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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Introduction to Laiko and Rebetika Music


By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin




Rebetika / Politika / Smyrneika music is a Greek style of music which was placed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.

Rebetiko arrived in mainland Greece in the early 1900's after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, brought by the refugees from Anatolia (Asia Minor, where modern-day Turkey resides). The refugees settled in large numbers in harbor cities such as Pirea, Thessaloniki, and Volos. Music was shared and played among many ethnic groups, including the Anatolian Greeks, Arabs, Armenians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Turks.

The First Rebetiko Band

A band known as H Tetras H Xaskousti Tou Pirea (Η Τετράς Η Ξακουστή Του Πειραιώς) is widely considered to be the first rebetiko band in Greece. Previously, individual musicians might play together if they encountered each other at tekedes or parties, but weren't formally organized. Markos Vamvakaris was the one who arranged this quartet into a cohesive group. These four artists had previously collaborated informally in various gigs in the area. Giorgos Batis is credited with naming them "H Tetras H Xaskousti Tou Pirea", which means "The Famous Quartet of Pirea". Their members included:

  • Yiorgos (Γιώργος Μπάτης) from Pirea
  • Strato Payiomdzi (Στράτος Παγιουμτζής) from Aivali (Αιβαλί)
  • Avestis Anestos Delia (Ανέστις Ανέστος Δελιά (birth name Anastasios Dellios (Αναστάσιος Δέλλιος)) from Smyrna (Σμύρνη)
  • Markos Vamvakaris (Μάρκος Βαμβακάρης) from the island of Syros (Σύρος)

Venues Where Rebetiko Was Born

In the early 20th century, the typical places to hear music were the tekedes (singular teke), which refers to hashish dens. During this time, men in the tekedes used all kinds of drugs - cannabis, heroin, cocaine, etc. They also played and created music. For the most part, only women who worked in the sex industry would be seen in these places.

One of the early owners of a rebetiko night spot was Giorgos Batis, one of the members of the band H Tetras H Xaskousti Tou Pirea mentioned above. He opened and taught at a popular dance school called Carmen (Κάρμεν), which he hosted in his home, in Pirea (Πειραιάς) on 6 Emou Street (Οδός Αίμου 6). Some say the school was in Drapetsona, while others say in Pirea. Some have claimed that the dance school was just a front for the tekedes.

The musicians all typically gathered at cafés known as café aman where they shared their love of music and dance. There was a very famous café in Greece named Café Aman.

Music of this time and style is typically about love, immigration, pain, refugee, politics, drugs and poverty.

The era of the "Forbidden Rebetika" began in 1937, when the Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas banned hasiklidika music; i.e., the music of hashis (marijuana) smokers. If you listen to old and original versions of this music, you can also hear them smoking and getting high. See the Related Articles section below for links to translations on this web site for some examples of "Forbidden Rebetika".

Musical Instruments

Unfortunately, starting in 1937, when hasiklidika music was banned, the beautiful bouzouki musical instrument was also banned. If someone was caught carrying a bouzouki, he would be sent to prison, and possibly his instrument smashed.

Often, musicians would hide their bouzouki under their coats. This led to the rise in popularity of the baglamas, a smaller version of the bouzouki that was easier to hide under the coat.

Instruments used by dancers for this music include:

  • Tambourine
  • Finger cymbals
  • Two small shot glasses in each hand to clink together
  • A shot glass striking koboli beads (1)

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The musician in the photo is Markos Vamvakaris, a singer who was nicknamed "patriarch of the rebetiko".

(1) Greek men used to carry a string of beads known as koboli beads, and many still do. These are sometimes known as "worry beads".

Rebetiko Revival

Later, around the 1970's, the rebetes songs were brought back to life with new lyrics, modified to more "appropriate" language. For such songs, both the original and the revised versions are still highly popular and beloved in Greece.

Laiko Music

Laiko music was born out of the Rebetiko movement.

Some people translate Laiko as "folk music". This is accurate, but there is more meaning and feeling with this type of music, especially from the 1930's era. Laiko can also mean "of the people", or "one with the people". This is how I like to interpret this word.

*Thank you to my Rebetes uncles and parents for teaching me the history!

Markos Vamvakaris



Related Articles

  • Boufedzis (Buffet). Translation for the lyrics to one of the "forbidden rebetika" songs.
  • Mes Stis Polis To Hamam. (In the Constantinople Hamam). Translation for the lyrics to one of the "forbidden rebetika" songs.
  • Nei Hasiklides. (New Hashish Smokers). Translation for the lyrics to one of the "forbidden rebetika" songs.
  • Pente Hronia Dikasmenos (Five Years Convicted). Translation for the lyrics to one of the "forbidden rebetika" songs.



About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.




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