It’s long past time that I share some of the Greek music I’ve found so inspiring the last several years. “Rembetika” (ρεμπέτικα, also spelled “rembetika” or “rebetika“, pronounced as the latter is written), or “Greek blues”, developed among Greek Christian refugees that migrated from Anatolia (modern Turkey) to Greece as a result of the 1923 population exchange between Greece and nascent Turkey, relocating Greek Christians and Turkish Muslims to recently founded nation-states. Greek refugees brought with them hundreds of years of Ottoman Turkish culture, a cosmopolitan tapestry of various eastern ethnicities, musics and traditions. The music that resulted was music of a poor urban subculture, rich nonetheless in eastern timbres and scales as well as lyrically descriptive of the impoverished lifestyle, and ultimately became a critical seed in the development of Greek popular music throughout the 20th century, very similarly to the way in which the thread of blues runs through American and Western popular music.
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Vasillis Tsitsanis was an early and hugely successful composer of rembetika songs, both before an after World War II. From a collection of his pre-war music comes the gem “Πικρός είναι ο πόνος μου” (“Pikrós eínai o pónos mou“, “Bitter Is My Pain“). Like perhaps a plurality of rembetika songs, “Pikrós” is a zeïbékiko or zeybek (Turkish equivalent), a slow 9/4 dance.
The original recording from 1936 can be heard in the video below, as well as on this wonderful compilation from Rounder records. Follow along with the transcription and lyric below:
The bouzouki, a long-necked plucked string instrument that Tsitsanis plays on the above recording was developed from the Turkish bağlama saz, influenced by Italian mandolin design and is today an indispensable element of Greek popular music.
In 2008, I was joined by Jordan Perlson and Brad Shepik to record an instrumental (and non-traditional) version of the tune for my Una Passeggiata (Live) record.
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Another gem of a tune from not quite 20 years later is Το Βουνό, (pronounced “To vounó“, “The Mountain“) by Loukas Daralas. Evangelos Prekas’ lyric is brilliant and succinct in reframing what is otherwise an archetypical expression of loneliness:
Θ’ ανέβω και θα τραγουδήσω I will climb up and I will sing,
στο πιο ψηλότερο βουνό on the most highest mountain,
ν’ ακούγεται στην ερηµιά I will make my pain heard in the wilderness
ο πόνος µου µε την πενιά with the beat of the music.
Με το βουνό θα γίνω φίλος With the mountain I’ll become friend,
και µε τα πεύκα συντροφιά and with the pines, companions
κι όταν θα κλαίω και πονώ When I cry and suffer pain,
θ’ αναστενάζει το βουνό it is the mountain that will sigh.
Απάνω στο βουνό θα µείνω On top the mountain I will remain,
κι από τον κόσµο µακριά and far away from the world.
θα κλαίω µόνος θα πονώ Alone will I cry, will I suffer pain,
και θα µ’ ακούει το βουνό and the mountain will listen to me.
Numerous recordings exist, but Kaiti Grey’s below is stirring, and the presence of the kanun, alternating with the bouzouki reveals both the Ottoman influence on the music and how much it had developed during several decades in the Greek mainland.
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More on the history and music of rembetika can be seen in this excellent documentary, Music of The Outsiders
The music runs deep. If it catches your fancy, another website worth visiting is Ellinika.org, an entirely free course of Greek lessons developed by the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation some 50 years ago. One of the best, bar none, courses I’ve come across for any language, it has helped me to get inside rembetika and some incredible music of the last century. There is also a detailed survey of rembetika history, recordings and places to find it at Matt Barrett’s Travel Guides
Special thanks on this post to George Gouzounis, for helping translate from the Greek, and to www.Stixoi.info, an incredible repository of Greek lyrics.
More free sheet music and transcriptions available here!
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