Many of us have visited the ancient and beautiful land of Greece, and most visitors will at some point treat themselves to live performances by traditional musicians in bars and tavernas.
Many will have heard the sounds of ρεμπέτικο (rebetiko), which is a particularly beautiful musical tradition – but very few know its history, and fewer still know of its deep association with hashish use. So I’ve come to Greece’s ancient capital city, Athens, to find out more about this unique phenomenon.
It’s eight in the evening and still well over 95 degrees as we take our table, in a taverna hidden in one of the myriad, winding alleyways that surround Monastiraki square. The air is thick and the aroma of meat and spices fills my nostrils as the first plaintive notes of the bouzouki, an ancient stringed instrument similar to a lyre, shimmer through the darkness.
Vanessa, my guide for the evening, begins to relate the story of rebetiko to me, the ululating voices of the two singers providing a harmonious backdrop to her softly-accented speech.
Rebetiko originated in the coastal cities of Greece and Asia Minor during the time of the Ottoman Empire. Throughout Ottoman times, large numbers of Greeks inhabited the region of Western Anatolia, particularly in the city of Smyrna (now known as İzmir) and its surrounding area.
For centuries, Christian Orthodox Greeks and Ottoman Muslims lived side-by-side in relative harmony in Western Anatolia – and in Greece itself, which also had a sizeable population of resident Ottomans. The Greeks in Anatolia were by many accounts well-integrated, and important contributors to the economy.
Intermarriage between the two faiths was not uncommon, and while differences certainly existed, there was a great degree of cultural admixture—one ancient Ottoman tradition certainly enjoyed by many was that of the smoking of hashish. It was in this environment that rebetiko first developed, and its sound is fundamentally influenced by both Greek and Turkish traditions.
However, the region was to suffer devastating turbulence throughout the first World War, and in the subsequent years, the defeated Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany, collapsed entirely. From its ashes was to emerge a new, secular Turkish state, with the legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at the helm.
The Ottoman Empire had controlled vast swathes of territory with millions of subjects of vastly different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and while it maintained relative peace between its subjects during its existence, harmony was never total. Many poor rural Ottomans resented the Christian Greeks in Anatolia, who were generally better-educated and more prosperous; elsewhere in the Empire, the Christian Armenian and Assyrian populations had long complained of discrimination and rough treatment at the hands of the ruling Ottomans.
In 1914, as the first World War broke out, the Ottoman government began a systematic attempt to ethnically cleanse the Empire of all potential “threats” to national security. Newly-created “Special Organization Units” attacked Greek villages, forcing the residents out of their homes and leaving them with little option but to flee Ottoman territory for the eastern Greek islands.
As the Empire collapsed, law and order began to break down entirely, and religious and political violence intensified. Then, in 1919, Greece launched an invasion into Anatolia, beginning three years of brutal, bloody war between the two nations. The new Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was not unprepared, however, and had been hard at work – stabilizing what remained of the armed forces, and arming citizen militias under the banner of Turkish nationalism.
The armed forces on both sides swept through the Anatolian countryside, destroying countless villages, setting fire to crops, raping and murdering villagers and townsfolk as they went. At this point, many of the remaining Greeks of Asia Minor had fled, desperate and destitute, or were killed in their homes or during the attempt to flee.
Eventually, after countless atrocities on both sides, an armistice was reached in 1922. In 1923, the governments of Greece and the new nation of Turkey agreed to collectively perpetrate yet another atrocity – the forced expulsion of up to 1.5 million Christians from Turkey, and up to 500,000 Muslims from Greece.
The Christians that were sent to Greece settled en masse in the coastal cities of Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Volos and elsewhere. Stripped of their possessions and property, they nonetheless brought their Turkish language, culture and traditions with them – and those traditions included both the smoking of hashish and the playing and singing of rebetiko.
At that time, Greece was a significant exporter of hashish (mainly produced in the southern Peloponnese region), so the new arrivals were certainly able to access it – which no doubt served as an important reminder of their homeland, and as some consolation in being torn from it.
Over the following decades, the newcomers established themselves in these poor, overcrowded port cities. Having arrived with no wealth or property, and faced with discrimination from native Greeks, they were destined to lives of poverty and hardship. Use of drugs – primarily hashish, but also opium and cocaine – became endemic, along with prostitution and violent crime.
The musical styles of rebetiko began to symbolize the struggle of these urban, poverty-stricken populations. The image of the μάγκας (mangas) began to emerge – a working class male, an outlaw or rebel with a belligerent attitude and a characteristic style of dress, ready for a fight, a drink or to smoke a hashish-filled hookah. This mangas character remains closely associated with rebetiko music to this day.
Some of the early great rebetiko musicians, such as Marcos Vamvakaris, actually owned and operated their own hashish cafés, and in these smoky, dark rooms, some of the most legendary songs of the genre were composed. Groups of musicians would get together and compose lyrics and melodies on-the-spot, giving the songs a rough, raw quality and undeniable emotional depth.
This is perhaps one of the most beautiful and haunting of the classic hashish songs of rebetiko, along with the English translation:
Ο μαστούρας (Σαν μαστουριάσω) – Markos Vamavakaris, 1934
Σαν μαστουριάσω και γίνω
λειώμ’ από τη μαστούρα,
ξεχν’ όλα μου τα βάσανα
κι όλη μου τη σκοτούρα.
Με πίκρες και με βάσανα
με προίκισεν η φύση,
κι όλα περνούν και χάνονται
μόνο με το χασίσι.
Κι έτσι ησυχάζω και περνώ
κι ευφραίνω το κορμί μου
απ’ τη μαστούρα την πολλή
που `χω στη κεφαλή μου.
Εγώ μάγκας γεννήθηκα
και μάγκας θα πεθάνω,
και ας φυτρώσουν χασισιές
στον τάφο μ’ από πάνω
“The Pothead (When I Get High)” – Markos Vamavakaris, 1934
When I get high and become
Drunk from the hashish buzz,
I forget all my hardships
And all of my cares.
With my sorrows and suffering
Borne of nature,
All passes and is lost
Only with hashish.
So I soothe and calm myself
And bring joy to my body
From the high of the hash
When I’m stoned in my head.
I was born a mangas
And a mangas I shall die,
And may the hashish trees grow
Over my grave.
However, this lively culture was soon to be cruelly compromised. Just thirteen years after the population exchanges, Greece became subject to the right-wing, authoritarian dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas – a politician with a military background and a strong desire to clean up Greece’s image. Metaxas cracked down heavily on hashish smoking, and in order for rebetiko musicians to stay out of trouble, they had to remove all overt references to it and any other “undesirable” activities in their songs.
Today, Greece has some of the most restrictive drug laws in Europe, so a visitor will not find any overt connection to hashish at a rebetiko show. It certainly isn’t common to see it smoked openly anywhere in Greece, although when walking through the streets of Athens, occasional groups of local youths can be seen clearly enjoying a shared joint.
Rebetiko singers can sing about hashish with relative freedom in today’s Greece, but they are still not free to partake in a tradition that has existed in both Turkey and Greece for centuries, as possession of even tiny amounts of cannabis can result in up to five months’ imprisonment. Supply, even of relatively minor quantities, is punishable by at least eight years’ imprisonment.
Despite this, the rebellious spirit embodied by rebetiko has never been extinguished from the heart of the Greek people, and the same resentments towards the injustices of society have never been resolved.