Περί Ουσίας by Rebetiki
Speech given by Pavlos Andronikos at the launch of the CD
The Second Level, Greek Orthodox Community Building, Lonsdale Street, April 2000
Rebetiki (Ρεμπέτικη) is Archie Argyropoulos (vocals, oud, baglamas), Hector Cosmas (violin, bouzouki, baglamas, cümbüş, vocals), Tony Iliou (guitar, cümbüş, vocals), and George Kiriakidis (accordion, percussion).
The guest musicians on the album are Chris Alifrangis (vocals, bouzouki), Pascal Latra (vocals), and George Stathos (clarinet).
As one would expect, the band Rebetiki play rebetika songs. This is a category of song which is difficult to define, but briefly, it is best thought of as a musical tradition—a tradition that developed in the coffee shops of Greece in the late 19th and early 20th century and which then continued to develop merged with a parallel tradition which came out of the swank coffee houses of Asia Minor’s urban centres. The two traditions intertwined particularly after the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s.
Although the rebetika tradition draws from the folk song tradition on occasions, it is markedly different in instrumentation and style and was, I suspect, for the most part a reaction to the folk tradition—an attempt to put aside what was felt to be passé and offer in its place a cool new sound with, as its mainstay, the bouzouki and its smaller sibling the baglamas.
Rebetika songs have been spectacularly misnamed “Piraeus blues”, but there is nothing bluesy in the music of rebetika—no blue notes, no bending of notes on the bouzouki family of instruments, and entirely different scales. In fact the music often has a defiantly gay sound more reminiscent of ragtime. The lyrics on the other hand most often dwell on misfortune, sorrow and loss.
This album Περί Ουσίας—the title of which was my contribution after a night of brainstorming with Archie Argyropoulos—represents in subtle ways a new departure for the musicians of Rebetiki. Although purist by inclination and taste, they have in small but significant ways left the confines of fundamentalist purism behind them. You will hear on this album double bass, cello and clarinet as well as the more traditional rebetika instruments.
However, what makes the album the best work the group has done to date is the vocals. In my opinion, no matter how good the musicianship, without really good vocal interpretations an album will fail. For us vocal beings, the voice is usually the primary focus of interest—and on this new album our interest is amply rewarded. Archie’s singing voice is indescribably rich in its expressive roughness. To my mind he is one of the best male singers in Melbourne.
The female vocalist too, Pascal Latra is exceptional. Her guest contributions add a welcome variety to the songs, and on Μπατίρη με κατάντησες the combined vocals of Pascal (lead) and Archie (harmony) are a real treat. [Click on the title to hear a short sample.] The music supporting the two main singers is rich and warm and liberally spiced with exquisite details and expressive solos.
Hector Cosmas, a wonderful master instrumentalist, contributes primarily violin, but also baglamas, cümbüş, cello and bouzouki. Listen out for the ominous cello behind a tsifteteli riff in the introduction of Κατινάκι. Also the violin taxim on Ένας μάγκας στον τεκέ μου.
Tony Iliou provides a rhythmic backing that is as solid as a rock, and George Kiriakidis interweaves this with elaborate rhythms on his toumbeleki.
Listen out also for the contribution of the guest musician George Stathos—the clarinet solo on Κατινάκι—and Chris Alifrangis on bouzouki. Especially nice is his bouzouki taxim on Ένας μάγκας στον τεκέ μου.
To return to the title, Περί Ουσίας is a play on words. Put the two words together into one word and it means “property”—but in Greek that word can and often is used to refer to all that one possesses, which in a sense is all that one is.
The tradition of rebetika is our property—our περιουσία—which we have inherited and which is now ours to use fruitfully or to waste and dissipate.
The other meaning of the title—the meaning it has as it stands—is “regarding essence”, this album being seen as a statement about essence. Rebetiki has successfully captured and is presenting to us with this CD the essence of the musical tradition that has been at the heart of their musical careers.
You should all now make the album your property… and buy it!
Note: The painting on the front cover of the CD is by Agi Argyropoulos.
Sadly, Hector Cosmas passed away far too young. He is missed. (See “Violinist Became Great of Greek ‘Blues’” by Victoria Kyriakopoulos [The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 March 2012].)