The history of folk traditions of Greece and Cyprus dates back to the Byzantine Empire and sometimes the echoes of the Late Antiquity can be heard in them too.
Many of these traditions are not only continuing today in their original state but also adapted to the modern realities and sophisticated tastes of the audience.
Some of them gained the recognition abroad and became the visit card of Greeks at the international festivals and other cultural events.
Fascinating stories, big names and catchy songs are waiting for you in this article.
Rebetiko is a kind of folk music, often called also an urban folk romance; one of its directions reflects in its lyrics the marginalized subculture’s lifestyle. Rebetiko spread in the Greek communities in 1920-1936 and became popular in 1950-60es in a form of “Greek blues”.
However this genre experiences its second birth nowadays, the traces of its origin took root over the ages, right up to the XI century. It’s probably originated in the war ballads of the Akrites of Byzantium who defensed the borders of the Empire against the nomadic Turkic tribes. Some researchers are talking about the Slavic cultural elements and Gypsy tunes in rebetiko. The genre in its modern state started to form during the Ottoman era, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, especially among Greek communities in Asia Minor. They brought these songs with them to Piraeus, Athens and Thessaloniki later by the time of their forced migration to Greece.
The genre’s origins, as we already said, have a long history behind them: it’s officially considered that rebetiko was created in the middle of the XIX century as a mix of musical influences from Balkan, Middle East and Turkey (what is proofed by the drawling melodiousness of many rebetiko tunes). Future rebetiko have absorbed also some elements of the Greek Orthodox songs and epic folk tales.
The word “rebetiko” is derived from the Greek “ρέμβομαι” with the meaning “looking around/looking to get lucky”. The word “rebetis” same as “mangas” was used to describe a man who despised the law, a loner who lived beyond the norms of the traditional society. As a rule it was a young or a middle-aged man who lived a “sweet life”, a gangster dressing in style and speaking slang — a kind of a “dark dandy”. There was no opportunity for a rebetis to grow old because of the underground lifestyle, involvement into criminal business and regular intake of drugs such as opium, morphine and cocain. Mangas has no family, no attachments; he is constantly travelling. It’s a romantic character and defender of the poor (from time to time) like a kind of Greek Robin Hood.
In the broad context rebetiko songs reflected the life of the ordinary people of the working class: fabric workers, fishermen, butchers and craftsmen.
Rebetiko is characterized by using the different dance beats like zeibekiko, sirtos, hasapiko and karchilamas. All these kinds of dance are performed today with the musical accompaniment of rebetiko “classical” instruments: bouzouki, guitar, violin, accordion and baglama (μπαλαμα — a small guitar similar to ukulele or banjo) .
Here are the main characteristics of the Greek urban folk songs: themes of love (the object of love for mangas could be not only the beloved girl but also the mother), dramatic and tragic themes (death and drug addiction were the popular motives of the early rebetiko songs) and clear rhythm pattern. Even the foreign researchers described these features in their notes, like for example French song collectors Claude Fauriel and Phasoph in 1824. The book “Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne” that contains the collections of the Greek songs was based on the material they gathered.
An interesting fact: rebetiko was criticized and met public rejection in Greece in the early 20th century because it was music of refugees and “lower class”, besides its tunes were influenced by Turks. For those who speak Greek I want to recommend reading the graduation work of the University of Macedonia student Lykourgous Vroulakis. Its theme is “Rebetiko songs through the ages”. The text is available here.
Multiple studies addressed this topic and here are some of them: several publications of famous Cyprus (born in Morphou in 1944) film director and documentarian Nearchos Georgiadis  focused on the rebetiko.
The first work is the book “Rebetiko and Politics” (Ρεμπέτικο και πολιτική published in Athens, 1993); followed by the next one “From Byzantium to Markos Vamvakaris: The Prehistory of the Rebetiko song” (Από το Βυζάντιο στον Μάρκο Βαμβακάρη. Η προϊστορία του λαϊκού ρεμπέτικου τραγουδιού published in Athens, 1996) etc.
There are other works of different Greek researchers: for example famous “Rebetiki Anthologia” by Tasos Shorelis and “The rebetiko songs” by Petros Tabouris.
Rebetiko songs became modern classic for the culture of Greece and Cyprus and the musicians playing them take part in documentary movies, TV shows and concerts. You can hear modern Cyprus and Greek rebetiko songs by clicking the link: episode of the TV show “Traditional evenings”.
Rebetiko music performances are one of the favourite and popular parts of the entertaining shows liked both by tourists and locals.
Rebetiko is also included in the curriculum: its history and basics are taught to the university students.
