mute music

Music is the Crime that Contains All Others

By Demetra Kotouza, 4 August 2010
Image: Piraeus c. 1910

Demetra Kotouza plucks rebetiko, music of Greece's dangerous classes, from the stifling assumptions of its detractors and defenders

Rebetiko is often defined as a Greek, urban, subcultural kind of music that developed around ports and urban centres in the end of the 19th and up to the first half of the 20th century, with the bouzouki as its main instrument. Today's rebetiko enthusiasts are fascinated not only with the way it combines oriental modes and rhythms with European harmonies, or by the passion and virtuosic skill of its players, but even more by the defiant, hedonistic spirit of the culture it was born out of. Songs about taking and smuggling drugs, prison life, prostitution, fights, petty theft and confrontations with police evoke the image of a group of people separated from mainstream society and, for sociologists such as Stathis Damianakos, from the working class.i Elias Petropoulos' seminal 1961 book on rebetiko painted an image of an unconventional, semi-criminal subculture of rebetes (rebetiko musicians) who despised work, smoked hashish, were against marriage, hated the police, helped the weak, dressed, spoke and moved in a distinctive style, and wrote their songs in prison and in hash dens. This captivating depiction of the rebetes has been influential for younger fans – for example James Sclavunos of The Bad Seeds praises the ‘punk spirit' of rebetiko which he endeavours to keep alive in his bands.ii On the other hand, more recent researchers such as Nearchos Georgiadis and Panagiotis Kounadis dispute such accounts of marginality as a myth originating from the criminalisation of rebetiko up to the 1950s, insisting instead that it represented working class culture. The debate rages on in books and online forums with the two sides presenting evidence that appears equally valid but also betrays an inability to deal with the ambiguity of language, class and cultural production.

Nearchos Georgiadis' strongest point is that musicians did not describe themselves as ‘rebetes', and preferred to call their music ‘laiko' (popular) instead of ‘rebetiko'.iii Indeed, Markos Vamvakaris, the prolific ‘patriarch of rebetiko' has insisted that he made ‘popular music', which ‘sprang from the hearts of the poor fellows who work as labourers'.iv Before 1948 the word ‘rebetiko' almost never appeared in lyrics – ‘rebetis' described a bohemian or vagabond. Even on record sleeves, ‘rebetiko' only appeared intermittently and always alongside ‘laiko'. The meaning of ‘rebetis' is linked to unruliness – the irregular forces of the Ottoman Empire were called ‘rebet asker' and ad hoc, disorderly street fairs were called ‘panayir rebeta'.v Given its potentially negative connotations, rebetiko was the preferred term for conservative intellectuals, musicologists and dictatorial governments in damning forays against it. Fancying Greece as a western culture and viewing anything oriental as foreign and backward, they launched vehement campaigns against rebetiko, amanes and smyrnaiika (the style popularised by migrants from Asia Minor), calling them ‘the music of Arabs, Persians and other Barbarians' and associating them with criminality and ‘Rebetiko' was also used disparagingly by the European-style musicians' union in 1949 in their campaign to get this ‘corrupting' genre banned, worried by its popularity and commercial success. They refused to call it laiko because for them it only expressed a criminal underclass.vii Mihalis Gennitsaris, among other rebetiko musicians, has expressed his disgruntlement with this name:

A rebetis is a rake, a wretch, the lowest man of all. An idler, he doesn't go to work. [...] The [new] meaning of rebetis was invented by Hatzidakis and Theodorakis. They called our songs rebetika to suggest dirt, while in reality they were genuine popular songs.viii

It is interesting that Gennitsaris has felt undermined by Hatzidakis, the first intellectual to publicly proclaim rebetiko the most salient expression of Greek popular culture in 1949. After being the target of relentless bourgeois contempt for decades, however, Gennitsaris' suspiciousness is not surprising. For the bourgeois commentators, this was a term used to circumscribe what they saw as too base to represent the ‘Greek people' – but its meaning was not left unchallenged. By presenting the music as ‘laiko-rebetiko', venues and record labels reclaimed it as a popular genre.

