Thursday, May 18

Rembetiko of the Month

I figured I should write something about the song to which I alluded in last month’s post, since it’s one of my personal favorites and, as I’ve said previously, it was my first real introduction to Rembetika as an adult.

The song is Ο Ψύλλος (O Psilos), or “The Flea.” It was written by Stavros Pantelidis and recorded in Athens in 1932 by Rita Abadzi and Kostas Masselos (aka Nouros) on either bouzouki or guitar. Like Abadzi, not much is known about Nouros other than that he was born in Smyrna around 1892. I asked my cousin G, who is quite knowledgeable and has a sizeable collection of Rembetika 78rpms. Here’s what he said:

Kostas Nouros was an early singer from the 20s up to the mid 30s but primarily early to late 20s—known for αμανέδες (amanedes) but certainly not the best—he cut a ton of αμανέδες and a few songs, one of them Ο Μυλωνάς (O Mylonas) with Roza Eskinazi and Στελλίτσα (Stellitsa), which is a take-off on Τσακιτζής (Tsakitzis)—also with Roza. I’ve never seen any pictures of him playing an instument. He seems to have been full of himself and had a penchant for young boys. On one record I have you can hear Stellakis Perpiniadis saying “Νά πεθάνεις, πούστη” (Drop dead, faggot) at the end of the record.

It might be more accurate to say that Nouros had a penchant for young men, but who’s to know? Similarly, I don’t know for sure what it is that Nouros is playing, but we know he’s playing something in Ο Ψύλλος because at the end of the song, Abadzi says “Γειά σου, Νούρε μου” (Yassou, my Nouros). She was nicer than Perpiniadis.


When I was a kid, we listened to a lot of Greek music at home (in addition to Sinatra, whom my father loved). While there was some traditional island music, mostly what I heard would be considered Laïka (λαϊκά), which is the term generally used to describe Greek urban folk or “pop(ular) music,” as opposed to Greek urban blues, which is Rembetika. While there are clearly differences between Rembetika and Laïka—namely, Laïka, to my knowledge, never bore the stigma of unsavory associations as did Rembetika—I often think of Laïka as the child of Rembetika. The situation is similar to that of immigrants and their children; the first-generation parent (Rembetika) bears the taint of being foreign and “other,” while the second-generation child (Laïka) is accepted and assimilated by the dominant culture, while retaining something of its roots. That’s not a perfect analogy, I know.

Laïka was heavily influenced by the Rembetika tradition (both the Piraeus and the Smyrnaïc Schools). Moreover, Laïka retained much of Rembetika’s style, rhythms, and instrumentation, like the bouzouki, accordion, and violin. There’s even an occasional sandouri thrown in. However, Laïka was embraced by the dominant culture in Greece in a way that Rembetika never was. In some ways, Laïka could be considered “Rembetika-Light.” Some might say that as soon as Rembetika moved away from the margins, it became tamer and less edgy, and Laïka was born.

Nonetheless, I myself have a difficult time distinguishing late Rembetika from early Laïka. I consider artists from the post-War era (late 1940s and early 1950s)—artists like Stelios Kazantzidis (1931 – 2001), Marika Ninou (1918 – 1956), and Rena Dalia (1934 – 2000)—as having a foot on either side of the line separating these two musical traditions. These are artists about whom I plan to post at some future point, because their music, residing in the transitional zone between Rembetika and Laïka, is worth celebrating in its own right.

What does all this have to do with Ο Ψύλλος? The point is that the Laïka to which I was exposed as a child retained enough of its Rembetika roots that when I first heard a genuine Rembetika song like Ο Ψύλλος, I was immediately hooked. Although I had never listened to real Rembetika as a kid, both the melody and overall style of Ο Ψύλλος was similar enough to what I had grown up listening to that the song—and the other Rembetika tunes that I began to discover—seemed instantly familiar to me. Plus, I fell in love with Abadzi’s voice. It wasn’t long before I came across her αμανέδες as well as other songs by other artists from that era. It was around that time that I started playing the sandouri and began exploring Rembetika in earnest.

In Ο Ψύλλος, Abadzi is accompanied by the bouzouki as opposed to the kanonaki, outi, and violin that often characterized the music of the Smyrnaïc School. Also, Ο Ψύλλος is an aptalikos dance, which is in 9/8 time and sometimes referred to as a fast Zeïmbekiko. The makam used here—Houzam—was a common Rembetiko makam. Another example is Eskenazi’s Gazeli Houzam, recorded in 1933 with Dimitris Semsis on violin and Agapios Tomboulis on oud.

While it probably is a stretch to put this tune in the Piraeus School, to my ear it has more in common with the less polished, more raw, and edgier music of the τεκέδες (te-KE-dhes)—or hash dens—and bordellos than it does with the Café Aman establishments of Smyrna, Constantinople, and Athens in which the Smyrnaïc School flourished.

Finally, the song’s reference to a flea is itself a nod not only to the gritty themes that characterized Rembetika, but also to the seedy and squalid conditions of the shantytowns that sprang up around Athens and Piraeus following the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922.

One of the things that I like about Ο Ψύλλος is its playful and provocative lyrics. In fact, they’re downright kinky.

Click here to listen.

Νά ήμουν ψύλλος, μάτια μου, αμάν αμάν,
θά’ρθώ γιά νά τρυπώνω τό τρυφερό σου τό κορμί
νά στό κεντώ με πόνο.

Ψύλλος θά γίνω, άσπλαχνη, αφού δεν με λυπάσαι,
καί θά’ρχομαι νά σ’ενοχλώ την ώρα πού κοιμάσαι.

Άχ, πές τό ναί, τσαχπίνα μου, αμάν αμάν,
γιατί θά μετανοιώσεις.
Ψύλλος θά γίνω, άπονη, καί δεν θά μου γλυτώσεις.

Ρέ, μήν μου κάνεις τσαλιμιές καί άσε τά γινάτια.
Γιά σε καί τίγρης θά γινώ γιά τά γλυκά σου μάτια.

I wish I were a flea, my darling, aman aman,
so that I could burrow into your tender body
and embroider it with pain.

I’ll become a flea, you heartless bitch,
because you don’t care for me,
and I’ll come to molest you while you sleep.

Oh, say yes to me, you little flirt, aman aman,
or else you’ll regret it.

I’ll become a flea, uncaring bitch,
and you won’t escape me.

Don’t try your tricks on me;
you’re only doing it to spite me, so stop it.
I’ll become a tiger for you; for your sweet eyes.

Abadzi was a favorite of my mother’s older siblings, who were born during Rembetika’s heyday. As a result, their earliest musical memories were of artists like Eskenazi, Abadzi, Semsis, and Ogdontakis. She’s probably my favorite too. I am fortunate to own a 78rpm of Ο Ψύλλος from the 1930s. My cousin G—not the one whom I quoted above—gave it to me. It had been lying around in his garage ever since his father-in-law had given it to him. I find it interesting that on my copy, the title is misspelled. It’s written as Ο Ψίλος.

Shown above is Rita Abadzi at the height of her popularity. Below her is Kostas Nouros (seated on the right) with an unnamed friend in 1938.

Recommended Listening:
Rembetika: Historic Urban Folk Songs from Greece


Blogger guy among the trees said...

"I’ll become a flea, you heartless bitch, because you don’t care for me,and I’ll come to molest you while you sleep."

Wow, those are lyrics one does not encounter every day!

9:34 AM  
Blogger Sandouri Dean Bey said...

yup, that's Rembetika...

9:36 AM  

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