The roots of rebetiko music have their birth in the early 20th Century, when those of the urban subculture, secondary citizens, hashish smokers and the criminal element began playing a certain style of music in small pubs ("tekedes") and in the prisons of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki. During those precocious years, the lyrics of the rebetikon spoke of drug use, smuggling, hard life, jail, social pressures, persecution and societal exclusion. The mysterious sound of the music was full and heavy. The singer ("rebetis") was always male with a metallic, horse and hard voice. A real rebetis, also known as a "mangas" ("rascal"), provoked the forces of social power, without taking any form of activist action.
During that same time period, the music of "Aman Café" – a type of cabaret musical styling – flowered simultaneously in the cities of Smirni and Constantinople. This music, well known as "Smirnaiki", was more complex, emotional and not as heavy in the lyrics it used to describe love, romantic disenchantment and, later, the loss of the land of Micro-Asia and happiness. Characteristic of "Aman Café" were the far-reaching improvisational and aesthetic female voices that were accompanied by provocative dancing.
The two contradictory musical movements described above clashed violently after the permanent exchange of the Greek and Turkish populations in 1923. The Micro-Asians had their own culture and upbringing but faced huge problems adjusting, in addition to being hungry and unemployed, upon their return to the metropolis. Therefore, many of these newcomers were initiated into the rebetadika and later, the first amalgamations of "Aman Café" using rebetes singers began appearing. In this way, rebetika broke the minority barriers and became a popular form of music in mainstream society.
From 1946 and on – with the guidance of one of the most famous rebeton singers, the charismatic Vasilis Tsitsanis – the rebetadika clubs reached the pinnacle of their popularity. This style of music became to be thought of more traditional and accepted by its listeners. At the same time, however, with its transformation, the rebetadika began to be looked upon with disdain. The changes and dizzy rhythms of the 20th Century brought about the end of this musicĘs natural evolution, which is now listened to simply as a reminder of another time and an expression of timeless sorrow and pain. For this reason, rebetika – with its dark atmosphere and "den of thieves" style of performance – still has a fanatical following to this day.
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