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Organic Intelligence XXIX: Dope-fiend Greek Rebetika
Daniel Spicer , February 20th, 2024 10:37

In this month’s antidote to the algorithm, Daniel Spicer boils up a pot of ironwort and heads back a century for a wonderful guide to the drug-blasted music of urban Greece in the 1920s and 30s

By the beginning of the 1920s, the urban folk music known as rebetika had two main schools. In Ottoman Turkish cities such as Constantinople, the expatriate Greek population gathered in public places to hear songs performed by skilled professionals on guitar, violin and mandolin. Even though these songs were usually of mildly erotic, vaguely bohemian content, they were, by and large, considered wholesome entertainment. However, back in Greece, it was another story. Here, the music was performed by street-smart amateurs playing the less refined, lute-like baglama and bouzouki. Rather than the public square, tunes were written and played in prisons and tekedhes – the illicit dope-dens where hashish and other drugs could be bought and consumed.

Naturally, the subject matter of the tunes heard in the underworld of Greek cities like Athens and Piraeus was tougher too, reflecting the lives of the poor, urban citizenry who struggled and strived there. Alongside tales of doomed exile, violent love and harsh prison life, one of the most popular strains of underground Greek rebetika documented the attitudes and activities of the mangas – the archetypal outsider who rejected conventional society and lived only to lounge around the tekedhes smoking hash, listening to music and gambling with dice. Defiantly dwelling on the fringes, he (and almost always it was a male outlaw) was a prescient, pre-WWII precursor to the American Beatnik in almost every way.

 For around a decade from 1925, a huge number of records were recorded, mainly in Athens, which captured the spirit of this daringly anti-establishment music and worldview. Yet that came to an abrupt end when the Metaxas Fascist government seized power in 1936 and quickly imposed strict censorship. The music was driven even further underground – but the songs recorded in that brief, bright window of popularity still offer a gritty, and often hilarious, portrait of the life of the mangas. Become a tQ subscriber to read on...

Dhimitris Gongos – ‘Panta Me Glyko Hasisi’ (‘Always With Sweet Hashish’)

“I always want to spend my time with sweet hashish, cool girls and beautiful music,” sings Dhimitris Gongos with a lascivious leer and an almost audible twinkle in his eye while the plucked bouzouki accompaniment lopes like an unhurried donkey. Yes, it’s almost comically laid-back but this is music for dancing too: “Opa!” he shouts at the end of verses, the rebetika equivalent of the be-bopper’s “Go!”

Stratos & Vassilis Tsitsanis – ‘To Proi Me Tin Dhroussoula’ (‘With The Early Morning Dew’)

This beautiful collaboration between bouzouki virtuoso Vassilis Tsitsanis and vocalist Efstratios Payioumidzis – aka Stratos – evokes the mangas’ all-night smoking session threatened by some unnecessary aggro. “Early, as the dew was falling, there was a fuss at the teke,” sings Stratos in the pleadingly dramatic chorus. “Listen tekedzi [teke owner], I don’t want to cause no bother, just smoke my fill, get high and forget my worries.” 

Yiorgos Batis – ‘Varka Mou Boyiatismeni’ (‘My Painted Boat’)

Yiorgos Batis ran a café and a dancing school in Piraeus and lived the life of a consummate mangas, immersed in music and the pursuit of good times. There’s an authentically rough and ready quality to his vocals here as he daydreams about a carefree day out with the boys: “In my painted boat the manges will go out and have a good time with hash and bouzouki. Hope the cops don’t spoil the fun.”

Andonios Kalyvopoulos – ‘Paraponiounde I Manga Mes’ (‘Our Manges Are Complaining’)

Andonios Kalyvopoulos was an amateur singer who recorded a handful of singles with bouzouki legend and café owner Yiovan Tsaous. Here, the duo offers a mix of social commentary, idle boast, and advertisement: ““All the manges and the aristocrats are complaining they can’t get any dope from Constantinople. Come to our teke, we’ve got fine hash and you can hear Yiovan Tsaous play his bouzouki. Even if the world should fall apart, we’ll still find good hashish.”

Rosa Eskanazi – ‘Ime Prezakias’ (‘I’m A Smack-Head’)

Rosa Eskanazi (pictured above) is one of the defining voices of rebetika, with an intensity and command rivalling the great Egyptian diva Oum Kalthoum. In fact, the slippery violin on this languid lament points towards North African popular song, as Eskanazi dreamily embodies the intoxicated fantasies of the prezakias, the user of hard drugs found lurking at the back of the teke. “I’m high on junk,” she moans. “I’m an emperor, a king and a dictator. All Greece is mine and we are dicing for her.”

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