Rebetiko and Revolution: The Musical Subculture of Greece

For Americans, the quintessential example of Greek music is “Zorba the Greek,” composed by Mikis Theodorakis (1964). However, most Westerners are unaware of the song’s place within a long history of the Greek musical genre of rebetiko. Rebetiko is foundational to Greek culture as the musical accompaniment to decades of popular protest and revolution.

Zorba’s Dance:

“Zorba’s Dance” (1964) is the most widely recognized example of rebetiko music.

Rebetiko is a fusion of Anatolian and Greek musical traditions that emerged in 1923. Known as “Greek Blues,” it is considered the music of the poor and oppressed. Musician Manos Hatzidakis described the genre as the essential expression of Greek kefiyeh, or spirit. “Rebetiko songs are genuinely Greek, uniquely Greek,” he articulated. During the Greek Economic Crisis, which started in 2009, rebetiko has reemerged as the soundtrack of popular protest, continuing its history as a symbol of Greek folk culture in conflict with Western ideals and the “establishment.”

After the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), 1,500,000 Greek refugees fled Asia Minor to Athens and Piraeus. Rebetiko was born from of the resulting synthesis of Anatolian and Greek traditions. The refugees were ostracized from Greek society and blamed for rising unemployment, resulting in the “poem-lament” lyrics of rebetiko, which convey feelings of deep loss. The musicians who practiced rebetiko were persecuted and constructed a semi-criminal subculture that was reflected in their music.


“Kaigomai” is an early example of rebetiko as “poem-lament,” mourning the destruction of the Greek diaspora city of Smyrna, in Asia Minor, during the Greco-Turkish War.

Gradually, rebetiko and the refugees integrated into the Greek working class, but remained at odds with the bourgeoisie and conservative intellectuals. The working class absorbed rebetiko and its culture because it retained Eastern traditions from the period of Ottoman occupation and rebetiko similarly contained Ottoman or Anatolian elements. Conversely, the bourgeoisie prioritized Westernization and disdained Ottoman traditions; rebetiko was condemned for undermining the vision of Greece as a Western nation. Conflict over rebetiko was a microcosm of a larger cultural clash in Greece, a divide that continues today.

From its origins in semi-criminal subculture, rebetiko evolved into an expression of anti-“establishment” politics: Greek sociologists describe rebetiko as the articulation of underdog social movements’ defiance of oppressive states and social structures. Rebetiko was popular in resistance movements to Greece’s dictatorial governments, starting with Ioannis Metaxas’ dictatorship (1936-1941). Metaxas’ regime prohibited rebetiko, although it persisted in the Greek underground. Rebetiko was also popular during the Greek Resistance to Nazi occupation (1941-1944), and among Communist partisans during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).

After the civil war, Rebetiko served as an outlet for Greek disillusionment under the military junta. The junta’s severe economic program provoked feelings of exploitation in the working class, expressed in songs like “The Workers’ Hands,” by Stelios Kazantzidis (1958): “In the factories from 6 AM through winter and summer / the workers’ arms work like machines / let’s all not forget that in life / wealth is created by the sweat of the poor.” These anti-capitalist sentiments recalled the Marxist rhetoric of the defeated partisans, making rebetiko particularly subversive and leading to its prohibition.

Stelios Kazantzidis’ song, “Workers’ Hands,” expressed the resentment and anti-establishment sentiments of the proletariat under the post-civil war conservative government and military junta.

Nevertheless, rebetiko spread from the workers to radical students, ultimately contributing to student-led resistance to the junta. Lyrics expressed endemic anger and longing for freedom. In 1960, Eftyhia Papagiannopoulou sang, “I’ll throw a kick and break it, this world made of glass / to create a brand new, different society from the shards.” Rebetiko music expressed frustration that coalesced into an uprising at the Polytechnic School of Athens (1973). Although protests were suppressed, they culminated in the fall of the junta and restoration of democracy.

Haris Alexiou covers Eftyhia Papagiannopoulou’s famous protest song, “Glass World.”

The financial crisis revived rebetiko’s popularity as an anti-establishment, anti-Western musical tradition. The Greek debate on European Union membership is a new iteration of Eastern and Western competition in Greek culture. Protestors who rallied against the bailout deal in June, knowing that a rejection could lead to expulsion from the Euro Zone, represented the sentiments of a populace that remains unconvinced of the value of Western European ties. Protests revealed divisions between the middle class and establishment, and the students, workers, and political radicals who resist austerity.

Rebetiko has reemerged as the musical complement to defiance. According to musician Stelios Vamkaris, rebetiko represents “the old freedom…a strong taste of rebellion.” During protests, spontaneous rebetiko performances often begin. As bouzouki music mingles with the chants of protestors, it forges a link between today’s protests and decades of Greek history.