The rembetiko music played in the tavernas of Cyprus can be enjoyed for its intriguing instrumentation and soulful vocals
The rembetiko music played in the tavernas of Cyprus can be enjoyed for its intriguing instrumentation and soulful vocals—but it can be difficult to fully appreciate it if you cannot follow the Greek lyrics. Some familiarity with common themes can help you understand the genre. Though rembetiko developed in the multicultural port cities of the Ottoman empire, it became an important expression of Greek working-class identity after the 1922 destruction of Smyrna forced mass migration. Perhaps the best-known singer-songwriter of rembetiko in this era was Markos Vamvakaris. His 1938 song ‘Oloi Oi Rebetes Tou Ntounia’ / ‘To All the Singers of Rembetiko around the World’ presents him as a poor, wandering martyr who lives in exile and is filled with longing; he also celebrates the audacious man who rebels against his fate. Another popular theme is a man’s desire for a woman of another culture, perhaps best expressed in ‘Misirlou’ by Nikos Roubani. The title character is an Egyptian woman who beguiles the singer with her beauty; versions of this song exist in many Middle Eastern languages and cultures, and a fast-paced rendition features memorably in the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’. Another well-known, brooding song in the genre is ‘Eimai Aitos Horis Ftera’ / ‘I Am an Eagle without Wings’ by Grigoris Bithikotsis; in it the singer is an eagle who had soared in the sky before a ‘beloved hand’ clipped his wings, yet he forgives the beloved hand and vows to ‘love it forever’. These and other rembetiko songs can be heard regularly in Almyra’s seaside taverna, Ouzeri.