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Monday, October 15, 2001

Arts & Letters

Rebetika Born in the USA

Mourmourika: Songs of the Greek Underworld 1930-1955, Rounder CD 1120, Cambridge, MA, 1999.
Women of Rembetika, Rounder CD 1121.

The history of rebetika, both as a recorded and live genre, has always been closely linked to the émigré Greek communities in the United States. Rebetika were an important part of the repertory performed in the cafes aman such as the one opened by Marika Papagika and her cimbalum-playing husband Gus on 34th Street in New York in 1925. The list of singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists – from Marika Papagika, Madame Koula, and Amalia Baka to Jack Gregory (Ioannis Halkias) and Yiorgos Katsaros – is long and distinguished. American recording companies such as Columbia, Odeon, and HMV, as well as specialized record companies such as the Greek Record Company of Chicago and Orthophonic, recorded hundreds of Greek folk songs, as well as songs in the so-called “Asia Minor” and a smaller number in the Piraeus rebetika styles. The market for these songs was, as record sales suggest, much broader than the Greek community of the United States. Not only were Greek songs popular with an audience of immigrants familiar with the music of the former Ottoman empire, but recordings made by Greek stars in the United States were exported to Greece and influenced trends in the popular music of the homeland.

Judging from the recordings, the long and rich history of Greek dimotika, cafe aman, and rebetika music produced in this country lasted, with a few exceptions, from around 1910 to 1948, with its heyday in the 1920s. During the 1950s and 1960s, as the Greek recording industry recovered from the Second World War and musical tastes changed, Greek recording studios based in Athens became the principal source for Greek music. And when the revival of interest in the rebetika began in the 1970s, it was Greek-based record companies, starting with EMIAL, that led the field in reissuing original recordings, first of the 78rpms made in Greece, but later also including records made in the US.

For those interested in Greek music who had no access to the originals, recordings such as the CBS Ta Prota RebetikaThe First Rebetika (CBS 53753) and the Falireas Brothers’ Authentic Rebetica Recordings from the U.S.A. (AF 67) were amazing discoveries. Whatever the quality of the recordings (and some were better than anything available in Greece, having been preserved in the United States), it was evident that there was a fund of cafe aman and rebetika music recorded in the United States before Greek studios were established. It was the first time many rebetika fans listened to the marvelous voice of Papagika, or were made aware that the American Greek musical scene might have been as rich as its Athenian counterpart.

One problem of the early re-recordings of rebetika released in Greece was that they provided minimal information about the music or the artists, even when the material was available. The recordings on the Falireas Brothers’ label, for example, were obtained from the fine collection of Dr. Jim Pallis, who could have provided, had he been asked, useful information for liner notes. It was not until Martin Schwartz’s record for the Arhoolie label, Greek-Oriental Rebetica: Songs and Dances in the Asia Minor Style. The Golden Years: 1911-1937 (Folklyric CD 7005), that we saw a well-produced album, with excellent cover notes and careful attention to sound quality. The Arhoolie record, based on Schwartz’s own remarkable record collection, was followed, in 1994, by fellow Berkeley resident David Soffa’s well-produced Marika Papagika: Popular and Rebetic Music in New York, 1918-1929 (Alma Criolla Records ACCD 802), a CD that helped restore the place of this legendary singer in the Greek musical world of the Teens and Twenties.

Fortunately, it is not only in the United States that we can now find well-documented and carefully remastered recordings of rebetika. Companies such as Minos-EMI, with its Greek Archive series, Lyra, and FM are now all producing excellent CDs of rebetika with accompanying notes and booklets. But Rounder Records, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has made a significant contribution to the booming industry of revamped rebetika with their series of CDs based largely on the personal collection of Charles Howard. The two CDs under review are the latest in this series.

