Great Britain's JSP label took a chance in 2006 by issuing a four-disc overview of rembetika (the "officially designated" Greek underground and criminal communities) called Rembetika: Greek Music from the Underground. It was official because at one point in the 20th century, the music was actually officially banned by the Metaxas government (in 1937) and didn't peep above ground for another 11 years. (Gangster rappers and metalheads take heart: you were not the first nor will you be the last.) That set, like this one, appropriately titled Rembetika 2: More of the Secret History of Greece's Underground Music, included four CDs, all of which were annotated with fine notes, and production masters cleaned up as much as possible -- no easy feat since a lot of this music was originally released on either 78s or cylinders -- but some survived, amazingly, on recording tape. Charles Howard has done an excellent job of compiling and annotating this second box, and takes a different approach than on the first one. While the music was arranged according to the popularity, suppression, and eventual dissemination of rembetika on the first box, here the approach is strictly chronological, beginning with recordings made as early as 1908 and continuing until 1929.
The music began to flourish in 1927 and gained an infamous notoriety by the time it was suppressed in 1937. The second disc here concentrates on the years when the style began to emerge as a mature musical form to the brink of its flowering as genuine popular music to be enjoyed not only in bars and other places of ill repute, but at home on the Victrola: 1929 to 1934. The music was nearly mainstream, despite its lyrics about sex, death, dope, and violence. This didn't make a whit of difference to its musicians and singers, who went about their lives as if they had never seen the embracing of the form, though, as is wont to happen when any record company comes sniffing around, "stars" of a fashion were made and recorded often. The third disc follows the trail of the years 1934 through the official crackdown in 1937, when lyrics, music, and singing styles began to make it so blatantly anti-authoritarian, the Metaxas power structure, pressured by Turkey, had no choice but to brand anyone playing rembetika as a subversive; this is the beginning of rembetika's return to the underground. Its origins are shrouded in mystery anyway, buried in the murky, cross-whispering cultures and folk styles of the middle 19th century where it had emerged as a coded speech for criminality. Beginning in 1937, all recording of rembetika was thought to have stopped because being caught singing, playing, or taping this music was punishable by prison. It never completely ceased, but became as hard to get as a gun in Canada. It existed solely in hashish houses, brothels, gambling and opium dens, and in other locales where hardened criminals congregated; it was recorded there or under cover of night in home fashioned studios. It returned to its dubious honor as the official folk form of the criminal class. The last disc offers proof of the kind of truly hardcore rembetika made during that suppression, as well as a kind of coded music that resembled it, and hinted at its gnarly and knotted roots and legendary origins.
As fascinating as all this is, however, it's not what truly separates this box from its predecessor and makes it such a compelling and obsessive listen. The earliest music on this box isn't even from Greece! Rembetika wasn't recorded there until 1925, three years after refugees arrived in Greece from the Greek-Turkish war. The earliest music here comes from Constantinople and Smyrna, where traveling sound engineers from record companies did field recordings of the songs coming from the counterculture. They surfaced, as early as 1915 in the United States were attempts were being made to establish a market for rembetika among Greek immigrants. On the first volume here, accordions, balalaikas, fiddles, ouds, cembaloms, and above all, those deep mournful, defiant, and sadder than death vocals come wafting out, creating a stranger, more troublesome blues. The music on these sides is far more rare than what appears on the first box, and is rougher in sound quality in many places. It comes from sources where only a single copy is known to exist in a private or museum collection. That said, the power of these recordings is not diminished in the slightest. The hard research, and the painstaking mastering work is not the reason to snag this collection up. Indeed, the reason is, this is amazing music, haunted, hunted, and dangerous. It is akin to rock & roll or the Delta blues but doesn't sound anything remotely like them. This is otherworldly music drenched in emotions like sorrow, hatred, grief, and desire. This collection is as highly recommended, and perhaps more so, than its predecessor.