Giving poetry and theft a voice, rembetika was once very popular in Cyprus and Greece. For a certain demographic it still is. AGNIESZKA RAKOCZY meets a master

The story goes that the great rembetika player Markos Vamvarakis was walking the streets of Piraeus and Athens in the late 1940s with his fellow musicians on the lookout for a suitable place where they could do some busking.

Times were tough. Before the war the Vamvarakis quartet had been hugely popular, making lots of money but just as Greece changed after WWII so too did its music scene. The rembetika players were down on their luck.

“As one of his sons who was playing with him at the time once said, often they would walk for hours before finding a site where they could play and make enough money just to put beans on the table next day,” Nicosia-based Yiangos Yiangou, no mean rembetika player himself, says.

“One night, they were passing by a restaurant when a man called out. He recognised Vamvarakis and wanted him to play for his friends. But the owner wouldn’t allow Markos and his fellow musicians to enter the taverna. ‘Why should I let you come in and earn money from my customers when we have a jukebox now. Let them spend money there.’ The chilling irony was that the songs the clientele listened to on this jukebox were the very songs Markos had recorded before.”

That night the quartet called off their search for work and the musicians walked home in sombre mood. Markos’ son recalls how the famous rembetis (a musician playing rembetiko) was muttering to himself on the way home and how he didn’t sleep all night. Early next morning, he called his son and played him a piece he had composed in the course of that sleepless night.

Photo: Christos Theodorides

Before breaking into song, Yiangou concludes the hand-me-down story of the song Markos had composed: “It went along the lines: ‘I cannot find any solution any more. I am helpless I am tired of this life and search for death’”. Softly, almost sadly, he notes, “it was never recorded by Vamvarakis himself.”

I am absorbed and have to remind myself that we are in Palouriotissa, sitting in Yiangou’s home – a warm, lived-in space, a small dog crouched alongside him, lots of art on the walls. Most are works by Yiangou’s wife Olga Yiangou-Sorokina, a Russian artist so committed to recycling that her creations come from second-hand materials mixed together into new surprising images.

I am here to talk about Yiangou’s life and quickly realise that this means talking about music. My more mundane questions must wait as I am given a brief course of the history of rembetika and on what being a rembetis means.

Quickly, we race through the origins of this soulful music – its links to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Asia Minor to Greece in the 1920s, driven by poverty and desperation, the hashish smoking dens (so called tekes) of Piraeus, the police persecutions and prosecutions, when both the music genre and the instruments used to perform it fell victim to an official ban.

But what does it mean in this day and age to be a rembetis?

Offering to tell me more about the legendary Vamvarakis, a figure reverently described by the renowned Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis as “the tree from which all of us come out as branches”, Yiangou picks up the story, stressing how behind the macho posture Vamvarakis was often forced to adopt, lay an exquisitely sensitive and observant musician. This, he notes, was a guise common to many rembetika virtuosos.

So, what did they sing of?

“They sang about everything – about smoking hashish, about stealing, about poverty, about being in jail. They sang a lot about love. Rembetika songs were about the life of these people and their life was always tough… Rembetika was like their language, they were expressing themselves through music. And they never gave up.”

I read more about Vamvarakis in a book on rembetika that I pull from a shelf and I try to picture his life. The boy born at the beginning of the last century to a poor Catholic family on the island of Syros, one of the very few places in Greece with a large Catholic population. At age 15, Markos moves to Piraeus, subsequently finding various low-paying jobs; a stevedore, a miner, a shoe-shine boy, a paperboy, even a butcher. It is the routine of many poor young males in Piraeus at that time — hard dirty work all day, women and hashish at night.

After a while, his family follows him. His two younger brothers start smoking hashish. One goes mad and dies in the streets. The other kills a man and goes to jail. Markos himself is jailed several times. When not in jail or working, he’s to be found sitting in one of Piraeus’ clandestine hashish tekes, getting high and listening to music.

It was in one such hangout that young Markos first hears old Nicos from Aivali (a town north of Smyrna/now Izmir) playing the bouzouki. The style — a heavy Turkish-style zembekiko with improvised introductions – is new to him. He becomes hooked. “I will cut my hands off if I don’t get a bouzouki,” he tells his father.

Six months later finds him playing in the same teke. Then he forms a quartet and starts playing in the more legitimate clubs and tavernas. The group grows ever more popular to the point where the word spreads and people start coming from all over Athens to hear them. Markos starts making recordings, the very same ones that were later to end up on the jukeboxes that cost him his job.

I read one of his lyrics about love — an acknowledged strophic masterpiece:

‘Your eyelashes shine

like the flowers of the meadow.

Your eyes, sister,

make my little heart crack.

Search till you’re blind:

you won’t find another like me.’

How many women, I wonder, fell in love to or with these lines.

