Monday, June 29, 2009


“If you ever get caught in the net of life, no one can untangle you. Find its end on your own, if you are lucky and begin again..” Rebetiko Song

The Rainbow begins where the homeland of Rebetika ends. It has been ordained so. For it was upon Mt Ararat, the easternmost extremity of Anatolia, that the Ark rested and the promise was made, that humanity would never be destroyed.
The Rainbow is more things besides. It is the prismatic separation of elements, that when reconstituted, forms pure light. In this particular Rainbow then, the constituent parts of illumination are love, desire, displacement, sorrow and survival, compassion, empathy, solidarity, forgiveness and reconciliation, through the music of the Women of Rebetika.
For the homeland of Rebetika is also the traditional land of the Great Mother Goddess, Cybele, the Love Goddess, Anahit and the nurturing but ultimately dark and chthonic Hecate. It is in the early hymns of their praise, song by their female devotees that we could probably try at least, to tentatively trace the origins of Rebetika.
Between 1915-1923, the Christians of Anatolia were subjected to a deliberate, state-sponsored campaign of dislocation and extermination. It is in this sustained period of genocide, that Rebetika truly come into their own, as a method of expressing the harrowing experiences of violence, horror, immense loss and alienation felt by the survivors, forced to eke out an existence away from their homes and culture, in ‘foreign’ lands. Even more poignantly, Rebetika communicated to the listener a very specific state of mind, similar to the one elicited by the bitter-sweet strains of the American Blues, a Gypsy Violin or a Flamingo Guitar; one that grants a rare and insightful glimpse, not only of the manifest content of a single composition but more importantly, a considerably larger (albeit deeply disturbing) social and psychological context as well.
Whatever has been written about the history of genocide has been based mainly on the experiences of men. Yet women's experiences with genocide have often differed from those of men in terms of participation, forms of victimization, consequences but most importantly, methods of healing. Some women found expressing their ordeal such a horrific task that they never spoke of it. Others were so frightened that they refused to speak their mother tongue all their lives, for fear of identification. Then there were those brave women who sought to come to terms with their loss by embracing it, setting it to music and consoling an entire generation. These were the Women of Rebetika, iconoclasts and challengers of preconceived social norms. They were the “derbederisses,” a Greek term that has come to denote a liberated women but which is ultimately derived from a Turkish word for fugitive. This sematic shift of itself, represents a triumph of the spirit.
In keeping with the multi-ethnic world in which they lived and were finally extirpated from, not all these rebetisses were Greek. Within the provocative world of the early urban Greek ‘Café Amans,’ where flamboyant characters sang about desperate love, life and death, and the seedy side of life, there were a surprising number of celebrated Greek Jewish female vocalists. Included among them was Roza Eskenazi, one of the most renowned Greek singers of all time, and Stella Haskil, who sang together with legendary performers such as Vasilis Tsitsanis. Across the Atlantic, Jewish women, notably Amalia Baka and Victoria Hazan, found center stage in the immigrant Greek nightclubs of major urban centres, as well as within the American ethnic recording industry.
The development of Rebetiko spanned one of the most turbulent periods in Greek history an era that included Nazi occupation and civil war. Sometimes called the "Greek blues," rebetiko is as much the music of defiance, as it is of survival. From the outset, it was an indigenous musical tradition inimically opposed to the artificially contrived, Bavarian inspired " Cafe Chantant " music. This was the sound most associated with the Western-influenced Greek Upper Class and it represented the Western European musical influence in Greece. Considering eastern-derived music as uncivilized and in an amazing feat of self-orientalism that would have even its propounder, Edward Said, scratching his head, naturally subversive, government censors studied rebetika lyrics carefully, looking for political references. Songwriters and performers, meanwhile, did their best to outwit the censors and the government. Some artists lived daring, unconventional lives. Roza Eskenazi managed to run a successful restaurant during the German occupation, despite the fact that she was Jewish and Sotiria Bellou, made no secret of her preference for women, took an active role in the Greek resistance and indulged in a passion for gambling. Others, such as Ioanna Yeorgakopolou, managed to raise families. All contributed to what has become one of Greece's most admired contributions to world culture.