Mourmourika (Rounder CD 1120) wisely focuses on some of the unique treasures of the early Greek musical scene in the United States. It is a fascinating collection of songs, many of them quite rare. As one might expect from the title, the focus of the collection is songs that deal with drugs and the underworld. With three or four exceptions (depending on how fussy you are), the quality of the recordings is good, sometimes surprisingly so, and at least from my point of view the rarity of the scratchier recordings justifies their inclusion. For example, the third track is a song called “Ta disticha tou manga” recorded in Athens in 1931 by a singer known as “Spachanis.” The bouzouki player is Yiorgos Manetas, a performer about whom we know almost nothing, but whom Markos Vamvakaris credited with having been the first to use “European” tuning (D-A-D) on the instrument. There are a number of other interesting features of this song, including the chorus of voices and tapping which give it the flavor of an improvised performance. The lyrics, too, are notable because they appear to be the source of Mouflouzelis’s “Pou’soun manga to heimona” (na’mouna sti gi veloni/na patas na s’angiloni…Anapse to kai svise to/to keri to sparmaseto).

Another US recording on the CD is a version of Tassos Eleftheriadhis’s version of “Mourmouraki,” with Nick Doneff on violin and Marko Melkon on oud. The song was recorded by Rita Abadzi in 1934 for HMV and credited to Christos Marinos. The version on the Mourmourika was recorded in New York around 1948 and apparently credited to the singer. Eleftheriadhis’s voice is pleasant and Doneff’s violin-playing is, as usual, a delight to hear. While the quality of the sound is excellent, the same cannot be said for the bouzouki solo, “Raste tou Deke” (sic), by legendary bouzouktzi Jack Gregory, in which the scratchy surface makes it difficult to appreciate the instrumentalist’s skill. But a taximi by the performer who may have been at least partly responsible for the popularity as well as the style of the bouzouki in the Piraeus rebetika repertory is worth stretching one’s ears for.

One of the more curious pieces on the CD is “Kochlarakias” (sic) by Vassilis Mesolongitis, a review artist who apparently made only two rebetika recordings. Like Papazoglou’s “I Foni tou argile,” the song opens with two manges exchanging humorous sallies like actors in a vaudeville show, followed by a song of hard luck and addiction. The connection to comic theater is also present in Yorgos Kamvisis’s “O kaimos tis filakis,” an Odeon recording made in 1933. Kamvisis was a writer and performer of sketches for theatrical reviews, and here he has taken the Turkish melody of “Alatsatiani” and composed new lyrics about a prisoner whose girlfriend deceives him while he’s in prison. As far as I know, no one has followed up the connection between rebetika and epitheorisi, but it might be worth investigating. Although recorded in the US, Yorgos Katsaros’s “Mas pigan exoria” might also be classed in the category of comedy routine, with its junkie protagonists refusing the unappetizing diet of milk, peas, and jam fed to them in internal exile.

Zacharias Kasimatis’s version of “O mangas tou Votanikou” has a rough charm highlighted by the marvelous bouzouki-playing. The notes say Peristeris is playing guitar here. There is some debate about exactly what instrument Peristeris is playing, but it is not a guitar, and it sounds remarkably like a bouzouki to me. Both of Stellakis’s (Stelios Perpiniadhes’s) tracks on the CD are as fine examples of early rebetika as you could wish for. One is his rendition of “Papatzis,” a zeibekiko by Papazoglou, the other is his version of Toundas’s great song, “Zoula I Maryiori.” Together with Kanarapoulou’s “Enas ston teke,” they make the Mourmourika more than a CD for aficionados only. They remind us that the best of rebetika was as rewarding as any Greek folk music.

The Women of Rembetica
  The most recent CD released by Rounder Records, Women of Rembetica (2000), contains only one recording made in the United States. An interesting collection because of its focus on early female singers in the rebetika tradition – some well-known, like Eskenazi and Abatzi, others less so, like Daisy Stavrakopoulou and Virginia Manghidhou – the CD consists of remastered recordings made in Athens during the 1930s and 1940s, with one important exception. The Smyrna-born singer Virginia Maghidou made a series of fine recordings for the Metropolitan label during the Second World War, most with violinist Nick Doneff. She also had her own recording company (Virginia Records) in New York City during the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

