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Brief history of Greek rebetika and smyrnaiikan music

Rebetika is music that was typically played by musicians with a great deal of proficiency and musical training; the music incorporates modes, rhythms and musical forms from Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Spain, and the Balkans. In Western music we use two primary melodic modes, major and minor. Rebetika commonly uses 35 or more such modes, most containing notes which don't exist in the Western equal-tempered tuning system. In addition, the art of rebetika playing (and instrumental playing in the Middle East, in general) is in the ornamentation of notes. Though there are trills, mordents, and a few other understood ornaments in Western music, rebetika musicians had dozens of complicated and rapid ornaments to consider when improvising or performing composed work.

All of the recordings of we know of Smyrnaiika and early Rebetika come from 78's released in the 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's by Columbia Greece, Orfeo, and His Masters' Voice. Many of the recordings you are likely to hear today, whether on 78, LP, cassette, or CD, come from the archives of Dino Papas, a retired police officer in Detroit, Michigan who collected over 10,000 original Rebetika recordings. Others come from the collection of Marty Schwartz, professor at U.C. Berkeley. Unfortunately, little credit has been paid to these two individuals, who are mostly responsible for the world still knowing about Rebetika, a style that nearly completely died out after 1945.

The lyrics of Rebetika music often contain images of "burning" and "drowning." Considering the history of the singers, images of war first come to mind -- the burning of Smyrna, and the drowning of ships fleeing to Greece. Other songs contain drug references, particularly to cocaine, opium, and hashish, as drug selling and consumption was a part of the social life of some of the tavernas where rebetika was performed. When these songs were re-recorded in the late 1930's and 1940's by Her Masters' Voice, and released to a wider audience, many of the lyrics were changed to make them more "decent," although thousands of 78 RPM recordings with the original lyrics are still intact.

When Rebetika music became the popular music of Greece, it had undergone enough changes (lyric censorship, changing quarter-tones to Western notes) that it was no longer slow and sad, but a stylized refinement of the historical rebetika. In the movie "Rebetika" I referred to earlier, we see the transition that takes place as the band we are following gets a recording contract and comes to America, only to lose the meaning that their music once had. "Classic" Rebetika music could no longer be found in Greece after 1945, and all but died out.

Besides the work of Papas and Schwartz, there has been a rebetika revival of a different sort, in America, Australia, and in Greece: starting in the 1990s, new groups started performing covers of old rebetika songs, sometimes striving to exactly re-create the original, sometimes modernizing the pieces with electric insruments and fuller instrumentation. The Balkan, Lark in the Morning, and Middle-Eastern music camps in Mendocino, CA are a forum for many revival groups, including Ziyia, Farabi, and the Smyrna Time Machine. In Turkey, one can often hear old rebetika recordings playing from storefronts on Beyoglu's Istiklal Caddesi, but I don't know of any dedicated rebetika groups today in Turkey, though a piece or two can be found in the repertoire of artists such as Selim Sesler and Yeni Türkü.

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