Have you gone through a rebetika obsession yet?
It happens all the time. People stumble on this old Greek music from the 1930s and become completely obsessed. If you have not had the bug yet, do yourself a favor and get on it. Rebetika is definitely one of the musical treasures of the Twentieth century.
Just one of the many distinctive aspects of rebetika music is that it is without a doubt the first example of psychedelic popular music. Rebetika was often played for stoned listeners, by musicians who were smoking hashish, with the music intending to compliment the effects of being high. Additionally, the subjects of the songs often revolved around hashish, being stoned, or the world in the which these Greek stoners lived.
Of course, Greek recordings from the 1920s and 1930s were varied and complex, not all the singers were hash smokers and not all the songs concerned hashish or other underworld topics. The music was not even consider a genre at the time, and wasn’t referred to as “rebetika” until long after the genre had morphed into a more popular, mainstream style.
There are plenty of great reissues of Greek 78s that give detailed histories (see Mortika, Greek Rhapsody, or any of the cds produced by Charles Howard for Rounder records). So rather than discuss the details of the influence of Smyrna or the dichotomy between upper and lower class musicians, I want to give a brief introduction to one of the coolest and unique subsets of early rebetika recordings – the solo guitar.
Rebetika is usually associated with the bouzouki, the long-necked lute that was popularized in the early 1930s by recordings of Jack Halikias and Markos Vamvakaris, among others. While other instruments sometimes took center stage, such as the violin or the accordion, the guitar was generally used as a simple back-up, rhythm instrument, with the exception of a large number of recordings made by Spyros Peristeris playing the guitar as a lead instrument in place of the bouzouki, and using a general “bouzouki style.” But there were a handful of artists who recorded songs played on solo guitar in a manner that calls to mind some American folk and blues finger picking styles.
By far the most legendary is the mysterious “Kostis.” Many rebetika researchers believe that Kostis was a pseudonym for Konstandinos Bezos. Bezos was something of a renaissance man. He was the leader of a successful Hawaiian ensemble made up of Greek musicians (Ta Aspra Poulia = The White Birds), a journalist, actor and more. It’s not certain if Bezos composed the Kostis recordings, of which there are ten songs and two instrumentals, or if he is the guitarist or singer heard on the recordings. The whole detective story is outlined nicely in Tony Klein’s Greek Rhapsody.
Kostis was the most enigmatic, but the most prolific rebetika solo guitarist was undoubtedly Giorgos Katsaros. The majority of his recordings were solo guitar pieces using a two-finger method of picking, in a variety of tunings. Katsaros was born on the island of Amorgos in 1888 and emigrated to America in his teens. Like many well-known rebetiko singers, he recorded more than just underworld songs. His style is very personal and idiosyncratic, with occasional pauses and time changes that are not usually heard in Greek music. He continued performing well into his 90s.
Another Greek-American guitarist was Kostas “Gus” Dussas (1897-1949). Dussas may have lived in Chicago at some point, but ended up in Lodi, California, where there was a substantial Greek community. He recorded 18 songs during the 1930s.
Nondas Sgouros was one of the pseudonyms for Tetos Demetriades. Recorded January 8, 1929. Demetriades was a monumental figure in the history of the early Greek record industry. He recorded a huge number of records in almost every style of Greek music and was also deeply involved in Victor records as head of their international division. In 1940, he left Victor to start his own label, Standard Records. Another claim to fame: he recorded the first version of the song Misirlou in 1927.
This record is an excellent example of a song that has the underworld sound and themes and yet is clearly performed by someone who did not actively live the rebetika lifestyle. I’m not sure who is playing guitar on this recording.
HARTOPEKTIS (The Gambler)
They call me a gambler, a card shark
Everybody condemns me and thinks I’m guilty
I know how to play, how to cheat, and how to make money gambling
I gamble all night long and I lose all the money
and when I return home they ask me to pay the rent
when I don’t have the money to pay what I owe,
they throw my stuff outside my house in a suitcase
I always ask to borrow money and the cards have destroyed my life
(translated by Leonidas Kassapides)