‘Rebetiko’ as Cultural Expression: From Asia Minor to Greece

Greece and Turkey, two neighbouring countries, are widely known for their long standing rivalry over geopolitical and historical issues. Due to this continuing antagonism, Greeks and Turks have become what Professor Alexis Heraclides calls ‘the significant negative other’.[i] Despite their political disagreements, as well as their apparent differences in religion, language, traditions and way of life, there is a strong bond between the two countries. Their unique relationship dates back to the 15thcentury and we can trace numerous similarities in their food, clothing and culture.[ii]One of the most important outcomes of their coexistence is the birth of a musical genre, known as ‘rebetiko’. This essay will discuss the historical events that led to the emergence of rebetiko, as well as its evolution as a musical genre during the 20thcentury. 

The Greek Communities of Asia Minor: The story behind rebetiko

In order to understand the concept of rebetiko[iii], we must first look deep into history and research the connection between Greece and Turkey. Most of the regions which today are within modern Greece’s borders were, at some point, part of the Ottoman Empire. Greece was once an area conquered by the Ottomans and this domination lasted approximately 400 years.[iv] It all began in 1453, when the Ottomans besieged and took Constantinople (also known as Byzantium or Istanbul or simply ‘the City’), the historic capital city of the Byzantine Empire. Greece was an area that belonged to the Byzantine Empire from its beginning and, of all the nations that were part of the Empire, the Greek nation was the most populated and undoubtedly the most influential in terms of language, culture and religion.[v] Following the conquering of Constantinople, in 1458 the Ottomans took Athens, the capital of Greece, and captured several other historical areas of the Greek world, including Asia Minor (today known as Anatolia or Anatolian Peninsula). The Ottoman Rule in Greece lasted until 1821, when Greeks revolted against the Ottomans and started the War of Greek Independence. After years of fighting and human losses, Greece achieved victory and was finally recognized as an independent state in 1832.

After the Greek liberation, there were still regions with Greek populations that remained under the Ottoman Rule and they were all located in Asia Minor. More specifically, Ottoman Greeks were mostly concentrated in Constantinople, Smyrna, Cappadocia, Trebizond and Pontus. At this point, it must be highlighted that the area of ​​Asia Minor is of particular importance for  Greece, considering the fact that the premises date back to prehistoric times. The great prosperity of the Greek cities of Asia Minor and their contribution to philosophy, science and the arts is evident since the 10th century BC.[vi] The Greek populations that continued to live in the Ottoman Empire managed to preserve their traditions, language, and religion, despite all the difficulties they faced. As in the case of Ottoman Greece, the Greek communities of Asia Minor were generally treated as a lesser nation and were offered limited freedom in comparison to other Ottoman citizens.[vii] It is worth noting that, as years went by, the Greeks of Asia Minor incorporated several elements of Turkish culture into their own and formed a new, unique cultural identity; an identity that was clearly more Turkish-influenced compared to Greece’s cultural identity.

Things started becoming more negative for the Greek communities of Asia Minor after the Young Turk Revolution in 1908 and the subsequent rise of the Turkish National Movement, led by Kemal Ataturk. Its goal was the creation of a modern, pure and glorious Turkish state, posing a great threat to the Greek communities that comprised the majority of the Christian population.[viii] What followed was the Greco-Turkish War, also known as The Asia Minor Catastrophe (1919-1922), which, according to historian Vlasis Agtzidis, included one of the deadliest events in world history: the Great Fire of Smyrna.[ix] The incident occurred on September 13th 1922, and it lasted almost three days. Thousands of houses were burnt, hundreds of thousands of Greeks, Armenians and Assyrians were slaughtered, and women were raped. After the catastrophe, a huge number of refugees – mainly Greeks and Armenians – fled Smyrna, their homeland, in fear of their lives. According to statistics, the number of refugees ranges from 760,000 to 900,000.[x] The events that took place in Asia Minor during the period 1914-1923, have been officially recognized by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) as a genocide against Anatolian Greeks (including Pontic Greeks), as well as Assyrians and Armenians, who comprised the Christian minorities.[xi] 

