I have no idea whether you’ll be interested in this letter or not, but I’ve been giving much thought to the lost art of letter writing lately, and it occurs to me that even the most prolific letter writers sometimes really just banged on about what interested them.
I’m reading a selection of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters at the moment, and he is very funny and gossipy and affectionate and all of that, but sometimes he just yatters on for pages on end about the inscriptions on a church in some remote village of the Mani, or whether or not some moth-eaten local fisherman might plausibly be descended from Constantine XI Paleologos, the last Byzantine emperor who fell defending the walls of Constantinople against Mehmet’s Turks in 1453, or whatever. Terribly fascinating to him but not to me, and not, I suspect, to his various correspondents, but still, you read it because there’s something to be said for someone with interests in this world, and besides, it’s one of the privileges of friendship that we should all of us be allowed to be boring sometimes.
So this is my news: last week I took a ferry from Poros, where I’m staying, to Hydra to spend the weekend in a small stone house up from the harbour, and to attend the 19th annual Rembetiko Festival at Douskos Taverna in an old square at the foot of the hill. It’s a lovely square with a dense canopy of vine that casts a green shade during the day and is strung with small lights in the evenings.
They serve a good ouzo from Plomari in Lesvos and their smoked aubergine dip is very good and as night fell people gathered from all over the world to hear some rembetiko. I went with Joanna and with Kate. It was Jo who first introduced me to rembetiko, the mad, sad songs of the Greek underworld. Oh, she’s a rembetis, all right – she goes quite mad for it.
Once the music has taken her and the fire is in her soul, when she is possessed by what the Spanish call duende, why, for two cents she would chuck it all in and run away to be a scar-faced hashish smuggler with a dagger in her boot. This is not Kate’s experience. Kate is a legal philosopher and the music lights nothing in her soul. She smiles politely and sort of nods her head to the music and makes encouraging comments like, “She has a nice voice”, and “Oh, this song has a nice rhythm.”
You know she’s faking it, because most rembetiko doesn’t have a particularly nice rhythm. Rhythm isn’t the point of it. Rembetiko was the seedy tavern music born in the early 20th century in Smyrna and the Greek towns of Asia Minor, the music of the mangas. A mangas can be male or female, but it quite delightfully means “a strong man who needs correction”. In Mandy Wiener’s book Killing Kebble, Mikey Schultz makes the distinction between being “naughty, bad or evil”. A mangas is naughty, and maybe sometimes bad, but he isn’t evil.
Rembetiko is all about a heartbreaking and heartbroken voice hoarse in a smoky dockside tavern in the small hours of a black and blue night, crooning about loneliness and pain, about hope and homesickness and hashish and missing his mother. Some of the best rembetiko singers are men. Some of the other best rembetiko singers are women. It’s a music of regret and the knowledge that you’re not going to change; a music of Dutch courage and Greek exile and defiance and pride. It came to mainland Greece in the years after the population exchange of 1923, when the Greeks living on the Turkish islands and mainland of Asia Minor arrived in Piraeus and Thessaloniki with only the clothes on their backs and their songs stowed tightly in their hearts.
Sotiria Bellou, beloved female rembetis, singing “I wander like an exile”
In the 1930s rembetiko was banned by the right-wing Metaxas dictatorship for the immorality of the lyrics and the lifestyle, and was rejected by the revolutionary left because the lyrics were insufficiently political and probably didn’t use the right pronouns. Slowly, rembetiko died out. One by one the old bars and clubs closed, until by the end of the century there were only a few places left in Athens and Piraeus serving the real stuff, and to find them you had to know someone who knew someone. But an art form reviled by both the far right and the far left? That’s the art form for me!
It has made a comeback in recent years, mainly though the labour of academics and afficionados and musical nostalgists. I’ve listened to rembetiko in Athens, late at night at a joint called The Wreck of Angels, and at a May festival on the distant island of Ikaria I’ve watched old Ikariots and young Ikariots performing the zeibekiko – an improvised solo dance, usually performed by men, in which the dancer enacts a stylized performance of exposing his drunken pain to the world while other men and women frequently kneel in a circle around him and clap to tell him that he is not alone. But I’ve never really felt that I’ve truly experienced the bruised heart and smoky lungs of rembetiko.
1 May 2018: Stefanos, the demon zeibekiko dancer of Armenistis.
Just before midnight – in other words while the bazouki strings are still being warmed and coaxed and worked by the fingertips of their soulful lovers – Kate yawned and said it had been a lovely night and left to go to bed. And maybe it would have been wise to do the same, but my friends! That is not the way of a mangas!
At 1am a woman in a red dress came from the audience and joined the band and belted out passionate songs of smoke and ruin with a gravelly voice and an air of transport and ecstasy.
At 2am a wild-haired woman jumped up to announce that the last time she was on Hydra was in 1973, and she sat that table over there with Leonard Cohen and his friends and they drank ouzo and listened to local men singing these very songs. She began to cry as she remembered it and they were tears of happiness at the memory but they were also tears of heartbreak that it is not 1973 and she isn’t holding hands with Leonard Cohen at that table and what lay ahead then doesn’t still lie ahead and the world doesn’t slow and wait for us as we thought it would when we were still young and beautiful. They were very sad tears because they were real tears, tears brought on by the truth. They were rembetiko tears. (They were also drunken tears, which is also quite rembetiko.)
At 3am the taverna closed and we were chased away and went stumbling away down stone alleys smelling of jasmine and nychta loulouthia to the harbour, and I saw a gleaming superyacht impossibly called the Xanax, which was gone in the morning so I might have hallucinated it, except that I found a picture of it on my phone. There was a young couple necking on the edge of the dock, and a broken moon on the water. I wondered where I could find more ouzo.
I knew that I still hadn’t found the real rembetiko: they were modern musicians, some of them young, playing excavated songs – how could it be the real thing? But there’s a danger in longing too hard for the past, the way the original rembetes longed too hard for what they had left behind. The world is with us now and it has pain enough and joy enough and enough moments of beauty, and we ourselves, imperfect as we are, and inadequate compared to the past and to our past dreams of who we would one day be, still we are enough to respond to it.
This letter has rambled on. Thank you for letting me yatter on about the rembetiko. I hope you’re having a good time, wherever you are, and that whatever happens, you never, ever have a hangover as bad as mine was on the ferry back from Hydra.
Much love to you
Poros, October 2019
“Markos becomes a minister” – the famous rembetis Markos Vambakaris offers a solution to political instability: he will become prime minister and will eat, drink and smoke hashish with the other members of parliament.