Panagiotis Kounadis' argument is based on historical evidence that rebetiko's origin was not in ‘prison and hash dens', as suggested by Petropoulos, but in the Greek neighbourhoods of Istanbul, Ismir and other urban centres of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.ix He tries to make the point that, as hashish smoking was part of everyday life for a section of the lower classes, rebetiko was marginalised as an effect of the gradual criminalisation of hashish consumption over the '20s and '30s.

Both writers use their evidence to challenge the view that rebetiko was a genre belonging to a criminal subculture and, indeed, the notion of a subculture of rebetes seems to be an oversimplified reconstruction of a much more complex history. However, their polemics seem rather moralistic in their effort to separate the life of the urban lower classes from ‘prison and hash dens' and in viewing Petropoulos' work as an insult to rebetiko musicians. Although they do recognise ‘crime' as a social problem associated with the urban poverty that was an effect of capitalism's expansion into the region, they often seem to be trying to wish it away. On the contrary, Petropoulos and Damianakos do not condemn but are inspired by this so-called ‘criminality', seeing it as the underdog's insubordination to an oppressive state of affairs. Rebetes refuse to toil 12-plus hours a day for a piece of bread – they prefer to steal, smuggle and gamble to make a living. They don't respect property relations and they are not after money but prefer to spend it in the pursuit of pleasure. They proudly defend their hash dens against police raids, are unafraid of prison life and ultimately they refuse waged labour.

If there is a problem with the myth of the rebetes it is not that it tarnishes the reputation of popular musicians. It is its reductive romanticisation of illegality and of an idealised musical counter-culture, privileging all the exciting ‘outlaw' elements of that culture against all those which precisely relate to everyday life and workers' experience. In doing so they flatten life and popular culture into a glorious narrative of a ‘genuine' and ‘underground' musical subculture that was immediately compromised as soon as it became ‘popularised', eventually becoming corrupted by commercialisation.

Against any socio-musicological narratives that see the ‘lumpen' underworld and the working class as somehow separate and mutually exclusive, Markos Vamvakaris' own biography clearly shows that this could not have been the case, especially not in mid-war Piraeus where the classic sound of rebetiko developed. Vamvakaris moved to Piraeus in 1917, where numerous other rural and island inhabitants had migrated looking for better fortunes. Labour-intensive, painful, poorly paid jobs at the port and in the fledgling hyper-exploitative local industries were the main options for the increasing numbers of unskilled newcomers, especially when refugees from Asia Minor arrived in 1922. He describes the years he spent working as a coal whipper unloading coal from ships, as cargo handler, and as a skinner in an abattoir, recalling his despair and dread at the thought that his life might never change. At night, he would find comfort in smoking at hash dens with his friends and co-workers and playing bouzouki – two activities that, for him, could not be separated. At that time hash smoking was banned and not entirely socially accepted, but still it was widespread and very cheap, much of it being locally produced. It was only punishable by three days in jail – a risk easily taken. The bouzouki was a popular traditional instrument, but because it was played in hash dens, police associated it with hashish and made it hard to play it in public undisturbed, effectively confining it to hash dens, people's homes and even their workplaces on the sly. The hash den punters are described mostly as people who worked hard in the daytime and needed to relax and forget at night. There were, of course, burglars, smugglers and petty thieves among them as well – these kinds of occupations were quite common in Piraeus. But the main thing that Vamvakaris and his lot valued was a culture of ‘respect', which had to be imposed at all costs, using force if necessary. This was the attitude of a mangas (often inaccurately translated as a ‘spiv',), or a mortis, or a dervisis. These labels were not unambiguous descriptors of criminality as is often assumed – although they sometimes were used as such depending on the context – but also of a culture of masculine honour that often turned violent, irrespective of how one made a living. Having said that, a woman might conceivably take part in that culture (a mangissa or mortissa or dervisena) – although this was far from the norm – as is evident by Panagiotis Tountas' song, ‘Poverty with Honour':

I am mortissa Kiki, I was two months in jail
Because I have a taste for wildness and I'm not afraid of trouble
I know how to fire my gun at those who try to fool me

