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Rembetika and Laika
The Popular Music of Greece

When I first wrote this article in the mid-nineties there was little if any information about Rembetika music on the internet. Now you can find hundreds of web sites paying homage to the music, the artists and the songs of this genre just by Googling 'rembetika'. But this page still serves its purpose as an introduction to Rembetika and Laika (Greek Popular Music) for the uninitiated and even if you are already a fan you may learn or hear something new.

Greek Music: Rembetika musicians in PireausRembetika music is the music of the Greek Underground. It originated in the hashish dens of Pireaus and Thessaloniki around the turn of the 20th century and was influenced by oriental elements that came with the forced immigration of 2 million Greek refugees from Asia Minor. It gave way to Greek Popular Music ('Laika' in Greek) which used the same instruments in similar ways during the early 1950s. This page will give you a brief introduction to Rembetika music and hopefully inspire you to explore more deeply into it. If you are hearing music as you read this then you are in luck. This means you can click on the links to songs and hear them as well. The songs I have chosen are my favorites, some old rembetika, some new rembetika and some laika which is what rembetika metamorphosed into with influences from all other types of Greek music. I have used mostly later recordings of the songs because the sound quality is better and they are more likely to get you to go out and start your collection.

From Socrates to Tsitsanis

Greek Music:Jimi Quidd (front) with his band The Dots My introduction to Greek Rembetika music began in 1973 with a visit from my musical mentor Jimmy Hatzidimitriou who later became known as Jimi Quidd, lead singer of the NY punk-pop band the Dots and the man who discovered and produced the legendary Bad Brains. I was living with my family in Athens and the fact that my parents had little interest in monitoring my comings and goings made our house the best place for Jimmy to crash at when he would come to visit his cousin Annetta who he was madly in love with. His family saw their relationship as a catastrophe and he had to visit the country secretly while convincing his mother that he was in Florida or upstate New York. But Greece is a small country and she always knew Jimmy was there.

Socrates at The Trip in Plaka Jimmy and I would go out most nights where he and Annetta would introduce me to the Greek rock scene. One of our favorite places was a club near Platia Victoria called the Kitarowhere a 3-piece rock band named Socrates Drank The Conium, (but who everyone called SOCRATES) played. Andonis Tourkogiorgis was the lead-singing bass player and the guitarist was Yanni Spathas who at the time was rivaled only by Hendrix. They played a mixture of high-powered originals and Hendrix covers, mostly in the blues vein, through stacks of Marshall amplifiers. To this day I don't think I have seen a better guitar player then Spathas, who they say was an even better bouzouki player. There are several Socrates CD's available though some of them the band has been augmented by keyboardist and ex-Aphrodite's Child member Vangelis Papathanasiou or better known as Vangellis. But the early blues influenced guitar-bass-drums 3-piece version of the band was the best and someday someone should take the original studio masters of the first two albums, re-mix and re-master them. (See my Socrates Drank the Conium Page)

Greek Music: Dionysos Savvopoulos One night Jimmy saw Dionysios Savopoulosin the audience and had a chat with him. At the time I was vaguely familiar with Savopoulos because my parents had a couple albums by him including Perivoli to Trelo(Garden of the Fool). He had a raspy voice as distinctive in its own way as Dylan's. In fact for a time he was known as the Bob Dylan of Greece. (His first album is totally acoustic). A year later Socrates had moved on to another venue and Savopoulos and his band were playing at the Kitaro. I was resistant to Jimmy's efforts to come with him to hear Savopoulos. To me it was like going to see someone my parents liked, whose taste by most standards might have been considered cool. But I was beyond cool, I thought. If my parents liked the Greek Dylan then I wanted to see the Greek Frank Zappa. Little did I realize that Savopoulos was both.

The first time I went to see Savopoulos I had no idea what to expect. I walked through the familiar entrance of the Kitaro but once inside it was different. What was once the dance floor was now the stage and what was the stage was where the drums and some of the amps were. As the lights dimmed our attention was drawn to the right side of the room where there was a Karagiozi puppet theatre. This had been the primary entertainment of Greece before movies and it was a dying art form, but Savopoulos was using his show to revive interest in the treasures of the past. His next re-introduction was an old woman with a uniquely strange voice. This was Sotiria Bellou,one of the most famous of the Rembetika singers of the thirties, forties and fifties but sadly forgotten by the early seventies. Savopoulos was reviving her career in the same way that David Bowie brought back Lou Reed and Iggy Pop from the dead.

Vromiko Psomi by SavopoulosSavopoulos show was a mixture of rock, Rembetika and Laika (urban folk or popular), played with a lineup that included himself on acoustic guitar, two electric guitarists, (Vangelis Germanos was one), bass, drums, a woman who played flute and a guy who played tuba. (The bass player played trumpet too.) From that night on I was hooked on Savopoulos. I bought his latest album called Vromiko Psomi'(Dirty Bread). Because my Greek was nowhere near good enough to understand the lyrics much less the symbolism, Jimmy and Annetta would tutor me on the meanings and hidden meanings. This was during the Junta and certain things could not be said out loud. But you could sing them in disguised form. For example the first song was called Elsa Se Fovame(Elsa You Scare Me) which sounds like he is singing about a really lousy girlfriend. But Elsa is a covert reference to the dreaded 'Elliniki Stratiotiki Astynomia' or ELSA, the military police which tortured anybody suspected as a dissenter by the Junta. My favorite song from the album and the show was a song called Zembekiko that begins with a vocal accompanied only by a solo bouzouki (or maybe a baglama) and builds up to rock instrumentation while maintaining the emotional passion of the Zembekiko which is the traditional dance of Rembetika. As I had spent my weekends going to hear Socrates the previous year, I began going to hear Savopoulos whenever I could, while trying to convince my American friends to come along. So my introduction to Rembetika came through rock music, Socrates and Jimi Quidd, producer of the Bad Brains. Jimi died in 1990. (Hear my song Old friend which I wrote for Jimi... but not until you have completed the lesson.) I eventually embraced the music as a familiar link to Greece and viewed myself as a modern day Rembetis exiled in Carrboro, North Carolina. Whereas in the past my time was spent listening and learning from the music of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Move and Free, currently I listen predominantly to old Rembetika.

