ROAD TO REMBETIKA - GAIL HOLST
If as Mark Perry of Alternative TV once surmised in the song How Much Longer that "the Punks don't know nothing, the straights don't know nothing, the hippies don't know nothing, you don't know nothing, we don't know nothing" then who, I ask, might know anything? The Greeks, perhaps? And if so, do they have a word for it? Yes and yes. And the word is 'rembetika', meaning 'an expression of the artistic potential of the masses of the sub-proletariat of Greek towns'.
You've got to admire the Greeks and pay them due respect for the way they took a stand against austerity measures as imposed by the Greek government at the behest of the European Union. Against police armed with guns they rioted again and again through the streets of Athens, eating CS gas for breakfast and laughing in the face of State oppression.
At various times it seemed as though they were on the point of pushing their country over into a state of Anarchy, in its true meaning of the word. Sadly, the heritage of being the cradle of democracy in the end won over and faith was put into the electing of anti-austerity politician Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza Party who, as is the wont of all politicians, let his constituency down by buckling and implementing the austerity measures as demanded by the EU and the IMF.
The Greeks certainly put the English to shame who put up practically no fight whatsoever against austerity measures as demanded not by the EU but by the Conservative government; and then in a twinkling of an eye voted not against David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the Eton/Oxford Mafia responsible for imposing austerity but against the EU. As if the EU was to blame for it being grim up North.
"We will not say that Greeks fight like heroes," said Winston Churchill once upon a time "But we will say that heroes fight like Greeks." And he was right.
According to Gail Holst, author of Road To Rembetika - Music of a Greek Sub-culture, Songs of Love, Sorrow & Hashish, 'Pre-war rembetika is hashish music', meaning the songs and the music played in the taverns of the port of Piraeus in Greece during the 1920s and 1930s was hashish-fuelled. Rembetika was the voice of the dispossessed, of those who held a natural dislike of the police along with any other form of authority. It was the voice of the voiceless, the result of cultures colliding where Turkish immigrants met Greek proletariats; bonding over their mutual social and economic position and in their adverse relationship to the mainstream of Greek society.
Recognising their commonality as in it was they who were trapped in poverty, they who were harassed by police and always they who were ending up in jail; they sparked off from one and other via a shared love of music and hash.
Their musical instruments were four-string prototypes of the bouzouki, and between them they developed their own slang, their own dress-style, and their own particular swagger. They had their own taverns where they could sing, dance and smoke marijuana to their heart's content, and when laws against the smoking and sale of hashish were introduced and started to be enforced by police, they simply became more closer-knit so as to protect themselves from prosecution.
Those who lived the anti-authoritarian lifestyle to the full were called 'rembetes' or 'manges' and were defined not only by their defiance in the face of poverty and repression and their refusal to be submissive before the police but in their conspicuous generosity, their spontaneity, and their knowing how to enjoy themselves.
Rembetika was urban folk. The expression and the mirror of working class life, dreams, loves and sorrows as experienced by the Greek sub-proletariat. Gail Holst compares it to the urban blues of New Orleans, Chicago and Harlem but to widen the field of reference, it could just as easily be compared to many other forms of music or culture born from the working class. Meaning, rembetika was R&B, rembetika was Rap, rembetika was Soul, Garage, Oi!, Grime, etc, etc. Rembetika was Punk - Greek style.
Being a musician herself, in her book Holst focusses a lot upon the actual music as in the instruments, the scales, the metres and the rhythms. Half of her book is taken up with the translations of the rembetika lyrics. She does, however, touch upon the relationship of rembetika with politics and the observations she comes up with are interesting.
Holst points out that there is less publicity about the sufferings of the Greeks during the second World War than about other Europeans. During the years of Italian and then German occupation, for example, not only did the entire Jewish population of Greece perish but hundreds of thousands of Greeks died of starvation. During the following Greek civil war and the interference of the British and later American governments, the witch-hunting of communists became open warfare with even napalm being used against them. According to Holst, it was rembetika songs that were sung all over the country by a population which felt them to be an expression of their collective suffering and rage.
During the dictatorship years in Greece (bolstered, it must be remembered, by America) rembetika wasn't tolerated at all. Ostensibly the persecution was against hashish smoking but because of the association between hash and rembetika, musicians were given much harsher sentences than other offenders. Even the Left had no time for the rembetes and were as rigid and intolerant of them as the Right-wing establishment, essentially because they were not organisable. The rembetes, the manges and rembetika was ungovernable.
Rembetika then, is clearly not just a form of music but more a state of mind and a way of life. Holst explains, however, that once the record companies got involved and rembetika became popular with the mainstream of Greek society, it lost its power to represent that state of mind. The musicianship became much more sophisticated and the association with hashish watered down. The form became vulgarised and associated with merely the smashing of plates and drunken dancing in expensive clubs and bars.
For all that, the spirit of rembetika had been cast in stone and every decade or so its tomb would be raided by younger generations seeking inspiration and something a little more real than what they might have on offer to them at the time. Moreover, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the spirit would suddenly appear in some other form besides music; be it in working class literature, art or film. Or even as riots against austerity.
That same 'spirit of rembetika' is, of course, not totally unique to Greece but can also be found within England, emanating primarily - like in Greece - from the working class. In England it might be referred to as the 'spirit of Albion' and, just as in Greece it's neither of the Left or the Right but is instead ungovernable. When it has appeared as, for example, in the form of Punk, like rembetika it too has been assimilated, watered down and sold back as a commodity for mainstream society though not before sending out shockwaves affecting the whole of society.
When next it might appear and in what form is anyone's guess but that's the beauty of it. Music, literature, art, and film can all be used as 'an expression of the artistic potential of the masses of the sub-proletariat' and can occur at any time. As can riots, uprisings and insurrection erupting throughout the land...