Rebetika, and Zorba the Turk

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’These, I now know, were the actual words (frequently misquoted) of the Spanish-American writer George Santayana. Well, quote or misquote, the message is clear. Sadly, I see this failure of memory all around me. I read an interview the other day with a Turkish artist who, talking of recent political demonstrations in Istanbul and elsewhere, claimed that respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression and freedom of speech had declined in this country in the past ten years. As a close observer of events over the past eighteen years, I was surprised. If he had kept to the issue of the preservation of a green area in Taksim, I could have understood his anger – but to make that claim in a country with such a recent history of military coups, civilian disappearances, torture, suppression of minorities, honour killings, and corruption in government, civil service and football is beyond laughable.
Still, there it is. The guy said it, the female interviewer recorded it, the Western media published it, and their public, for lack of an alternative point of view, or perhaps just because they want to, probably believe it. What is sadder, however, is I imagine that guy, as an artist, had a fairly good education, and a lot of other educated young people in Turkey also seem to believe it.
Well, I have written my last words about the Taksim protests. What I want to talk about here is music, and its power to bring people together, if only we can hear its message. I want to talk about a musical genre whose history and origins, even in its homeland(s), are little known or else misunderstood. The reason, in fact, is not solely attributable to the ignorance of the local people. Rather, it is that the history of these people, over the past two centuries, has been so full of trauma and upheaval that they have willingly chosen to forget, and their governments have actually encouraged this process of forgetting, in the interests of building new nations from the ashes of old. So, first of all, a little historical background.
Zorba the Zeybek? – Watch
The 1964 Hollywood movie, ‘Zorba the Greek’, helped to popularise, at home and abroad, a genre of folk music and dance accompanied by a stringed instrument commonly known as bouzouki. Well, Hollywood is Hollywood, of course – and in our heart of hearts we know we shouldn’t accept as gospel all we see on the silver screen. Nevertheless, in the absence of personal knowledge or experience, we may unintentionally incorporate the celluloid tale into our world-view.
A theme I find myself often returning to is the question of how to define a Turk. I have dealt at some length with the complex fabric of history in this part of the world, into which the Turkish invaders wove themselves after their arrival in the 11th century. I have touched on the intermarriage and intermingling of the Ottoman elite with their Christian and Jewish fellow citizens over the course of their 600-year empire. I have discussed the huge influx of refugeesfrom the Crimea, the Caucasus, the Greek peninsula and the Balkans over a two hundred and fifty year period as neighbouring states gained independence from and/or expanded into Ottoman territory, displacing as they did so, their Muslim neighbours who had lived there for centuries.
Parallel to this theme, I have found myself criticising the modern state of Greece, and its Western supporters for what sometimes seems a deliberate distortion of history. Part of the problem, as I have been at pains to explain, stems from the use in English of one word, ‘Greek’to refer to three quite distinct historical and even geographical entities: first, the Ancient Greece of Homer, Socrates, Herodotus and Pythagoras; second, the medieval Byzantine Eastern Roman-Greek Empire; and finally, the modern Kingdom/Republic founded, with the help of Great Britain, France and Russia, in 1830.
Our lack of satisfactory English words to distinguish these three entities, coupled with a sometimes deliberate blurring of the distinctions for political purposes, has made for serious misunderstandings that continue to bedevil international affairs, as, for example, in the case of the Cyprus issue. What I overlooked, however, in my sympathy for the plight of the Republic of Turkey, was the fact that, quite understandably, the government and citizens of modern Greece also experience ongoing problems of identity as a direct result of their traumatic history.
I read recently a book entitled ‘Greece, the Hidden Centuries’[1]which described the period from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the establishment of the Kingdom of Greece in 1830 – a period of nearly four centuries when Christian Muslim and Jew lived together in an Empire that did not suppress religious, linguistic or cultural identity. In reality, the period of cohabitation extends several centuries before the final conquest of the Byzantine Greek capital. The implications of that time span make nonsense of most attempts to separate ‘Greek’ and ‘Turkish’ cultures.
Another theme running through these posts is the idea that the same historical event may be remembered, described and interpreted in different ways depending on how it impacted on those involved. I have written elsewhere of my surprise at learning that Turks celebrate 18 March as their victory day in the campaign we refer to as Gallipoli, when New Zealanders and Australians remember 25 April as the day we (Anzacs) arrived on the scene.
