Have you ever heard of rebetiko? I hadn’t either until I read David Prudhomme’s graphic novel of the same name, which traces a day and a night in the lives of a group of musicians in Athens in the fall of 1936.
“Born in the 1920s,” Prudhomme explains in a brief author’s note, “the themes of rebetiko are comparable to those of Fado or the tango. Sometimes it’s known as the Greek blues.” The idea, he goes on, is to sing about “the pain of exile, the romance of the ports, the swoops and flights of the nighthawks and their ill-starred loves; their failure and their humor.”
My kind of music, in other words, fueled by hash and booze and a sense that, for the duration of a song, at least, one’s daily degradations might be washed away. Political, too, since, as Prudhomme notes, “[i]n 1936, the nationalist dictator Metaxas seized power in Athens and decided that these singers on the fringes of society should be brought into line” — a decision that turned the “rebetes” into outlaws, and their music into a call to arms.
Prudhomme sets “Rebetiko” in the early days of the Metaxas era and builds it around a loose association of figures, both historical and imagined, including Markos Vamvakiris, considered an early hero of the form.
The story, such as it is, is a meandering lament, much like the music it seeks to celebrate, in which Markos is released from jail, reconnects with his friends Stavros and Artemis, performs in a port café, and eventually must make a treacherous escape from the law.
“There’s nothing left but smoke, melancholy, broken plates …,” Prudhomme writes late in the book. “We were only little octopuses from the slums, with bile as black as ink.” The larger implication, however, is that such little octopuses can have a bit effect when they tell their stories honestly, creating a space in which an audience can truly recognize itself.
To get this across, Prudhomme re-creates the music deftly, using small panels that echo the darkness, the closeness, of the cafés while also filling them with movement, the movement of patrons dancing, or fighting, or being seduced. Because rebetiko is storytelling music, he highlights the lyrics, layering them atop his images, as if they were part of the atmosphere.
At times, it can be difficult to parse out the characters — there are a lot of them, and they come and go with a kind of fluid serendipity, leaving us uncertain about who is who. But that, I think, is part of the point also, for the culture of the rebetes was communal, which is the sense that we are left with: of a movement as social as it was political, in which the lines are blurred between participant and observer, and experience is most essential when it is shared.
In the end, of course, rebetiko was tamed, in part by Mataxas and in part by the vagaries of time. Like the blues, it has become something of a museum music, softened by history, no longer risky (or even dangerous) but quaint.
“Censorship stopped in the end,” Prudhomme tells us. “Fashions changed to … I adapted to everything. They adopted us. Now, I rehash our crude lyrics for these well-bred gents … people who like to feel the spice of life, if only by proxy, that we rebetes eat up by the handful. Our burns were well real. … Untouchable when we were alive in our murky waters, we were pulled out, and only then became appetizing. They celebrate that as a victory here.”