Rebetika: The Blues of Greece

November 10-12, 2015


The Origins

Tuesday, November 10, 7pm

Onassis Cultural Center NY

With Kyriakos Kalaitzides, oud; Tony Barhoum, qanun; Mavrothi Kontanis, oud, guitar; George Lernis, toumperleki, defi; Phaedon Sinis, politiki lyra

Watch the live concert here.


The Evolution

Thursday, November 12, 7pm

Onassis Cultural Center NY

With Lena Kitsopoulou, song; Kostas Gerakis, guitar; Ilias Krommydas, accordion; Georgios Petroudis, bouzouki

Watch the live Concert here!

Rebetika: The Blues of Greece by Gail Holst-Warhaft

The urban popular songs and dances called rebetika (or rembetika) have become as representative of Greece as flamenco is of Spain or the tango is of Argentina. These musical traditions emerged at roughly the same period from the poorest section of society, and they were once looked down on as low-class, shady music. For Americans, there is another obvious parallel: the Blues, especially the urban blues of the 1920s to the 1940s.

What caused all these musical styles to flourish, and how did they become popular with a broad audience? In all cases, a combination of migration and urbanization seems to have been an important catalyst. Had it not been for the mass immigration of Asia Minor Greeks from Smyrna and the surrounding region following the Asia Minor Catastrophe, the rebetika would not have developed, or at least not in the way they did. It was the combination of musical elements from the western shore of modern Turkey, with local traditions, instrumentation, and lyrics, that created the rebetika. Living in shantytowns on the fringes of Athens and Piraeus, the refugees from Smyrna played the Asia Minor music they knew, but they also met and played with local Greek musicians. Two refugees and two Greeks formed a quartet led by the man many Greeks regard as the father of rebetika: Markos Vamvakaris. What was new about the music they played was the bouzouki, an instrument Markos had learned growing up on the island of Syros, and the lyrics of the songs, which were about the tough life of Piraeus in the late 1920s and ‘30s.

The music these four musicians played attracted large audiences, helped by the radio and the newly established recording studios. Despite the fact that the lyrics of the songs were about underworld characters who smoked hashish or spent time in jail, Greeks who had nothing to do with the tough world of Piraeus enjoyed listening and dancing to the rebetika. New stars, including Vassilis Tsitsanis, emerged, writing songs and performing in expensive nightclubs.

 The most characteristic rhythms of the music were the 9/8 of the solo male zeibekiko dance and the 2/4 of the hasapiko, which two or more men danced together.  The music seemed to speak to Greeks especially during times of hardship, such as the German occupation of Greece, when most Athenians were hungry. They listened to the rebetika in underground taverns, and the zeibekiko dance became a symbol of resistance. It is no accident, perhaps, that the rebetika are popular in Greece today.


Why Rebetika? by Kyriakos Kalaitzides

Rebetiko is an important and unique musical tradition with Greek, Arab, Turkish, and Jewish origins. Its origin dates back to the 1850s, in the streets of Smyrna, the popular neighborhoods of Constantinople, as well as the backstreets of the port of Syros, and later in the working class areas of Athens, Piraeus, and Thessaloniki. The rebetika songs, which were written in the margins of society, are similar in this respect to those of fado, flamenco, and tango, and the American blues. In this event, we will present the songs and rhythms of this old tradition, which continues to inspire and inform our artistic expression.


Why Rebetika? by Lena Kitsopoulou

I have always loved to sing. Ever since I was little. I remember singing alone in my room with a guitar, to the songs of Haris Alexiou. We sang together as a family at home, and especially in the car during road trips. I remember those huge radio cassettes; they were as big as old videotapes. I remember Alexiou and Yorgos Dalaras and Dimitra Galani. Even a tape by Giorgos Mitsakis. I vividly remember, in my father’s village, where I spent my summers, that jukebox in the tavern. This was the time of first loves, and because you still had to spend your nights under your parents’ surveillance, those popular Greek songs represented all that you couldn’t have. The drag of a doomed love affair because you were thirteen and he was twenty. That’s what I recall when I listen to “Stop the Hands of the Clock” coming out of the lungs of the great Rena Koumioti.

