RebetikiMelbourne has a habit of reminding itself that it’s the second largest city in Australia but often forgets that it’s also the third largest Greek city in the world. From tzatziki to saganaki, Hellenic culinary traditions have successfully permeated the Anglo-derived mainstream over the decades with the result that everyone knows olives are for more than just martinis. On the other hand, Greek music is far from ubiquitous. While the particular timbre of the bouzouki is instantly identifiable to most people (it even makes a surprising appearance in Timbaland’s production of JT’s “What Goes Around Comes Around”), horribly kitsch pop singers like Demis Roussos and Nana Mouskouri have eclipsed stars of traditional Greek music in terms of Western popularity. But for those in the know, the true jewel of Greek music is rebetika.

Rebetika emerged from a confluence of hardships. The Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) had displaced Greeks residing in Turkey to the major cities of the Greek peninsula. These exiles fled horrendous ethnic violence only to find themselves relegated to overpopulated urban slums. Within this context they developed the particular style of music they had already been playing, particularly in Smyrna, into a raw and bitterly impassioned reflection of their lives. Sung by junkies, whores and everyone in between, rebetika and its lurid subject matter began as the music of the Greek demimonde and it took more than two decades before it became a socially acceptable genre. It is easy to spot a parallel development in American blues, whose roots also lie in displacement, urban hardship and vice. And just like how nice white guy Eric Clapton now plays the blues, so too rebetika has had its share of gentrification and sanitization. Still, there are great blues artists out there now and there are also great rebetika groups playing right here in Melbourne.

One such group, who’ll be travelling over the border for WOMAD, are Rebetiki, who have been around in various formats since 1986. I caught up with two members of the current line-up Tony Iliou (vocals, guitar) and Achilles Yagouli (vocals, bouzouki, tzoura) before they flew to Canberra for another festival drawing on their talent. Like most Greek-Australians, including this writer, Tony and Achilles grew up listening to traditional Greek music at home. Achilles is also a classically trained instrumentalist and professional musician but, like Tony, the cultural understanding of rebetika and its musical complexities proved a constant source of inspiration.

In the Melbourne of a few decades ago, right up into the 90s, there was a remarkably strong social music scene in the Greek community, with regular nights of traditional music and dance that drew hundreds of revellers. However, in the last decade, the number of Greek musical groups playing regularly in Melbourne has dropped from six to only two. It is something of an axiomatic truth that as a diaspora finds itself more comfortably a part of the mainstream culture, its tight hold on its roots begins to loosen. Playing increasingly to non-Greek audiences, Rebetiki find themselves in the position of playing to ears unversed in the history of the music—a history that is so vital in informing its tone and passion. Nevertheless, the music stands up even without its context and that is mainly to do with the quality of Rebetiki’s musicianship.

In the end, even if the audience has no sense of the factual history, the embedded history of struggle, dispossession and hardship is clearly evident in the band’s commitment to the raw authenticity of rebetika. Early in our conversation, Tony related to me the excitement the band still feels when one of them unearths a dusty Greek 78rpm from the 20s or 30s. It is this continued and fundamental rooting of the music in its socio-historical context that ensures Rebetiki are much more than either reactionary nostalgics or archaeological artifacts. Instead, their playing is vital, still vibrating strongly with the resonance of their forebears.

For a chance to hear Rebetiki live, you can either hop in a car to WOMAD or check out their residencies at Baraki (Saturdays, cnr Lonsdale & Russell Sts) or the Railway Café (Thursdays, Brighton). Alternatively, their self-titled second album is an excellent acoustic collection of rebetika tunes that was released last year.

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