Rebetiko, sometimes called the “Greek Blues,” is perhaps the most influential genre of Greek music. While the movement as a whole was significant internationally, there were a few Rebetiko singers that defined the iconic genre. Rebetiko singers, musicians, and composers Roza Eskenazi, Markos Vamvakaris, Vasilis Tsitsanis, and Sotiria Bellou were some of not just the greatest but also the most significant figures in the movement.
Rebetiko (loosely translated as “Rebel music”) 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, is 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 such as Piraeus, where musicians and followers of the movement congregated and sang about the circumstances of their everyday lives.
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.
In fact, many of today’s slang words come directly from Rebetiko. Although the underground music form started to flourish over one hundred years ago, young people today still listen to this music.
Roza Eskenazi was born in 1897 in Istanbul to a very poor Sephardic Jewish family. In the early 20th century, Eskenazi’s family moved to the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, which was still under Ottoman control at the time.
At the time, Thessaloniki’s economy was booming, and the city welcomed a wave of migrants from across the Ottoman world. Her father soon found work at a cotton factory, but her mother didn’t have much luck.
A few years later, Eskenazi’s mother took her children to the city of Komotini, which is home to a significant Turkish-speaking minority. There, her mother found work as a maid in the home of a Turkish family.
It was then that the young Roza Eskenazi discovered her love for singing and dancing. According to the singer, Turkish-speaking owners of a restaurant in the city once heard her sing and asked her mother to allow them to hire her as a performer at their establishment.
Despite her daughter’s talent, Eskenazi’s mother was adamant that none of her children become artists of any kind and rejected their offer.
Upon her return to Thessaloniki as a teenager, Eskenazi decided to pursue her dream of becoming a performer. She started out simply helping performers carry their costumes at a nearby theater and soon became a dancer there herself.
While still a teenager, Eskenazi fell in love with an older man who was part of one of Thessaloniki’s most prominent Cappadocian families. Although his family did not approve of the match, the couple eloped and had a son.
Just a few years later, Eskenazi’s husband died, and the singer left the young child with his father’s family to pursue her career in Athens.
Upon moving to Athens, Eskenazi quickly found great success in nightclubs and bars across the city, as she could sing in Greek, Turkish, and Armenian in her unique voice.
While she could sing a wide variety of songs, Eskenazi was known for popularizing the Smyrna school of Rebetiko, which drew influence from the Greek folk songs sung in the cosmopolitan Asia Minor city.
Due to her wild success, the Rebetiko singer made four cuts with Columbia Records and soon became one of the most prominent singers in Greece.
Her success broadened outside of the country, as well, and she toured Egypt, Albania, and Serbia, performing her edgy songs that often contained references to crime, sex, and drugs.
Later life as an obscure Rebetiko singer
During the Nazi Occupation of Greece during the Second World War, Eskenazi helped shelter and save countless Greek Jews, like herself, from being sent to concentration camps.
Despite obtaining a fake baptism certificate and carrying on an affair with a German officer to help conceal her work in the resistance, Eskenazi’s involvement was discovered, and she was arrested in 1943. Her German lover and her son, with whom she had been reunited, were able to free her a few months later.
After the war, Eskenazi toured the United States to great success. She would have stayed there if not for a police officer named Christos Philipakopoulos, who was thirty years younger than the singer. Despite the age gap, the two fell in love and remained together until the end of her life in 1980.
As the Rebetiko scene began to change in the 1960s, Eskenazi faded into obscurity until the 1970s, when the new generation of Greek singers cited her as inspiration, and she appeared frequently on television and reemerged as a cultural icon.
Rebetiko musician Markos Vamvakaris has released some of the most iconic and well-loved songs in the genre and was even known as the “Patriarch of Rebetiko.”
Born in 1905 to a Roman Catholic family on the island of Syros, where there is a sizable population of Catholics, Vamvakaris led an adventurous and unique life.
At the age of just twelve, he believed that he was wanted by the police and fled the island for Piraeus, which was then a rough port city and a center of Rebetiko.
In order to survive on his own, Vamvakaris took on a number of odd jobs, including polishing shoes, mining coal, and butchering animals. While working as a butcher, he ran into a man playing the iconic Greek instrument, the bouzouki.
Enchanted by the sound, Vamvakaris vowed that if he did not learn to play the instrument in six months’ time, he would cut his own hand off with the tools of his trade.
The musician’s brutal dedication paid off, as he became a virtuoso of the instrument, and quickly began not only playing other people’s songs but also writing his own in the seedy hash dens around Piraeus.
After making a name for himself on the Rebetiko scene, Vamvakaris formed a band including other Rebetiko musicians and began performing in more reputable venues across Athens.
At the insistence of recording executives, Markos, who previously only wrote, composed, and played bouzouki, began to sing his own songs as well.
His iconic, raspy voice, which captured the emotions of his songs so well, defined the genre of the time and inspired countless Greek singers.
Vamvakaris found success as a solo performer, but the entire genre faced a period of difficult years during the Nazi Occupation of Greece, when Rebetiko music and the culture surrounding it was banned.
Following the end of the occupation, Vamvakaris’ unique style fell out of fashion, and the singer’s voice suffered due to his asthma. Arthritis also made it extremely painful to play bouzouki.
The musician fell into obscurity until the 1960s, when Rebetiko great Vasilis Tsitsanis asked for some of Vamvakaris’s most iconic songs to be re-recorded with the period’s most popular singers.
Vamvakaris died in 1972 at sixty-six years of age. Since his passing, his influence on Greek music has become more apparent.
Mikis Theodorakis, the iconic Greek composer, famously stated of Greek musicians “we are but branches of a tree. Markos is that tree.”
