From this grainy photo of defiant-looking men and their instruments in a 1936 Piraeus alley, Conceiver Stephen Lloyd Helper knew there was a story.
Hearing their rebetika music, he knew it was part of the universal language of that story. The more he and his co-writer, Thomas Papathanassiou explored the story, the more important the idea became not only to shed light on little-known but powerfully dramatic history, but to address burning contemporary issues of asylum seekers, cultural diversity and a resurgent spirit of defiance witnessed everywhere from the Arab uprisings, to protests against Wall Street and Media barons.
And, as the ABC Radio review said: “CAFÉ REBETIKA! rings a bell today - loud and clear”
Luke Plum, Paddy Montgomery, Stephen Lopez, Lucy Nadj, Alex Blias, Sophia Katos
Photo by John Tsiavis.
CAFÉ REBETIKA! is set in an exotic basement hashden (teké) in Piraeus, Greece in 1936-7. Here, everyone is welcome! It is a joyous safe haven from the outside world of injustice, violence and racism. Piraeus is the port of Athens and the teke’s dockside locale frames the story.
Story and Main Characters
CAFÉ REBETIKA! is based on actual historic events and true stories of the rebetes: outcasts, refugees and those struggling on the bottom rungs of society in 1930’s Greece who created an incredible underground culture of music, dance and social philosophy.
Melbourne 2011. Photo by John Tsiavis.
STAVRAKAS and ARETI
Our central character, Stavrakas, runs a hashden (teké). He is a fiercely independent man of humour, passion and that rare quality, integrity. In a time when women were wives, spinsters or tramps, the love of his life is Areti, an equally strong-willed, lovingly passionate refugee from Smyrna, Turkey. It is their relationship that propels CAFÉ REBETIKA! Stavrakas cannot abide the corruption of the church which, to him, renders a priest’s blessing hollow, meaningless and even repulsive. He gives Areti his complete commitment to be true to her and she has every reason to believe him. However, she is ridiculed as a whore living out of wedlock and because of her faith, does not feel right with God. This conflict causes both Stavrakas and Areti to make decisions that bring tragedy but then, ultimately, an unforeseen and beautiful bond of love that transcends death. Their bond is forged in the spirit of rebetika, a philosophy (intertwined with music) based on mutual respect, integrity and acceptance.
Judging from this, CAFÉ REBETIKA! is an epic entertainment of humour and pathos, love and music, passion and defiance.
Like Areti, Petrakis is a refugee from Smyrna. However he fled at a very young age and the deaths of his mother and father during his horrific escape have deeply scarred him. He enjoys coming to the teké where he can escape his demons and be part of the frivolity. He is often the butt of the joke, which annoys him to no end but, in a funny way (literally!), it shows he belongs. When Areti leaves the “family” of the teké to marry the wealthy and dangerous Nikos (because Stavrakas would not), Petrakis goes off the rails.
He lands in jail as a drug addict and it is there where his world crashes and slowly, he rises from its ashes. He is helped by the deeply caring Stavrakas who has been thrown in the same cell for the murder of Nikos (in revenge for Nikos’ murder of Areti). Little does Stavrakas know that Petrakis, in desperate need for a dose of heroin, told Nikos (his supplier) where he could find Areti - upon which information, Nikos killed her. His journey in CAFÉ REBETIKA! is one of catharsis and redemption.
Fofo is a runaway who has found a home as the cook and serving girl at the teké. Tough, street smart and an excellent cook, she looks after the customers (and the audience) at the teké. Illiterate, she has pestered Areti for reading and writing lessons - motivated especially by Fofo’s desire to write down all the stories that happen here so they will not be forgotten.
GRIGORIS and YIORGOS
Grigoris is a factory worker with a boss who treats him like a slave while the older Yiorgos has basically given up on society and is an “armchair” anarchist. Grigoris is still full of optimism and thinks that Communism will transform the world and his life while Yiorgos debates this with excellent arguments that ultimately fall on deaf ears. They carry on their political debates across the backgammon board with great banter and insight. Grigoris is deeply in love with Fofo who loves him back, he is such a dear, but she isn’t ready to do anything about it.
KATERINA works in the world’s oldest profession. Her humour brings joy to the hashden and her soulfulness helps others mourn. She must make some tough decisions as the Greek military regime under General Metaxas takes over and begins to cleanse the slums. A great survivor, Katerina avoids a tragic end by getting on board a boat to Australia, just in time. She never sees her friends again but the music of rebetika creates an eternal bond among them all.
As the machinations of General Metaxas go into full swing, the teké - these characters’ “home” - is destroyed. Stavrakas and Petrakis are in jail, Areti and Yiorgos are dead, Grigoris heads to Russia, Katerina is on her way to Australia with only Fofo left to sort through the rubble.
And yet, the closing stages of CAFÉ REBETIKA! are powerfully uplifting. Stavrakas and Areti seem destined for eternity together, Katerina will leave her prostitute past behind, Petrakis becomes a man, Grigoris is following his dream and each in their own way, Fofo and Petrakis become the keeper of the stories, of the culture and the extraordinary history of rebetika now and into the future.
CAFÉ REBETIKA! celebrates the exotic, passionate music of Greek rebetika, “the Greek Blues”.
Like flamenco and the American Blues, rebetika is the soul music of survival. This music grew out of many influences – Greek, Turkish, Jewish, Balkan, African and even Irish.
and Achilles Yiangoulli – season 2009
With its strong, dance rhythms, deeply felt melodies – and even light-hearted comedy – rebetika music touches everyone. Rebetika encodes the joys and sorrows of the people who make it and with it, express our own.
Music by the Rebetes of Piraeus
This production is set during the Golden Age of rebetika. Great rebetika songwriters are represented including Markos Vamvakaris, Yiorgos Batis, Anestis Delias, Yiorgos Katsaros and Panyiotis Toundas.
Music by Rebetiki
Members of rebetiki have provided wonderful original songs that are easily mistaken for authentic songs of the period. They include: Ouzo Ke Kresaki (“OUZO AND WINE”); Ahimastoras ("THE HANDYMAN") and an incredible "Amané" (Funeral Lament).
The musicians form a traditional rebetika band: bouzouki (x2), the baglama (miniature bouzouki) and guitar. The Pontos lyra, sounding eerily like a human voice, is played to haunting effect in the funeral scene and other poignant moments during the play.
The Great Catastrophe of 1922
This is the name Greek History uses to describe an event that haunts the characters of CAFÉ REBETIKA! and was instrumental in the birth of rebetika.
In 1922, the Greek and Turkish governments agreed on a “population exchange” whereby all the Turks in Greece would be repatriated to Turkey and all the Greeks in Turkey would be repatriated back to Greece.
When the Greeks in Turkey refused to leave where they had built their lives - many of them wealthy and cultured, it became a genocide with the deaths of hundreds of thousands Greek Orthodox Turks and with another 1 million people becoming refugees forced out by the Turkish military. They burned the entire cosmopolitan city of Smyrna, called the Paris of the East, to the ground.
The tragedy continued. When those who did escape from Turkey made their way back to Greece (often through horrible, traumatic journeys), the homeland Greeks wanted nothing to do with them. They were shunned as having become “Orientalised” in Turkey and forced them into the slums. This is the backstory for both Areti and Petrakis.
Many of these refugees brought with them new tastes, new musical instruments, new ideas which now form some of the central foundations of what is considered “Greek”. It was out of this mix of cultures, music, despair, heartache and a need to celebrate in order to survive, that rebetika was born.