NEW YORK – Five musicians, led by the great oud player Kyriakos Kalaitzides, joined to give an authentic, elegant rebetika concert at the Onassis Cultural Center.
Their strictly acoustic performance, without any electronics, allowed the purity of the instruments to come through. Audience members responded by toe-tapping, hand-clapping, head-swaying, and soulful contemplation, feeling their kefi along with the musicians.
They experienced a music that has powerful associations for Greeks and Greek-Americans. It is the music they heard growing up, at celebratory occasions, played and sung by family members. The concert also recalled the now vanished rebetika clubs that once flourished in Manhattan, blood brothers to the pleasantly debauched dives of Athens, where men (rarely women) felt free to break into the impassioned zeibekiko.
Oudist Kalaitzides came from Thessaloniki specifically for the occasion. Guitarist and oud player Mavrothi Kontanis pointed out that the group had never performed before, but drew together from places as diverse as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California. “We are an extended family,” said Kontanis. “We all have the same passion.” Band members included Tony Barhoum on the qanun (kanonaki), George Lernis, performing on toumperleki and defi, and Phaedon Sinis on the politiki lyra. All were outstanding, and each had the opportunity to break out and play a solo riff. Barhoum on the qanun, a unique rebetika instrument that looks something like a long xylophone, won a spontaneous round of applause, as did Kontanis.
The concert, first of a series, celebrated the Origins of Rebetika: the Blues of Greece. In an introduction to the concert, Kalaitzides played early recordings including the first known, made in New York City in 1932. “The rebetika was the cultural invention of a marginalized society,” he said. “In 1923, the year of the Asia Minor disaster, population was exchanged between Greece and Turkey, and music was exchanged as well. Greeks living in shanties played Greek music mingled with Turkish traditions and instruments.
“The classic period of rebetika was from 1930 to 1950. In the 1950s rebetika stopped being marginalized and became a popular music form. The music of outsiders, with its power to communicate suffering, took its place on the international scene along with the blues. Rebetika today, with its authenticity and emotion, continues to inspire young musicians in Greece and abroad.”
As for the future of the music form, Kalaitzidis told The National Herald: “It will persist mostly as a music phenomena. The social context is totally different in the present time, but we can hear and appreciate rebetika in concerts.”
Dr. Kalaitzidis, composer and oud player, earned a PhD in Byzantine Musicology from the University of Athens. He is the artistic director and cofounder of En Chordais, a cultural organization that focuses on the research, education and promotion of the musical traditions of the Mediterranean. He has a well-earned reputation as one of the most important musicians and scholars in the field of modal secular music of the post-Byzantine era and Mediterranean. He has given more than 2,000 concerts in 40 countries, at major festivals and venues ranging from the Sydney Opera House in Australia to New York’s Lincoln Center. He has been involved with major gatherings of oud players, including the International Oud Meeting in Thessaloniki in 2002. He has published on oud methodology.