The female singers of the early rebetika were consummate performers, and we have some fine examples of their art on this CD. Roza Eskenazi’s “Eimai alaniara meraklou” and “Neo manavaki” are both charming (incidentally there are some lines missing from the translation in the second song), but for me, as usual, it is Rita Abadzi who stands out, with her magnificent amane in the mode Sabach. (To call it “Morning Manes” is not helpful; here we need to be told what “Manes” and what “Sabach” mean before we go into the temporal associations of the mode.) With the immortal Semsis backing her, her vocal improvisation is not just a heartstopper, it is also superbly controlled. No wonder one of the musicians calls out, “Na haro to stomataki sou, kouklitsa” (May I enjoy your little mouth, sweetheart!). Whether amanedhes can be called rebetika is another question, but since the focus of the CD is on the performers, such vocal improvisations help establish how musically skilled these singers were. The other example of an amane on this CD is sung by Marika Kanaropoulou. Again, it showcases her virtusoso skill as a singer, and in this case highlights the fine performance of Dimitris Ladholoulos (“Manisalis”) on violin.

Another of my favorite pieces on the Women CD is “Nea Politissa” by Marika Frandzeskopoulou. The charm of this version is in the singer’s interaction with her “koumpania,” or musical ensemble. It is a great line-up of performers, led by Yiannis Draghatsis (“Ogdhondakis”) and Agapios Tomboulis on oud, but there is so much kefi that you wish you were in the studio sharing the fun.

The sound quality of the recordings on Women is more even than on the Mourmourika. Only in the case of Abadzi’s “To bouzoukaki” and Angelitsa Papazoglou’s “Dervisena” does it become a problem, but the opportunity to hear Vangelis Papazoglou’s blind singer-songwriter/wife perform is a bonus for serious fans of rebetika. Another unusual song on the CD is the naughty and charming “Mylonas” recorded by Anna Politissa with Stellakis Perpiniadhes in 1934. The lyrics take the form of a dialogue between a randy girl and a miller whose “mill won’t grind.” Unfamiliar to me, too, are the two recordings by Yeorgia Mittaki, who was known for her recordings of dimotika, but has an earthy voice that works well for the rebetika lyrics she is singing here. There is also a rare recording by Daisy Stavrakopoulou. The latest dated recordings on the CD are by Virginia Maghidhou and Stella Haskil, whose “Pexe bouzouki mou,” with Peristeris on bouzouki, is another high point on this CD. These last tracks on the CD take us up to 1948. By then, there were many other rebetises performing, including the great Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou. One hopes that another Rounder CD will focus on these women stars of postwar rebetika.

Generally, the liner notes to these two Rounder CDs are informative and much better than many such CDs released in Greece, but there are some errors and oversights that are unfortunate in an otherwise well-produced series. One problem concerns the use of transliteration rather than Greek script for the lyrics of songs. I’m not against transliteration per se, but as there is no universal system of transliteration, it can lead to confusion. It would seem to me that listeners who know the language would prefer to have it in Greek script and those who don’t won’t make much out of the transliterations. Throughout the notes to the Women of Rembetica, there is a recurring problem of an additional letter “I” appearing in place of a simple apostrophe indicating ellipsis. This makes it difficult to reconstruct the Greek original, let alone pronounce the Latinized transliteration. There are some other minor errors in transliteration, such as Marika Politissa appearing as Poitissa in one place.

The most serious error is that two of the tracks on Women have been switched so that Marika Politissa’s fine rendition of “Den me toumbaris,” listed in the booklet as Track 9 is in fact Track 8, while Rita Abadzi’s “Hira m’ekapses” is Track 9. Incidentally, it is hard to imagine why the liner notes on the Politissa song should say, “Spyros Peristeris (guitar or bouzouki),” when Marika calls out, “Yeia’sou Spyro me to bouzouki sou!” 

But these are, as I have said, minor quibbles. On the whole, rebetika fans will be grateful for the new Rounder CDs, which make a number of unusual and high-quality recordings available to listeners and remind us that this early period of Greek urban music was indeed a golden age.

Gail Holst-Warhaft teaches at Cornell University and is the author of The Road to Rembetika: Music of the Greek Sub-Culture.
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