Many, I should think, and not only women but men as well. Yiangou definitely being one of them.

Born in Karavas in 1961, he was only 13 when the war took place and his family had to leave for Nicosia, where his father worked as a grocer in the Ayios Antonios Market.

“We were quite a religious family,” he says, but democratic too. “We all liked music and had good voices but I guess I was the one who was the most hooked. My parents always knew where to find me during the village events. I would invariably be glued to the stage, listening to the various musicians and watching them perform.”

It was the early 1970s, when Yiangou first heard Vamvarakis on radio and immediately took to his songs. Listening to them was like meeting an old friend, he says. “His music was incredibly familiar.”

Yiangou believes rembetika is something people either love or don’t, and that the listener reacts according to who they are.

“Rembetika speaks to a certain kind of people. Not only because of the lyrics but also because of the rhythm and the use of traditional instruments and melodies. The combination of all makes this music very familiar and attractive, something those who like it can relate to more or less instantly.”

Young Yiangou attended the Pancyprian Lycee. Because he possessed a good voice, he started studying Byzantine music and soon was singing in the choir at Saint John’s Cathedral, something he recalls as “an honour”. On graduating school, he moved to Athens to study theology but soon realised this was a mistake.

“It wasn’t for me,” he explains. “With my free mentality, I couldn’t accept the dogmas so I left. But Athens was good to me. It was the late 1970s. Rembetika was popular there at that time. Students loved it, listened to it a lot, learning how to play it themselves. Some great rembetes were still alive so they were learning directly from them.

Did he start playing bouzouki in Athens?

“No, that came later when I went back to Cyprus,” he replies. “In Athens I was only singing and because I was studying Byzantine music I could follow all the musical forms. But after I came back to Cyprus and did my military service, I got myself a classical guitar and friends showed me some chords and I started playing. I have a musical ear so it was very easy. By 1983 I was playing and singing both rembetika and laiko.”

The late 80s and 90s were good for rembetika in Cyprus. Rembetika and laiko establishments were appearing in the island’s cities and towns so Yiangou couldn’t complain about the lack of work.

“I was invited to start playing with some other musicians in a club in called Potopion to Ellinikon in Nicosia where they needed a baglama [a long-necked lute] player. And even though at the beginning I was playing it more like a guitar, I soon learned. The truth is, as every musician will tell you, the best school is the stage so I was learning quickly while and by performing. In this way, I quickly learnt a lot about the baglama, and the tzouraz and small bouzouki. I also started playing with a group in Limassol.”

Because they were still “learning the ropes”, he admits that at the beginning, he and his fellow musicians played only classic rembetika. “Later, when we were more confident and relaxed, we started experimenting”, which pleased him, given that his preference was the “free style of rembetika”. In this, he disagreees with the traditionalists who claim that real rembetika lasted only until WWII. “For me, rembetika is a living thing and it is still changing and evolving. Even now, we have composers who write new rembetika songs. And there is nothing wrong about that.”

So was it possible to just play rembetika in Cyprus and make a living?

Yiangou laughs and confesses that he always had to have a second job to survive.

“The sad truth is that in Cypurs you cannot live off music. Not now. Not then. There is no way you can depend on the salary of a musician to make ends meet.”

For many years Yiangou worked as a librarian at the Cathedral in Nicosia, the very church where he first sang as a boy. For a while, he also did some free radio broadcasting, obviously not for the money, “it was just a hobby.” He even had his own small TV show.

Now retired, he still plays his beloved music, at least several times a week, in various places in Nicosia and beyond.

So what is the situation with rembetika in today’s Cyprus? Certainly, not as good as 25 years ago when, as I remember, there were quite a few places in Nicosia where you could listen to it while drinking and dancing?

“Yes, it is true that right now we are going through a period of stagnation,” Yiangou allows. “But that doesn’t mean that rembetika has disappeared altogether. In each of the bigger cities, there are still one or two places where one can listen to it, and I am very much part of that scene.”

Bear with me as I put this one final question to you, I say. He smiles. “Are you a real rembetis?”

He laughs. “Some people say I am. Am I? I think in a way yes. Seemingly gradually, even though I have no idea how it happened, I have become one. Although in my soul I cannot say I am just a rembetis because I love all Greek music, not only rembetika. I like experimenting with music and listening to various modes. I like keeping an open mind. As my friend once said, the truth is that the same melodies travel all over the Mediterranean and even further afield all the time because music is a free living thing.”

So what does the word ‘rembetis’ really mean?

“Well, they say it comes from the Greek verb relating to wander (rembazo) – so that would mean ‘rembetis’ is a person who likes wandering, relaxing, enjoying the view and thinking… Personally I think a rembetis is a philosopher of life and a collector of experience, because this is really what life is about, isn’t it? About collecting good moments and making sure that at the end we have more of them than the bad ones.”