Rebetiko is a style of Greek music that arose out of unstable political condition. It developed s among the urban lower class and became a defining feature in rebellion against the Greek lower class strife against the rich. It began to form around 1923 when over a million Greek refugees were being resettled from Asia Minor. This spurred “shanty towns” to crop up around major cities such as Athens, Piraeus, and Thessaloniki.
Up until about the 1960s, Rebetiko was diasporic and was an umbrella term for types of music that were being created all over the Greek mainland in urban areas. It came from the most impoverished communities, and its defining features included the use of the instrument Bouzouki, sad or rebellious lyrics, and, often, a lone male dancer dancing the traditional Greek dance, Zebekiko.
During the period following World War II, the development and associations behind Rebetiko altered drastically, although it remained a musical style of the underdog. The style was popularized and evolved primarily under a man named Vasilis Tsitsanis, whose career began in 1936 and continued during the war. He was a composer and master Bouzouki player and wrote hundreds of songs with their lyrics referencing traditional iterations of Rebetiko and harkening to its full history.
Tsitsanis mentored the next generous of profound Rebetiko artists, including Sotiria Bellou, Ioanna Georgakopoulou, Stella Haskil, and Marika Ninou, who continued and developed the musical tradition in a similar strain as he had. Although with the popularization of Rebetiko the social groups composing within this tradition changed, the lyrics still focused around a type of rebellion/bluesy theme, focusing on lost loves, drugs and alcohol, and resistance against the Ottoman occupation.
This tradition has been one that is still changing and evolving today, in contemporary Greece, and has also made its way to America through Greek-American immigration. The formal recording and production in America are often described as having bolder lyrics than the Rebetiko being recorded in Greece because of the censorship laws still present in Greece. However, profane and risky lyrics were still a characteristic of Greece’s publicly performed Rebetiko, just not what is recorded and distributed.
There are still Greek and Greek-American artists out there performing and composing new types of Rebetiko music while simultaneously honoring its long tradition. It is exciting to see how this genre will continue to evolve in the contemporary age, especially in response to the political and economic conditions affected Greek citizens today.