Greek rebetiko listed UNESCO's list

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Over a century since it was first played at cafes and tavernas of the poor on the Greek mainland and the Greek-speaking parts of the Ottoman Empire, rebetiko, dubbed the Greek blues, has now been inscribed on UNESCO's 2017 list of intangible cultural heritage.

The distinctive musical genre, which initially expressed the pains and dreams of the marginalized working class and refugees from Asia Minor before winning the hearts of all Greeks, was acknowledged during UNESCO's annual meeting in Korea in December as "a powerful reference point for the collective memory and identity of the Greeks."

According to the official announcement, rebetiko contains "invaluable references to the customs, practices and traditions of a particular way of life, but above all, the practice is a living musical tradition with a strong symbolic, ideological and artistic character."

The news was warmly welcomed by lovers of rebetiko who gathered at the municipal gallery of Piraeus a few days later to sing classic songs and honor two men who have been involved in the musical genre for the past half century.

Panagiotis Kounadis, an engineer and rebetiko scholar, narrated stories from the time when rebetiko was blooming at Greece's largest port in the early 20th century, while singer-songwriter Yannis Lembesis and his orchestra performed a singalong.

Piraeus Mayor Yannis Moralis and Nana Latsi, president of the local cultural group Exaleiptron which organized the event, awarded Kounadis and Lembesis for their efforts to keep rebetiko alive.

Both men told Xinhua that acknowledgments were always welcome, but rather unnecessary as the music speaks to the soul of Greek people and whoever enjoys good music.

"The main characteristic is that they are very good songs with a rich variety of themes. That is why rebetiko will live forever. Peoples' lives do not change easily. We always have the same or similar feelings, the same human relations, between the sexes or in society, the same everyday issues," Kounadis said.

"Whoever loves good music should try listening to it," he said.

According to encyclopedias and dictionaries, rebetiko is defined as the urban popular music of the poorest Greeks from the mid-19th century. At the beginning, it was linked with the life and subculture of outcasts and workers moving from the countryside to cities. Gradually, it evolved into one of the most popular types of music in Greece.

Rebetiko derives from the word rebetis (rebetes in plural), meaning a person with an anti-establishment attitude living in the margins of society. The ancient Greek root of the word means wanderer.

Using mainly stringed instruments of the Mediterranean, such as the bouzouki, baglama, guitar and santouri, and combining oriental rhythms with European music, rebetes sang about poverty, violence, alcoholism, drug addiction, and prostitution but also love, joy, war and death.

Shortly before World War II, all song lyrics were subject to censorship in Greece. References to drugs and other disreputable activities vanished from recordings.

As time passed, talented musicians brought rebetiko closer to the mainstream, subculture edges were softened, the genre lost its bad reputation and gained wider acceptance.

In the late 20th century, rebetiko lost ground to other more western music styles, but can still take Greeks on a unique journey of emotions, Lembesis told Xinhua.

"I feel happy and lucky because in 1989 I had written a song that goes like this...'Leave behind everything false and come to hear rebetika which is our legacy, a jewel and our strength and pride'...When I went to radio stations with this song, radio producers would tell me 'Come on, legacy?' Today, the same people are saying, 'indeed'," the musician said.

"It should have been done. An old rebetis I was working with, Michalis Gennitsaris, told me back in 1992/93 that one day all mankind will acknowledge rebetiko, but I will not be alive. And it happened," Lembesis said about UNESCO's decision.

"What I am about to say might sound as an exaggeration, but after this decision, in my mind, Tsitsanis and Vamvakaris have taken their place next to Mozart and Beethoven," he said, referring to two great rebetiko composers of the 20th century.

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