San Mayiemennes, (Like the Enchanted Ones) are an all female rebetiko (Greek Blues) ensemble which is landing in Australia next week.
Their name ignites imaginings of sirens calling you to the rocks – a call to dangerous pleasure.
It is a reminder of the potent role women played in rebetika from the music’s earliest days in the 1900s.
Women such as, the great Roza Eskenazi, of Jewish Greek background from Constantinople, who sang songs like Why I smoke cocaine, or Marika Papagika, the most celebrated exponent of the Smyrnaic style of the rebetiko, both are divas of the rebetiko in the1920s to the 1930s.
One of the ‘enchanted’, and the group’s founder, Christella Demetriou, talked to Neos Kosmos English Edition (NKEE) in a raspy morning voice from Athens, it was 11am there – far too early for a rebetiko musician.
Her accent betraying a subtle Australian twang: “They were more than just rebetika singers… Roza Eskenazi and Marika Papagika could sing anything, classical, jazz, Latin they sang in Greek, Turkish and Sephardi and had a tremendously diverse repertoire.”
Christella is all too aware of the canonisation of rebetika which has occurred over the years.
Rebetika have shifted from a marginal music for marginalised people in underground hash dens, or tekes, clustered around the port of Piraeus in the 1920 to the 1940s, to mass entertainment.
They have been used for everything from European romantic song, progressive urban folk, ‘world-music’ to the kitsch Euro pop laika (Greek folk-pop).
“Rebetika have been over-used” emphasised Christella, “they have become entertainment, but it is a music that will last forever, but the way it is being presented, especially here in Athens, it has become quite boring.”
Thus the rationale behind the formation of San Mayiemeness: “Everyone focuses on about 200 songs that they continually play and everyone in the country seems to be playing the same repertoire.”
There is purpose in Christella’s voice when talking about her San Mayiemeness, “As musicians we play music that is more representative of us.
We decided to look at songs which had interesting lyrics which were not part of the standard rebetiko repertoire has something to say about the women of the time.”
Rebetika began as the music of Greeks exiled from Turkey in the 1920s.
Over a million people amassed as refugees around the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki and scattered across the world from Alexandria to New York.
Rebetika is the music of exile and Christella’s journey is also one ignited by forced exile.
“I was born in Nicosia Cyprus but I was raised in Australia, my parents came to Australia after the Turkish occupation of Cyprus in 1974, but now have been living in Greece since 1999, but come back and forth almost annually.”
Christella is also an accomplished contemporary visual artist with degrees in fine arts and music from La Trobe and RMIT universities as well as the Victorian College for the Arts.
She has released a CD with a cycle of compositions based on the poems by the ancient Greek poet Sappho and 20th century poet Kavafis and has an obsession with rebetika from 1900-1950. Her love of rebetika is linked to her own sense of exile, “I began playing mandolin but, when I was eight my parents became refugees and since then I shifted to bouzouki.”
Interestingly it is Australia which has been more involved in her creative endeavours, whereas Greece, as always, seems to be ignoring it’s best diasporic sons and daughters.
“All support I have had is as an Australian artist, I have secured funding from the Victorian government in the past” says Christella, adding, “Australia is one of the most organised nations in the world and has a brilliant choice of difference cultures which impacts on my music and outlook.”
“The whole industry in Greece is pushing new creators away,” says Christella, who went on to paint a gloomy picture of the reality for non-commercial musicians in Greece, “big recording companies buy ready-made pop.
It’s cheaper that way, they have no production or development costs and they only promote work that sells 20,000 copies and the Greek government only supports very popular and well established artists.”
San Mayiemennes, will pay homage to the lost repertoire by the women of rebetika from 1915-1930 in collaboration with Australian composer and musician Irine Vela and art activist and singer, Anthea Sidiropoulos.
Women of Rebetika Sunday July 5 at 7pm at Melbourne Town Hall for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org