Following the Great Fire of Smyrna, the Greco-Turkish War came to an end and the two nations signed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, a peace treaty that imposed the mandatory exchange of the remaining populations between the two countries.[xii] The minority exchange that took place caused large population movements. From Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace, 1,650,000 Greek Orthodox Christians (that were actually Turkish nationals) moved to Greece, and in turn, 670,000 Muslims that were Greek nationals moved to Turkey. Religion was the main criterion for exchange, not nationality.[xiii] It must be noted that there were a few Greek Orthodox inhabitants – mainly in Constantinople – that were excluded from the exchange, as well as some families of the Greek communities of Asia Minor that had converted to Islam. Undoubtedly, the violent uprooting and expatriation of both Greek Orthodox and Muslim populations, was an extremely traumatic and painful experience that affected the lives of the refugees in many ways. Following their arrival in Greece, the Greeks of Asia Minor were considered a divergent element of the society.[xiv] Despite identifying as Greek, as well as their Greek roots, they were treated as the ‘Asia Minor minority’ due to the unique cultural identity they had acquired over the years. Interestingly, they were often referred to as ‘Turkish seeds’ or ‘Turks’, receiving negative attitudes from a great percentage of the local population. Their Greek identity was torn between ‘Greekness’ and the Greek Culture of Asia Minor, as the refugees were considered culturally diverse. 

At the beginning, the Greek Government aimed for national and cultural homogenization of the refugees, in order to ensure that future generations of refugee families would forget their Asia Minor origins and renounce their cultural heritage. The traumatic past of the Ottoman Rule could not be forgotten. Nevertheless, these refugees formed communities and gradually organized into cultural associations, gained political representation, set up institutions and museums, and created archives to save the memory of their lost homelands.[xv] The diaspora of Greeks from Asia Minor in the Greek mainland offered Greece a great gift: a rich culture with beautiful traditions, excellent food, unique music, and distinctive customs. Taking this into consideration, along with the 400-year long Turkish influence, one could argue that modern Greek identity serves as a great example of cultural hybridity. One of the most significant and valuable contributions of the Greek culture of Asia Minor, is a musical genre called rebetiko: a cultural element that defined Greece during the 20thcentury.

Characteristics of Rebetiko and its Historical Evolution during the 20th Century

Rebetikο (in Greek: ρεμπέτικο), is a great mixture of traditional Greek and oriental music that emerged from the amalgamation of Greek and Turkish culture during the Ottoman Rule. According to musicologist and author Daniel Koglin, ‘rebetiko is a genre of music that has been shaped by and connects people across cultural, linguistic, geographical, generational and social boundaries – people whose musical backgrounds differ inevitably.’[xvi] Generally, it is associated with the lower classes of Greek urban society and although there have been several different definitions, most researchers define it as ‘urban folk song’.[xvii] The term rebetiko derives from the word rebetis (in Greek: ρεμπέτης), which translates as ‘a working-class man of the social margin with unconventional life’, and the musicians who performed rebetiko songs were called rebetes (in plural). Interestingly, the word rebetis is closely related to the slang word mangas, a term that describes a male persona of a specific behavior, ideology and dress code.[xviii] True manges are pictured as dashing, yet, tough, fierce and sometimes antisocial men, who are able to defy the social rules and restrictions. There are several words that are used as synonyms for mangas, such as mortisbessalis or alanis. Similarly, a woman who possesses the same anti-conformist characteristics is called mangissa or mortissa.[xix] Therefore, rebetes were characterized as manges and rebetises (the female musicians) as mangisses

