Rebetika is alive and well

«The A minor at G becomes a D,» says George Dalaras before restarting «To Ksekremasma Ki Apopse,» an old hit by 50s legend Manolis Hiotis, for the umpteenth time at the Athens Concert Hall’s rehearsal room on the fifth floor. The notes of rebetika sound a little incongruous inside one of the country’s most polished venues. There’s no coffee or cigarettes to accompany the old bouzouki sound. Dalaras and his musicians are hard at work preparing for a seven-night tribute to rebetika, titled «San Tragoudi Magemeno,» (Like an Enchanted Song) which begins on Thursday at the Athens Concert Hall. The tribute, in the form of a musical spectacle, approaches rebetika – «a heritage that we inherited and which has lasted over 150 years,» in the words of rebetika researcher Panayiotis Kounadis, one of this production’s organizers – from a sociopolitical and geographical perspective. The song form’s first century was occupied with a battle for acceptance and recognition. The dictator Ioannis Metaxas and leftist leader Nikos Zachariadis, venomous rivals, agreed to «hunt it down,» the late composer Manos Hadjidakis noted in a landmark speech back in 1949, which helped to inject wider recognition and respect into the previously neglected style, one that was associated with lives of crime. The speech triggered some degree of artistic recognition. Academics began to conduct research into the musical style, which began to be heard more frequently both at home and in unlikely places abroad, such as icy Finland. Amid rehearsals, Dalaras, who hails from a rebetika family, took a brief break for an interview with Kathimerini. I remember you once feeling anger for your father, which seems to have subsided in recent years. You said anger. That’s exactly how I felt. Because I missed him a lot, admired him as a musician and because, as long as I was a child, I held him solely responsible for my mother being forced to take on the role of both father and mother in a very difficult period. My mother literally transcended her strengths. It’s a miracle that she was able to raise my brother and I. This anger gradually subsided over the years. And it evaporated – this will seem strange to you – when my mother passed away. I felt like I was liberated. From that point on, I’ve tried to hold on to the good things. It still isn’t easy, you know… What are the first and final recollections you have of that period? The first, one that’s vague, took place in Haidari [Athenian suburb]. The conditions were atrocious. I remember there being just one well, something you could try to call a house, and Lucas [father] returning from the army with his bag – actually, I recall two bags. I don’t remember how I felt. This is a visual recollection, because I was very young. The final recollection is very unpleasant. It’s from the hospital in 1977 a little before he died. He died very young [at the age of 50] and I was still young. I now realize that I didn’t expect to miss him so much. It was a big loss for my mother as well. In what ways do want to be like him, and unlike him? I want to be like him as a musician, singer and his open-heartedness, a quality he had so much of but deprived us and our mother of. Lucas was a great guy, you know. But I wouldn’t want to be like him in his loose approach to life. The rebetika song form continues to live, mainly in neighborhood joints, where people continue to sing with a glass of wine in hand. But aren’t you turning it into a museum piece by presenting it at the Athens Concert Hall? You’re telling me this, someone who’s been performing rebetika at small venues – in [inner Athenian district] Plaka to mostly young audiences – as well as concerts from 1975. I believe that rebetika will never turn into museum-like music. It’s our equivalent of flamenco, which unfolds through playing and the inspiration it provides to younger musicians. I really like to play this style of music in quality conditions at good venues, especially the Athens Concert Hall. And that doesn’t stop me from believing that it’s a good thing to have youngsters form groups and play these songs – or talented musicians being inspired by rebetika. Does rebetika require so much adornment? There’s no purer, more humble and, at the same time, magnificent type of music. And it’s unfair for you to tell me that. Were we concerned about embellishing things at the tributes for Markos Vamvakaris, the 50 years of rebetika, or rebetika during the occupation? But in this effort to place rebetika within a social context and compile thematic entities of love, separation, emigration, social conflict, the [WW II] occupation, civil war [1945-49,] even geography – in other words the images created by rebetika in the [former] Greek [Asia Minor] cities of Smyrna and Constantinople – I wanted to collaborate with special people to try something new. Panayiotis Kounadis [a civil engineer who has spent decades researching rare archives] helped a lot with his knowledge and organizational skills. So did [lyricist] Lefteris Papadopoulos with the research he conducted, Giorgos Skabardonis with the texts, and, of course, Sotiris Hadzakis, who, having experienced projects linked with musical tradition and Greek literature, has surprised me with his vital approach as the production’s director. I like this collective effort a lot, along with what we, the musicians, are doing, that is to play and discover new things. I want to admit to you that every time I work with this style of song, I discover unknown aspects – in the musical paths, interpretations, lyrics – especially when performing. These are songs with dynamics, like the blues. Is it a form of music that’s ending as a style, or does it continue to exist in a transformed fashion in songs by younger songwriters? It lies deep in the consciousness and inspirational field of good musicians. This is a type of song with ethos that inspires. We may as well make up our minds. You cannot recognize the deep influence of rebetika on the post-50s generation – from Manos Hadjidakis, to Mikis Theodorakis, Stavros Xarchakos, Dionysis Savvopoulos, Manos Loizos, Stavros Kouyioumtzis, Christos Nikolopoulos, and later on, Nikos Xydakis, Nikos Papazoglou, and Stamatis Kraounakis. Today, we have a big rebetika family, with children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces – Socrates Malamas, Vangelis Korarakis, Pantelis Thalassinos, Orpheas Peridis, Nikos Portokaloglou, the Katshimichas brothers, Manolis Famellos. Athens Concert Hall (1 Kokkali & Vas. Sofias, tel 210.728.2333), February 11-12, 14-16, 18-19.