Rebetiko, a century-old traditional Greek musical genre which has influenced musicians around the world, has now been inscribed on UNESCO‘s “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”
Rebetiko (loosely translated as “Rebel music”) is a musical and cultural expression directly linked to song and dance that initially spread among the urban lower and working-class populations in the early twentieth century.
While aspects of the genre were found throughout Greece in the period, the roots of the underground music style are from Asia Minor, and the genre was spread to Greece after waves of Greek refugees were forced to flee Turkey in the 1920s.
The genre draws influence from Greek, Turkish, Roma, and Jewish musical conventions, producing an entirely unique sound.
Rebetiko, once the music of the underground, now widespread
Rebetiko songs contain invaluable references to the customs, practices and traditions of a particular way of life that involved rebellion, artistic expression, love, and often crime.
Rebetiko was born out of hashish dens in port cities like Piraeus, where musicians and followers of the movement congregated and sang about the circumstances of their everyday lives.
Initially, musicians learned new Rebetiko songs orally, only through listening to live performances of new songs, or by learning from an older, more experienced musician.
This non-formal method of learning is still important, but the recent spread of sound recordings, the mass media, and cinema have reinforced other methods of transmission.
While they once were entrenched in the underground, Rebetiko songs are now a standardized repertoire in almost every social occasion involving music and dance in Greece.
The Greek genre has become the subject of academic research
In the past decade, Rebetiko has increasingly been taught in music schools, conservatories and universities, contributing to its wider dissemination, and the musicians and people who enjoy Rebetiko continue to play a key role in keeping the practice alive.
Although the underground music form flourished over 100 years ago, young people today still listen to the genre.
There are many bars, tavernas, and clubs in Athens and Thessaloniki that feature bands that play Rebetiko live.
Due to its cultural, historical, and musical significance, Rebetiko became the subject of a ground-breaking course at New York University (NYU) exploring the historical origins of the Greek genre and the American Blues — and focusing on how the two musical genres intertwine in so many different ways.
The academic course, titled “Songs of the Underdog: American Blues Meets Greek Rebetiko,” was offered for the spring 2020 semester under the auspices of the Consulate General of Greece in New York City.