Rebetiko first appeared in the urban cities of Asia Minor at the beginning of the 20thcentury, mainly in Constantinople and Smyrna, although there are a few musical recordings traced in the latter half of the 19th century in the United States by Greek diasporic communities (pro-rebetiko recordings).[xx] It must be noted that Smyrna had a specific category of rebetiko songs called SmyrneikaRebetiko performances in Asia Minor used to take place in the local café-santours (which were urban venues) by small performing musical groups of rebetes, called kompanies.[xxi] As mentioned above, rebetiko was introduced to the population of the Greek mainland by the refugees of Asia Minor, after the Smyrna Catastrophe. Despite the fact that rebetikohas oriental characteristics, it was not a completely ‘alien’ musical genre for the Greeks, as elements of oriental music already existed in Greek tradition due to the long standing influence of Ottoman culture.

When the culture of rebetiko arrived in Greece, the performances took place in small, local venues called café-amans (also known as amanetzidika), where people could enjoy a drink and smoke shisha.[xxii] As in the case of Asia Minor, rebetiko in Greece was enjoyed by the lower urban classes. At the beginning, it was not that popular among ordinary people. The existing urban music of the early 20th century was divided into two categories; the first category contained urban songs that were widely accepted due to their ‘mainstream’ nature (laiká songs), whereas the second category contained the rebetiko songs, that were considered ‘marginal’ or ‘subcultural’, due to the fact that they were associated with ‘low life’.[xxiii] But how can one perceive the term ‘low life’? Apparently, rebetiko songs included lyrics (often improvised) about poverty, emigration, pain, unfulfilled love stories, prostitution, imprisonment, illegal activities and excessive drug use:[xxiv]

‘Μα μ’ έμπλεξε ένας μόρτης                            (A mortis got me into trouble)

αχ, ένας μάγκας πρώτης                                    (oh, a top-notch mangas)

μου πήρε ό,τι είχα και μ’ αφήνει                 (he took everything I had and left me)

Μου πήρε την καρδιά μου                                       (he took my heart)

τα νιάτα, τα λεφτά μου                                          (my youth, my money)

κι απ’ τον καημό φουμάρω κοκαΐνη’   (and because of my sorrow, I snort cocaine)

(‘Giati foumarw kokaini’ (The reason why I snort cocaine) – a song composed by Panayiotis Tountas in 1929 and performed by singer Roza Eskenazi)

As a result, it was labeled as a musical genre of low quality. Interestingly, however, the unique character of rebetiko gradually attracted the mainland Greeks and they slowly began to incorporate rebetiko in their own culture. It must be noted that in 1936, during the Ioannis Metaxas regime in Greece[xxv]rebetiko songs were banned in public places, as they were considered elements of the Turkish culture and café-amans were temporarily shut down.[xxvi] After the end of World War II, rebetikoflourished again, even more intensely. Elias Petropoulos, one of the greatest scholars of rebetiko, divides the history of rebetiko in Greece into three periods:[xxvii]

1922-1932: The early period, when the musical elements of Smyrna prevail.

1932-1942: The classical period, when rebetiko starts developing in Athenian urban areas, particularly in the coffee shops and taverns of the region Piraeus (Piraeotiko rebetiko).

1942-1952: The period of widespread dissemination and acceptance.

It must be noted that from the early 1960’s to the late 1970’s there was an attempt by Greek folk singers to revive the tradition of rebetiko; this period is also known as ‘the rebetiko revival’.[xxviii]