And you can easily hear rebetiko tunes on the streets of Cyprus, for example in Nicosia.
Famous singers and musicians
Roza Eskenazi (Ρόζα Εσκενάζυ, birth name Sarah Skinazi, mid-1870-1980) was the best rebetiko singer  and a songwriter. She performed about 376 rebetiko songs during her career (She signed a contract with Columbia Records in her heydays), 26 of which were written by her.
The girl was born in Istanbul in an impoverished Sephardic Jewish family that was relocated than to Thessaloniki in search for a job.
Young Sarah had no opportunity to acquire an education, however people admired her voice when she sang, especially Turkish innkeepers of the city block the family lived in. That was the turning point in Sarah’s life. At that time she decided to become a singer and dancer.
Her parents was against the idea to have an “artiste” in the family and parents of her beloved, young noble Greek boy, has forbidden them to marry considering Sarah to be of loose moral character. But Sarah worked for her dream no matter what: the two were secretly married and have a child. After that Sarah changed her name to Rosa and began to work in a tavern as a dancer and singer, performing songs on Greek, Turkish and Armenian languages.
Rosa worked as a singer and has a perfect ability to present herself on stage until her late days. She also was a frequent guest at TV shows. Several documentary movies are dedicated to her and there is a biography and a brief memoires about her written by Kostas Hatzidoulis entitled “Αυτά που Θυμάμαι” (“The things I remember” published in 1982).
You can listen to her crystal voice singing “Τράβα ρε αλάνη” (1934) here.
Rita Abatzi (also spelled Abadzi, Ρίτα Αμπατζή, born in 1903 or 1914-1969). Her career started in 1932; she was one of the most famous and, according to the unanimous agreement of the connoisseurs, the main rebetiko singer during the period between two World Wars. However there were only 4 vinyl records in her career.
Rita was born in Smyrna (now Izmir in Turkey) the city in the Ottoman Empire. She was famous for her temperamental and passionate singing of the love songs. Some of them carried the spirit that was signature for this style: lyrics about opium consumption and romanticism of soon unavoidable perishing.
Rita performed together with many of the most famous musicians of that era including Kostas Skarvelis, Markos Vamvakaris, Vassilis Tsitsanis and others. Her sister Sofia Karivali was also a notable singer of rebetiko.
Here is one of Rita Abatzi’s songs. Its title translates as “Nun” (Кαλόγρια).
Yiorgos Ampatis (his real name was Yiorgos Tsoros, was known as Ampatis (Γιωργος Αμπατζης), Batis was his nickname; born in 1885 or 1890-1967) was a famous musician and a founder of the folk dance school. He was born in Methana and moved to Piraeus when he was young. Yiorgos served in the Greek army (1912-18) and then opened a café (καφε-τεκε  it was also a drug den where opium was sold). Life music — rebetiko songs were performed there for the guests (mainly rebetis).
Yiorgos was also known as a passionate collector of musical instruments. He played baglamas and has recorded 16 songs on vinyl. Even nowadays you can hear some of them. Here is one of them — “The gitana” (Η Ατσιγγανα, I Atsigana, 1934).
Markos Vamvakaris (Μάρκος Βαμβακάρης, also known as Rokos or just Markos as he universally referred to by his biographers, 1905-1972) was a composer and a founder of “rembetika”. He was born in a Catholic family in Ano Khora, Syros, Greece. He was named after his grandfather and his first occupation was a pit-coal miner, together with his father. It is known that he smoked opium since he was young because of the hard work conditions and hopelessness of his life. At this time he had problems with the police but luckily he started playing bouzouki  and soon after that he wrote his first song.
By the year 1933 he has written 50 rebetiko songs that he sang together with his music band that included Yiorgos Ampatis, Anestis Delias and Stratos Pagioumtzis. They left their “underground” life and started to play in more legitimate clubs and taverns and soon they became extremely popular.
The famous composer Mikis Theodorakis would later comment: “We all. We are but branches of a tree. Markos is that tree”.
Markos recorded many songs: the first composition is “Να 'ρχόσουνα ρε μάγκα μου” (Καραντουζένι, Karadouzeni, recorded in 1932).
To listen to the song click the link.
An interesting fact: many poets and musicians including the leading figure of the Greek folk song Vasilis Tsitsanis (1915-1984) who sang the romanticism of vagabonds and refusal of the social moral had a high social status and a very stable families.
There was only one case when rebetiko artist died from the drugs, but it was more like an accident where he was a victim of circumstances.
