University of Illinois music professor Yona Stamatis, a native New Yorker, was on a mission to find the real rebetika, the so-called “Greek blues.” The music actually doesn’t sound the least bit bluesy. Popularized by ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey and Cyprus, much of it bristles with the eerie microtones and slinky rhythms of Middle Eastern music. At its peak in the 1920s and 30s, it was the sound of the criminal underworld as well as the pro-democracy underground fighting a brutal dictatorship. Rebetika is still played in tavernas and on Greek tv, but all too often it’s watered down, sentimental or downright cheesy.
Acting on a tip, Stamatis tracked down a band playing it raw and oldschool in an Athens dive bar. The lead singer was the bar owner, Pavlos Vasileiou. The tavern is gone now – even Athens is under siege in a blitzkrieg of gentrification that may have triggered the deadly floods there last week – but the band lives on. Stamatis picked up her bouzouki and violin and has since taken the group, Rebetika Istoria – named after the saloon – on several North American tours. Saturday night at Roulette, they had the crowd dancing in the aisles throughout two dynamic sets of boisterous drinking songs, grim anthems and mournful ballads.
When she wasn’t blazing through fast, spiky thickets of notes on her bouzouki, Stamatis was shading the music with uneasy, often microtonal midrange washes on her violin. Bouzouki player Nikolaus Menegas took several edgy solos of his own and sang in a measured baritone. Intense, impassioned singer Eleni Lazarou also took several turns on lead vocals and played a mean baglama on several of the more Middle Eastern-flavored numbers while guitarist Vangelis Nikolaidis anchored the music with his steady acoustic guitar riffage. And group founder/crooner Vasileiou brought plenty of gravitas to the lyrics, playing stark, incisive lines on his tzoura, a smaller counterpart to the bouzouki.
Stamatis explained that much of the setlist comprised the classics most requested by crowds at the old Athens boite. What was most fascinating about this show was that while a lot of the material was iconic, much of it was not, with more obscure songwriters featured alongside big names like Yiorgos Mitsakis and Vassilis Tsitsanis.
Booze factored into pretty much every narrative beyond the usual breakup scenario, whether looking to find the party in the American west in one surreal travelogue, or just running around the Greek isles. There were wry, funny relationship-gone-awry numbers like Apostolis Hatzichristos’ The Bum’s Complaint, Mitsakis’ The Beautiful Gypsy Girl – covered by Brooklyn metal band Greek Judas – and a harrowing closer to the second set, a haunting Mitsakis dirge commemorating a 1917 massacre of striking workers.
There were also recurring allusions to political troubles and repression but not much that was specifically revolutionary, a common trope in music made under repressive regimes. The long series of encores – the band must have played six or seven of them – was where the biting minor keys and influence of music from Turkey and points further east took centerstage, and the band reveled in them. Some consider rebetika the Greek national music, but that’s not a universal opinion considering its association with the Ottomans.
This concert was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who for the past few years have been bringing a spectacular variety of acts from around the world to this city. The next one is at their home base, the refreshingly laid-back and sonically welcoming Roulette, on December 2 at 8 PM with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, who are joined by Javanese gamelan luminaries Darsono Hadiraharjo, Midiyanto and Heni Savitri. Cover is $25.