The three Rebetika songs of this post are very, very Greek. They may not appeal at first hearing to non-Greeks who are not used to this style of Rebetika. I think that one has to decode them carefully to find what is behind them and in them to feel their attraction.
The Rebetiko musicians were simple people, people of the streets, and they wrote, sung and danced about the street. The reality of their life was that of the urban slums in the 20s 30s and 40s of the previous century. This was a reality of living in the margins, in poverty, facing a daily struggle for survival. Crime, prostitution, violence, and drugs were prevalent, but also love, eroticism, marriage, solidarity; there was no borderline between these things, they were all the truth of daily life, and the rebetes reflected the truth in their songs, they wrote about everything.
Manos Hatzidakis summarized Rebetika in his famous words – with deep love and passion, fun and sorrow (μεράκι, κέφι, καημός). In the roots of these songs there is compassion and empathy to humans, even if they are thieves as in the first song and of course if they are the victims of a crime, as in the second (without any judgment on the offenders). This compassion is both the base and the reflection of the deep desire for all what gives joy. Through the melody, the music and the dance the Rebetes put forth the sorrows from the edge of living turning into fun and happiness. I will again cite Hatzidakis: “(in the Rebetika songs) there is life in the broadest sense. All are simple, austere with an inner strength that is often shocking.”
Down the Lemon–Shops
The “Lemon-shops” was the market of Piraeus for fruit and vegetables and housed at Karaiskaki square at the port of Piraeus until 1950. There, fruit and vegetables from the islands, Peloponnesus and Crete were unloaded from the ships, hence its nickname.
With the arrival of the refugees of 1922, an improvised camp to house them temporarily was created in the square. Over the years the shacks were turned into shops with all kinds of merchandise. The square became the commercial center of Piraeus, and thousands of people crowded the square every day. Those were terribly difficult years and poverty dominated the whole city. Everyone were trying to survive in any way, so prostitution, drug trafficking, robbery and every other kind of offense was on the increase.
One of the main targets of the thieves who roamed the area were the greengrocers, whose wallets were full of money for shopping from the wholesalers that just unloaded fresh fruits and vegetables for their market stalls or shops. They were an easy target for thieves, the so-called “vegetable-men”(lahanades). In the jargon language, “cabbage” also hold the meaning of ‘wallet’.
Countless incidents are recorded in the police records, especially from 1922 to 1940, events that are mentioned in songs by the rebetes. Vangelis Papazoglou recorded one of these events in his song “down to the lemon-shops” (1934) .The song shows that it is a daily and normal fact ever since misery abolished the dilemma between right and wrong. The last verse says it all: “Death does not scare us, we only fear hunger”…
Here is the song with dancing from a TV show by Nadia Kargianni, Georgos Tzortzis and others (without the verse quoted above, press cc or the red bottom for English subtitles, also in the next videos)
“Kyriakos’ donkey” was written by Dimitris Gogos (Bagianteras) in the years of the German occupation. It is an incident that happened in the days of the great famine in Athens, and was recorded shortly after the war, in 1946.
Kyriakos was one of the typical grocers of pre-war Athens, who wandered around neighborhoods with his donkey selling his goods. The donkey was ornamented with various bells and amulets – baskets loaded on it with all sorts of fruits and vegetables. Kyriakos was taking care of his donkey, he loved him and was very proud of him. Then the war came and then the German occupation. Kyriakos did not stop his work, but his goods were now mainly collard greens. The occupation caused a great famine and great suffering. Food was hard to come by, even on the black market. People were eating anything that could be eaten, even cats, dogs – and donkeys too.
One night someone stole Kyriakos’s donkey. The next day, Kyriakos opened the barn and saw that the donkey was missing. He came out to the street and started to yell, asking neighbours if they had seen it – but in vain. People remembered him for a long time wandering in neighborhoods with baskets on his shoulders, looking for his donkey.
Dimitris Gogos and Stelios Hrisinis sing:
Captain Andreas Zeppos was born in Piraeus to parents from Ayvalik in Asia Minor. Andreas grew up with fishermen and from an early age he became an avid fisherman. Before the war of 1940, he got engaged and in the beginning of the warleft for the Albanian front, and when he returned he married and settled in his wife’s house in Moschato (Piraeus). Then he ordered from a shipwright a boat, which he named Agios Efstratios – the name of his father.
One of his best friends was the Rebetika musician Giannis Papaioanou who was at Zeppos’ age and grew up in the same neighborhood. During the German occupation, most nightclubs and taverns were closed, and as Giannis had no job he worked on Zeppos’ boat. Giannis wrote the song “Captain Andreas Zeppos” for his friend who had regularly been greeted by people saying “Captain Andreas Zeppos, I am glad when I see you”, which became the first words of the song. In 1946 Papaioanou recorded the popular song.
Zeppos was gentle and felt excessive love for his fellows. He helped them as much as he could. Once he was a guarantor for a friend who wanted to buy tools for his boat. For some reason the loan was not covered and the bank claimed its money from the guarantor. Zeppos couldn’t pay and the bank took his boat that was his life. This incident made its harsh impact, leading him to alcohol, and in 1969 he died penniless at the age of 55. The boat was seized by the agricultural bank and after passing through the hands of many owners, was rebuilt and today is moored at a pier in the Island of Antiparos, named after the legendary captain.
The song was written in the captain’s glorious days and if some sadness happens to occur from his bitter end, the dance proposes that joy will overcome…
Alexandra Kousi Giannhs Matsoukas and dancing in a TV show
Eia mola eia lesa is an exclamation that the boatmen/fishermen used to chant out loud, in order to have rhythm when rowing the boat.These storis are from the book “A story – A song” by Iraklis Efstratiadis (in Greek edited by me and the editors). The translations of the stories and the songs are by Nata Ostria. Also many thanks to Katherina Siapanda, Shahaf Ifhar and Dan Matz.