REBETIKO AND GENERAL SCOBIE
Dr. Kostas Kardamis, from the Ionian University Music Department, brought to my attention the order apparently given in Athens to Greek Radio by the British Military Authority (under General Scobie). It started me thinking about why the British Military might have wanted to promote rebetiko music. These are my questions, thoughts and notes to date. I welcome comments and further information (corfubooks at hotmail dot com). Is it possible to find the original document or order?
In late 1944- early 1945 (after “Ta Dekemvriana”): the HQ of the British Forces Military Authority, under General Scobie, sent an order/instruction strongly encouraging Greek State Radio to broadcast and disseminate rebetiko music, little known at that time to the bourgeoisie of Greece (sources: Yannis Konstantinidis, Alekos Xenos, George Leotsakos-see G. Leotsakos, “Alekos Xenos” in “Eptanisiaka Fylla” XXV/3-4, Fall-Winter 2005).
It seems unlikely that such an order would have been issued before the truce of 11 January, 1945 or until after the Varkiza agreement was signed on 12 February 1945, but that is my own speculation.
Nikos Politis has written that “after the war there has been a small interval of less than one year, where censorship was forgotten, but immediately thereafter it came back.” (“Censorship in Rebetiko, 1937 onwards”, Hydra Rebetiko Conference, October 2005). Censorship was reimposed in 1947, according to Ed Emery.
If it's true that the British Military encouraged the rebetiko, the
a) The influence of the post-war mood in Britain (away from Churchill and the Conservatives, towards the Labour Party- election victory under Attlee, July 1945, breaking down class barriers, new solidarity, new society, health service, welfare state, employment);
d) The fact that no rebetiko recordings were made in Greece during the period of Axis Occupation, 1941-1944, when the Germans promoted and encouraged light music, tangos and waltzes (Gail Holst-Warhaft, “World Music and the Orientalizing of Rebetika”).
e) That there had been censorship of rebetiko songs during the Metaxas dictatorship
f) That the British perhaps wanted to encourage a spirit of freedom of expression (and of the press) after the censorship of the Metaxas dictatorship and the German Occupation? But unlikely at this stage, while EAM-ELAS still a serious threat?
Right-wing conservatives “suspected subversion in the fuss about popular art and ‘popular Greek humanity’ (Sikelianos on Theophilos in 1947)”. The Marxist movement was “suspicious of any tendency which could seem hostile to technical civilisation and resolutely opposed to populism” (Nicos Hadjinicolaou introduction to ‘Four painters of 20th century Greece’, Wildenstein, 1975).
It was not just the bourgeoisie that was unfamiliar with or disapproved of rebetiko.
Many Communists were opposed to it too (cf Klisidis, “Aspects of Rebetiko”, cited by Daniel Koglin). Stathis Gauntlett, in “Rebetika, Carmina Graeciae Recentioris” ( a modified version of his Oxford DPhil thesis To Rebetiko Tragoudi, March 1978) writes (p. 195, note 2) about politically motivated denunciation of the genre in Rizospastis in the mid-forties and thirty years later, in March and April 1976: “The ‘Rebetiko’ is now decried as part of an imperialist plot to obliterate the memory of the heroic Resistance and Civil War.” Gauntlett refers to D.Liatsos, Oi prosfiges tis Mikrasias kai to rebetiko tragoudi, Athens 1982, pp. 54-8.
At that period (from 1945) Communist Party ideologists and intellectuals were largely negative about the rebetiko and the “mangas”, and argued that the music undermined and sapped the revolutionary strength and will of the people, and was unsuitable for political prisoners or for leftists sent into internal exile. It was considered music which could have a bad psychological effect, with its elements of “weariness, escapism and fatalism” (G. Giannaris, p. 133). They favoured the use of indigenous, traditional Greek folk songs (ta demotika) and partisan or guerrilla (antartika) songs as an educational means to further the national liberation struggle and to build solidarity, group revolutionary consciousness (as well as the use of optimistic, international Communist and Russian revolutionary songs). They certainly insisted on the exclusion of narcotics-related and mangas songs from the repertoire. See Panagis Panagiotopulos’ chapter in “Rebetes kai Rebetiko Tragoudi”, 1996. Which is not to say that some rebetiko songs did not deal with political topics on occasion. Nearchos Georgiadis cites examples of several songs about the death of Aris Velouchiotis in 1945.
“Rebetika was also attacked by the Communist Party, for instance by Nikos Zachariades, who described it as the music ‘of knife-fights and decadence’”, Ed Emery, Introduction to “Songs of the Greek Underworld, The Rebetiko Tradition” by Elias Petropoulos, 2000. On the other hand, Theodorakis claims that General Serafis “was crazy about rebetika”, and Theodorakis himself and the other inmates sang rebetika at Ikaria and in Makronissos (Interview with Vassilis Vassilikos, Euros, no 5-6, Sept-Dec 1993), cited by Emery.
Elias Petropoulos writes (“Songs of the Greek Underworld), “The Marxist viewpoint that sees the rebetes merely as lumpenproletarians is theoretical claptrap” and “In 1947 the official newspaper of the Greek Communist Party opened the first debate on the nature of rebetiko song. A constellation of Marxist reactionaries came together to condemn the ‘immoral’ songs of the hashish-smokers and the lumpenproletariat.”
Proclamation of ELAS Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1943: “It asked every Greek to compile all the Resistance songs he knew, both lyrics and music, and send them as best he could to the nearest ELAS office”, George Giannaris, “Music and Social Change”, 1973. Greek music has always been plagued by identity politics, as Gail Holst-Warhaft observes.
This suggests another alternative motive why the British Military might have sent the instruction to the Radio Station:
h) Maybe rebetiko was considered a better "pacifying" option, since it was
i) It was in the commercial interests of British-owned gramophone record companies operating in Athens, which would soon want to start up production again (in 1946).
Incidentally, the hostility of many of the Communists and bourgeois elites towards the bouzouki as an instrument was as strong as the hostility towards rebetiko songs. It was seen as an instrument brought in with the Asia Minor refugees after 1922. It is interesting in this respect to read Archduke Ludwig Salvator’s comments (1887) on musical instruments played in the Ionian island of Paxos in the 1880s:
„Fűr Musik haben die Paxiniotten wie alle Griechen Vorliebe. Violine und Mandoline sind die beiden Haupt-Instrumente. Letzterer ähnlich die Busukki, Lauto und Protolauto, und manche Guitarren, die man Taburá nennt. Diese Instrumente werden theils hier verfertigt, theils aus Corfu importiert; sie variiren in der Grösse von einander, gewöhnlich macht man sie in drei Grössen“ ("Paxos und Antipaxos", Wűrzburg and Vienna, 1887).
The bouzouki seems to have been accepted as another instrument suitable for folk music. Nothing is as simple as it might seem!
NB For Manos Hadjidakis' lecture of 31 January 1949 on the Rebetiko song, go to www.hadjidakis.gr/english/homeweb.htm , select Ergography, then Publications