As you walk through the streets of Plaka, Psirri, or any neighbourhood in Athens with lots of Greek restaurants, you’ll find that many of them also host live music acts. Whatever people tell you, know this: these are not the famous rebetika or rebetadika you might have read about. These are just tavernas with live music, and people come to these places to eat. You go to rebetadika for the music—and the heartache.
Let’s start with a crash-course in the history of rebetika. During the Greco-Turkish war in 1919-1922, millions of refugees from Asia Minor found shelter in Athens. Along with their sorrow for the lost homeland, they brought their culinary flavours and a musical culture that talked about everyday struggles and love through song. The hardship of exile and the need for social interaction was expressed by picking up a guitar, bouzouki or violin and singing rebetika, the Greek blues.
Names like Vamvakaris, Batis, Mitsakis and Papaioannou are considered to be the forefathers of rebetiko, while Tsitsanis, Zambetas and Chiotis built on their legacy. A landmark moment in the genre’s history came in the early 1950s when the Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, at the age of 25, gave a lecture on rebetiko in the Greek Art Theatre. It planted this marginal music of the poor and the dispossessed as an integral part of modern Greek culture.
But enough with history, let’s cut to the glendi (party). I promise you that even if you don’t understand a single lyric, you will love the rhythm, the plaintive voices that set the mood, and the passionate looks on the faces around you. A night at a proper rebetadiko is a ritual. The rebetika songs are hypnotic chants, making it feel like you’re attending a religious ceremony.
The live music usually starts around 10 pm and goes on until 4 am, maybe later, depending on the kefi—a Greek concept that roughly translates as a profound passion for living in the moment. Wine flows abundantly and delicious mezedes (Greek tapas) are always on the menu. Bands are composed of one or two bouzoukia, a guitar, a violin, contrabass and the accordion. Some other instruments may be present, like the santouri (zither) or the outi (oud), which means that some dimotika (the old Greek folk songs that are traditionally accompanied by dance) will be played as well. If there’s any electric instrument involved, you should probably check into another rebetadiko for a more authentic experience.
The restless neighbourhood of Exarchia is home to some great rebetiko places, such as Aggelos, which can be found on the first floor of a neoclassical building. A band performs live every night, it serves fresh seafood, and every Saturday you can catch Lena Kitsopoulou, a great Greek actress who sings the rebetika. Kavouras is over at Exarchia Square, on the first floor of a building right above a souvlaki joint that never closes.
Over in Pangrati, you’ll find the basement of Marathonitis, a genuine koutouki known for its wine that is served straight from the stacked wooden barrels. Hamam in Petralona hosts the best rebetika bands in town. Three metro stops away at Keramikos you get to choose among Pipis Kafenio, Pinoklis and Triporto. And for a real time capsule experience, don’t miss out on Mezedopolio Gi close to Larissis Station.
Instead of an epilogue, I would like to point out the following: rebetiko music, as well as the dimotika “songs of the people”, might sound Greek to you but it’s not just Greek souls who find themselves surrendering to it. A vast collection of rebetika is owned by a British music specialist named Charles Howard. The American folk musician Christopher King is the author of “Lament from Epirus: An Odyssey into Europe's Oldest Surviving Folk Music”; while Jack White’s Third Man Records released to critical appraise an excellent compilation of primeval Greek village music from the early 1900s called “Why the Mountains Are Black”. As for rebetikes kompanies, they can be found all over the world, honouring the legacy of the mesmerising Greek music that captures the heart.