SEX, DRUGS AND REBETIKO?
No story of the bouzouki would be complete without a look at rebetiko, a music that, like the Blues, emerged from a melting pot of poverty, social injustice and the interaction of various ethnic groups.Rebetiko was the music of the Rebetes (a derivation of the Turkish word ‘rebet’ meaning ”rebellious”, or ‘unruly’) a group of low-lifes or dropouts who lived on the edge of society. Originally heard in the in the ‘tekedes’ (hashish dens), ‘koutoukia’ (taverns), brothels and prisons- places where the Rebetes, voluntarily or not, spent much of their time- it would later become the voice of the downtrodden and dispossessed.
Combining Greek folk music with elements drawn from Arabic and Turkish song, Rebetiko was played on the bouzouki, the baglamas ( a small bouzouki favoured by prisoners since it could easily be concealed) and later the guitar. At this stage, the bouzouki was fitted with three double strings that were tuned in unison.Running parallel with early Rebetiko was the ‘Cafe Aman’ style of Smyrna and Constantinople.Musically a little more sophisticated, this was generally performed by professional musicians. Songs typically dealt with matters of the heart were often sung by a female vocalist.
By contrast, Rebetiko was an exclusively male province with roughly sung lyrics that dealt with imprisonment, drug use, gambling and the hard life.In 1922, following the Turkish defeat of the Greeks in Asia Minor, mainland Greece experienced a huge influx of refugees. Over a million Anatolian Greeks entered the country, settling in the urban centre of Athens and the port of Piraeus.Though they had little in the way of money or possessions, they brought with them the musical traditions, instruments and vocal styles of their homeland.Faced with a life of poverty and unemployment, these refugees occupied the same social strata as the despised rebetes and as a result, their cultures- and their musical styles- began to merge.
Cafe aman-style clubs were soon established and by the mid-1930s these regularly featured performances by both Rebetiko and Cafe Aman musicians.With the rise to power of dictator General Ioannis Metaxas in 1936 however, all this changed. The tekedes were shut down and sound-recordings were censored, with any references to drugs or gambling strictly prohibited. For a time, even the playing of the bouzouki was banned and there are stories of police raiding tekedes where they set about smashing the musicians’ instruments. The rebetes were systematically persecuted and many left Athens. Once again pushed underground, the music returned to its roots and this period is characterized by a revival of the old-style underworld Rebetiko.
ALIEN IN NEW YORK
Q: What can you tell me about my bouzouki, Karolos?
A: Well, it was definitely made by my father! The address on the label- 34th Av, Astoria- tells me that it was built between 1977-1977. Later, my father moved to the 30th Av. Looking at the pictures you have sent me, I would narrow that down to somewhere between 1974 or 1975. It’s a joy for me to see a good sample of my father’s work.
Q: I was intrigued to find a Greek bouzouki that was built in New York. Why did your father move there?
A: At the time a great many bouzouki players and composer where going to America. There was a big Greek community there. The music of Theodorakis and Chadzidakis had been featured in movies such as ‘Stella’, ‘Never on Sunday’ and ‘Zorba the Greek’ and as a result the bouzouki and Greek music were becoming popular around the world. My father hoped to see the bouzouki becoming an international instrument.
He initially headed for Los Angeles California, where he had many friends. He stayed there for a couple of years working in fender’s custom shop and at the same time continued to build bouzoukis at his home! They fixed his papers and he was given the green card. Eventually, however, he grew restless and in late 1973 he left LA for New York City, where he opened his own workshop in Astoria.
Q: Why New York?
A: 8th Av in Manhattan was known as ‘GREEK TOWN USA’! It was famous for it’s Greek nightclubs. In fact, Astoria had the largest Greek community in the States.
Q: Did Onnik build instruments for any of the famous players?
A: Yes, many of them! Manolis Chiotis, Harry Lemonopoulos, John Stamatiou (Sporos), Yannis Stamatiou, Yannis Aggelou and Yannis Tatasopoulos all played bouzoukis built by my father. In fact, the bouzouki you are holding in your hands may have been built for any of the ‘Yannis’ mentioned above.
Q: How did you become involved building bouzoukis yourself?
A: I was an apprentice of my father from the age of 11-14 at the same time attending night school in Athens. In 1977 I went to Astoria to live, work and study at the University. There were a lot of bouzouki orchestras playing for Greek weddings, etc, and as a result, our business was doing very well both building new instruments and repairing old ones. I was also playing bouzouki at small Greek clubs, which were called ‘Boites’. These were non-commercial places mostly for younger people, usually students. Two of the most important Boites were ‘Acroama’ and ‘Microcosmos’, and I played bouzouki in both of them. Following my father’s death in 1983, I opened my own shop in Astoria on 34th street, intending to continue the family tradition. Ten years later I returned to Athens setting up business next to the old family shop,which was opened by my father back in 1960.
Q: Give us your philosophy of instrument making in a nutshell.
A: There is no greater pleasure for me than to take pieces of wood and breathe life and into them. Even though I have developed new techniques in my craft, most of my work is still based on the traditional. For me, it is not enough just to build an instrument if that instrument doesn’t sound and play the way I want it to. I take my time in order to achieve my standards. It took me a long time to realize how lucky I an have been an apprentice to my father from a very early age. To stay in touch with the beautiful art of instrument making is a great privilege.
Like the guitar, the bouzouki has produced players famous for their style, innovation and dazzling techique. The names of Tsitsanis, Zambetas, Lemonopoulos and Vamvakaris are spoken of with the same reverence afforded to rock guitarists like Beck, Page and Hendrix.Above all other, however, it is the name of Manolis Chiotis that commands the greatest respect. He was the man reputedly responsible for adding the extra pair of strings to the modern bouzouki, something for which purists have yet to forgive him! (Referred to as a ‘trichordo’, the bouzouki originally had three pairs of strings and this is the style of instrument favoured by the players of Rebetiko.
The modern Tetrachordo bouzouki is tuned CFAD- like the first four strings of a guitar dropped a tone). Born in 1920, Chiotis studied guitar, bouzouki and oud from a young age, giving his first professional performance in Athens in 1936. Signed to Columbia Records the following year, he would remain one of the label’s best selling performers.A Pivotal figure in the history of bouzouki, Chiotis was a brilliant musician who used all of the five digits of his left hand (including the use of the thumb to fret the G string) to achieve a speed and dexterity that had previously been thought impossible.