I don't want wealth and riches, I like poverty and the working lot
and when it's time to marry, I'll find me a worker
I'd like to live for a moment in poverty with honour

Here, a participant of what many rebetiko historians call a ‘low-life subculture' that rejects the wage relation shows obvious respect for the working class. Kiki desires the ‘honourable poverty' that the working class is supposed to enjoy, something she can only have if she marries a worker. But she is only one example among many other song heroes who are already labouring and don't see their experience as positively. Giorgos Batis' ‘The Stoker' (1934), for example, expresses the sorrow of being consumed by the primitive means of production:

Bursting, poker and crowbar,
to sail through Bey to go and moor in Cardiff's waters

But the fire flares up, but the fire is sweltering
And, ah, the sea has scorched my guts black

It would then be mistaken to view the ‘sub-proletariat' as the exclusive subject of rebetiko as Damianakos does. Diverse song themes and heroes reflect the varied experience of the lower classes in urban centres and not just that of a specific subgroup. The difficulties of everyday life, the sorrow of love, historical events, the common occupations and trades of men and women at the time, as well as persecution and imprisonment for illegal activity are all part of the picture. Songs were rarely moralistic; labourers, tobacco factory girls, sailors, fish-mongers and butchers figure alongside hash smokers, prisoners, junkies, smugglers and petty thieves, all receiving the same degree of respect, reflecting a lack of strict boundaries among the lower classes as well as the tolerability of what the young Greek State decided to label criminal while pushing proletarians into increasingly arduous ways of remaining in poverty.

Giorgos Batis (in the middle with guitar) with a group of musicians. Markos Vamavakaris is standing fourth from the left. Piraeus, 1933

Giorgos Batis (in the middle with guitar) with a group of musicians. Markos Vamavakaris is standing fourth from the left. Piraeus, 1933

Through the '30s, what is now called rebetiko started to be commercially successful. Markos Vamvakaris, Stratos Pagioumtzis, Giorgos Batis and Anestos Delias (as the Piraeus quartet), together with others, were recorded by labels such as Odeon, Columbia, Decca, RCA and HMV. They toured Greece performing at venues where mainly lower class, but also some better-off audiences – ‘aristocrats', according to Vamvakaris – crowded to see them. Their music's wide appeal was now obvious, although still worrying for the upper classes. The police continued to make life difficult for venue owners unless they collaborated. In 1937, Metaxas' fascistoid dictatorship started censoring the lyrics using as a pretext the implicit references to prostitution (and allegedly to Metaxas' daughter) in Tountas' hit song ‘Varvara', going as far as banning the word ‘freedom' from songs and sending left-leaning musicians into internal exile. Metaxas' state-terror machine was soon succeeded by a decade of German occupation and civil war, when numerous songs were written that reflected the major issues of the time – poverty, death, resistance, imprisonment – but, with the factories shut, none was recorded.

After the ordeal of the '40s, rebetiko experienced a boom. From the point of view of Petropoulos and Ed Emery however, its wider appeal led to its death after 1955. What followed is described by Emery in a single aphoristic paragraph as a homogenous, commercialised mainstream:

Shortly afterwards, with the Civil War ended, rebetika was ‘discovered'. It came out of its low-life backwaters and into night clubs where rich people went. And at this point the character of the music changed. The bouzouki went electric, everything went electric, and the players began to perform for the upper bourgeoisie. Rebetika became a fashion. You only have to see the photos of Giorgos Zambetas playing for the Kennedy family and Aristotle Onassis to understand how far it had come from its humble beginnings. The music became heavily commercialized – over-orchestrated, with insipid lyrics – especially with the mass production of long-playing records in Greece after 1955. The songs lost their edge, lost their pain and depth of feeling. And the places where rebetiko music was played were among the most expensive night clubs in Greece.x

Emery refers to what a more conventional periodisation finally named ‘laiko' – in the sense that it expressed the ‘people' and not the so-called ‘underworld'. Once again, the conventional approach refuses to see rebetiko as a working class culture, while Emery, with his privileged focus on ‘low life' rebetiko, brushes off this entire later period as Adorno's worst nightmare, collapsing its history into a single final frame. But there was another episode to the story.

