Various Artists

Rembetica in Piraeus, Vol. 2

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Rembetica in Piraeus, Vol. 2 Review

by Don Snowden

This strong collection captures the first above-ground flowering, and final flourish, of street-level rembetica from the rough & tumble port city of Piraeus. 1937 is a definite ending point, the year when censorship was imposed by a military dictatorship followed by Nazi occupation and post-war drift to respectability of what was an outlaw/outsider music, basically equivalent to Greek blues. Along with a ballpark sense of the genre, a bit of Greek music label history and capsule bios of the singers, the excellent notes include lyric translations and a slang glossary so you understand what they're singing about (basically the hooker/hipster/hustler underground and all that implies).

The major names are here, including the big four of Yiorgios Batis, Efstratios Payiomidzís, Anestis Dhelias, and Márkos Vamvakáris. The last holds down the first eight tracks, most of the arrangements are bouzouki with guitar only, but the rough, gravelly vocals bring the stamp of someone who's genuinely lived the rembetica life. Most follow the usual circular build-up that keeps hinting at...hinting at...cutting loose without ever doing it, but "O Márkos o Syrianós" is faster and jauntier than that. "Frangosyrianí" has a sprightly flair and Vamvakáris' most fluid bouzouki picking on the disc, "I Xanthiá" has a spoken interlude and simple melody over a semi-country jog/trot rhythm, and "Chthés Tó Vrádhi Sto Skotádhi" boasts nice melody jumps.

The other three big names are uneven -- Batis goes two to four, thanks to the brisk "Wang Dang Doodle"-like rundown of Mediterranean and regional Greek types on "O Fausolás," and his effective bagalamas licks on the instrumental "Taxími Athenéiko Ké Zeïmbékiko." The singing and melody on Dhelias' "Kousaváki" definitely nags, but "Athinéissa" is stronger, with a second vocalist lending weight on the chorus. That extra dimension of a second voice is important for variety's sake -- Payiomidzís' duet with Stellákis Perpiniádhis is fine, but his track by himself isn't any great shakes. Hell, Andonios Kalivopolous, "the mechanic who enjoyed a brief recording career before family pressure forced him to abandon this 'disreputable music,'" shines brighter and fresher than some of the bigger names on his tracks thanks to lively backing, and maybe because the main string instrument is the Turkish saz.

But those relative minor flaws shouldn't dissuade anyone from Rembetica in Piraeus, Volume II. These are genuinely historic recordings, foundation Greek roots music that offer revealing portraits of a whole other, yet very similar early hipster world, in a place you wouldn't really expect to find one.

blue highlight denotes track pick