The Magic Carpet Ride – Rebetika and its Cousins

Someone once said, “Music is food for the soul” For me, listening to music is like getting aboard a magic carpet ride, especially when I play my old rebetika records and discs. Hearing those old melodies makes me forget any troubling thoughts that may have invaded my mind. Voices expressing lyrics filled with romance and tender emotions releases any tension that had held me captive moments before. Some compositions are so embracing that they vanish the tensions and concerns that had kept me from enjoying the sunny day. After some research, I learned that the rebetika didn’t have an auspicious beginning. The very first rebetiko was heard way back in 1834 and the music was then called, ‘ta mourourika’. Rebetika were played in taverns and unsavory dives where the card sharks, local criminals, and other lawless individuals gathered for relaxation and camaraderie. But it wouldn’t fade. The sound began getting more attention outside of the dismal dens of Piraeus and Thessaloniki at the turn of the 20th century, and with roots also in Asia Minor, it was popular among the more than one million Greeks survivors who fled or were exiled from Asia Minor by the ‘you know who’ – and drug dealers, common criminals, and other miscreants. Mostly, rebetika was looked down on, snubbed and censored by Greeks officials like the dictator Metaxas because it sounded too Turkish – and by the Turks because it sounded too Greek. Queen Frederika found it too common and the Nazis opposed it during WWII when some of the compositions aroused sensitivities.

When you think about it, who is better qualified to express deep emotions and doleful, mournful feelings than those who had first class experiences? What other music could best describe and give notice to social conditions but the poor, destitute, exiled, or lower classes – though, being poor shouldn’t classify anyone as being low class.

Rebetika has a voice that cries out through emotional feelings about deep-seated poverty, the desolation and fear of an uncertain future, of unrequited love, human sufferings, and the sorrow over a departed soul. Some songs express humorous situations but in a more commonplace, more human way.

Hearing the sweet notes, the sensuous melodies strumming from the soulful strings of the bouzouki, baglama, or violin that accompanies, it is very hard to turn away. Add lyrics that beg you to sympathize with the situation being expressed, especially when sung by talented, beautiful musicians like Tsitsanis, Louizos, Perpiniadis, Dalaras, or Sotiria Bellou, and you become a sympathetic audience.

Then, recently, randomly, traveling in my car and wanting to hear some music, any music -excepting Rap – I came upon a melody on the radio that I thought, for a moment, was rebetika. It can’t be! It’s a week day. Weekends are the usual for Greek programs. Yet, it had a similarity in expression and sound. And the voices that accompanied the music were so mellow and expressive. Being in Spanish, I didn’t understand the lyrics much, but the music appealed with the same sensitivity as rebetika. I listened and enjoyed the expert strains of an instrument that I learned was called Quinta, or requinta. The genre called ‘bachata’ had beautiful strumming stemming from an instrument that seemed like the cousin to the bouzouki. Singers were, like the rebetika singers, untrained but expressive and sensitive in their renditions. Singers named Zaharias Ferreira, El Torrito (Hector Acosta) Guerra, and Romeo Santos take me to that place I love, where ease returns, where all concerns just vanish. My feet want to dance and I find it hard to concentrate on what had annoyed me moments ago, like the arrogant, tailgating menace behind my car or that ‘rich brat’ driver in the expensive car who zoomed in front of me without concern or caution. What do I do in cases like that? I slow down to 25 MPH with the tail gate guy. It sure gets rid of them fast. I remind myself that the ‘rich brat’ will, eventually, add another traffic violation to his list. Then, I’ll continue to enjoy, once more, the music at whatever speed is indicated and wave at the driver who got wrapped around a pole up ahead. Oops! Was that a stop sign I passed?



I always think of Alketas Panagoulias when the soccer World Cup comes around.

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