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by Archaeology Newsroom

Rebetika Songs and Suicide

Rebetika tend to relate melancholic hard-luck stories from the margins of Greek society and yet only a very small proportion of them allude explicitly to suicide. The reasons for this may be connected with the macho ethos of rebetes (the protagonists and exponents of these songs) and their tendency to direct their aggression against others rather than themselves. On the other hand, the life-style proclaimed as heroic in the songs includes an unswerving devotion to life-threatening such as the abuse of drugs and alcohol; so that if one defined drug-addiction and alcoholism as a form of suicide, one might also argue that the numerous rebetika about drugs and alcohol are suicide-songs and deem rebetes who have died from abuse of these substances, such as the legendary Anestis Dellias, to have been suicides. Putting that issue aside, there are no known cases of rebetika serving as suicide notes or as an accompaniment to self-destruction, whether heroic or otherwise. Nor have rebetika been accused of subliminally prompting suicide. Accordingly, commentators on rebetika have not been overly concerned with the suicide theme to date, except for the late Elias Petropoulos, who seems to have had an abiding fascination for suicide and self-mutation per se. In the pre-war era, the theme of suicide seems to have been the preserve of the genre known as amanedes (wailing oriental threnodies copiously interspersed with the expletive aman[mercy!]); witness the fact that famous exponents of rebetika recorded death- wish lyrics as amanedes in the pre-war era. Amanedes did not recover from the death-blow dealt to the recording of Greek Ottoman-style music in the autumn of 1937 by General Metexas’s “genodical” censorship. Exploitation of the theme of suicide therefore passed to Piraeus-style rebetika in the post-war era. But there seems to have been a reluctance on the part of rebetika lyricists to write overtly and explicitly of suicide. The article therefore proceeds by examining examples of rebetika expressing suicidal tendencies, notably those composed by Vamvakaris and Tsitsanis, and explores the tenuous link between the latter’s famous song “Cloudy Sunday” and the notorious Hungarian suicide-anthem “Gloomy Sunday”. Patterns of motivation, method and desired consequences do emerge from the analysis of these examples, but the identification of a peculiarly “rebetic” mode of suicide in the more dramatic texts needs to be tempered with a realisation that the broad generic designation “rebetika” also accommodates songs expressing a much more phlegmatic, almost clinical approach to death.