Though he grew up in Athens, Andreas Georgas didn't hear about rembetika, the music commonly known as the "Greek blues," until 1994, when he was 18. He was studying piano at Roosevelt University when some American friends put on a rembetika concert. He liked it so much he joined the group for its next show, and started reading up on the form. "The classical music I was studying seemed cold to me," says Georgas. "It was intended for an aristocracy. Rembetika is personal; it comes from the heart and it's open--unfiltered. Anyone can relate to this music."
Nowadays Georgas repairs pianos for a living, but spends much of his time singing and playing bouzouki in his own rembetika band, which he started three years ago with his friend Nikos Panomitros. They mostly play private parties, but perform at Katerina's cafe the first Saturday of every month.
Derived from the Turkish word rembet, meaning "from the gutter," rembetika developed in the early 20th century in the hash dens and cafes of the major port cities of Greece and western Asia Minor. It was the music of a poor and dispossessed subculture, members of which were known as rembetes.
Rembetika combines Turkish folk and court music with traditional Greek instrumentation--bouzouki, baglama, guitar, accordion, piano, and percussion--and improvised lyrics. Thematically it's concerned with poverty, injustice, displacement, and death; the songs celebrate the exploits of underworld heroes--the manghas--and the pleasures of drugs, or lament day-to-day hardships.
But it has more in common with American blues than just its subject matter. Musically, both are characterized by minor chords. Rembetika's heyday was during the first third of the 20th century, and just as the blues has rubbed off on generations of rock, soul, and R & B artists, rembetika's influence can be heard in the Greek popular music--known as laiko--that has come after it.
The central event in the development of modern rembetika was the 1922 "population exchange" at the end of the Turkish-Greek war. As Muslim Turks living in Greece were sent en masse to Turkey, 1.3 million ethnic Greek Christians--who'd lived for generations on the west coast of Asia Minor in the cities of Smyrna and Constantinople--flooded into the port-city slums of Greece. Among the refugees were many of the leading musicians of the Smyrniac school of rembetika, which reflects the influence of traditional Turkish court music. Upon their arrival in Greece, these musicians assimilated into the existing rembete underworld of Piraeus and Thessaloniki--whose music was grittier and more improvisatory--and produced the blend of sounds that became modern rembetika.
Rembetika songs fall into one of three categories: the celebratory, the amorous, and the "hard-core," which many fans believe are the only true rembetika--full of anguish, despair, and some of the saddest sounds you may ever hear.
The set played by Georgas and his band--Panomitros, Andreas Kalassoundas, and Nikos Lambrinatos--is heavy on ballads and dance songs, but Katerina Carson, the cafe's owner, says this doesn't make it any less authentic. "People come in here," Carson says, "and say, 'This isn't rembetika. Only the down-and-out, knife-in-your-heart is rembetika, the rest is fluff.' The rest of the music isn't fluff. It addresses the main themes--a broken heart, poverty, working hard, death, life, betrayal, the abuse of power. Those themes are in this music, and those themes are universal."
The next rembetika performance at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park, is Saturday, November 2, at 10 PM. It's free and BYOB; call 773-348-7592.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.