Turks and Greeks have a similar problem with the event known to historians variously as the Liberation War, the Turkish War of Independence, the Greco-Turkish War or the Asia Minor Catastrophe. For citizens of Turkey, victory in that three-year war opened the door for the establishment of an independent republic. For Greeks, on the other hand, defeat meant the bitter end of their Great Dream – the reincarnation of the once mighty Eastern Orthodox Christian Byzantine Empire centred on the legendary city of Constantinople.
But that’s not all. Military retreat from Asia Minor in 1922 was a huge reality check for the Greeks who had begun their campaign with encouragement from the European powers victorious in the First World War. Subsequently, seeing the writing of Turkish nationalist victory on the wall, Britain, France and the others abandoned the Greek cause and left their little neo-classical brothers to their fate. That fate they still remember as the Asia Minor Disaster, when up to 1.5 million people identified as Christians were uprooted from their ancestral homes and shipped across the sea to be resettled in mainland Greece. Who were these people?
Sea-faring tribes speaking a language we think of as Ancient Greek spread around the Aegean and Black Seas from the early centuries of the First Millennium BCE, settling on the islands and the mainland coasts. Sometimes conquering and sometimes forming neighbourly relations with the local peoples, they developed cultures classicists know as Hellenic, Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian, which non-academics tend to unite under the blanket term ‘Greek’. This culture is characterised by distinctive features of literature, architecture, sculpture, food and music which, of necessity, incorporated earlier local elements.
Their literature tells us of struggles against their powerful neighbours, the Persians, and the triumphs of the Great Hellenic hero, Alexander, in the pre-Christian millennium. Less well-publicised was their forced incorporation into the classical Roman Empire in 146 BCE. Their history re-emerges somewhat murkily into European consciousness after the adoption of Christianity as that empire’s state religion, and the subsequent fall of the city of Rome, leaving Constantinople as capital of a now Christian, largely Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire.
Aman aman – click to listen
It also brings us, after a lengthy but necessary introduction, to real subject of this post: the musical genre known as rebetika. When the Greek army entered Anatolia in May 1919, they were welcomed as liberators by the predominantly Greek Orthodox Christian inhabitants. When, three years later, the Turkish nationalist forces drove out the invading army, the position of those Christian citizens of the Ottoman Empire, now perceived as traitors, was clearly untenable. I have not the time or space here to examine the claims and counter claims of property destruction and human atrocities that took place in these years. Suffice it to say that an exchange of populations took place, whereby Christians from Anatolia (Asia Minor) went to mainland Greece, and vice versa Muslims from the other side of the Aegean.
Those Christians, numbering, it is generally agreed, around 1.5 million, arrived in a poor country with a total population of around seven million. Many of them were educated middle class people with a good standard of living who know found themselves homeless, jobless and destitute. They brought with them little besides the cultural identity forged by twenty-five centuries in Asia, the last six of them, side by side with Muslims of Turkish ancestry.
The musical genre that flourished in the sub-culture inhabited by these ‘Asiatic’ Greeks is known as rebetika, and attained its peak of artistic expression in the 1930s. It has been called the ‘Greek Blues’ – not because of any similarity of sound, but because it was the musical expression of the soul of a dispossessed people. Performers and audiences were alienated from mainstream society by their poverty and foreign identity, their association with crime and prisons, with drug use and alcohol, and with disreputable bars and cafes.
The very word rebetikais problematic, and has spawned its own academic field of study, rebetology. One problem for the layperson is the alternative form rembetika. This has come about in typical English fashion, whereby scholars or other intellectuals employ peculiar features of spelling in an attempt to represent the derivation of a word. Words of Greek origin suffer particularly from this affectation, as in the use of the letter ‘c’ to represent the Greek letter kappa, and ‘ph’ to represent Φ (F). The Greek letter that looks like a B is actually pronounced as V. The B sound is represented in Greek by the digraph ‘MP’. Well, scholars love to show off their knowledge, so in goes the M to the English word. Unfortunately, P is P in both languages, so with a patronising nod to actual pronunciation, B was substituted. Stick with rebetika, and you’ll be fine.