What Is Rembetika Music?

As I said earlier, Rembetika was established in parts of mainland Greece in the first two years of the 20th century. It made use of 2-3 derivatives of the Turkish saz (a.k.a. tampoura and boulgari): The bouzouki and its smaller brothers, the tzouras and the baglamas. The saz itself is a lute but quite different from the archetypal Arab lute, 'al oud' - meaning 'wood'. The latter was very popular in Asia Minor. Rembetika were urban blues of a quasi-criminal subculture, despised by the middle classes and suppressed by the authorities.

The burning of SmyrnaIn 1921 the Greek army occupied Turkey at the instigation of England, France, Italy and Russia. The Ottoman empire was in a state of collapse and the Great Powers, eager to carve up the territory, let Greece know that if they were to take the coast of Asia Minor where there were two million Greeks living there from ancient times, they could expect support. (They were using Greece to do their dirty work for them since the Italians had invaded from the south and were marching North. They wanted to use the Greeks to stop them from taking the entire coast of Asia Minor.) All went well and the Greek army controlled Smyrna and the coast but then two things happened that sent events rapidly downhill. The Greek army decided to march inland and take Ankara while at the same time the French backed out of the deal. This caused the other powers to withdraw their support so as not to start another world war. The Greek army found itself in retreat from a Turkish army led by Kemal Attaturk. As they passed through towns and cities they were joined by the local Greek population who did not want to be left behind when the angry Turks swarmed into town. Thousands died and the city of Smyrna was burned.

Smyrna 1922As the army retreated back to Greece it brought with them the surviving Greek population of Asia Minor. By 1922 there were two million refugees in the country. These were Greeks who had never lived in Greece. They had come from the fertile lands of Anatolia but were now forced to live in a small mountainous country that could not support them, or in refugee settlements in Pireaus and Thessaloniki. It was in the cafes and hash dens near these settlements that what we know as Rembetika was forged from the early mainland movement with its bouzouki and the oriental tunes, rhythms and singing techniques that came from Asia Minor.

Imagine yourself as a refugee. In Asia Minor you may have had a business, a nice home, money, friends, family. But in the slums of Athens all you had was whatever you could carry with you out of Turkey, and your shattered dreams. You went from being in the middle class to being underground in a foreign country that did not particularly want you. Rembetika was the music of these outcasts. The lyrics reflected their surroundings, poverty, pain, drug addiction, police oppression, prison, unrequited love, betrayal and hashish. It was the Greek urban blues.

Read Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, an amazing collection of eyewitness accounts of the fall of the city, an event that changed the history of Greece more than any other. You can find this at

Rembetes in GreeceWith the change of the mix of followers from urban underclass to urban lower middle-class majority, the mature Rembetika music came out of the hash dens and the tekedes (Turkish style underground cafes) and into the taverns and nightclubs of Athens where it became very popular. Though some of the original Rembetika musicians had died before this period due to overdoses, tuberculosis and the general stress of the lifestyle, many became stars, recorded records, toured and generally did not have trouble finding work until the sixties when it gave way to newer forms of bouzouki-based music, superficially reminiscent of the Rembetika.

Dalaras Rembetika tis KatohisIn my opinion the strongest period of Rembetika was during the German occupation and the Greek Civil War that followed. I suppose like the early years in Pireaus, the oppression was food for songs, much in the same way that a lousy relationship can be (When it is not totally debilitating). The album by George Dalaras called Rembetika Tis Katohis(Rembetika of the Occupation), is a modern recording of the best songs from that period. My favorite is 'Saltadoros'by Michalis Genitsaris.The song is about stealing fuel cans from the back of German military trucks during the Nazi occupation. Play Saltadoros from Dalaras Rembetika Tis Katohis.

They are jealous,
They donít want to see me dressed well,
They want to see me down and out,
So that they can be pleased.
Iím going to jump,
Iím going to jump,
and their reserve tanks I will take.

So I always get by,
Because I never get caught in a Germanís car,
So Iím always a winner.
Iím going to jump,
Iím going to jump,
and their reserve tanks I will take.

We hunt after gas and oil,
From those who have the money,
And we celebrate.
Go ahead and throw down the supplies and disappear.

The Germans are chasing us,
But we donít give a damn,
So weíll keep on running,
Until we get killed.
Iím going to jump,
Iím going to jump,
and their reserve tanks I will take.

