As guitarist Steve Antonakos puts it, Dervisi – his rembetiko guitar duo with fellow six-stringer George Sempepos – plays “gangster blues.” The two put a psychedelic spin on the haunting, Middle Eastern-flavored sound borne on waves of displacement when hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them of Greek heritage, returned to their ancestral land from Cyprus and Turkey in the wake of brutality and repression in the years right before World War I. Aliens from a Middle Eastern culture suddenly thrown into a Mediterranean one, many of these people became part of the underground resistance to tyranny on their new turf. Their music is plaintive, full of cruel ironies and soul and colorful stories, in the same vein as American blues.
For the last couple of years, Dervisi have held down a couple of regular monthly residencies in Brooklyn and Queens. Sempepos is one of the real mavens of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern psychedelia, dating from his days leading Annabouboula, one of the few Greek psych bands to reach an audience beyond the Aegean. These days, he also leads even harder-rocking surf band the Byzantones. Antonakos also has a background in Greek psychedelia, notably with Magges, and is a ubiquitous presence in the New York Americana scene. He’s one of the most interesting and instantly recognizable lead guitar virtuosos around, but in this band he plays mainly rhythm. It was fun to catch their Greenpoint residency at Troost earlier this month; on June 16, they return to their regular Queens haunt, the intimate Espresso 77 at 35-57 77th St. in Jackson Heights; take the 7 train to 74th St./Broadway..
In Dervisi’s music, you can hear where Dick Dale got his inspiration. This time out Sempepos had not only his his guitar but also a saz lute, which he hit pretty hard for all manner of plinks and clanks: it has a very distinctive, spiky sound, well-suited to the music’s serpentine, slinky grooves. Singing in Greek in his signature, sonorous baritone, he and Antonakos were joined by ex-Annabouboula clarinetist George Stathos, who added uneasily quavery melismatics and tightly wound spirals as the stringed instruments fluttered and sputtered behind him. One by one, Sempepos explained the songs for those in the crowd (probably everybody) who didn’t speak Greek. A defiantly catchy, steadily pulsing anthem celebrated the joys of smoking hash with fellow stoners. A jailhouse scenario, a bunch of bad guys conspiring what they were going to do when they got out, was more low-key.
The most memorable tune of the night might have been a stalking number told from the point of view of Death, who goes out looking for the party just like everybody else. The duo also took a couple of the classics that the Byzantones play and brought them full circle, back to their smoky, rustic, broodingly modal roots. Late in the set, they surprised everybody with a jaunty Bollywood freak-folk theme. This music may seem esoteric, and one level it is, but so is cumbia, and look at how that went global. Maybe rembetiko is next: if Antonakos and Sempepos get their way, someday it will be.