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Sounds of the world : Proletarian folk, greek rebetiko as working-class resistance and cultural mixing

In Greece, working-class subculture has engendered the development of rebetika : a particular style of folk music, born out of the struggle and strife of the nation’s less-fortunate, who find their solace in songs. Described as a type of “urban” music, it is characterized by the use of Ottoman-era instruments (such as the bouzouki), the use of a wide variety of Western and non-Western melodic and rhythmic bases, and a lyrical subject-matter of the poor’s harsh daily life, as well as a typically-Hellenic interest in intense emotion (brought up from love, death, drugs, or war). Incorporating both Western and Turkic influences, rebetiko music is a singular by-product of the complex series of socio-political, cultural, linguistic, and artistic interactions accessed by working-class peoples.

Rebetika is the unique form of expression for the Greek archetypal character of the mangas : a daytime-laborer and nighttime-artist. He sings in a harsh smoker’s voice, after a long day’s work, about his problems: the alienation, the women he loves, the difficulties of factory life. Yet, to the dismay of many conservative traditionalists, his “solutions” are not productive ; in response to lost love, he chooses prostitution ; in response to depravity, he chooses substance use ; in response to poverty, he chooses crime.

Thus, the mangas is not an inspiring hero in rebetika, but a tragic and deeply-feeling human, in search of a way out of harsh conditions. Given his working-class identity and pessimism about life, the rebetiko music of the mangas is associated with left-wing politics and grimy nightlife. As such, the political power of rebetika is made evident through its historic repression during key political moments in Greek history, such as the far-right Regime of the Colonels in the 1970’s. For example, Army Decree No. 13 banned the playing of and listening to the music of Mikis Theodorakis, a rebetiko composer and leftist political figure, when they took power in 1967. Later, Theodorakis would be imprisoned, deported, interned at a concentration camp before he was allowed to go into exile in France.

Mikis Theodorakis - La Danse de Zorba le Grec



Interestingly, Theodorakis himself pointed to bouzouki music, of which rebetika is a subcategory, as representative of Greece’s position at a crossroads between the East and West. The language of rebetiko music itself reflects this reality as many songs are bilingual with Turkish words among the predominantly Greek lyrics.

As the earliest developers of rebetika music came from Asia Minor and lived under 400 years of Turkish rule, the strong presence of Turkish in rebetiko songs is unsurprising. In fact, this bilingualism reflects the broader cultural syncretism between Greek and Turkish culture.

Today, rebetika addresses contemporary struggles of the capitalist and industrialist era, while retaining traditional Anatolian and Greek rhythms, scales, and even lyrical subject matter. These characteristics preserved the genre throughout the years. As such, the genre stands as an artifact of Greek political culture and cultural syncretism.

Sotiria Bellou - Mi Mou Xanafygeis Pia


The authors :

Elli Dassopoulos is a Greek-American student in her second year of university in the Dual BA program between Sciences Po and Columbia University in the City of New York, studying Political Humanities. She is interested in global folk music, working-class literature and poetry, and the arts as a means of political resistance. She is also a filmmaker, artist, and writer, and loves to explore her Greek culture through her art.

Sophia Kontos is a third-year International Relations honors student at the University of Texas at Austin. Currently, she is studying abroad at Sciences Po Reims. Her research interests center on international spectacles (World Cup, Olympics, Eurovision) as sites for “soft power” displays. After completing her senior thesis next year, she plans to attend law school.

This article is a result of a collaborative project between #AuxSons and Alejandro Abbud Torres Torija, lecturer at Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims, and regular contributor to #AuxSons. As part of the class “Languages of the world”, international students from Sciences Po Paris Campus Reims prepared articles reflecting these themes. 


Photo : Mikis Theodorakis live in Hamburg - © Heinrich Klaffs

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