It was Anestis Delias (Ανέστης Δελιάς, known as Anestaki, 1912-1944) — a young promising composer, singer and musician born in Smyrna. In 1937 he started to take heroin without even knowing it. Katerina, a prostitute from Piraeus who fell in love with him made it behind his back. By this time she was slowly dying because this addiction. They say that she tried to hide her health condition from her beloved man and was afraid at the same time that he would discover the truth and leave her.
After his return to Athens his friends tried to help him abstain from drugs but without success: the young musician was dying fast and unable to perform.
The founder of the “rebetika” Markos Vamvarakis once said about Delias: “he was an angel thrown in trash”.
However Delias’ name is still on the lips and he remains a famous figure of “rebetika”. Many Delias’ covers were recorded by young singers and musicians. The tragic of his fatal love described his song “Athenian girl” (Αθηναισσα).
“…I stay awake in Athens because of you, my little one. And every day because of you I find my devil. Because of you I drink wine, because of you I get drunk…If you want, Athenian girl, to live with me then, the fire you lit inside, me be sure to extinguish it…don’t play your tricks with me, you got involved with me, you can’t just get rid of me…”
Apostolos Kaldaras (Αποστολος Καλδαρας, 1922-1990s) was one of the greatest rebetiko composers. He performed  playing guitar and bouzouki. Apostolos was born in Trikala. His music was influenced by motives and elements of the culture that refugees from Asia Minor brought with them. As we already know that was exactly the kind of tunes rebetiko was based at.
Another strong impression made on him was Byzantine music and singing in the church choir, it was not very long though. One day he started to learn how to play a guitar and followed his heart — began to write love songs. Soon his uncle presented him a bouzouki.
His first “work” that made him famous was the song “The Mangas came out for a stroll” that was played ten times an evening in the tavern, according to his son Kostas.
Here you can find the original version of it (music and lyrics by A. Kaldaras) performed by Markos Vamvarakis, Vasilis Tsitsianis and Greek singer Elpida.
One of his later songs performed together with Poly Panou was “Ασε προτα να ξεχασω” (Ase prota na xehaso) from a movie “Ειμαι μια διστιχηζμένη” (Ferte mia koupa me krasi):
An essential feature of the Greek folk songs is the detailed reflection of the life in Greece at that time: many songs describe significant and tragic events from losing the war with Turkey in 1922 (the time when refugee flows poured into the country; it was very hard to find a job but not as hard as find a Turkish hashish), dictatorship of I. Metaxas 1936-1941 , Word War II and attack by fascist Germany, as well as the occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers and the National Liberation Front (the main movement of the Greek Resistance) when the performers  of the folk songs and many other artists refused to sing on any other languages except Greek returning to the old national tunes and rebetiko. Later songs describe the Greek Civil War that began in 1946 and the 1974 military coup d’etat in Cyprus (supported by United States) which result was the Greek military junta came to power (commonly known as the Regime of the Colonels or the Dictatorship — a decade characterized by political persecution and mass unemployment) and finally — mass departure of the young to the West Europe in search of work.
Besides the names we mentioned before significant rebetiko composers and song writers were also: Panagiotis Toundas and Vangelis Papazoglou from Smyrna, Babis Bakalis from Trikala, Yiorgos Mitsakis born in Constantinople, Ioannis Papaioannou, Giorgos Zambetas, Manolis Chiotis, Grigoris Bithikotsis.
The most famous rebetiko songwriters were: Haralambos Vasiliadis (Tsantas), Eftihia Papagiannopoulou, Christos Kolokotronis and Kostas Virvos.
Other rebetiko singers: Stratos Pagiomtzis, Prodromos Tsaousakis, Stellakis Perpeniadis, Stelios Kazantzidis, Panos Gavalas and Stratos Dionysiou.
As you might notice while listening to the old records, the songs often were performed not solo but doing duets (mix of male and female voices); it was a specific feature of the Greek folk songs. Well known are following creative tandems: Tsitsanis — Sotiria Bellou and Akis Panou, Kazantzidis — Marinella, etc.
Their vocal was accompanied by the instrumental ensemble (we’ve talked about its musical instruments above, sometimes it includes also a fortepiano, especially in modern versions).
Laïko (λαϊκό in Greek: folk and popular) as a music genre was based on rebetiko and formed in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. This genre has much more the character of a folk music than rebetiko and absorbed later many popular worldwide tunes. Some “old masters”, like for example Tsitsanis, are including modern European elements in their songs now.
Laïko became very popular and the most liked music genre to dance to in clubs and dance floors thanks to the promotion of TV and radio shows.
