What if I told you of a theory that songs on the same theme sounded the same in every culture? Preposterous, you would say. And you’d be right. So why is it that these rembetika—Greek songs about drugs, trouble with authority, early death, and more drugs—remind me of ’60s and ’70s punk?
Rembetika is the original music of subculture rebels. Performers flouted their poor dress, bad manners, devotion to hashish and the Greek manga (“hipster”) code. Some of the singers, like Jorgos Batis, sneered into the mike for all the world like Richard Hell.
The attitude is reflected in the aesthetics. Compared to its cousin the oud, the bouzouki doesn’t really handle the intricate ornaments of the eastern Mediterranean. The leads emphasize a rough, driving pattern, heavy on the downbeat (we’re mostly in 4/4), almost like a guitar imitating an oud. The verse-refrain structure is eminently European. Yet the modal melodies relate to the classical music of Turkey and Iran. If you try to puzzle out the distinction between familiar and exotic, rembetika will weave an ecstatic dizzy spell around you.
And the drugs. Before Gary Davis had the “Cocaine Blues,” before Lou Reed wailed, “Thank god I’m good as dead,” here’s Anestis Delias lamenting his body wasting away on junk, black-eyed Roza Eskenazi begging for a refill on the hash pipe. The forbidding jacket photo shows an armful of water pipes, knives, and a Glock, accoutrements of the Greek gangsta. This is a wise piece of packaging. The record-buying cosmopolitans who have embraced tango, klezmer, and fado will have a rough ride with rembetika, whose underclass—needing a fix and dying of TB—would as soon slit the throat of the lovelorn fadista. Rough Guide to World Music suggests that rembetika derives from Turkish for “gutter.” That’s your gutter as much of those of Piraeus and Athens. While its American contemporaries (swing, blues, Tin Pan Alley) are clouded over by pop culture history, this is a sound you could hear on the street tonight, too late and on the wrong side of town. Rembetika has the raw, tingling immediacy of metal against your neck. Now there’s a universal for you.
Rembetika: Songs of the Greek Underground, 1925–1947 was released by the German label Trikont and is distributed in the US by Triage Records.