Road to Rembetika by Gail Holst Unfortunately, even though it is one of the most interesting musical subjects and there is a vast library of information and anecdotes in Greek, there is very little in English about Rembetika music. ROAD TO REMBETIKAby Gail Holst is a good introduction to the subject with a history of the music, biographies of the musicians, some photos, explanations of the musical structure and some lyrics and translations. You can find this at (She has also written a book on Mikis Theodorakis, Greece's most renown composer). But where do you go from there if you have a hunger for more information? If you are Greek or read it well you can buy the massive Rembetika Tragoudia. Full of stories, lyrics and thousands of Photos. This is considered the Bible of Rembetika music, written by Elias Petropoulos, an outspoken and controversial character who has been a thorn in the side of the Greek establishment for decades due to his free thinking views on sexuality, criminality, drugs, religion and Greek society itself. The book was published in 1968 during the military dictatorship and he served 5 months in prison because of it. Click here to order or for more information. If you don't speak Greek there is good news for you. Elias Petropoulos' SONGS OF THE GREEK UNDERWORLD: THE REMBETIKA TRADITION has been translated and updated by Ed Emery and contains the details of everyday life of the Rembetes, the Ottoman roots of the music and the shared culture of Greece and Turkey. This is a very informative book and I highly recommend it. There is a rumor that Mr. Emory is working on a translation of Rembetika Tragoudia but if you have seen the book you will know that this could be a life-long endeavor. So until you see the English version on your bookshelf get a copy of SONGS OF THE GREEK UNDERWORLD and that should keep you interested until then.

Rembetiko, the MovieThe movie REMBETIKO by Kosta Ferris is a story based on the lives of Marika Ninou and Vassilis Tsitsanis with a fantastic soundtrack by Stavros Xarhakos. I highly recommend buying this. Some versions are subtitled and other's aren't so if you don't speak Greek ask. The film documents the rise and fall (and rise again) of Rembetika music. Even though only a couple of the songs are actual old Rembetika songs many of them are what you will hear in the Rembetika clubs in present-day Athens. There's a reason for this. They are Great songs. I recommend the soundtrack too. If I am not mistaken this is an old song from Smyrna re-arranged by Xarhakos who is incidentally one of Greece's greatest modern composers. Play Ta Paidia Tis Amynas from the Soundtrack.

Laika or Rembetika?

Tsitsanis, Vamvakaris, PapagiouanouSo what is the difference between Rembetika and Laika? Where can you draw the line? Well, if you try to find differences in the instruments or even the singers, you can't. You need to go much deeper and study the music itself, the rhythms (very austerely defined in the Rembetika) and the subject matter before and after the Greek Civil War 1946-49. 'Laika' literally means 'popular' but it commonly means 'urban folk' (as opposed to 'demotika', the country folk) whereas Rembetika means 'urban blues'. There are late rembetika and laika musicians who became popular and traded in their hash pipes for Mercedes and began writing in a style to maintain their popularity introducing new elements and gradually muddied the waters which separated the two forms of music. Let's make a comparison with western popular music, in particular rock and roll. In the beginning you have these old black guys in the rural and urban areas of the south playing their blues while at the same time you had these white guys who were influenced by traditional American and European folk, bluegrass and country. These two groups (just to make it simple) led to Chuck Berry and then Elvis and eventually to Brittany Spears. To compare Brittany to some old guy in a hut in Mississippi is ridiculous but you could draw a line connecting them and in between you have Little Richard, The Beatles, James Brown, and every true talent and manufactured non-talent that has appeared in the last fifty or more years. There's been R&B, rockabilly, soul, heavy metal, folk-rock, latin-pop, surf music, symphonic rock as different people and groups inserted their influences.

Manolis Hiotis and Mari-LindaThe same with Rembetika. While the old guys were in the tekedes smoking hashish and singing to each other the rest of the country were not staring at each other waiting for someone to invent music. Each part of Greece had their traditional music, much of it distinctive to a particular island or area. There were influences brought into Greece from the many men who took to the ships and sailed around the world, such as latin, jazz and blues. All these forms and Rembetika and Laika combined and became the popular Greek music or Laika and just like Chuck Berry and Brittany Spears you can draw a line from Markos Vamvakaris to the most commercial laika-pop singer of the day. Some say that line passes through Manolis Hiotis, the man who added the 4th string to the bouzouki and electrified it, sending rembetika careening off towards the world of pop. While you can say that Hiotis broadened the scope of bouzouki music you can also say that he made more bad music possible. But this is a battle for fanatics and purists which I am not. Nobody forced the rembetis to turn in their 3-string bouzoukia for the 4-string and nobody forced them to leave the tekedes and their hash-smoking buddies to play nightclubs and make records and make money too. Remember that the first Beatles fans who heard the group play live in Liverpool and Hamburg claim they made their best music before they had ever made a record. What came later was the commercial dregs despite these being the songs we know and love. In rembetika too, even the most diehard fan has never heard a young Markos Vamvakaris and his buddies stoned out of their minds playing in some back room somewhere. All we have are the recordings which could never fully capture the true essence of the music, the time and the place. To be a rembetika purist is like being a tourist. You can appreciate the marble columns and broken walls but you will never know what it was like to walk in the agora among the ancient Greeks.

BouzoukiaRembetika's most important gift to laika and to Greek popular music is the bouzouki. How important is the bouzouki to the rest of the world? Since being introduced into Irish music it has become one of the most played instruments. But this pales compared to the effect it has had on American music. In the nineteen-fifties a young guitar player named Dick Dale became popular on the west coast playing a staccato-style electric guitar that he learned from his uncle, a bouzouki player. Dick Dale became the father of what is known as Surf Music and his style influenced the Ventures, the Beach Boys and many generations of musicians. The amplifier developed for Dick by his friend Leo Fender to withstand this different style of guitar playing became the most popular amps in the world and there are few electric guitar players who have not owned a Fender for performing or practicing.