 It was after adolescence that my love for the rebetika joints began. For many years, day after day, dawn would find me at those places. Again, for love, again, for all that I couldn’t have. Whenever I went to hear friends playing at small haunts, I would join them on the stage to sing a little song with them. I sang at school events; I sang with my buddies, at home while playing the piano and later at clubs when the spirits ran high. It was always for love. Always for love.

 Every single moment I’ve lived up to now has felt like a popular Greek song. Every intense moment. Even while waiting for the light to change, and I’m lost in my own thoughts. Maybe a car will pull up next to me, windows down, and I will start singing to the song coming out of its speakers. Because it will relate to what I was just thinking. Or because it will remind me of something else. Popular Greek songs and rebetika are not relaxation music for me. They are the music that plays in my head while I play out my life.


Rebetika as part of “Musical Explorers: My City, My Song”

Co-presented with Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall’s Musical Explorers program uses songs from the diverse cultures of New York City to introduce basic musical concepts to children in grades K–2. About 4,500 students from 50 local schools will learn the choruses of two Greek folk songs, as well as songs from other cultures. In December the students will demonstrate what they have learned by attending interactive concerts at Carnegie Hall with performances by Greek artist Magda Giannikou and others.

“The students love singing the chorus of Tik Tik Tak and dancing to Trata along with the wonderful artist Magda Giannikou, at Carnegie Hall. It is an unforgettable experience and, importantly, a terrific way for thousands of children to learn about Greek culture, the fundamentals of music, and the wonderful diversity of their hometown, New York City.”

— Sarah Johnson, director, The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall


Kyriakos Kalaitzidis, composer, oud player, artistic director and cofounder of "En Chordais", is considered one of the most important musicians and scholars in the field of modal secular music of the post-Byzantine era and Mediterranean today. As a member of  "En Chordais" or as soloist he has given more than 2000 concerts in 40 countries in major festivals and venues: Sydney Opera House, Berlin Philharmonie, Salle Pleyel (Paris), Lincoln Center (New York), Maison Symphonic (Montreal), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Cornell University, San Marco (Venice), Hong Kong Concert Hall, Onassis Cultural Center (Athens), Les Suds à Arles festival, Herodis Atticus Odeon (Athens), Fès Festival (Morocco), Melbourne Recital Centre and many others. His latest album “The Musical voyages of Marco Polo” has been released by World Village – Harmonia Mundi receiving enthusiastic reviews.

He has given lectures and master classes in eminent institutions such as Princeton University, Université de Strasbourg, Istanbul State Conservatory, Sibelius Academy (Helsinki), Torino University, Ca' Foscari University (Venice) and Holy Cross College (Boston).

 In 2002-2005 he was artistic director of the MediMuses project, which was dedicated to celebrating the Mediterranean's shared classical musical heritage. In October 2012 his PhD "Post-Byzantine Music Manuscripts as a Source for Oriental Secular Music" was published by the Orient Institut - Istanbul & Ergon-Verlag publisher.  

"Academie Charles Cros" Prize 2014

"France Musique des Musiques du Monde" Prize 2008

Official nomination for UNESCO Sharjah Prize 2006

Lena Kitsopoulou was born and lives in Athens. She graduated from the Karolos Koun Drama School in 1994. As an actor she has worked with the National Theatre, the Art Theatre, the Κ.Θ.Β.Ε, New Stage, Theater of the Notos, among others, in classical and contemporary works, and has appeared in films (Lead Actress Prize at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival in 1997). In 2006 she published the first collection of short stories with the title “Bats” (debut author award DIAVAZO). Since then she published two more collections, “Great Roads” and “Fisheye,” as well as the novella M.A.I.R.O.Y.L.A. She has written many plays, as well as screenplays, many of which she has directed. Recently, she directed and acted in her “The Pointlessness of Living,” at the Art Theatre. She also directed her “Red Riding Hood: First Blood” at the Onassis Cultural Center in Athens. She also participated in the Athens Festival, directing the work ''Blood Wedding'' by Lorca (2014), and her own work “Athanasios Diakos: the Return” (Playwriting Prize at Heidelberger Stueckemarkt, 2012). Her works and short stories have been translated into Spanish, English, German, Polish and produced by theater companies in Greece and abroad. This year she will direct “Edda Gabler” by Ibsen at the Oberhausen Theater in Germany. For the past ten years she has been singing rebetika and folk songs in taverns and music festivals in Athens and Santorini.