The Pireas Quartet

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The architects of the classic sound of rembetika -- the gritty, bluesy music of Greece's poor and dispossessed -- the Pireas Quartet comprised Markos Vamvakaris, Batis, Stratos, and Artemis. The group…
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The architects of the classic sound of rembetika -- the gritty, bluesy music of Greece's poor and dispossessed -- the Pireas Quartet comprised Markos Vamvakaris, Batis, Stratos, and Artemis. The group arose from the tekhedes (hash dens) which sprouted up in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Pireas during the 1920s and '30s; there the Athenian manges -- the "spiv" or "wide boy" subculture -- met regularly to drink sweet coffee and smoke hashish from water pipes dubbed narghiles. From this notorious underground community emerged the quick-witted Batis, the gifted vocalist Stratos, and guitarist and bouzouki player Artemis (born Anestos Delias), all three of whom frequented the same tekhedes; eventually, they teamed with Vamvakaris, the acknowledged "grandfather of rembetika," and began regularly performing as the Pireas Quartet.

The group quickly became a sensation among tekhede patrons, attracting large, rambunctious crowds wherever they played -- fights frequently broke out at their performances, and police intervention was common. The Quartet's music celebrated their wild lifestyle, and their lyrics frequently touched on drug use; among their most notable compositions was 1934's Artemis-penned "Junkie's Lament." More than any other performers, the group helped popularize the pre-war rembetika sound, but when the Greek dictator Metaxas clamped down on hash smoking during the late '30s (eventually ordering a stop to all hashish songs), the classic rembete culture began to slowly die away. With the Kalamata group, Vamvakaris enjoyed a brief flurry of renewed success during the '40s, but for all intents and purposes, an era was over -- Artemis' drug-related 1943 death was merely the final nail in the coffin.