Road To Rembetika: Music Of A Greek Sub-Culture — Review For ARSC Journal (Journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections)

From A.R.S.C. By Gail Holst  Greece: Denis Harvey (Publisher), 2006 (4th Ed., originally published in 1975).190 pp (softcover).  Song Translations, Bibliography, Selected Discography, CD Companion. Available via Traditional Crossroads Greeley Sq. Sta.PO BOX 20320 New York, New York 10001

Traditional Greek music, especially the song and dance of the urban underworld of Athens and Piraeus, has captivated many scholars and collectors of early ethnic 78s.  Several dozen reissues of rembetika,  the music of the rembetes, have been produced over the last twenty years including many boxed sets.  What was largely presumed about the music of the rembetes (defined broadly as a sub-culture of the Greek-speaking urban working-class) was that it shared much in common, aesthetically and sociologically, with the blues music of the Mississippi Delta and especially its later urban manifestations in Chicago.  What has been lacking is a detailed study in English of the origin and development of rembetika as a form of traditional indigenous expression in its own right.  That was, in part, a role that Gail Holst's Road To Rembetika would serve.

Granted, it is somewhat strange to review a book that was first published 37 years ago but this new fourth edition contains a CD companion produced by Traditional Crossroads, a label that specializes in Middle-Eastern and Balkan music.  What this book and CD provides, which to this day has not been appreciably added to, is a contextualized and nuanced history of this popular folk music's creation, development, decline and eventual revitalization in the 1960s.  It is, however, a personal and subjective history based upon the author's immersion in Greek culture during the late 1960s, a time of strong social and political upheaval.  Therefore, it is both a history and a memoir.  Based on this, there are at least three different and complementary ways of understanding Road To Rembetika: first, the author's own "road" to discovering rembetika and the culture that fostered it,  second, Greek society's own movement, or road, to acknowledge rembetika, and third, a limited study of the scales and modes of performances (makims, or "roads") that define the style and feeling of rembetika.

The genesis of rembetika as a popular urban folk form was relatively recent.  Although some of the songs and instrumentation existed much earlier, rembetika more or less appeared during the early 1920s following the "population exchange" between Greece and Turkey when over one million Asia Minor Greeks were resettled as refugees into the urban centers of Athens and Piraesus.  Many of these Greeks had lived for generations in Asia Minor and spoke Turkish fluently. Having assimilated themselves with Turkish culture, including the deeply complex Turkish classical music style, these refugees brought back to the Greek urban centers a music that was a unique synthesis of Turkish, Greek, and Balkan modality, scale, and rhythm with an equally idiosyncratic lyrical body.  Many of these songs, at first, dealt with love, of course, and a longing for their old homeland, Asia Minor, but rapidly added the themes most common to these refugees: hard times, criminality, bravery in the face of adversity, and, most famously, the use of hashish and other drugs as "social markers."  These themes became quickly identified with the "marginal society" to which the rembetes belonged.

The author's narrative of both the societal and musical development of rembetika is punctuated with her then contemporaneous accounts of interactions with various "old-school" rembetika performers.  It is during these vignettes that Holst describes music and dance, food and politics, not as an outside scholar, but as an insider…as a person taken in by the rembetes.   What might seem off-putting to some, to wit, Holst's deeply personal and subjective presentation of the living culture that nurtured rembetika in the 1960s, is to this reviewer an asset.   It explains, in part, her enthusiasm and motivation for engaging with and learning from this music and circle of musicians.  Though the atmosphere of the writing is firmly entrenched in the style of the late 1960s and early 1970s (as it should be) it is just as refreshing as reading any of the excellent books published by Studio Vista and edited by Paul Oliver or The Country Blues by Samuel Charters.  These books, like Road To Rembetika, exhibited a tone of excitement and curiosity, in part because of musicians who were active in the 1920s & 1930s were being "rediscovered" and in part because this obsession with a folk-art form was a type of rebellion against their parents' mores and the values of the post-war West, ironically enough as a generation that held sympathies with their grand-parents' generation.

The only fault that I find with Holst's work is the very minor treatment that she gives to the musics that came before and coexisted with the more popular rembetika.  A more encompassing work, one that described various demotika, or village folk-musics, would paint a fuller and deeper picture of various harmonious expressions that constituted the palimpsestic topography of Balkan and Turkish culture.  Just as a tome concerning American Rural Blues should be supplemented with chapters concerning African roots, medicine show and minstrel tunes, shape-note singing, and early jazz, a book that describes the rise of rembetika should describe fully all the musical traditions that both informed it and competed against it.

Holst provides detailed Greek and English translations to 66 songs that are central to the repertoire of rembetika.  The CD with the book contains 17 tracks, most of which appear to be good transfers from 78s that retain much of their clarity and convey the tremendous emotional appeal that these performances must have had in the cafes, taverns, and hashish dens, or teké.  A particularly revelatory track for this reviewer, included on the CD, is The Stoker by Yiorgos Batis (recorded in 1934).  Both the style of deliberately understated singing and the delicate interplay of the baglama and bouzouki are suggestive of an American Country Blues performance of Rowdy Blues by the enigmatic Kid Bailey and partner.  

In summation, Road To Rembetika, if supplemented with a basic knowledge of 19th and early 20th century manifestations of Greek and Turkish rural music, is an excellent primer and foundation text for the study of early popular Greek urban music.  It is hard to argue with a book in its fourth edition and in print since 1975.  As a memoir, a musical travelogue, and a snapshot of a folk music on the cusp of revitalization, l would highly recommend this volume without reservation.

Christopher C. King

ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303

“These reviews first appeared in the ARSC Journal (of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections), 2012;43(2):287-289; 301-303, and they are reprinted with permission of the ARSC Journal.  For information about ARSC, see”