bouzouki itself was outlawed because of its association with the rembétes. This instrument, the baglamás, would also become a part of modern Greek music and the pair are often used in tandem.
A typical rembetiko song will have a measure of 9/8, less commonly 4/4, 7/8 or even 17/8. The instruments will be a bouzouki and/or baglama. The singer is usually male though the female "rembétissa" is not unknown. In the rembetiko the bouzouki replaces the guitar as solo instrument and many early recordings are of a solo male artist with his bouzouki, just like the American bluesman of old. Anything more elaborate than a bouzouki/bouzouki or bouzouki/baglama pair (or three of them if you stretch it) and a tambourine cannot really be considered rembetiko but is more likely to be dubbed "laikó" (popular) or "éntechno" (artistic) depending on the accompanying instruments and sound. The typical make-up of a musical "compania" would simply be anyone present with his instrument. In some cases an accordion or clarinet might be acceptable and a drumkit is tolerated in modern renditions.
The themes of the rembetiko are often morose but also sing about the rembetiko way of life. A man would sing about hardship, unemployment, vendettas and the age-old classic, unrequited love. Or he would sing about his instrument, drugs and anything else that was part of the rembetiko lifestyle. One of the most famous songs, the "Ship from Persia," cries over a shipment of cannabis intercepted by the authorities. Another one laments the demise of the singer's baglama at the hands of the vice police. The "lifestyle" songs, regardless of subject, are generally more spirited and light-hearted than the rest. After all, a genre that can call a song "Stoner Princes" and make it a classic has a sense of humour.
The rembetiko is open to improvisation and many of the classic old songs were probably made up on the spot in a coffee shop or hashish den, similarly to the closely related Greco-Turkish genre known as the "amanés." The latter sub-genre was often performed by female singers. While they made no killing playing to their peers, a number of rembetes became famous players and commanded high respect in a culture that has exalted artistic prowess since ancient times. Even today a man who can play the soulful rembetiko is an awe-inspiring figure when in action.
There is only one dance associated with the rembetiko and that is the zeibekiko, also from the vicinity of Smyrna. The powerfully emotional songs and improvisation that dominate rembetiko music, and the unusual 9/8 time signature make it a tricky dance either to improvise or to choreograph. Thus the zeibekiko, a solo improvised dance with the same background as the music is the only one truly suited to this kind of music.
True rembetika can be hard to find, even in Greece itself. They're mostly played live at impromptu gigs, often old classics mixed with the musician's own inspiration, and the set of recordings from the 1930s is limited. If you're looking at a recording work that claims to be "rembetiko" you should look for names like Zagoraios, Tsitsanis or Vamvakaris, their presence is a guarantee that there will be something authentic on the record. The rembetiko is nothing if not authentic. Like the popular "bouzouki music" you may have heard captures the spirit of Greece, the rembetiko captures the very essence of its soul. Understand the rembetiko and you may understand 20th century Greece as it existed on the boundary between Orient and Occident. Even as the 21th century continues to turn Greece into a completely westernised society, there will always be a corner in the Greek soul that has its head in an apartment block and its roots in the wild mountains of Anatolia.