The Musicians

Yannis PapaioannouAs for the music itself I will list some of my favorites and anything interesting I can recall about them. Generally it is not essential to smoke hashish when you listen to Rembetika but the two seem to go together sometimes causing the songs to open up like a ripe pomegranate. Though at times I long for Greece, some of my happiest moments have been in my kitchen in Carrboro, North Carolina with a glass of ouzo (or retsina), some mezedes(snacks to soak up the ouzo), and some Greek friends who don't mind jumping up to dance when the mood strikes them.....and some well chosen Rembetika songs. The songs with links can be played and they should open a new window so you can continue to read or look at the photos.

Markos Vamvakaris

40 Years of Markos Vamvakaris Markos Vamvakarisin some ways is considered the father of Rembetika. It's true that he has written some of its most memorable songs and his voice is unforgettable and often imitated. He came from the village of Ano Syro on the island of Syros which for a time was the maritime capital of Greece. The island is also rare in that it is half Greek Orthodox and half Catholic and his song Frankosyriani(Catholic Girl from Syros) is one of the most famous. Every Greek can sing the lyrics to this song. There are many CDs of his material available, much of it from old 78's. Besides Frankosyriani some of my favorite songs of his are: 'Ta Matoklada Sou Lampoun'and To Diazigio(The Divorce). These are on the album called '40 Years of Vamvakaris'of which there are two versions. I like the white version better than the brown. Another album called 'Afieroma Sto Marko Vamvakari', is a collection recorded from old 78's. They are early versions of his some of his best songs. I have also included Oli e Rembetis Tou Dounia and Safton to Kosmo Ton Kako by Markos Vamvakaris and sung by Bithikotsis.

You can visit Markos Vamvakaris home which is now a museum in Ano Syros, open in July and August. There is a small platia and a statue of him. His autobiography, now available in English, is a very popular book.

Vassilis Tsitsanis

Greek Music: 40 years of Tsitsanis Vassilis Tsitsanisis considered the finest Rembetika composer having written over two thousand songs. 2000 songs! Though not a Rembetes in the sense of being an outcast, (he came to Athens to study law), he has written some of the best rembetika and laika. He also discovered and recorded with some of the finest women singers including Marika Ninou and Sotiria Bellou. The song 'Synefiasmeni Kyriaki'(Cloudy Sunday) is one of the most beautifully sad songs in any language. It was written during the occupation and is a song that can be sung by any Greek. This version is Tsitsanis with the great Stelios Kazantzidis singing. Besides the collection '40 Years of Tsitsanis'I recommend the 'Sotiria Bellou #6'which is actually a collection of her singing his songs. But your best bet is The Elada of Vassilis Tsitsanis. From 40 Years comes Ego Plirono ta Matia P' agapo (I Pay for the Eyes that I Love) which is one of the most popular laika songs. There are several biographies of Tsitsanis, all in Greek.

Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou

Sotiria Bellou and Marika Ninou There are many Sotiria Belloualbums and she is perhaps the most famous and recognized voice of all Rembetika singers male or female, but I have the opinion that her earliest stuff is the best when her voice has a much softer quality then the Bellou most people are familiar with. Look for CD's made from good quality 78's. She recently died and was given a state funeral but the last years of her life were bitter and very difficult. I have a couple of her songs to listen to. The first is Ase Me Ase Me (Leave me, Leave Me) with Papaioannou and Kane Ligaki Epomoni (Have a Little Patience) which she recorded with Tsitsanis and was written during the occupation. Her biography is available but only in Greek. The Marika Ninoualbum called Oi Megali Tou Rembetika #19is one of my favorites but I have only found it on cassette. She recorded and played with a number of musicians including Tsitsanis and as mentioned before, the movie 'Rembetika' is based on her life. My favorite songs of hers are 'Logia Antalazame Bareia' and 'Agapi Pou Gines Dikopo Macheri (Love that becomes a Double-edged Knife) which is one of Hatzidakis most sad and beautiful songs. The best collection of her material that I have found is Marika Ninou: Ta Megala Portraita put out by Minos EMI. From this CD I have included Yenithika Ya Na Pono (I Was Born to be in Pain).

Yiannis Papayoannou

Greek Music: Yianni Papaioannou My favorite songs are by Yiannis Papayoannouand my favorite Rembetika collection is The Elada of Yannis Papayoannouwhich I carry around with me just in case I go somewhere that needs an injection of kefi. He also wrote an autobiography which has yet to be translated into English. "Capitan Andrea Zeppo'is perhaps his most famous song about an actual character of the time. Another of his many great songs is 'Vyieke O Haros Na Psarepsi' (Death Goes Fishing) about a meeting with the angel of death. An example of his laika is 'Then Se Thelo Pia' (I Don't Want You Anymore). Papayoannou was one of the most popular laika and rembetika musicians of the 40's, 50's and 60's and he might still be today had he not died in a car accident in 1972. This CD was number 1 in my top CD picks.