Apart from the eccentric lyrical content of the songs, the uniqueness of rebetiko also lies in the language, the musical instruments used and in an improvisational characteristic referred to as amanes. The common thing in all the above is their direct relation to oriental culture.[xxix] As far as the language is concerned, the presence of Turkish words is evident, as a result of the historical exposure to the Turkish culture. A few examples that could be mentioned are the words sevdás (in Turkish: sevda), which translates as ‘strong passion or strong love’, feléki (in Turkish: felek), which translates as ‘fate’ and kurbéti (in Turkish: gurbet), which means ‘a land far from home’ or ‘a life filled with difficulties’.[xxx] At this point, it should be noted that many words of Turkish origin are still used by Greek people today. Similarly, we can trace words of Greek origin in the Turkish vocabulary, but to a smaller extent, as the Turkish impact on the Greek culture was much larger. These words are mainly related to geographical areas: Izmir, for example, is the Turkish approach of the word Smyrna (in Greek: Σμύρνη) and Istanbul derives from the Greek phrase ‘Εις την Πόλιν’ which translates as ‘to the City’.[xxxi] There are words of Greek origin in their food, as well: Çipura, for instance, derives from the Greek word tsipoura (in Greek: τσιπούρα) and refers to sea bream. 

Regarding the instruments played, the original Smyrneika songs of Asia Minor were mainly performed with kanonakisanturoudPolitiki lyraspoonshand drum and clarinet[xxxii][xxxiii]; however, during the classical period of rebetiko in Greece, they were replaced by the traditional Greek instrument called the bouzouki and its smaller variant, the baglamas. While most of the instrumentswere of oriental descent, Politiki lyra was a Byzantine instrument used widely by the Greek populations of Constantinople. Furthermore, bouzouki and baglamas are, according to historians, the descendants of a Greek-Byzantine string instrument known as tambouras and have been a significant part of the Turkish musical culture as well.[xxxiv]

Lastly, a distinctive characteristic of rebetiko songs is amanes, which constitutes a rare type of monodist and lengthy ‘song’ that features the repetition of the Turkish word ‘aman’ (meaning mercy, compassion).[xxxv] Rebetes used to pronounce the word ‘aman’ all the time during their performances; thus, amanes was included in the whole rebetiko tradition. In terms of content, it expresses the difficulties that someone faces in life or a love suffering.[xxxvi] Although amanes was mainly developed in the Eastern Mediterranean region and is closely associated with ‘oriental’ culture, there are no sources that indicate the exact period and area of its formation; some musicologists claim that this musical type is rooted in the musical culture of previous centuries like, for example, the Byzantine culture.[xxxvii]


It would be wise to say that the concept of rebetiko is not solely musically oriented. As a product of the Greek culture of Asia Minor, rebetiko reflects the thoughts, the emotions, the pain, the memories and the way of life of an entire nation. As an embodied element in Greek culture, it represents a different, yet dynamic aspect of the poor urban class of Greece. In both cases, rebetiko symbolizes the combination of two different environments and cultures and creates a very special identity that characterizes the Greek nation.[xxxviii] Today, rebetiko remains one of the most unique musical genres of Greek culture. Rita Abatzi, Marika Ninou, Roza Eskenazi, Yorgos Batis, Markos Vamvakaris, Vasilis Tsitsanis and Sotiria Bellou are, among others, some of the most talented singers and key figures of rebetiko, inspiring numerous contemporary musicians around the world today. In 2017, rebetiko was officially inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.[xxxix]

[i] A. Heraclides. ‘The Essence of the Greek-Turkish Rivalry: National Narrative and Identity’, GreeSE – Hellenic Observatory Papers on Greece and Southeast Europe 51, Hellenic Observatory, LSE, 2011, p. 14, https://eprints.lse.ac.uk/45693/1/GreeSE%20No51.pdf, (online pdf – Accessed June 25, 2021).

[ii] Although the two countries have different languages, it is worth noting that the Greek vocabulary contains many Turkish words used by Greeks today (more information is provided in the second section of the essay).

[iii] Also pronounced as ‘rembetico’.

[iv] Encyclopaedia Britannica Contributors. ‘Greece under Ottoman rule’, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.https://www.britannica.com/place/Greece/Greece-under-Ottoman-rule, (Accessed June 25, 2021).

[v] Encyclopaedia Britannica Contributors. ‘Emerging Greek identity’, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.https://www.britannica.com/place/Greece/Economic-and-social-developments#ref26400, (Accessed June 25, 2021).

