Rebetiki Istoria Set to Make New York Debut (Video)

Rebetiki Istoria: (left to right) Nikolaos Menegas, Eleni Lazarou, Yona Stamatis, Pavlos Vasileiou, and Vangelis Nikolaidis. Photo by Savvas Vasileiadis

NEW YORK – Robert Browning Associates and Lotus Music & Dance present the New York debut of one of the oldest and most famous rebetika groups in Athens, Rebetiki Istoria, on Saturday, November 18at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn.

Rebetiki Istoria (“rebetika history”) is a leading traditional group from Athens specializing in early-style rebetika, one of the oldest genres of Greek urban popular song. Often called “the Greek blues,” the music expresses the hardship and joys of everyday life and deals with such subjects as unrequited love, economic hardship, and repatriation. At times, rebetika were censored and its musicians ostracized; at other times, rebetika were lauded as the greatest expression of Greek music and culture.

For 35 years, Rebetiki Istoria has been instrumental in the rebetiko revival, producing authentic and compelling rebetika songs reminiscent of the earliest stars. Its extensive repertoire includes popular songs from Markos Vamvakaris, Vassilis Tsitsanis, and Ioannis Papaioannou, little-known gems, and traditional, improvisational amanes.

The ensemble, led by its founder, the renowned Pavlos Vasileiou (vocals), includes Eleni Lazarou (vocals, baglama), Nikolaos Menegas (bouzouki, voice), Vangelis Nikolaidis (guitar), and Yona Stamatis (violin, bouzouki). The program for the New York debut will feature selections from the group’s new CD, “Rebetika Songs of Greece.” Two of the artists, Pavlos Vasileiou and Yona Stamatis spoke with The National Herald about their work and upcoming tour.

Pavlos Vasileiou is the lead singer and mastermind behind Rebetiki Istoria. The group formed in 1981, when Vasileiou founded the Rebetiki Istoria club (1981–2014) at 181 Hippocrates Street in the Athens Neapolis neighborhood. Vasileiou hoped to create an environment for Greek youth to enjoy early-style rebetika as a live performance tradition and to learn about the history of Greek popular song. For more than three decades, the club entertained thousands of enraptured fans who delighted in live rebetika performance while learning invaluable lessons about rebetika, Greek society, and politics. Though the club closed its doors in 2014, the ensemble continues to tour. A leading proponent of early-style rebetika, Vasileiou maintains an enormous repertoire of songs and has mastered the complex art of the improvisational amanesByzantine hymns are a central influence on his vocal style, as Vasileiou received his vocal training as a chanter in the Greek Orthodox Church. In 2013, Vasileiou was awarded the King-Chavez-Parks Visiting Professorship by the University of Michigan for his contribution to the diversity of social and cultural perspectives in Greece and abroad.

Vasileiou told TNH, “Rebetika is a musical form that expresses the everyday experiences of blue collar Greeks. It has an intimate connection with the United States as immigrants from Greece and from Asia Minor brought their musical tradition with them to New York City, to Tarpon Springs, Florida and to other American cities. Some of the most famous early rebetika musicians lived and performed in the United States like Marika Papagika, Giogos Katsaros, Kyria Koula, and Jack Grigoriou.”

He added, “Rebetiki Istoria is merely the humble continuation of this extraordinary musical tradition. For forty years we have remained true to the style and ethos of the original rebetika musicians. We are delighted to present to the New York audience, a small sample of our musical work and a taste of the great early rebetika music.”

Yona Stamatis told TNH, “I first came across Rebetiki Istoria in 2007, as part of my doctoral research in Ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan. I had spent an entire summer traveling around Greece in search of rebetika musicians who were devoted to early-style rebetika with no luck. When I finally found the Rebetiki Istoria tavern and heard its house ensemble, I was floored. It was as if I was listening to the earliest rebetika recordings- but live! Rebetiki Istoria is an extraordinary music ensemble that has promoted early-style rebetika as a live performance tradition for over three decades. Lead singer Pavlos Vasileiou is a master of rebetika who specializes in the amanes, the beautiful improvisatory tradition that draws heavily from Byzantine chant. Rebetiki Istoria performs regularly on concert tours throughout the U.S. This year, the tour celebrates the release of the ensemble’s brand new recording Rebetiki Istoria: Rebetika Songs of Greece. The CD will be for sale at the concert and is available online atwww.rebetikiistoria.com. The month-long tour includes performances in numerous cities including St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and New York. The concert in New York will include a variety of rebetika songs including the beloved Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki, the humorous Krasopino, and the extraordinary Goodnight Amanes.”

The concert is made possible in part with public funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State legislature. Box office 917-267-0363 Info & Tickets: www.robertbrowningassociates.com/rebetiki-istoria.html. There will be a cash bar at the venue with retsina and ouzo.