The magic voyage of the hashish songs

In the summer of 2007 a concert was taking place in the “Odeion Irodio Attiko”, the ancient amphitheater on the slope of the Acropolis in Athens. Georgos Dalaras and other top singers performed old songs, most of them Rebetika songs on the culture of smoking hashish.

These songs have undertook a fascinating path of more than one hundred years, starting at the hashish dens in poor suburbs on the margins of the big cities. They were considered illegitimate by the ruling culture, and for some years were prosecuted and banned by the law, until they were performed in that core cultural institute, the Irodio.

The Rebetika music, like the Fado in Portugal, the Tango in Argentina and the Blues in America, had originated in the working class slums in the late 1800s as the industrialization and the development of the modern city attracts many people from the rural parts of the country, who set and crowded those neighborhoods the cities’ edges.

In the first decades of the 20th century Greece was not as industrialized as other countries but it was on the road to. Naturally, those people who succeed to work were paid little and there were many who were unemployed, impoverished workers; and also outlaws.  This common fate of poverty created a different type of culture and norms of behavior that challenged the ones that ruled in the bourgeois quarters. “Rebet” in Turkish means “unruly”, maybe for this is the name “Rebetika”.  One part of that “sub-culture”, the alternative lifestyle, was the phenomenon of the “mangas” (or other names in other times) –men who were uniquely dressed, had a long moustache, with a special way of walking and manners of honor. This culture had ideals; besides dignity and honor “the special love to the wife and to mother…. friendship, solidarity and mutual support”

Other most important part of this culture was music and dancing.

The songs emerged from the simple need to communicate, and the meeting places were in the margin-opium dens, prison, and in hashish taverns-tekes where men came to escape life difficulties…and to dream…They sung while smoking the narghile (hooka).  Oftentimes members of the group cooperated in creation of the song, and as the song creators didn’t know to write music, it was spread orally among people in the neighborhood.They sung with the bouzouki and danced “to revoke, carried away, the love a woman, to stave off the suffering, to weep in secret for the injustices of society.”

“They were people that had to live out of the boundaries of society; because they wanted to live their lives in their own different way … their need for companionship led them to hashish. The “χασικλίδικα” (hashish songs) were the first rebetika songs. The rebetes smoked hashish in order to feel more comfortable when hanging out with their peers…Smoking hashish always calls for company.”(Panos Savvopoulos).

Here is an old song, a dialogue between young mangas and a woman, both hashish addicts. Sung (both roles)  by Andonis Diamantidis (Dalgas)

If you unable to see the video, here is an  audio, the lyrics are at the end of the post



The Refugees from Asia Minor

The life of these people became even harder as masses of people, 1,500,000, were forced to come to Greece in 1923 in the population exchange after the Turkish –Greek war.

The refugees settled in the margins of the main cities, without appropriate accommodation, goods, money and work, triggering a social and economic crisis. Among them were musicians- but in contrarst to the then locals, they were professionals, educated who knew how to read and write music. “It must have been very difficult for them to live on the fringes of a new society, in poverty and degradation. Most had lost their entire livelihood in their hasty flight, and many…knew to speak only Turkish. In desperation, they were seeking solace in an Ottoman institution: the dens and chasisopoteo”(a place of hashish smoking).

The “Smirini style” was their  contribution to this cultural melting pot with an orchestration and singing based on their homeland . With their arrival dances like Zebekiko and Hasapiko became very popular. After the dens they started the “Café aman”, also in their native style where people could enjoy themselves with music that was semi-improvised. Many consider this years as actually the first years of Rebetika.

Here is a modern version of “Five years imprisoned” in Turkish ( Dilec Koc) and in Greek (by Glikeria), a song by Vangelis Papazoglou, who came to Greece as a refugee in 1923. The song tells about a prisoner who because of his longing and sadness begins to smoke the hookah.



The 1930s and Markos Vamvakaris

The beginning of the 1930s was “golden years” of the Rebetika which had been established itself as an expression of social identity of that class of people. . In this atmosphere appeared gifted artists, with a different style from the oriental Smyrni. The bouzouki, the baglamas (small bouzouki) and the guitar were the leading instruments. These artists beside creating, playing, singing and recording, loved hashis, and sometimes owned places in which people used to smoke the narghile.

