The Greek Rebetiko Trio Sings Those 'Greek Blues'

Jul 11, 2019

A hundred years ago in Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, the wailing sounds of rebetiko might have dominated the ambiance of a taverna, a hashish den - even a barbershop.  Set to Greek and Anatolian rhythms by refugees who'd fled the Greco-Turkish wars for port cities like Piraeus, these 19th and early 20th-century songs of poverty, love, drug addiction, matchmaking, sorrow and migration reflected the lives of people in the urban underground. Today's shorthand for the genre is the "Greek blues." A rebetiko revival is in full swing, embraced by young musicians throughout the Greek diaspora - including the members of Los Angeles's Greek Rebetiko Trio.

Singer and bouzouki player Dimitris Mann, who grew up on the island of Mykonos, is the grandson of a Piraeus barbershop owner, and at age 12, Mann found some intriguing 78s in the attic. They'd been recorded by his grandmother's uncle, the renowned rebetiko composer, Giannis Papaioannou. Mann was struck by how the sound's originators "were forced to meet in these underground places in secrecy. Rebetiko was a way for them to freely express themselves."

Mann came to Boston to study composing for film at the Berklee School of Music, where he found an audience eager to hear and dance to rebetiko at Greek-American cultural venues. With Panos Tsigkos and Giorgos Galanakis, he co-founded the Greek Rebetiko Trio. Now based in Los Angeles and featuring Taso Comanescu and Alexis Cohen, the trio not only seeks to introduce new audiences to the idioms of rebetiko and laiko, but in a larger sense, to bring people together, out of their cultural silos, through the vehicle of music. 

From Wikipedia:

The womb of rebetika was the jail and the hash den. It was there that the early rebetes created their songs. They sang in quiet, hoarse voices, unforced, one after the other, each singer adding a verse which often bore no relation to the previous verse, and a song often went on for hours. There was no refrain, and the melody was simple and easy. One rebetis accompanied the singer with a bouzouki or a baglamas (a smaller version of the bouzouki, very portable, easy to make in prison and easy to hide from the police), and perhaps another, moved by the music, would get up and dance. The early rebetika songs, particularly the love songs, were based on Greek folk songs and the songs of the Greeks of Smyrna and Constantinople. 

 Elias Petropoulos

Join host John (a.k.a. Ioannis) Floridis for his visit with Dimitris Mann, following the group's appearance at the 2018 Montana Folk Festival.

(Broadcast: "Musician's Spotlight,"  3/28/19. Listen on the radio Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., or via podcast.)