Loukas Daralas

Loukas DaralasLoukas Daralasis one of the forgotten Rembetis of the fifties and early sixties. His song 'To Vouno' (The Mountain) is one of the most well known and just about every cool Greek person starts singing along whenever they hear it. To Vouno has since become one of the most recorded songs in Greece. My friend, the New York City musician Avram Pengas who grew up in Israel remembers when he would wake up to find Daralas crashing on his parents living room couch. I discovered him when I was first interested in Rembetika music and I went to a Greek Gift and Record shop on Broadway in Astoria, New York and asked the owner if I were to buy one Rembetika album which one should it be. He gave me a copy of Daralas's 'Enas Rembetis'and I have been listening to it for more than twenty years. Neither he nor any of his records are listed in the catalogs and for some reason he has not gotten the respect that many people believe he deserves but if you can find this album, buy it. I recently found a re-release of his first two albums in a CD shop in Kaloni-Lesvos and I have seen that there is a re-release of Enas Rembetis. But it is difficult to find information or even photos of Loukas Daralas.

George Dalaras

Mikis Theodorakis and George Dalaras Not so with his son: George Dalaras,who is to Greek music as Webster's Dictionary is to words. With over 75 albums it is difficult to say where to start. He is a gifted singer with excellent taste. He sings in many different styles and has recorded the material of Greece's greatest composers (Including Mikis Theodorakis in the photo). If you want a general overview of Rembetika music, his '50 Years of Rembetika Songs'is a great place to start. It features songs by Tsitsanis, Vamvakaris and others. In my opinion his finest works are the previously mentioned 'Rembetika Tis Katohis'(Rembetika from the Occupation) and my favorite 'Thelo Na Ta Po'which is a collaboration with composer Aki Panou,an album combining fine production, instrumentation and Dalaras's amazing voice. In my opinion Aki Panou's Xarokopou 1942-1953 is the best Greek song of the modern period. You can also hear Dalaras recording of Bagiantera's Nane glyko to boli, a call for the young men and women of Greece to join the resistance against the Germans from Rembetika Tis Katohis and Skarbeltis' Ti Sou Lei E Mana Sou (What Did Your Mother Say?)from 50 Years of Rembetika Songs.

Another note about George Dalaras: He played at a small club in the Plaka called Zoom very close to where I was living. It could probably hold several hundred people and yet I saw him around the same time playing at Olympic stadium to ninety thousand people, most of them singing along. Have you ever heard ninety thousand people sing together? It's an amazing experience. One I will never forget.

Apostolis Kaldaras

Greek Music: Apostolis Kaldaras Dalaras seems to be a great fan of Apostolis Kaldaras, a Laiki-Rembetika singer of the 50's and 60's and has recorded several albums of his material. Kaldaras, like Tsitsanis, came from Trikala and had a 20 year musical partnership with the singer Stelios Kazantzides, generally considered Greece's Sinatra. The best Kaldaras album in my opinion is 30 Years of Kaldaras. Though he was accused of lifting some of his songs from Indian films of the late fifties and early sixties, the volume and quality of his songs is enough for me to consider Kaldaras as one of the top songwriters in Greek music. I have included a couple of my favorite songs of his, Mou Spasane To Baglama (They Broke my Baglama) and Eviva Rembetes (Here's to the rembetes), both about Rembetika but probably considered Laika. A classic album is Mikra Asia, written by Kaldaras and Pythagora and sung by Dalaras and Haris Alexiou. These are songs about the Asia Minor Catastrophe of 1922 and this was one of the best selling laika albums and certainly one of Dalaras biggest selling albums. Perhaps his most famous song is Nichtose Horis Fegari (Moonless Night), written during the Second World War and recorded by numerous artists.

Dionysis Savopoulos

Savopoulos Reserva Dionysis Savopoulosis also considered Laika but that's like saying Frank Zappa played 'popular music'. It goes much deeper then that and some of my favorite Savopoulos albums are a mixture of Laika, Rembetika and I don't know what. Some love him, some hate him (and many loved him and now could care less about him). I think he has two masterpieces or near masterpieces, but there are other opinions. My favorite is 'To Vromiko Psomi'which is a cross between Rembetika, Jethro Tull and the Salvation Army Marching Band. It was written and recorded during the Junta period and there are some very powerful anti-government songs, cleverly wrapped in poetry. My second favorite is his double album called 'Reserva'.It's very melodic and offers only glimpses of rembetika. Most people believe that Savopoulos's best work is his oldest in the same way that Kinks purists view the early work of Ray Davies. For that reason his Lyra Collection is on my top 10 list. It is 9 CD's in a lyric, history and interview book. At $150 it is not cheap, but I bought it and am glad I did. From that collection you can listen to Zembekiko from To Vromiko Psomi, Yia Tin Kypro (For Cyprus) from Reserva and Den Eine Rythmos (This is not Rhythm) from Trapezakia Exo. There is also a biography of Savopoulos by Kostas Mpliaktas available only in Greek.

