Roza Eskenazi, captured here in all her creeky wonder, was discovered in a tavern in 1929. What her family made of her hymns of praise to the pleasures of hashish isn’t on record, but, as any rebétika fan knows, hash and low-life Greek taverns were a marriage made in heaven – and anyone who tried to sunder the two was asking for big trouble. Rebétika (or rembetika) is the Greek equivalent of the blues: a marginalized music that to some extent reflected the difficulties of a developing Greek state. The Rough Guide’s 22-track compilation traces rebétika from the raw vocals of Eskenazi or her chief rival, Rita Abatzi, of its first recordings to the slicker production values of revivalists such as Mario and Glikeria.
What strikes first are the wavering microtones: bouzoukia, fiddles and hammer dulcimers locate rebétika in a Middle Eastern sound world, and the older the songs are, the more this is so. But beyond this, the song is complete unto itself: no love songs these hasiklidhiki (hash songs), where any sudden interruption to the reverie of a smoking session could be met with sudden violence; yearning is heard only in the songs of a lost home – and these songs are aimed at the displaced populations following World War One and the emigrations to the New World that ensued.
The album touches on the political issues that rebétika reflected: while some singers were banned by the Metaxa dictatorship in the 1930s, it’s questionable how much of a threat the form represented to an established order. This Guide is an excellent starting-point to make one’s own enquiries.Louise Gray