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Culture

Rebetiki Istoria Concert Wows Audience in Brooklyn (Video)

November 20, 2017

BROOKLYN – Robert Browning Associates and Lotus Music & Dance presented the New York debut of one of the oldest and most famous rebetika groups in Athens, Rebetiki Istoria, on Saturday, November 18 at 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, tzoura), includes Eleni Lazarou (vocals, baglama, percussion), Nikolaos Menegas (bouzouki, vocals), Vangelis Nikolaidis (guitar), and Yona Stamatis (violin, bouzouki, vocals). The program for the New York debut featured selections from the group’s new CD, “Rebetika Songs of Greece.”

The audience greeted the artists with enthusiastic applause even before they began to play the first song, Hasapiko Politiki, an instrumental piece which demonstrated their exceptional skill as a band. Yona Stamatis gave a brief introduction to rebetika as a genre and to each song, highlighting how interwoven the genre is with the history of modern Greece and as a powerful expression of the hopes, dreams, struggles, and heartaches of the working class. A screen behind the musicians displayed slides with the song lyrics in English translation and images of the artists who originated each piece.

Among the songs performed were perennial favorites Sto Pirea Synnefiase (It Became cloudy in Piraeus) by Yiorgos Mitsakis, Synnefiasmeni Kyriaki (Cloudy Sunday) by Vassilis Tsitsanis, and Duo Portes Ehi i Zoi (Life Has Two Doors) by Eftihia Papayiannopoulou and Stelios Kazantzidis. The Greek members of the audience sang along to the classics and later some danced. As a nod to Stamatis’ roots in Kefalos, Kos, and the fact that many in the audience were also from Kefalos, the band played a few nisiotika which encouraged more people to dance.

The concert concluded with the improvisational Amanes and a standing ovation for Rebetiki Istoria from the appreciative audience. The artists played so beautifully with great emotion and skill, there was no doubt that although the music they play is rooted in history, it continues on, and is very much alive. The dynamic vocals of Lazaridou whose roots are from Constantinople, the world-weary voice of Vasileiou, and Nikolaidis’ expressive guitar brought an authenticity to each song that was remarkable. Stamatis’ charming voice as well as her violin and bouzouki skills were impressive. Menegas’ bouzouki was also impressive, while his voice echoed the longing in the song he sang Aman Katerina Mou (Come on, My Katerina) by Stellakis Perpiniadis.

Stamatis noted that Vasileiou was reluctant to record a CD of rebetika since he thought it was not right to profit from the suffering of others, meaning the original writers of those classic songs, but thankfully for music lovers, Stamatis was able to convince him. The CD, Rebetiki Istoria: Rebetika Songs of Greece, was on sale at the concert and is available online at www.rebetikiistoria.com. The month-long tour includes performances in numerous cities including St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and New York.

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, Giorgos 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.”

The concert was 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.

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