Apostolos Nikolaidis

Greek Music: Apostolos Nikolaidis "It it widely acknowledged in Greece by serious music journalists and researchers of the rebetiko that Apostolos Nikolaidis (1938-1999) was the artist who first brought back to light the forgotten and outlawed rebetika and sparked new interest in this genre. Specifically, Nikolaidis was the first singer to re-interpret the illegal rebetika songs in their original lyrics and the first artist to pay homage to the overlooked rebetika composers of the 20s and 30s. He did this chiefly through the release of the album "Otan Kapnizi O Loulas" in early 1973. Nikolaidis recorded and initially released the album in the United States because of the dictatorship's ban of the rebetika and the general ill-feeling towards the genre at the time. This release has sold over three million copies to date and is considered a classic rebetika album in Greece and in Greek-speaking communities around the world. It was smuggled illegally into the Greece until the junta was overthrown in 1974. In fact, George Dalaras came to the U.S. in 1973, met up with Nikolaidis, and bought the first copy of that album from a New York City record shop on the day of its release. Dalaras was one of the many artists to release a rebetika record after Nikolaidis." - Maria Nichols

Apagorevmena Rembetika(Forbidden Rembetika)

Apagorevmena (forbidden) RembetikaThere are many other songs and performers that I recommend and even more that I have yet to hear. There are numerous collections of re-recordings and originals, some of dubious quality, but those I have mentioned here are a pretty safe bet. One of my favorite collections is one called Apagorevmena Rembetika(Forbidden Rembetika). These are the songs that are most obviously about drugs and life in the underworld as recorded from the original 78's. Many of the artists listed above have songs on this collection and most, if not all of these songs were banned at one time or another. From this great CD I have Ferte Preza Na Prezaro by Stelakis Perpeniadis. The title means "Give me a Pinch to Snort" which is slang for doing heroin or I suppose cocaine as well. A later version of this song was recorded for the movie Rembetika. In fact it was the only song that was an original rembetika song and not written for the movie. There are now other versions of Apagorevmena Rembetika albums available and an entire 65 Song 4-CD Collection called 65 Apagorevmena Rembetika Otan Simvi Sta Perix but many of them are out of print and you have to find them used on Amazon or Ebay.

Give Me a Pinch to Snort

Hey guys, don't ask me,
Why I'm always brooding
I have a sorrow in my heart,
Because of her and I'm tormented
Give me a pinch to snort
And some hashish to smoke

Irene has made me crazy
With her yellow heels
I talk to her but she doesn't respond
She cracks up laughing and moves her body
Give me a pinch to snort

And some hashish to smoke

This outgoing guy,
Might be in pain but he doesn't show it
And even though he's singing, "you lying world,"
Inside, his heart is crying
Give me a pinch to snort

And some hashish to smoke

Giorgos Mitsakis

Giorgos Mitsakis30 Years of Mitsakisis also one of my favorites and most often played CD. Giorgos Mitsakis came from Constantinople but moved to Greece just in time for the Second World War. He lived in Kavala and later the fishing village of Amfissos near Volos before moving to Thessaloniki where he met up with Tsitsanis. He later moved to Pireaus where he played with just about everybody in the forties, fifties and sixties and he wrote over 700 songs, many of which are considered rembetika and laika classics. I have included his song Otan Kapnizi O Loulas which means when you smoke the loulas. What a loulas is can be debated. Some say a hookah. My wife's cousin who makes his own ouzo in Lesvos says it is a still. I don't think it matters. This song has been recorded by a number of people.

When the hookah is smoking,
You shouldnít talk.
Look around and see the wise guys,
Theyíre all minding their own business.

Listen to the baglama playing,
And find a joint for us.
And when we get stoned,
We have to be very careful.

In case someone sees us,
And they catch us,
So they wonít find a reason,
And take us all to prison.

Kazantzidis and the Best of the Rest

Stelios KazantzidisStelios Kazantzidis started as a rembetika singer in the fifties and became perhaps the most popular laiko singer in Greece. He is to Greece as Frank Sinatra is to the USA. His version of Synefiasmeni Kyriaki'(Cloudy Sunday) is the most popular. This is him singing Den Thelo To Kako Sou (I don't want badness for you) with Yannis Papaioannou. There are dozens of Kazantzidis albums available and an excellent 4-CD collection Stelios Kazantzidis Anthologia 1931-2001 which starts with some of his earliest rembetika and goes all the way to his contemporary rembetika/laika. Poly Panou is an elegant female vocalist from the fifties and sixties with the world's sexiest voice who sang with just about everyone. I have included a couple songs from her CD Aksehastes Epithies of which there are two versions, a white one and a black one. These are from the black one. The first is the Kaldaras song Ferte Mia Koupa Me Krasi (Bring me a glass of wine) and the second is Esena Then Sou Aksize Agapi (You don't deserve love) both laika songs.

Grigoris BithikotsisOthers worth mentioning are Grigoris Bithikotsis who sang with Vamvakaris, Tsitsanis, Papaioanou, Theordorakis, Kaladaras and just about everybody else, and wrote some great songs of his own. A couple of my favorites are O Kyr Thanos (Mister Thanos) and the well known Tou Votanikou O Mangas (The Cool Guy from Botanikos) from his 36 Years collection. Stratos Pagioumitsis was one of the early rembetes with Vamvakaris and his version of To Paliospito (The Old House) is a classic. An example of the Latin influence in Laika is Melahrini Tsigana Mou (My Brunette Gypsy) with the bouzouki of Manolis Hiotis, considered by many to be the best bouzouki player of his day perhaps the music's first technical virtuoso on the instrument though all the old guys could play with feeling and were quite capable. Nikos Xilouris was a Cretan lyre player and singer who is to Cretan music as Hank Williams is to country. He has dozens of albums of laika, and Cretan music and has been the voice of choice for such composers as Stavros Xarxako and Gianni Markopoulo among others. His son runs the record shop named for his father in Stoa Pezmazoglou at 39 Panepistimiou.