Then there is the Greekness of the music, which, according to Hollywood’s Zorba, is essential and fundamental. However, in the light of the history outlined above, we will be not at all surprised to find the same songs being sung on the eastern coast of the Aegean, and clearly not because they were imported from Greece. Again, unsurprisingly, Zorba’s famous dance and some key vocabulary associated with Rebetika music, reflect the genre’s Anatolian origins – though the use of Greek or English versions of Ottoman place names in the literature tends to mask this. The folk dance known as hasapiko is said to have originated in Constantinople (Istanbul); zeybekiko and tsifteteliare clearly derived from Turkish words. The zeybekswere irregular militia of nomadic yörükorigins with a kind of Robin Hood reputation for protecting poor villagers from rapacious landlords. Their charactistic male dance is well known in Turkey, as is the çiftetelli, a chain of dancers, often performed at weddings and other social celebrations.
One source I read claimed that the bouzouki was unknown in Asia Minor – but a more credible writer gave the origin of the word as the Turkish bozuk, which was apparently applied to a kind of tuning. Certainly the bağlama is everywhere seen and heard in Turkey, and its origin has been traced to ancient Mesopotamia. A feature of Rebetika is the taksim, a kind of improvised solo often introducing the song and setting the mood, as well as demonstrating the virtuosity of the musician. That source above stated that the word comes from Arabic, which it may well do – but it is nevertheless used in Turkish, and undoubtedly came to Greece with those Anatolian refugees.
Well, this is not a competition. It doesn’t really matter whether you call those small cups of strong coffee with the annoying centimetre of sediment, Turkish or Greek. Gyrosor döner kebap, they both taste good in a sandwich. The simple fact is that people who live as neighbours and intermarry for centuries will inevitably share aspects of their separate cultures, taking and giving until whose is what and what is whose will be lost in the mists of time.
Unfortunately for the majority who just want to live their lives, raise their children and wash down their gyros with a Turkish coffee, history, like religion, can become a political football. Politicians and other seekers after power love using ‘-isms’ to divide and rule, to unite their supporters and manufacture an enemy.
The concept of nationalism that blossomed in Europe from the romantic movement of the late 18th century began as a search for cultural roots lost in the modernisation and urbanisation of the agrarian and industrial revolutions. It was quickly seized on, however, by political leaders, to unite and divide. The Ottoman Empire, consisting as it did, of diverse religious and cultural groups, and occupying territory coveted by rival empires, was particularly vulnerable.
It’s hard to lose an empire. Ask the Brits. When you’ve once ruled an empire on which the sun never set, it’s not easy to adjust to being the world’s sixth largest economy and a relatively minor player on the stage of international affairs. You can’t help hoping the good times will come again. For the Greeks, the loss of their imperial capital Constantinople and their subservience to the Ottomans were wounds that never healed. As Ottoman power declined and powerful ‘friends’ in Europe encouraged them to imagine that their former lands could be recovered, it was all too easy to believe.
The Asia Minor Disaster was brought about by the manipulation of European powers for their own political and economic ends. Greeks were encouraged in a highly questionable enterprise, and left in the lurch when the project went sour. Sadly, albeit understandably, the Greeks subsequently focused their anger and frustration on their Turkish neighbours rather than on the foreign powers who should by rights shoulder the blame. If you want to read more about rebetika music, I can recommend two articles, Rebetika: An Historical Introduction and Rebetika, A Brief History. They do, however, contain certain statements that contribute to misunderstanding about the historical background. Muslims were expelled from Greece, the first writer says, mainly because the Greek government needed land and homes in which to settle the refugees’, suggesting that the process was begun by the Turks. The second writer goes a stage further. Greek-speaking Turks from the present entity of Greece were shipped en masse to Turkey, and Greeks from what is now Turkey were shipped to Greece (many of them in the face of murder, rape and torture at the hands of the Turks, intent on repeating their massacre of the Armenians).’ The Greeks, we are to understand, were innocent angels in the business. Are we also to assume that the atrocities they committed against each other in their own civil war of the late 1940s they had learnt from Turks?
History and music have lessons to teach us, if we approach both with an open mind. Name-calling and finger-pointing, on the other hand, produce little but misunderstanding and hatred. Listen to the sad voices of rebetika. Try to bridge the gulf and heal the wounds.


[1] Greece, the Hidden Centuries, David Brewer, (IB Tauris, 2012)
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