A show to erase certain myths

Substance use, including alcohol, heroin, cocaine and hashish, make up the unlikely focus of a two-day musical event at the prestigious Herod Atticus theater, which ends tonight. The performance, based on a decades-long study of Greek music carried out by rebetika expert Panayiotis Kounadis, is being to staged to make a point and, according to the researcher, shatter some myths. Contrary to common opinion, Kounadis’s study, which the researcher has worked on for the past four decades, shows that seedy subject matter – drug use, primarily – in Greek songs was not confined to the notorious rebetika style of the early 20th century. For the smoke drifted across into the era’s world of lighter music styles too. Moreover, Kounadis asserts that certain rebetika artists were unfairly regarded as drug users. For his study, Kounadis managed to track down various local urban song styles that courted notoriety. Besides rebetika, other styles with Greek lyrics on the shady world of narcotics include tango, rumba, even operetta. A diverse cast of local acts, ranging from celebrated figures to more obscure ones, have been brought in to perform examples of Kounadis’s findings. Among the participants are Giorgos Dalaras, Christos Thivaios, Babis Tsertos, Martha Frintzila, and the Estoudiantina of Nea Ionia, a modern revival of a type of late 19th century orchestra that was popular in Greek urban centers of Asia Minor. Kounadis had accumulated the details of his study for a prospective book on the subject. But continual work on other projects kept holding back his drugs-and-Greek music book. So the researcher thought about approaching Giorgos Loukos, director of the Hellenic Festival, and his plan for a book developed into a concert production instead – at the ancient Herod Atticus, the Greek capital’s most prestigious venue. The study discloses that back in 1932 an operetta by Iosif Ritsiadis, which included a catchy tango part, was entirely focused on hashish. Ritsiadis was not the only one. Some 30 composers of that era’s easy-listening mainstream, including Yiannis Kyparissis and Dimosthenis Zantas, as well as renowned singers such as Sophia Vembo, had released drug-related work. In a remarkable turnaround, one of these songwriters, Sotos Ioannidis, whose prolific pen produced over a thousand easy-listening songs, as well as a few hashish-themed rebetika, later served on a censorship board. Commenting on early 20th century music listeners in Greece, Kounadis said: «They weren’t conservative. The material itself proves this. Until 1936, when it was banned, hashish was a product cultivated by 400,000 farmers in Greece – as common as wine and the theme of many a song.» Pointing out subtler differences, depending on what side of the music fence the songwriter was on, Kounadis said the era’s easy-listening songs about hashish were laudatory, whereas the heavier rebetika songs on the drug expressed distress because they were written by users. Members of the era’s intelligentsia also tried their hand at writing hashish-fueled rebetika. Costas Bezos, a graduate of the School of Fine Arts, is responsible for 12 of the heaviest rebetika songs ever recorded.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.