[vi] V. Agtzidis. Γενοκτονία στη Μικρά Ασία (The Genocide in Asia Minor), Chania: Ereisma, 2001, p. 9-11.

[vii] V. Agtzidis. Γενοκτονία στη Μικρά Ασία (The Genocide in Asia Minor), Chania: Ereisma, 2001, p. 13.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix]  Ibid., p. 19-22.

[x] A great percentage of Asia Minor refugees migrated to Greece; however, they also moved to other places, such as the Soviet Union or the United States.

[xi] International Association of Genocide Scholars. Resolutionshttps://genocidescholars.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/IAGS-Resolution-Assyrian-and-Greek-Genocide.pdf,  (Accessed June 22, 2021). 

[xii] A. Palikidis. ‘Tracing roads of nostalgia: Can there be a shared Lieu de Memoirefor the Greek and Turkish refugees of the population exchange of the Lausanne Convention (1923)?’, MuseumEdu 6, Autumn 2018, p. 123-146, Museum Education and Research Laboratory, University of Thessaly.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] D. Koglin. Greek Rebetiko from a Psychocultural Perspective: Same Song, Changing Minds. Ashgate, Farnham, 2016, p. 3.

[xvii] Ibid., p. 6.

[xviii] D. Tragaki. Rebetiko Worlds, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2007.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] D. Tragaki. Rebetiko Worlds, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishing (2007).

[xxiii] D. Koglin. Greek Rebetiko from a Psychocultural Perspective: Same Song, Changing Minds. Ashgate, Farnham, 2016, p. 6-8.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] The Ioannis Metaxas regime (also known as the 4th of August Regime), was a dictatorial and anti-communist regime that prevailed in Greece from August 4, 1936 (the date on which Ioannis Metaxas, in collaboration with King George, abolished parliamentarism and imposed dictatorship) until the occupation of the country by the Germans in 1941.

R. Clogg. A concise history of Greece (4th edition), Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 115.

[xxvi] D. Tragaki. Rebetiko Worlds, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2007.

[xxvii] E. Petropoulos. Songs of the Greek Underworld: the Rebetiko Tradition, London: Saqi Books, 2000.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] D. Koglin. Greek Rebetiko from a Psychocultural Perspective: Same Song, Changing Minds. Ashgate, Farnham, 2016, p. 110.

[xxx] Ibid., p. 113.

[xxxi] M. Stachowski, R. Woodhouse. ‘The etymology of İstanbul: making optimal use of the evidence’, Studia Etymologica Cracoviensia 20, 2015, p. 221-245.

[xxxii] D. Tragaki. Rebetiko Worlds, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2007.

[xxxiii] Y. Stamatis. Rebetiko Nation: Hearing Pavlos Vassiliou’s Alternative Greekness Through Rebetiko Song, Michigan: University of Michigan, 2011, p. 154.

[xxxiv] F. Anogeianakis. Ελληνικά, Λαικά Μουσικά Όργανα (Greek, Folk Musical Instruments), Melissa, 1991, p. 25-26.

[xxxv] D. Tragaki. Rebetiko Worlds, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2007.

[xxxvi] N. Politis. ‘The Amané in the Greek – speaking world of the Eastern Mediterranean’, To laiko traghoudi  (The folk song) vol. 16 , 2006, p. 1-12, (https://www.academia.edu/22309729/Politis_English_FINAL – english translation in pdf).

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] D. Koglin. Greek Rebetiko from a Psychocultural Perspective: Same Song, Changing Minds. Ashgate, Farnham, 2016, p. 9.

[xxxix] Unesco. Rebetiko: Greece: Inscribed in 2017 (12.COM) on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanityhttps://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/rebetiko-01291?fbclid=IwAR2U3MhsEYFKsZIpYSuw8iqtKFTFuvk7iH5qM-Yo7AtfDL2BkFr6oPziwSo(Accessed June 27, 2021)

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