The most prominent of these musicians, is Markos Vamvakaris, whose life and creation resembles that culture. Vamvakaris was born in the island of Syros in 1905. At age eight he had already worked, and at twelve had been jailed for illegal trade. In 1920, when he was only fifteen, Markos ran away with a ferry toPiraeus. He got a job in loading coal, after that in slaughterhouse and at 17 he had experienced hashish for the first time and this became one of his two great loves. Then followed a life with an older prostitute, regularly visits in the den, chases from the police, detention and imprisonment, the stress of survival, but also his other great love- the love for singing and bouzouki.

So he became skilled on the bouzouki, created and sung, recorded, and by 1933 as he was 28 he won the appreciation of his music. Many consider him as the father of  rebetika. All this time he kept his own hashish place, but begun to perform with other musicians in more legitimate places.

He tells about his collaboration with other musician, Stratos Pagioumtzis: “We were wondering around the dens and there we met. Stratos was singing then and I was playing bouzouki. He was a ferryman. They called him koutomagkas –”dumb mangas” because he was full of hashish…”

Here is Markos Vamvakaris in a recording from the 30s:

Usually as the smoking place was about to close, the men sung before they went out the following song, a “mangas’ pray”. Here by Mario:



From the illegal to the legitimate

The hashish was illegal from 1890 but not always the law was imposed strictly. In the 1930s it was a punishable offence so imagination was needed to avoid the police. Giorgos Batis, one of the influential musicians of Rebetika in the 1930s – “The Mangas of Piraeus” – had a famous coffee -shop which looked normal but in an inner hidden room were the hashish materials…

All this ended in the time of Metaxas’ dictatorship from 1936.Hashish places were forced to close, including that of Vamvakaris. Drug users were prosecuted and jailed; songs on hashish were forbidden to be written and to be played and for this a censorship was imposed. The bouzouki and the baglamas were destroyed whenever found by the police (of course it was easier to hide the small baglamas).This situation continued under the German occupation and actually after WW2 there were almost no hashish places and hashish song were disappeared from the recording studios (after a very short period of flourishing, but censorship resumed in 1947.)

The way of the hashish songs to the mainstream was connected to that of the Rebetika in General. It begun after the war as musicians like Tsitsanis and Chiotis created quality songs which appealed to large audience.

Manos Hatzidakis, a most notable composer gave in 1949 a famous lecture in which he asserted the musical quality of the genre: “Rebetika manages in an admirable unity to combine words, music and dance…. there is no outbreak, no fitfulness and no nervousness. There is no passion. There is life with the broadest sense. All are simple, austere with an inner strength that often shocking…” He didn’t hesitate to say that a certain song of Tsitsanis has “strength…close to Bach.”; and he reminded all those who despised this music that it is a part of their history and culture too.This lecture had influenced a lot on the way people looked on Rebetika.

In the 50s this style was replaced by other styles but revived in the 60s as notable singers recorded old songs.

In 1975 after the fall of the dictatorship, Giorgos Dalaras recorded the album “50 years of the rebetiko song” which got a warm welcome from the people, who felt in the dictatorship days that these songs are part of the common memory, especially in their subversive messages against the rulers. Any reference to drugs was cut out but the album made its impact on revival of the genre.

In the following years the rebetika performed in auditoriums and arenas and in many clubs as well. The censorship diminished and finished; the hashish songs returned to these stages too, and it was a closing of the circle because, after all, in these songs all the story begun.

Here is  “Five mangas from Pireus ” in a concert in TV show this song created by Giannis Eintziridis, in prison.



Young hashish addicts- Νέοι χασικλήδες, Andonis Diamantidis (Dalgas)
I’ve learnt  that you are a  crapshooter, that you are drug addict,
you are mangas, brave, a nightwalker
come my little mangas that I ‘ve two words to tell to youtourne and tourne, tournene
tell me my mangas the “yes”
they told me that you are a scapegrace  and a trouble maker
you squabble in the taverns and  you are a pimpcome my little mangas, tell me “yes” and whatever you want from me

tourne and tourne, tournene
tell me my mangas the “yes”


I’ve learnt  that you are a  crapshooter you are also a drug addict

you squabble at the games you have also a fiance


I’ve learnt you are a drug addict and a dervish you draw the gun

and in all games  you show your cunning

tourne and tourne, tournene
tell me my mangas the “yes”


The drugged-.Ο μαστούρας.Music,lyrics and singing: Markos Vamvakaris
Almighty God- Θεέ μου μεγαλοδύναμε
Folk, Vocals: Mario
Translations and research-Nata Ostria
Thanks to Katherina Siapanta and Era Vardaki
Edited by Danny Matz and Shahaf Ifhar

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One Response to “The magic voyage of the hashish songs”

  1. agruber Says:

    Thank you very much for the post and your work

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