Born in the hash dens of the Ottoman Empire’s ports, rebetiko crossed the Aegean Sea together with Greek refugees forced to abandon their Asia Minor homeland in 1922. Over the decades, it has been outlawed, celebrated and ignored, but has never died out. So what is it about this mournful music, formed by century-old upheavals, that still resonates today?
Rebetiko’s melodies are raw, simple, and sultry, and its – often humorous – lyrics speak of love, poverty, prison and drug use.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
“Rebetiko is the folk music of the city. Until then, folk music came from the countryside. The lyrics refer to urban life, not the birds, trees and streams,” says Stratos Stratigopoulos, a rebetiko musician who owns and plays at a koutouki, a small musical café, in downtown Athens.
Rebetiko might have remained a quaint subgenre of early 20th century folk music, had World War I not been followed by the devastating 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, in which nearly one million Christian Orthodox inhabitants of Smyrna, Constantinople and other areas of present-day Turkey were displaced and tens of thousands killed.
The population of Greek cities swelled, with more than 100,000 refugees living around the port of Piraeus and Red Cross tents being pitched even underneath the ancient temples of Athens.
The first rebetiko players of Athens were these exiles from Asia Minor, who sang in smoky dive bars about the money they didn’t have and the drugs they couldn’t stop: “Brother, I’m going to smoke heroin until the Resurrection,” a musician interjects in a recording of “I’m a Heroin Addict (When You Take Heroin) [Eimai Prezakias (Preza Otan Pieis)]” from 1934.
Longing for their lost homeland, and unaccepted by mainstream Greek culture and society (refugees from Asia Minor made up close to a quarter of the population of Greece by then, and there was no way to provide shelter, jobs and food for all of them), the musicians found themselves close to the underworld of the ‘rebetes’, a subculture populated by petty criminals and centred around a general rebellion against society.
Rebetiko’s core instruments are the bouzouki, baglamas (small lute) and guitar, which you could pick up and run with if the authorities suddenly raided your dive; the police could break your hookah, but you could take your instruments to safety, unlike, say, a dulcimer or a piano. In the song “Last Night in our Tekes (hash den) [Extes to Vrady ston Teke Mas]” from 1934, for example, a police raid for hashish results in broken instruments.
“From its birth, they (the authorities) chased it. They had linked it with hashish and they went after rebetiko and the bouzouki. You rarely heard it on records, as few people had gramophones, and only in certain places, in koutoukia (underground tavernas),” says Stratos.
But it wasn’t all about drugs and crime; the most popular songs were about unrequited love. “You are plump like a loaf of bread, whoever sees you is overcome with longing,” crooned the so-called patriarch of rebetiko, Markos Vamvakaris, a self-taught virtuoso from the island of Syros, who learned the bouzouki in mere months from refugees in Piraeus and wrote dozens of songs that are still played to this day.
In 1936, Greece’s then-dictator Ioannis Metaxas outlawed rebetiko music, sending it even further underground. But after the Greek Civil War ended in 1949, rebetiko began gaining popularity in the mainstream, reaching its heyday in the 1950s.
Since then, rebetiko’s prevalence has waxed and waned, but it has proved a resilient music that continues to be performed and enjoyed on stages big and small across the country.
Its most recent revival is taking place now, as many young Greeks, possibly as a result of the crippling debt crisis that began in 2010, are looking to their roots and rediscovering traditional instruments and folk music. Now, there are many young people forming bands or just taking lessons to learn how to play traditional Greek and Middle Eastern instruments, like the santur, oud or qanun.
Stratos’s son, Christos, grew up listening to his father play rebetiko in a band Opisthodromiki Kompania in the 1980s and is now a rebetiko musician himself. He loves living in downtown Athens and playing rebetiko music in his koutouki, Feidiou 2, as well as with his friends in their houses or on public squares.
He arrives for his interview on an electric unicycle with his bouzouki slung over his shoulder, bleary-eyed from his night of jamming until dawn in a square near his house.
“Rebetiko, to me, is a very real music and a heavy one at the same time… The more you listen to it, the deeper you get into it,” says Christos, plucking the strings of his bouzouki. “I think the reason young people have got back into it is because it is a music with substance, and that’s why it keeps coming back… its 100-year history proves it,” he adds.
And the young people that flock to his koutouki seem to prove that the Aegean blues are here to stay – the sadder the singers’ “Aman-aman” laments, the bigger the whoops from the appreciative crowd, many of whom get up and dance to their favourite songs, seemingly connecting with the decades-old lyrics as if they were written today. “Looking at it from the outside, it brings me such joy to see people dancing inside, outside, people singing and playing music, and that this happens so often! We celebrate often here – I don’t know what, but we celebrate,” says Christos with delight.
If you find yourself in Athens with a hankering for rebetiko and can’t get a table at Feidiou 2, there’s no shortage of other options to explore in Athens – but always check ahead of time to see if a scheduled live performance is, in fact, happening:
Mezedopolio Gi (The Earth) is a favourite student haunt with rickety furniture, tapas and live rebetiko music twice a week. Here there’s no stage or microphones, with the musicians just sitting and playing around one of the tables.
Klimataria (The Vines) is a historic taverna in the Psyrri neighbourhood, first opening in 1927. Apart from the live music that takes place from Thursday to Sunday, Klimataria is known for its home cooking – the kind of thing you’d expect your Greek grandmother to cook for you.
To Peran offers a more upscale experience. This live restaurant features food from Anatolia and a stage of rotating bands that play everything from rebetiko to more mainstream Greek folk music.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.