Giorgos ZampetasGiorgos Zambetas was born in Metaxourgeio, Athens and began his career in the Second World War and kept playing into the 1990s. He was one of the most beloved of the rembetika/laika musicians and wrote some of the most recognizable songs in the sixties. His EMI Anthology contains most of them, sung by just about every famous singer and Zambetas himself. If you were a tourist in Greece in the sixties you probably saw him play. Takis Benes performed with Tsitsanis and many of the heroes of the fifties and also pretty much played himself in the movie Rembetiko. He played at Stoa Athanaton in the Athens Meat Market until he passed away I think in 2005. You can hear Takis Benis singing with Tsitsanis Tha kano ntou vre ponori (I am going to fuck you up, you sneak). How could I have a website about rembetika and laika without a song by Stratos Dionysious, the king of laika. This song is the Tsitsanis classic Otan Pineis Stin Taverna (When You Drink in the taverna). And from Greece Is Gold, a typical tourist type CD that just happens to have some of the most popular songs from the 1967-1974 Military Dicatorship, Stamatis Kokotas (the guy with the sideburns as we called him in the sixties) singing Stou Othona Ta Chronia (The Years of Othonos) written by Stavros Xarhakos and one of the best popular songs in any language.

viki mosxoliouViki Mosxoliou 40 Years: If you are looking for a collection of Greece's best popular music that will give you a taste of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, this retrospective of who in my opinion was the best singer of the period, should keep you pretty satisfied as well as open the doors to some of the composers you may not have given the listening they deserve. During this period Viki sang with and recorded songs by Xarhakos, Kaldaras, Theodorakis, Markopoulos, Giorgos Zampetas, Tsitsanis, Spanos, Moutsis, Moustaki, Kougioumitsis and others. This is a well-conceived collection of what may be the greatest songs of the last 40 years and there are only a handful of singers with the voice and passion of Viki Mosxoliou. Her death in 2005 only makes listening to these songs even more moving and if you are as romantic as I am you may find yourself falling in love with her. Unfortunately this 4-CD collection and book is a limited edition so you may have to search for it. If you can't find it you can just start collecting her CDs and albums of which there are about 50. Ya Hara (With Joy but in this case 'Good Riddance') by Stavros Xarahakos is one of my favorite songs from this CD.

The Neo Rembetes

Nikos PapazoglouMy old friend Dino Nichols convinced me to walk to the theatre on the top of Mount Lykavitos to see a young performer named Nikos Papazogloufrom Thessaloniki, who at the time I had never heard of. His music was a hybrid of Rembetika and Rock, which worked well. He sang and played the baglama with a band that was your standard rock group with a bouzouki, and a couple traditional instruments thrown in from time to time. In my opinion, Rembetika style played on rock instruments using modern production is a very powerful musical combination as Savopoulos proved in the seventies. In fact it was Savopoulos who helped make Papazoglou one of the most popular musicians of the 1980s. He died of cancer in 2011. You can find many of his songs on Youtube including a live version of what was probably his biggest hit Kaneis Edo Then Tragouda (Nobody Here Sings) with Glykaria recorded in Melbourne in 1986.

Greek Music: Babis Tsertos Of the other New Rembetika/laika artists my favorite is Babis Tsertos, a former university physics professor from Tripolis who began his musical career in my neighborhood of Kypseli in Athens. Prominently featured on Pino Ke Metho (I Drink and Get Drunk), one of the liveliest and most popular collections of newly recorded old Rembetika and Laika songs, Tsertos' own albums are usually in the 'can't miss' category when you are looking to buy something new. Erotopoleionis a collection of old Rembetika, Smyrnika, Traditional and Laika songs from the 1930's through the 50's performed by Babis Tsertos and some terrific musicians. Another great album is Atimi Tihi, probably my favorite album of newly recorded old songs. Babis Tsertos is a great singer and has a knack for finding obscure material and making the most out of it. He also plays live in Athens quite often. I have included the title track of Pino Ke Metho sung by Babis Tsertos. From the same album is Agathonas Iakovidis singing Pente Manges ston Pirea (5 Cooll Guys from Pireaus), Glykeria's version of Pame ya tin Boula (Let's Go to Voula) and Babis Golis version of Ma Enai o Theos (But it is God). This is a terrific album of new recordings of old songs.

Live Rembetika

Babis Tsertos and his band live at Misicleas in November 2003As for going to see other real authentic Rembetika music it is not that difficult. There are many clubs in Athens that have live Rembetika. Some are in the student area of Exarchia and others in Psiri. My first real rembetika club (besides Savopoulos at Kittaro) was in a club called Douzeniin the area called Makriani near the Plaka where I saw Poly Panou. The band was a traditional line-up with 2 bouzoukia, baglama, guitar, accordion, percussion and piano, and they rocked out (if you will pardon the expression.) When I left at 4am the club was still packed and the dance floor was full. Generally these clubs with name acts are expensive but if you enjoy the music, well worth it, especially when you are seeing one of the well known performers. For the best in Rembetiko and Laika go to hear Babis Tsertos and his terrific band wherever he happens to be playing (check Athinorama magazine which comes out weekly). If you are shy about being in a place where you are likely to find few foreigners don't be. The people who work at the clubs are very friendly, speak English happy to answer your questions. A drink at one of these Rembetika clubs will cost you about 10 euro. But if you are not the type who likes to throw money around you can buy one drink and sit quietly somewhere and enjoy the show. And a show it is as customers pay to literally shower the musicians and dancers with flowers, sold by the tray-full. (Plate-smashing is illegal now but this is much nicer) Every few songs the waiters have to sweep the dance floor or else it would be knee deep in rose petals. Also there is a Rembetika show at Stoa Athanaton in the Athens Meat Market. Shows are in the afternoon and evening.

