REBETIKA music (also spelled REMBETIKA) is sometimes called “the Greek Blues”. Now considered quintessentially Greek, rebetika’s roots are diverse. It is a fusion of Middle Eastern, Anatolian, Balkan, Jewish, Irish, and traditional Greek folk music. It incorporates sophisticated, syncopated dance rhythms, draws upon modal scales, Byzantine chant as well as popular musical hall and operetta styles of the day.
The amalgam came about from the diversity of the rebetika musicians of the 1920’s and 30’s themselves who met, jammed and wrote songs in the slums of urban Greece about their lives – about love, sorrow and hashish. CAFÉ REBETIKA! is set during the 1930’s – sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of rebetika.
While CAFÉ REBETIKA! is not a documentary and the characters are fictional, the events that occur in the play are true. CAFÉ REBETIKA! takes place primarily in later part of 1936, in Piraeus, the port city of Athens. By this time, Piraeus and its slum suburbs had absorbed an enormous influx of refugees– mostly of Greek Orthodox faith, brutally forced out of Turkey, including Smyrna (Izmir) in The Great Catastrophe of 1922 and then ostracised as scum by the homeland Greeks.
Many refugees were better educated, more cultured and had been more affluent than those who rejected them. General Metaxas seized control of Greece in 1936, outlawed rebetika music (including playing the bouzouki at all) and set out to shut down the hash dens and incarcerate drug users, manges and the rest of the “low life”. At the same time, rebetika music was becoming increasingly popular (both despite and because of the ban) and record companies (including Capitol and HMV) were cashing in on it. Some musicians started to make good money and even toured.
Communism and the Unionist movement were gaining momentum and were also targets of the Metaxas crackdown.
While specifically about this time and place, CAFÉ REBETIKA! seeks to explore the universal nature of the issues of displacement, the loss of family and home and how the smallest kindnesses can be the most profound acts.