Rebetiko in the Heart of Chichester

rebetiko (1)

Poster courtesy Federatzione L’Arca

Now it isn’t often I get to say that, Chichester and rebetiko on the surface are as different as South Down’s chalk and feta cheese but it is the time of the Festival of Chichester when we have many diverse musical and cultural events in town, hooray! I  look forward to this short span of time on the cultural calendar as you can guarantee there will be a few unusual world music concerts taking place. For a couple of years there was a barren space where this event should have been as the old Chichester Festivities ground to a halt and was buried under a mound of debt. But you can’t keep a good idea down for long and independently the various organisations that had taken part before regrouped and run the event on a much smaller scale and under their own steam without the large corporate sponsors of before.

Last night I visited St John’s Chapel where ‘Plastikes Karekles’ were performing. St John’s is a rare surviving example of a Georgian proprietary chapel  “Although a proprietary chapel was firmly part of the Church of England it was built and run as a commercial venture. The money to build and run it – including paying the minister’s salary – came from share issues and the sale and rent of pews; some of the original box pews in the gallery of St John’s still have paper labels offering them for rent.” to quote from the St.John’s own website The chapel is delightful and I have enjoyed visiting on the odd occasion and observing the stages of its restoration. The box pews I find particularly endearing. They chapel often host concerts, I had seen ‘Plastikes Karekles’ perform here a few years ago and remembered enjoying them so of course when I saw they were returning I booked my seat, not in a box pew sadly as they are in the gallery which isn’t open. I think this would make a fine viewpoint though at concerts, maybe I could rent one?


The group Plastikes Karekles ( plastic chairs) consists of  a variable number of young  musicians of both classical and folk backgrounds  ranging at any one time from 2 to 17 in number. Last night there were only six including :-Marina Deligianni performing some beautiful and evocative vocals in a true rebetiko style: Pavlos Carvalho playing bouzouki and giving us some history behind the music and instruments in the segues from one section of music to another: Stelios Katsatsidis on harmonic (bayan) accordion: Sarah Carvalho-Dubost on cello and guitar: Maria Tsirodimitri on guitar: Alexandros Koustason violin. The concert started with the haunting sound of the accordion playing out of sight heralding the arrival of the other musicians as they walked up the aisle singing what sounded like a lament. Much of Greek Rebetiko  has this flavour of longing and lament, it’s what reaches out and touches me, in the same vein as some Irish and Scottish folk songs do. On hearing the accordion I couldn’t quite place the instrument out of sight, it had the sound of a harmonium.

The first half contained many familiar rebetiko songs dating back to possibly 40’s and 50’s followed by the more recent Theodorakis numbers which were the result of a revival of Greek music by the composer in the 60’s. Mikis Theodorakis is probably the best known Greek composer of today, who is not familiar with his songs ‘Zorba the Greek’ or ‘Never on a Sunday’? He started his career though as a  classical composer and gained international acclaim, creating several works for ballet as well as symphonies and chamber music. He left all this behind in 1960 to answer the call from within to return to his roots in Greece and Greek music and contributed by so doing, to a cultural revolution in his homeland. He felt that the music of Greece had strayed from its authenticity and wanted to get it back to the roots. Many of the songs that sprang from this time are the ones that I remember first hearing when my dad started to buy Greek music albums. Just hearing the first few notes of bouzouki on a track conjures up blue, open skies, the smell of the sea and souvla and a sense of release and relaxation, as if I had been keeping myself locked up before.  I recognised and hummed along to the familiar tunes I recognised, I was sitting at the back well out of earshot.

Much early traditional Greek folk music from the islands, tells tales often in a repetitive dirge like manner reflecting the ecclesiastic chants of the Orthodox church. The true rebetiko is a more urban folk music, the Greek equivalent to blues music stemming from 1920’s and 30’s and originating in Smyrna but influenced by both Byzantine music as well as Turkish influences among many others, some 50’s Rebetika even has Latin and swing influences. This music has its roots in the expulsion of the Christian Ottoman Greek population from central Anatolia to Greece in the First World war. It was a time of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The music had the same associations in society that Tango music had in Argentina at its beginnings, with the same connections to slightly dark, underground, cafe/ bar society. These bars were places not of merriment  but where you went to forget your troubles by smoking a few pipefuls of hashish, the music was of melancholy and hardship. The music of these songs and the emotion in the voice of the singer conveys all the sorrows of the world very much like Portuguese Fado music which I also love.

One of the most interesting little snippets we were given during the concert was that Jimmy Hendrix was a great admirer of the composer and bazouki player Hiotis and thought he was the fastest player in the world, even faster than Hendrix himself.

I get a regular newsletter from a site called Eugreeka that has news of all events of interest to  Greek speaking people or lovers of all things Greek. A few weeks ago I read of a rembetiko carnival taking place in London featuring several rembetiko performances and I was wishing I lived nearer to see them. Instead they came to me because Plastikes Karekles were also performing at the carnival. At the end of the performance they got many of the audience to join in a Greek line dance a bit like the Greek version of the conga, and they danced around the ailes. A very enjoyable evening altogether and if they ever are playing in a town near you pop along and get an earful of rebetiko .


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