Στην ξενητειά, την ορφανιά, την πίκρα, καί την λύπη—
Όλα μου τ’άδωσε ο θεός• κανένα δεν μου λείπει.
In exile, to be an orphan with bitterness and grief—
God has given me all of these; not one of them have I avoided.Click here to listen.
I believe this melancholy song was recorded in Athens between 1935 and 1937. It features vocals by Stratos Payioumdzis (ca. 1902 – 1971), who was born in the port town of Aïvali (Ayvalik) in Asia Minor and fled to Greece as a refugee during the First World War, a few years before the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey. Payioumdzis did not begin recording until 1934, prior to which he worked as a laborer in Piraeus.
Payioumdzis (pictured left) is generally regarded as belonging to the Piraeus School of Rembetika, which refers to the male-dominated subgroup whose songs featured gritty themes and had a much less polished sound than the songs of the Smyrnaïc School
. The most common instruments of the Piraeus School were the bouzouki and baglamas, though other instruments, such as the oud and accordion, were sometimes used. The Piraeus School flourished in the 1930s, during which time it gradually began to eclipse the popularity of the Smyrnaïc School.
While I don’t contest the main points of this narrative (and have relied on it myself to distinguish between Rembetika’s different sub-genres), I am beginning to see its inadequacy. For one thing, the Smyrnaïc School continued to enjoy widespread popularity with the Greek Diaspora in the United States during the 1940s. Furthermore, while the Greek popular songs (λαϊκά) that emerged after the Second World War drew heavily on the bouzouki-dominated Piraeus School, they also looked to the Smyrnaïc School as well. In reality, the first generation of postwar Greek popular singers like Yiota Lydia and Stelios Kazantzidis were influenced by both subgenres of Rembetika, and this dual parentage can be heard in their music.
Of greater importance in deciding whether to stick to the main contours of the Piraeus- Smyrnaïc School dichotomy is whether or not it is flexible enough to accommodate all that we know about Rembetika. For example, we know that αμανέδες, a mainstay of the Smyrnaïc School, were being sung in Athens in the Sandouri Café/Café Aman establishments that had appeared as early as the 1880s. The same could be said of Jannina to the north, though this city was not incorporated into Greece until 1913.
Similarly, there were edgier, bawdier songs being sung in Constantinople (Istanbul), Syros, and probably Smyrna as well that had much in common with the feel (though not necessarily the instrumentation) of the so-called Piraeus School. These were songs of the male-dominated τεκέδες (te-KE-dhes)—or hash dens—prisons, and bordellos. While the Piraeus School moniker may seem a useful term to describe the recordings produced in the 1930s by a specific group of male musicians, the style of music recorded by Markos Vamvakaris, Yiorgos Batis, Stratos Payioumdzis, and Andonis Kalivopoulos
(to name a few) traces its origins to the underground music that existed on both sides of the Aegean as early as the 19th century.
Perhaps the division is less one of Smyrna and Piraeus, which places too much emphasis on geography, than one of τεκές (te-KES) and Café Aman, which shifts the emphasis to one of setting and mood. As a genre, Rembetika mixes underground songs with bourgeois songs. The irony is that as the sound of the underground songs became more popular, it took on a more bourgeois feel and arguably lost its edge.
I chose Payioumdzis’ Ουσσάκ Τραγούδι της Ξενητειάς (Song of Exile in makam Oussak) this month because, while it is common to classify this song as belonging to the Piraeus School, it has many elements that are more characteristic of the Smyrnaïc School. For one thing, it is an αμανές. Also, it features the oud as well as the bouzouki. It may belong in the τεκές, but it simultaneously pays homage to the Café Aman. Such is the beauty of Rembetika.
Recommended Listening:Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underground