The roots of rembetika
Rembetika has its roots in two musical traditions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the music of the urban Greek social fringes, especially in the Piraeus (often compared to the blues sub-culture in the United States at about the same time), and the cafe aman (Smyrnaika, or Smyrneika) of the Asia Minor cities of Smyrna and Constantinople. The two forms came together after the influx of ethnic-Greek refugees from Turkey in the early 1920s (see Treaty of Lausanne).
The pre-1920s rembetika of Piraeus, embedded as it was in the lower strata of Greek society, was typified by lyrics concerning drugs, sex, prison, gambling, and persecution. The singers and musicians were almost all men, and they played in tekes (hashish dens} and in natural hideaways such as caves and coves, as well as in prison. The main instruments were bouzouki and its smaller sibling the baglamas (the latter being especially popular as they were easy to make and hide in prison). Musicianship varied from the adequate to the highly skilled, but almost always amateur; rembetes played for themselves and their friends.
The pre-1920s cafe aman, on the other hand, had a wider audience, being a rather more sophisticated style to be found performed by professionals to paying audiences. The music was mre elaborate than rembetika, and the lyrics inhabited a more elevated level, dealing in topics such as unrequited love and romantic betrayal as well as nostalgia, the feelings and experience of a displaced community. Instrumentation was more varied (and orchestrations richer) than in rembetika, too, including clarinet, violin, outi, santouri, tsimbalom, kanonaki, and various percussion instruments. Women singers were common.
Even before the 1920s the two styles were to be found outside their natural areas; cafes aman were to be found in Athens, and there are early recordings of rembetika. They were thrown together more intimately and fruitfully, however, by the catastrophic events following the Greek invasion of Turkey in 1919.
The development of rembetika
The musicians and singers
- Strictly speaking, rembetika are the individual musical works, rembetiko (Greek: ρεμπέτικο) being the genre, but the plural has come to be the standard form for both.
- Suzanne Aulin and Peter Vejleskov Χασικλιδικά Ρεμβέτικα (Hashish Rembetika). Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 1991. ISBN 978-87-7289-134-7
- Gail Holst Road to Rembetika: Music of the Greek Sub-culture. Athens: Denise Harvey, 1975. ISBN 960-7120-07-8
- Risto Pekka Pennanen "The Development of Chordal Harmony in Greek Rebetika and Laika Music, 1930s to 1960s", in British Journal of Ethnomusicology 6, 1997: pp 65–116