Giannis Lempesis at Karavani, Kypseli, Athens, GreeceOne gem of a rembetika club-restaurant that few people knew about was in the neighborhood of Kypseli, right off Fokionos Negri, a pedestrianized avenue that is like a long narrow park that starts down by Patission street about a half mile beyond the National Museum. The club was called Karabani. In 2009 it featured Giannis Lempesis and his excellent group. Lempesis is an old style rembetika singer and bouzouki player, of the same generation as Babis Tsertos, in fact they used to play together. He has a dozen or so albums to his credit most on small labels. He has also played with many of the old stars including Poli Panou and Ioanna Georgakopoulou. He has moved on to some other clubs, as musicians do most years. If you check Athinorama magazine you should find him somewhere. As for the club, it is still there waiting for someone to open it under the Happening Cafe right next to the Dimotiko Agora on Fokionos Negri on Zakynthou Street.

kapni karea ouzeri athens greeceFor one of the best places to hear rembetika music go any afternoon to a small Cafe called Kapni Kareas, near the Byzantine of the same name on Ermou street. If you are coming from Syntagma and walking down Ermou it is just past the church in a small street on the left, an alley actually, and you will probably hear the music before you get there. It's usually just two guys, one on guitar and another on bouzouki, and both singing, but the level of musicianship is as high as any you will find in the clubs and is unamplified meaning it sounds like it would have sounded 50 years ago in some tekedes in Psiri, Pireaus or Nea Smyrni. The cafe is something of a mezedopoulion so you can drink ouzo and have snacks or a whole meal if you like, or just drink coffee. This is my favorite place to spend an afternoon in Athens. Nearby, the neighborhood of Psiri is the area bordered by Athinas Street, lower Ermou and Pireaos Streets in Athens and it is full of small restaurants and ouzeries, almost all of them with live music, mostly laika and mostly electrified and amplified. The Oinopoulion Taverna has live rembetika on weekends and good food too. For more information see my Guide to Psiri. Rembetiki Historia at 181 Ippokratous Street in Exarchia is popular with young people and very down-to-earth. For more about where to see live Greek music see my Late Night in Athens Page.

Where to Buy Rembetika Music

Giorgos Xilouris, son of Nikos XilourisThere are a zillion record shops in Athens, and many used record and CD shops in Monastiraki. Between Panapistimiou and Stadiou streets there are a couple stoas (like streets but covered so they are indoors) with different themes. In the Stoa Pezmazoglou at 39 Panepistimiou, right across from the University there is a very interesting little music shop called Nikos Xilouris. Xilouris is to Cretan music as Hank Williams is to country music and this tiny store is full of his CDs, DVDs, books and memorabilia plus music by other Cretan, Rembetika and Laika musicians. The shop was owned by his son Giorgos Xilouris (photo) who sadly passed away in 2016. But the shop is a great place to buy Greek music or just to stop in and say hello if you are a Xilouris fan. His widow is now running it.

Above and Below and Beyond Rembetika

Louis SalvadorLoui Salvator studied Music Composition at Conservatori Superior de Mķsica del Liceu and spent half his life in the family car-rental business before deciding that he was wasting away by not committing himself to the music he loved. That music is a combination of rembetika, laika, jazz, swing, latin, klezmer, funk and a lot of other influences. His band Assoi tou Salvador plays in Athens and all over Greece. On their album Chicago Giname they do a New Orleans Jazz inspired recording of Otan Boukaro ston Teke probably has the old remebetes turning in their graves. You can watch and listen to their excellent video of To Arzan.

Along the same lines, though from an earlier period is the album Cafe Aman Amerika by Gregoris Maninakis and Anna Paidoussi. This CD was given to me many years ago by the owner of a small cafe in Lesvos and was relatively unavailable at the time. It is a collection of songs of the Greeks in New York, Chicago and San Francisco and mixes rembetika, popular music,swing, jazz in a CD of masterful musicianship and a great choice of material. If you are lucky you may find this album on Ebay.

More Greek Music Info

Helena MerikanaYou can hear my music which is mostly rock with a few hints of rembetika and laika played by me and several of my Greek-American friends at Matt Barrett Music or you can listen right now to One More Time which is probably my most Greek influenced song. Also listen to the Savopoulos influenced tuba solo in The Idiot.

For a listing of Rembetika clubs in Athens see my Athens Guide Nightlife page

Read Rembetika Reflections of Nikos, a friend of mine with some first-hand experience and knowledge of rembetika.

For my top Greek Records see my top CD picks

For the lyrics in English to many of these songs on this site see Rembetika Lyrics

I don't know how the Greek record companies are going to feel about me putting these songs on the web but my feeling is that I am introducing a new audience to these artists and it is one thing for me to write about them and tell you who I like and another to enable you to actually hear them. So listen to these great songs and then go out and support your local Greek music store and buy some CDs and tell them Matt Barrett sent you.

If you have any comments about this page please send them me to

The Annual Hydra Rembetika Conference is held every year on the beautiful island of Hydra, just a short trip from Athens. The conference features musicians and experts though unfortunately for any true rembetes still around no dope-smoking. But wine and ouzo should be in abundance. For more information contact

Here is a list of places to hear rembetiko music from Lifo Magazine. It is in Greek. But if you can't read it or take the time to decipher it you probably won't fit in.

Rembetika joints

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