There is no single name for this music genre in Greek. Songs that are composed according to traditions are called “proper/genuine/true laïko” (βαρυ λαϊκό, including “Klephtic ballads”) and there is so called “folk pop”, more “westernized” laïko (ελαφρολαϊκό): the first direction tells about social and economical problems, life and love of the ordinary people; the second direction is more entertaining with exotic elements (Arabic, Persian and Latin motives).
Vasilis Tsitsanis, the singer, composer and great bouzouki player, we’ve mentioned before, became more famous among the citizens and high society circles of the post occupied Greece as a master of laïko: rebetiko tunes that were banished during the occupation period transformed in his works into more folkish songs.
You can listen to his song “Cloudy Sunday” (Συννεφιασμενη Κυριακη) here.
One of the key figures in this genre was also Markos Vamvarakis who stated once: “…we were the first to record laika (popular) songs”. However his name and works usually refer to the rebetiko songs. The following names are worth to mention among the performers of “elafrolaika”:
Michalis Souyioul (Sogioultzoglou, Μιχάλης Σουγιούλ, 1906-1958) was born in a wealthy family in Aydin, in the Ottoman Empire. The family immigrated to Athens, Greece in 1920. He worked as a self-employed pianist and later went to France to study music and toured Europe with the Argentinian orchestra after his graduation.
He was extremely prolific during the period between the World Wars and in 1950s: he wrote more than 700 songs in different styles that were popular at that time (classical waltz, tango, folk music, romances and of course laïko songs amongst others). Michalis Souyioul composed also music and vocal tracks for theatre and cinema.
He co-worked with many famous singers and musicians.
Sofia Vembo (Σοφία Βέμπο, born Efi Bembou, 1910-1978) was an actress of variety shows and a leading singer of the folk romance. She was born in Gallipoli, Turkey, but the family moved to Greece after the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1910. Her career as a romance singer began in early 1930s in Thessaloniki and after Italian attack on Greece in October 1940 she sang more patriotic songs calling for fight. The destiny of the people during the World War II cared her a lot: she tried to inspire the soldiers with her concerts, donated money for the Hellenic Navy and hided the rebel students in her house during the Regime of the Colonels.
Danai Stratigopoulou (Δανάη Στρατηγοπούλου, mostly known as Danai, 1913-2009) famous pop singer and incredible singer of more than thousand folk songs. Her name is well known among the admirers of the Greek folklore: she collected old chants and wrote music using folk motives. Danai was born in Athens in a wealth family. When she was 14 years old famous singer P. Epitropakis noticed her wonderful voice and insisted that the girl needed a professional musical education: first it was a classical one (opera singing).
Pretty soon Danai followed her own path and started to learn folk music: Greek and Italian (playing guitar) and made great progress in it. You can listen to her music here.
The name of Michalis Souyioul is also connected with the works of such singer as Nicos Gounaris (Νίκος Γούναρης, 1915-1965) was a tenor and a popular pop singer in 1950s. He also played mandolin (mostly elafró music). Here is one of his performances.
Tony (Tonis) Maroudas, “Greek troubadour” as the press called him (was on top of his career in 1940s-1960s) sang once with an Italian film star Sophie Loren.
By the way, listen how wonderful Sophie Loren sang in Greek (1957):
The modern laïko singers are: Stelios Kazantzidis (Στελιος Καζαντζιδης, 1931-2001), the “Gypsy Prince” Manolis Angelopoulos (Μανολης Αγγελοπουλος, 1940-1989) who sang in the “Indian manner” that was popular at that time (on Greek and Turkish), Katy Grey (Καιτη Γκραιυ), Poly Panou (Πολυ Πανου) and others.
The new direction arose in 1960s and it was éntekhno (εντεχνο or “entechni mousiki” — an artistic music). Comparing to rebetiko and laïko, éntekhno is more westernized: it combined laïko and modern Greek poetry with popular western music elements. The founders of the genre tried to avoid the influence of the pop music.
The point was a fresh look at the folk music and a new approach to the use of folk musical instruments and authentic rebetiko tunes. A clear example of it was music created in collaboration of Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hadjidakis. Mikis Theodorakis  (born in 1925) is a Greek composer and politician born on the Greek island of Chios. He became internationally recognized due to his musical theme in the movie “Zorba the Greek” (Zorbas sirtaki).
Manos Hadjidakis (1925-1994) was also a great composer. His iconic work was “Ta paidia tou Pirea” (The children of Piraeus) — the first and the only Greek musical composition so far that won an Oscar for best song in a movie “Never on Sunday” by Jules Dassin. The composition was digitally remastered and became a hymn of the Olympic games in Athens in 2004.