After the communists' defeat in the civil war, the conservative governments of the '50s and '60s promoted a ‘miraculous' economic growth that involved a huge increase in industrial production and construction, mass urbanisation and cheap labour, all of which intensified existing class and political divisions. The defeated left was once again forcibly silenced by exile and by vigilante groups that terrorised and sometimes killed those who posed the slightest threat to the establishment. With the rise of the industrial working class, the persistence of state terrorism, high unemployment and the extremely low standards of living for the working class, leading to the reluctant emigration of tens of thousands each year to Northern Europe, North America and Australia, the content of urban popular music changed. While the majority of songs in this period, as those in the mid-war period, were songs of lost love, there was also a move towards abstraction, aiming to express a more collective, explicitly working class subject:

In factories from 6am through winter and summer
the workers' arms work like machines.
Let's all not forget that in this life
wealth is created by the sweat of the poor
– ‘The Workers', Stelios Kazantzidis/Marinella, 1961

While popular music was again actively censored in the '50s and '60s and was all but banned from radio broadcasts until 1957, songs managed to maintain their potency. In keeping with the adversities of the time, after the decimation caused by war, with thousands of political prisoners still in jail or persecuted, and amid the failure and harsh oppression of labour movements, many songs were confessions of one's deepest anguish and disillusionment – even despair – about poverty and social injustice, work, and the rootlessness and loneliness of migrant workers abroad.

The passport is bitter like a poison
but when you live without hope, anywhere on earth is home
– ‘The Passport', Theodoros Derveniotis/Kostas Virvos/Stelios Kazantzidis/Marinella, 1964

Far from losing its ‘depth of feeling', laiko was criticised by the bourgeoisie for being too sentimental. A large number of songs were indeed dark, expressing a death wish or predicting a tragic end:

Darker than my life will be my ending
They'll find my body among the trash one morning
– ‘Society's Outcast' Kostas Virvos/Stelios Kazantzidis, 1959

Son, I'm losing you for good, you are leaving a deep wound in my heart [...]
I try to have courage but I won't live, I wish I hadn't been born to have you
now that I'm left behind, a solitary mother, the church bells will ring my end
– ‘I Will Cry Today', Babis Bakalis/Keti Grey, 1960

While bourgeois commentators disliked the heavy melodrama combined with oriental modes of lamentation that the upper classes historically found distasteful, some left intellectuals also derided this tendency for extreme grief and despair. They accused popular songwriters of depicting the working class as powerless and passive, using fatalistic, uncomplicated lyrics. But, given the tangible bleakness of working class experience, it is no wonder songs like these were made and became massively successful. These were essentially songs for collective catharsis, for externalising and sharing sorrow by making its anatomy as explicit as possible through hyperbole. Besides, there were also songs that expressed anger, and a desire for a different kind of society:

With your money, rich man, you always engineer
to grab another person's right
and out of the mouth of the poor
to even take their last a bite
– ‘Fate Plousioi Parades', Eftyhia Papagiannopoulou/TheodorosDerveniotis/Vasilis Vlassis, 1960

I'll throw a kick and break it, this world made of glass
to create a brand new, different society from the shards
– ‘Glass World', Eutyhia Papagiannopoulou/ApostolosKaldaras/Vasilis Vlassis, 1960

Popular music was clearly far from becoming the sordid, trashy pop of Ed Emery's narrative, but its sound did undergo significant changes in the '50s. These were not solely the making of the record industry's profit motive and production methods however. It is worth remembering that in the '50s the record label art directors came from the scene of the '30s and '40s, like Stelios Chrysinis for example, a blind bouzouki player and composer. Along with him, many other musicians who first made an appearance in the earlier scene continued to make music through the '50s and '60s, participating in the development of a new style: Vasilis Tsitsanis, Manolis Chiotis, Giorgos Mitsakis, Apostolos Kaldaras, Babis Bakalis and others. Chiotis' addition of a fourth double string to the bouzouki, bitterly scorned by rebetiko purists, was a major change which established the use of western chords alongside Arabic maqams. Chiotis' taste for western music, and arguably his relatively comfortable background, led him to create a westernised version of rebetiko infused with mambo melodies that appealed to bourgeois audiences, archontorebetiko, which literally means 'rebetiko for the genteel'. Chiotis, however, was an exception, frequently criticised by his peers, most of whom stayed put within laiko-rebetiko with a decidedly eastern outlook.