Vasilis Tsitsanis was an extremely talented bouzouki player and composer who wrote over five hundred songs in his lifetime. Tsitsanis, who is seen as a foundational figure in modern Greek music, transformed Rebetiko and wrote many of the most beloved songs in the country.
Born in Trikala in 1915, Tsitsanis took to music from a very young age. As a child, he learned to play violin, mandola, and mandolin, instruments he later featured in his compositions.
As an adult, Tsitsanis left Trikala for Athens to study law. It was in the Greek capital that the musician first encountered the bouzouki and learned how to play the iconic instrument. While in Athens, he also recorded his first song.
He stated that Markos Vamvakaris was one of his biggest musical influences.
Just before the Nazi Occupation of Greece, Tsitsanis moved to Thessaloniki, where he opened up an ouzeri called “Ouzeri O Tsitsanis,” which became famous.
While in Thessaloniki under the Nazis, Tsitsanis wrote some of his most well-known songs, such as “Cloudy Sunday.” However, he waited until the end of the war to record them.
A few years after the war, the by-then legendary Tsitsanis returned to Athens to record more music. There, he discovered a number of famous Greek singers, including Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou.
Tsitsanis enjoyed massive success in Greece up until the period of the Junta (1967 – 1974), when a right wing military dictatorship took control of the country and banned music like Rebetiko, which was considered “dangerous.”
Once the Junta fell in 1974, Tsitsanis reemerged and performed countless shows and concerts across Greece.
The Greek musician traveled to London in 1984 for treatment after being diagnosed with cancer. He passed away there at the age of sixty-nine.
Throughout his career, Tsitsanis not only wrote and performed some of the most famous and beloved songs of Greek music, but also helped build the careers of countless Greek singers.
Sotiria Bellou has one of the most distinctive voices in Greek music, one that can easily bring listeners to tears.
Born to a well-off family near Chalkida in Evia, Bellou grew up listening to Byzantine hymns in church, as her grandfather was a priest. Drawn to music, a young Bellou began singing as a small child and even fashioned her own guitars out of spare wood and wire.
While the young Bellou made her aspirations to become a singer known and all were aware of her talents, her mother was not supportive.
A conservative woman, Bellou’s mother believed that her daughter’s becoming a musician would be a disgrace for the family. According to Bellou, her mother beat her when she heard she wanted to pursue music.
Despite this, the singer’s father, who owned a grocery store in town, paid for private lessons for his daughter after buying her a guitar.
As a child, Bellou was precocious, rebellious, and independent. In 1938, when she was just seventeen, Bellou’s father arranged for her marriage to a bus conductor who was allegedly abusive.
Bellou stated later that her husband beat and abused her and even caused her to miscarry. While being attacked, Bellou once threw corrosive acid in her husband’s face in an attempt to flee.
She was arrested and sentenced to jail for three years. She appealed her sentence, and it was reduced to six months. Upon her release, Bellou faced scorn and judgement in her hometown, and her relatives and family argued that she had shamed her family.
Unable to live under the oppressive circumstances, Bellou moved to Athens in 1940 in search of a better life. Tragically, her move to the city coincided with the Nazi Occupation of Greece, a period of extreme difficulty, including hunger, oppression, and torture, for the country.
While in Athens, Bellou worked with the Greek Resistance to fight the Nazis. For her work with the resistance fighters, Bellou was arrested and tortured by the Nazis.
After that period, she worked a number of jobs to survive, including as servant, a street candy seller, and a porter. But then, her life took a turn when she took a job as a waitress in a Rebetiko club in the neighborhood of Exarcheia.
While working there one day, she happened to lose a bet to a customer and had to sing two songs on stage. An associate of the Rebetiko singer and composer Vasilis Tsitsanis happened to be at the bar, and, stunned by Bellou’s unique voice, put her in contact with Tsitsanis.
Bellou’s discovery and activism
Tsitsanis was likewise enchanted by her deep, powerful voice, and the two began recording and performing music together. Bellou also performed with Markos Vamvakaris during the period.
While her career began to grow, Bellou was caught up in the turbulent political circumstances of the country, as well as her own alcoholism and gambling addiction, which plagued her for much of her life.
An outspoken leftist and antifascist activist, Bellou became the target of fascist and far-right extremists. On one occasion, when Bellou was performing with a band and when Tsitsanis was in the audience, a group of far-right extremists entered the club and mercilessly beat her, calling her a communist.
Neither Tsitsanis, with whom Bellou was quite close, nor any of the other men present interfered to stop the brutal beating. This experience, as Bellou later recalled, was one of her most painful.
The Greek singer, in addition to her status as an impressive, talented singer and activist, was also openly lesbian, which was extremely rare at that time.
In Greece, homosexuality between men was illegal until 1951, and the existence of female homosexuality was hardly even recognized in the country.
Her sexuality also contributed to her persecution by far-right groups at the time, and this, in addition to her political activism, caused her clear influence on Greek music to be suppressed for many years.
While she was a beloved figure amongst artists and musicians, Bellou, much like many Rebetiko singers, became virtually unknown to the broader public as the genre fell out of fashion in the 1960s.
Despite this, her iconic voice and renditions of Tsitsanis’s compositions in particular have greatly influenced Greek culture and music.
Although she made a good living at the height of her career, Bellou lived out her later years in poverty.
She often appeared in dingy clubs to sing, much to the despair of her fans, who recognized her immense talent and importance to the genre and Greek music as a whole.
Greek painter Yannis Tsarouchis, who was said to be particularly devoted to Bellou, was known to burst into tears whenever he heard her voice.
The legendary Greek singer passed away in 1997 at the age of seventy-six after suffering from throat cancer for four years. Bellou was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens next to her mentor and friend, Vasilis Tsitsanis.
Following her death, Bellou finally received her due and is now considered an icon amongst music lovers and the LGBT community in Greece.