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The Taste of My Heart: Greek Women Singers ca. 1937​-​57

by Canary Records



I have tried to make some contribution to listening of early- and mid-20th century Greek music, and in particular the work of women. Over the past decade, Canary has released collections of Marika Papagika, Rita Abatzi, Virginia Magidou, and Rosa Eskenazi. This mixtape shares some performances that I’ve enjoyed that seem to supplement other releases, in particular the Women of Rembetika: 1908-1947 4CD set compiled by Charles Howard and issued by JSP Records in 2012. That set ends or tapers off around World War II when recording ceased in Greece for about four years. This set picks up, overlapping slightly, where that set ends.

Notably, all of these performances are derived from discs issued in the United States for the Greek immigrant community, and about half of the recordings were made in the U.S. So, it is also a document of American listenership. In the 1930s, Greek women’s recorded voices were dominated by several major stars: Abatzi, Eskenazi, and Sophia Vembo. Recording opportunities for women opened up a after the war, and by the mid-50s the Greek popular music was both profoundly censored by the dictatorship and opened up in a way that lead to its faddish Western popularity in the form of the films Never on Sunday, Zorba the Greek, and America America - material from the periods that Gail Holst-Warharft called the Indian Summer and the Bones of Rebetika.

The term “rebetika” deserves some thought in this context. It originally referred to a tiny cross-section of street-life songs made on records infrequently by either established singers or marginal performers in the 1920s and early 30s, but which, much like hip-hop’s development in the U.S. from its the 70s / early 80s roots into a more complicated and popular status in the 90s and early 00s, or for that matter a similar the mainstreaming of jazz from the 1910s and 20s into the 1930s and 40s, elements of it it became imbedded aspects of a lot of popular music. After the 1970s the term took on a retroactive meaning that broadened it to a larger arena of Greek urban folk music the contained influences from many places at once: tango (the most popular music in Greece in the 1920s), demotic (folk) musics particularly from Anatolia (Turkey) but also the islands and rural regions of Greece, as well as influences from Italian and Balkan musics, and the authorship of a handful of composers - Marko Vamvakaris and Panayiotis Toundas certainly at the forefront among them - who transformed what had been a world of free-floating folk material into set song-forms in much the same way that Jimmie Rogers, Roy Acuff, and Hank Williams turned “hillbilly” music in the U.S. into the Country music industry. (Dr. Martin Schwartz once told a friend, half-jokingly: “tango+demotika=rebetika,” and he wasn’t wrong.)

Athenian folk songs generally performed by the likes of Vamvakaris and Vassilis Tsitsanis were classed at the time of their release in the 30s and 40s as “laika,” although they were retroactively categorized a rebetika, because laika material became progressively lighter and sweeter over the course of the 1950s and 60s preceding the rebetika revival after the fall of the dictatorship in the 1970s. We have not used the term “rebetika” in the tile of this collection, although the taste and style involved int he selection of the pieces is heavily weighted toward the “heavier,” and more “rebetic,” and therefore more nostalgic or retrograde material recorded by these artists, although, as with many groups with large diasporic communities, emigrants often held on to parts of older styles long after homeland performers had moved on.

The idea of rebetika is of a music that arose mostly after the 1922 population exchange after the Smyrna catastrophe, rose in the tekes (hashish-dens) of Athens in the first half of the 30s, then faded under right-wing censorship, the silence caused by years of occupation by the Germans and British, and then another 30 years of right-wing censorship before its revival. But the truth is more complicated. And the music was never singularly about the demimonde lifestyle that was overtly censored. There has been a consistent thread of rebetic music in Greece for more than a century now, longer than many countries have existed on the map. It is by now, in a strong sense, its own country-within-a-country - a complicated world created from poor people who talked to middle-class people who talked to the upper class and then the globe so that eventually remnants of the underworld from a century ago, including the instrument of the bouzouki itself - the ultimate symbol of rebetika - became a signifier of the Greek nation.

Let’s say this: the idea that rebetika is “drug music” is bourgeois bullshit. It is music that was happening among an underclass (who, yes, used weed and had nothing to lose by saying so), and was coopted by the middle class (with, oftentimes, the best intentions), censored as a result, and ultimately continued in some form to address its primary issue: how to cope and thrive despite exploitation and oppression. It’s happened that way before. It’ll happen again.

Women in the world of Greek nightclubs in the first half of the 20th century were primarily dancers and singers secondarily. (They also often played percussion when not performing either of those two functions.) The idea of women in the songs, written most often by men, often exoticized sexual attraction, lamented the lives of mothers, and largely ignored the daily work of wives and daughters. Several of the women presented on this collection, spanning at least two generations, were in some sense “othered” ethnically (two were Jewish, one Armenian, one genderqueer) by the macho Greek musical establishment even as they were part of the scene. Their biographies are in some cases available elsewhere. Others are totally obscure. It’s not the work of this collection to present biographies of them but instead it gives a snapshot of what was heard from them over a span of time.


released June 28, 2021

Recording locations:
1-8, 12. Athens
10. Cleveland, Ohio
9, 13-19. New York City

Known accompanists:
1, 15, 16. George Anestopoulou, clarinet
2. Vassilis Tsitsanis, bouzouki
3, 4. Stelios Perpiniadis (aka Stellakis)
5. Panos Samis
6. Lazros Rouvas
7, 8. S. Perioteris
9. Costas Gadinis, clarinet
10. George Pontikos
14. Andreas Poggis, violin
19. Apostalos Stamelos, clarinet

Transfers, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski
Help with title translations by Aydin Chaloupka


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early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

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