Within Rebetiko itself, the role as well as the understanding and construction of women evolved. In “Mes tou Zambikou,” a song sung by Eshkenazi, a women goes to a hash den, looking for a smoke. She is referred not as a hanoumaki, but as a “meraklou,” ie, a bon vivant, a connoisseur and a devotee of good living. As such, the meraklou is admired and accepted by the ‘manges’ as one of their own. In one of Markos Vamvakaris, songs, the girls of Piraeus are even willing to transgress social norms by cross-dressing, in order to ‘hang out’ with the manges. The picture he paints of the freewheeling girls of the port city is affectionate and playful. The free spirited Rebetissa gradually appears less and less after the Second World War. However, her presence within Greek society created an enduring appreciation of the fictive streetwise lady. Indeed, as a symbol.paradigm in popular culture, she has come a long way from perhaps her first mention in a rebetiko recorded in Constantinople in 1915, about Elli, a beautiful, sexually liberated girl who denies her family for her lover and who wants “sugar and hashish flour/ to make sweets to send to Lefteri.”
Purists today might occasionally be heard to inquire, who could possibly probe the depths of the Rebetic soul in the way of a Sotiria Bellou. Or who could even attempt to communicate the same expressions of Greek Existential Angst with the same "matter of fact" subtleties, that made Ioanna Yeorgakopoulou such a Rebetic vocal powerhouse. The answer quite simply, is none. Even the genuine Rebetisses who are still actively performing such as Poly Panou or an Anna Chrysafi, have had to develop a style and stage presentation, that has evolved considerably beyond what they may have done in the past. So what. Did vocalists in the U.S.A stop singing the Blues because of the demise of the legendary Bessie Smith? Did the French put their Cabaret to bed because Edith Piaf is no longer with us? The answer is evident. If they had, Bluest Bessie would probably have turned an even deeper shade of Blue and the good Madam Piaf, would finally have had something to regret.
“Women of Rebetika”, a concert to be held at the Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday, 5 July 2009 at 7:00pm, and featuring the dulcet and yet irrepressibly dynamic virtuosity of San Magiemenes, (the band, not the Central American enclave), comprised of Christella Demetriou (vocal and bouzouki), Eleftheria Kourlia (vocal and guitar), Sophie Moulakaki (vocal, accordion), Claudia Rossini (vocal, violin) Irene Vela (bouzouki and laouto) and our very own déesse de la chanson Anthea Sidiropoulos, seeks to pay tribute to these indomitable Women, indeed, all Women who grieve, yet must survive and do so in triumphant, awe-inspiring style. For there is no end to their suffering in this world, whether it be in the aftermath of the brutal conflicts of previous generations, or more recently those in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur or Iraq. Within the fabric of our multi-cultural community, many of these heinous experiences are interwoven. Our narrative should embrace them, understand them and heal them. After all, this passion and spirit of survival exemplified by the Women of Rebetika parallels the similar plight of many emerging and refugee background communities who have settled in Melbourne, having lost their beloved homeland and who have fled persecution.
The two hour concert will feature a selection of classic Greek favourites from the Rebetika (Greek Blues) era as well as some original compositions and the use of traditional instruments including the bouzouki, laouto, violin, accordion and the small, leprechaun-like baglama.
If there is a pot of gold at the end of the Anatolian Rainbow, perhaps it is indicated in the legacy of Rebetika, a genre that transcends time and cultural boundaries. Considering that the term itself derives from the Slavic “Rebenok,” meaning youngster, it is undoubtedly, the music of renewal and hope. For even in exile, and in the aftermath of pain, time and fortitude will lend us the means to traverse the Rainbow. The “Women of Rebetika,” a timely tribute to those of our unsung Song Goddesses who embody a whole way of life, shows us the way:

"Outside the gates of Paradise, someone grew two plants/In time the plants grew, and the angels went wild." Zambetas.

First published in NKEE on 29 June 2009