Here you can listen to it performed by Nana Mouskouri:
It is worth to mention that rebetiko songs, which were marked as “marginal” and banished for the certain period of time, became popular and find the audience thanks to Manos Hadjidakis.
Another famous éntekhno composers are: Stavros Xarhakos (born in 1939) — is a Greek conductor and politician, later returned to the classics; Yannis Markopoulos (also born in 1939) who writes both classical oratorios and songs and soundtracks for cinema and theatre. He turned from traditional folk music and laïko to éntekhno in 1970s-80s.
Historical fact: the lyrics of Greek éntekhno were liked for the serious political meaning in their earlier years being especially relevant in the period of the Dictatorship (1967-1974).
Now you can hear éntekhno melodies mostly at the folk concerts and on the open-air stages in Greece and Cyprus.
Well known éntekhno singers are: Haris Alexiou, Georgios Dalaras, Tania Tsanaklidou, Alkistis Protopsalti, Yannis Kutras and many others.
Some of them became popular as laïko singers as for example Eleftheria Arvanitaki or a Greek singer Glykeria (Γλυκερία).
Many different professional and famous Cyprus singers continue to include national folklore and traditional songs to their repertoire. Among them are: Michalis Mozoras (classic guitar) and Andria Dimosthenous (vocal) — éntekhno and alternative rock; Pan Meraklis (vocal, bouzouki and electric guitar); a band from 90es “To Marazi Tis Fotoulas” — éntekhno rock, and others.
The songs experienced new birth and sounded different due to new arrangements; nowadays it’s a great interest for the youth. For example: born in Nicosia Giorgos Kalogirou (classic guitar, bouzouki) and Elena Hadjiaxenti (vocal) — éntekhno; Andreas Christodoulou (bouzouki, baglamas, woodwinds) — traditional Cyprus and Greek music; Yiola Klitou (fortepiano) and Marianna Pieretti — éntekhno, modern romance and others.
You can experience an “Evening of elafro” (Ελαφρολαϊκή Μουσική Βραδιά) while walking the old town of Nicosia and see a life performance of Maria Makri (Μαρία Μακρή), Andreas Alexi (Ανδρέας Αλέξη) and Panagiota Prokopa (Παναγιώτα Προκοπά):
As regards other music genres and directions of Greek music that use folk elements, the most popular singers (in Greece as well as in Cyprus) are those with “greek spirit” in their lyrics and melodies:
The great example of this statement is Cyprus top singer Anna Vissi. Her repertoire includes the traditional Greek-Cyprus song “Tillirkotissa”  (Τηλλυρκώτισσα). The music and the lyrics of this song are folklore; the first time it was performed on stage was in 1934 thanks to the works of Theodoluos Kallinikos who collected folklore. See here.
Equally famous is Cyprus alternative indie rock band “To Marazi Tis Fotoulas” (began its career in 1990es). It was recognized thanks to its subtle humour and lyrics that address socially sensitive areas: from social problems in Cyprus like corruption to conservatism of the certain society parts.
As for the texts that usually reflect the culture and the national language the songs are performed on, the musicians stay true to their roots.
The band is performing even nowadays and its songs are sung by other singers only on the Cyprus dialect of Greek.
Until next time and new discoveries!
 Originally the musicians played different musical instruments, both West and East ones (flute, banjo, zither, oud, baglama and others). Slowly bouzouki became the main instrument in this genre. In the first third of the 20th century (in Greece and Cyprus) it was believed that playing bouzouki was a straight road to the criminal life. There was a period of time when this musical instrument was banished for public performances.
 There is opposite information about the turning point in the life of the “patriarch” of rebetiko.
A several number of biographers for example avoid mentioning some slippery episodes of his life. According to one version, Markos started working as a miner and changed his profession many times because the fact he was wanted by the police in Piraeus. There he has heard bouzouki tunes for the first time and decided to become a musician.
 He always was a background vocal while performing his songs and never sang a solo. He said: “It is by far the more difficult thing in a song. It is like the inside of a honeycomb that is dripping honey…” Read this article for more details.
 It is worth to mention a famous singer Sofia Vembo — the “Songstress of Victory”. She was banned during the fascist regime and should leave her motherland, where she came back from Lebanon after the fall of the regime.
 It means “a woman of Tilliria”. Tilliria is a peninsula located at the northwest part of Cyprus, near Polis Chrysochous.
There are several variations of performing this song; it’s also very popular among the population of the North part of Cyprus who call it “Dillirga”. (See also Folk music culture of Turk-Cypriots).