Giorgos Zambetas in more upscale surroundings

Giorgos Zambetas in more upscale surroundings

One of the newcomers who became hugely influential was the singer-guitarist Stelios Kazantzidis, a bashful construction worker of Asia Minor descent. He originally sang in the heavy masculine style of old rebetiko up to 1953. But when Chrysinis encouraged him to take advantage of his vocal expressiveness and range, he soon won listeners with his ability to convey heartfelt sorrow. He is often called ‘the singer of exile', as his numerous songs about the experience of economic migrants became a constant obsession among the Greek diaspora. Kazantzidis' vocal style swayed other singers towards more emotionally driven vocal lines than those of heavy Piraeus rebetiko. His contemporary Grigoris Bithikotsis, on the other hand, sang and played in a more minimal style that later influenced the '70s rebetiko revival.

From 1955 onwards, laiko began to combine a variety of elements and formerly separate genres, predominantly of oriental origin. The cifteteli (belly dance) rhythm started being used more often, instruments other than the bouzouki, guitar and baglama became increasingly common in popular bands, such as the double bass, accordion, folk violin, piano and Arabic percussion. The Shankar-Jaikishan duo's soundtracks for Bollywood musicals were also a major influence. Their use of Indian ragas, with their similarities to Arabic maqams, alongside the epic tales of the downtrodden common in '50s Bollywood, easily captivated Greek lower class audiences. Nargis' song, for example, ‘Duniya Mein Hum Aye Hain' from Mehboob Khan's Mother India, sung while she is toiling in the fields with her children, could strike a chord with the multitude of those who had spent much of their childhood doing exactly that before migrating to the cities. A new trend then began, first with very successful adaptations of film songs (especially by Apostolos Kaldaras, Babis Bakalis and Dimitris Goutis). Soon the rhythms, instruments and song structures of the Shankar-Jaikishan style merged with enduring laiko traditions. Ultimately, the main current of popular music became more oriental and bastardised in the '50s and '60s than cleansed and bourgeoisified, and for this it has often been attacked and ridiculed, echoing the middle-class distaste for what they saw as a ‘gypsy' turn. Popular music was supposedly ‘cheapened' when it borrowed so much from Indian and Arabic cultures, while the mamboified archontorebetika were deemed unproblematically superior.

The image of Zambetas playing bouzouki for celebrities that Ed Emery uses to demonstrate the loss of ‘edge' in '50s-'60s popular music only represents the end of that period. Zambetas did not play archontorebetiko, but his fame, along with that of many others, came when the Greek film industry produced numerous commercially successful films which very often featured laiko musicians to depict working class life. Especially after Jules Dassin's Oscar-winning Never On Sunday in 1960, ‘bouzouki music', and Zambetas himself, became an attraction for tourists and celebrities. By the late '60s this did cause venues to become too expensive for working class audiences, changing the atmosphere (e.g. with the notorious mass plate-breaking by the nouveau-riches as a display of wealth). Many laiko performers disliked the arrogant way in which wealthier audiences treated musicians, most notably Stelios Kazantzidis, who quit performing in 1967 for that reason.

As the music industry grew, it began to promote a star-system and an overproduced sound, pushing popular songwriters and other musicians into the background. Despite their resistance, and their efforts to organise independently by setting up their own record labels, these musicians were gradually forced out of the industry as it started to cater for wealthier audiences and newly fashionable types of entertainment. From the '70s onwards, this trend ultimately eroded popular music to the extent that the word ‘laiko', in the sense of a working class culture, was no longer relevant. Theodoros Derveniotis, a prolific composer who led the popular musicians' union in the '60s was bitter:

We had a lot more to offer. The record companies pushed us aside, they ignored us as if we never existed. They only see records as merchandise. Great songwriters like Kaldaras, Virvos, Bakalis, Akis Panou, were sidelined, attacked, because companies did not want laiko. And they fought it, through the star system. Everything was engineered in order to eradicate songwriters and composers, and bring popular music to a wretched state.

