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Introduction to greek rebetika and smyrnaiikan music

Two terms which have been routinely confused are smyrnaiika and rebetika. There isn't a clear demaracation, except that smyrnaiika refers to the rebetic music of Smyrna, a once predominantly Greek city forcibly transformed into the modern Turkish city of Izmir in the early 1920's.

Smyrnaiikan music lyrics often despairingly describe the politics and situation of the burning, looting, and general destruction of Greek life in the city of Smyrna, while rebetika is commonly associated with the hashish and opium dens of the port communities around Athens (which grew as a result of the massive forced emigration from Smyrna, the Balkans, and Egypt following World War I), most notably Piraeus.

However, rebetika has earlier histories in both Istanbul and in urban Greece, which date back until the late 19th century. There is Turkish and Ladino language rebetika music from the same period of time, as many of the classic performers of rebetika music grew up in the multicultural late Ottoman Empire, performing music for the different millets (ethnically- divided Ottoman neighborhoods) in the local language. The same song can be found sometimes in three linguistically different versions!

The era in which all rebetika flourished was a tumultuous time for Greece and Turkey. None of the Mediterranean was economically well off following World War I, and the Republic of Turkey was beginning its formation (following the four hundred year long uninterrupted reign of the Ottoman Empire) as was the nation of Greece. Greeks had been subjects of the Ottoman Empire, and stewards of some of the Western Anatolian port cities and communities along the Golden Horn (Istanbul and its surrounding communites) for hundreds of year. There wasn't a real precedent for ethnically-divided "separate but equal" countries, and the sudden and forceful eviction of Greeks from their former homes in Turkey and Turks from their neighborhoods in Greece resulted in many deaths and a quite sudden animosity between previously congenial people.

When the history of Smyrna, the fire, and the dislocation is talked about today, it's often in terms of a "population exchange" (the Turkish point of view), or of a "genocide" (the Greek point of view). The Greek point of view rarely acknowledges the impact that the "population exchange" had on the Turkish citizens of Greece who were expelled and the profound sense of cultural loss felt acutely in Istanbul today; the Turkish one denies the considerable loss of life and attempts to justify the actions of the newly formed Turkish army in legalistic terms. There is considerable documented proof of the moment of devastation, including books by the American ambassador to Turkey and others, and preserved as a sort of oral history in many of the Smyrnaiikan and Rebetic song lyrics. For more information, check out the books section, which includes two of the better known historical treatises on the time.

An important movie produced in 1980 documents the plight of several famous Rebetika stars. Many of the scenes in the movie "Rebetika," directed by Costas Ferris, take place in whorehouses and hash and opium bars, where the people speak a mixture of Greek and Turkish. This movie depicts the different movements of rebetic music, including classical rebetika, smyrnaikan rebetika, and "modern" (late 1930s and later) styles.

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