Overall it would be fair to say that, exceptions aside, the '50s-'60s generation of musicians had an organic affinity with working class culture, and remained dedicated to it to the end. Like their inter-war predecessors, however, they were appropriated by the industry only to be expelled later, together with any remaining traces of grassroots culture. There was continuity and change between rebetiko and laiko, a relationship that cannot be mapped into the simplistic dichotomies of ‘underclass' vs. ‘working class' or ‘subculture' vs. ‘mainstream'. A radical break did come, however, with that last expulsion. Today, it is hard to know if what used to be called laiko has completely vanished, if it has been scattered and retrenched to the shacks of gypsies and illegal immigrants, or even if the present dark age will give it a new momentum...

Demetra Kotouza <demetra AT> left Greece many years ago and is now a contributing editor of Mute, doctoral student, jaded IT worker and bass player with Vukojebina



Essential Listening

‘The Time of Death', Rita Abadzi (1934) (Amanes)

‘Synachis' (‘Hothead'), Markos Vamvakaris (1934)

‘Varvara', Panagiotis Tountas / Stellakis Peripiniadis (1937). The song that became the excuse for a war of censorship

‘Poverty, You've Wrecked Me', Vasilis Tsitsanis / Marika Ninou (1954)

‘Sun, Don't Come Out Today', Theodoros Derveniotis / Kostas Virvos / Stelios Kazantzidis (1960)

‘Clouds Came Out in Pireaus', Manolis Mitsakis / Grigoris Bithikotsis (1962)

‘The Workers', Stelios Kazantzidis / Marinella (1961), from a TV interview with Kazantzidis

Keti Grey on various songs ‘The Mountain', ‘I will cry today' and others – the sound is representative of the '50s and '60s

‘Glass World', Eutyhia Papagiannopoulou / Apostolos Kaldaras / Vasilis Vlassis (1960)


Indian adaptations:

(1) ‘Nobody Felt for Me', Babis Bakalis / Stratos Dionysiou / G. Kali (1960)


‘Duniya Mein Hum Aye Hain' (‘Now we've come into this world, we must survive'), Naushad Ali / Nargis, from Mother India (1957)

(2) ‘You'll Get Used to Me', Apostolos Kaldaras / Mihalis Menidiatis (1963)


‘Yaala Yaala', from the film Ujala (1959) Shankar-Jaikishan


Typical archontorebetiko:


‘You're The Cause', Manolis Chiotis / Giorgos Laukas / Christos Lavidas (1948), from the film Lost Angels – the music that already was becoming archontorebetiko

‘Common people and Kolonaki', Manolis Chiotis / Meri Linda (1959), from the film by the same name




iStathis Damianakos, Sociology of Rebetiko, Athens: Ermeias, 1976.

iiJames Sclavunos, ‘So good, they made it illegal', The Guardian, 19 April 2004,

iiiThe word ‘laiko', literally translated as ‘popular', carries strong class connotations in Greek – as it does in French – and means primarily ‘of the lower classes' and secondarily ‘having wide appeal'.

ivMarkos Vamvakaris, Autobiography, edited by Angeliki Vellou Keil, Papazisi, 1973.

vNearchos Georgiadis, ‘Construction and Deconstruction of Terms in the Greek Song'. Klika, May 2005,

viKostas Vlisidis, ed., Rare Texts on Rebetiko (1929-1959), Ekdoseis Eikostou Protou, 2006.

viiNearchos Georgiadis, ‘Giannis or Giannakis listens to laika or rebetika', Klika, May 2007,

viii‘Interview with Mihalis Gennitsaris' in Eleftherotypia newspaper, 29 June 1996.

ixPanagiotis Kounadis, ‘In Memory of Enticing Moments II', Katarti, 2003.

xEd Emery, ‘Rebetika – A Brief History',