When the organisers of the Melbourne Rebetiko Festival announced that this year’s edition will move from Oakleigh to the Melbourne Recital Centre, not everyone was happy. “We’ve had a few people talking about elitism and velvet seats,” says Fotis Kapetopoulos the new addition to the team of Kon Karamountzos and Con Kalamaras who came up with the idea for a celebration of Greece’s greatest musical tradition and made it happen twice at Oakleigh’s Caravan Club.

Now in its third year, the Melbourne Rebetiko Festival is changing gear and the choice to move to the city’s central arts precinct was strategic. “We wanted to bring this music, the music of the koutoukia and the prewar underground, into the mainstream again,” he says. “We want to bring Greeks and non-Greeks in this centre of the so-called ‘elite’ culture and tell them: this is your music, this is not only Greek music, it’s Australian music, it’s world music,” he says, pointing to the genre’s history of migrating from Asia minor to the Piraeus and becoming the ‘Greek blues’, the music of the underdog.
Neos Kosmos’ readers are familiar with Kapetopoulos, a former editor of our English edition and a frequent contributor. Along with Kalamaras and Karamountzos, he is determined to see the festival grow. With City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission’s support, they are bringing out two bands that represent a new breed of rebetiko, Pliri Ntaxei and Chrysoula K & Purpura to perform alongside some of the best musicians of the local, thriving rebetiko scene: the dream team of the Melbourne Rebetiko Ensemble (featuring Con Kalamaras, Achilleas Yangouli and Dean Georgalas), Pascal Latra and the Philhellenes, Zourouna, and the Melbourne Bouzouki Orchestra, as well as the Manasis School of Greek Dance.

The organisers decided to ditch the previous two-day party format of the festival, to craft a more compact event – that is if a seven-hour-long concert is your idea of ‘compact’.

The idea is to celebrate rebetiko in all its musical glory, and bring to the spotlight all the elements that make it relevant today. “Rebetika comes back into vogue every 20 years or so – particularly after crisis points, like the fall of the dictatorship,” says Kapetopoulos, noting that it is only natural that a revival would come out of the current situation in Greece.

“There is a new movement in Greece around rebetika; something is happening. The crisis brought musical relevance again to the rebetiko. In the 90s, it had become irrelevant, because people in Greece were living the full European Fantasy. We were deluding ourselves that we were western and that we had money. That failed, it collapsed all around us, for various reasons and with it collapsed an ethos. So we had to go back to something we knew and find an authenticity in our voice again,” he adds. This kind of ‘Greekness’ and authenticity is what makes Pliri Ntaxei fantastic he says.
“They reference the old, inter-war rebetiko tradition in a really interesting way”. What’s even more interesting to him is how Melbourne has managed to be one of the epicentres of rebetiko, keeping the flame lit for generations.

“In many ways the authenticity here was more profound than what was happening in Greece and right now in Melbourne, it is important that we re-identify ourselves with this music that is polycultural,” he says, bringing up Zourouna, a band comprised of Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, and Israeli musicians, as being ‘the essence of rebetika’ ­– a music that was born in a cultural melting pot, like Asia Minor. “It’s interesting in the context of this heightened ethnocentricity that we see around us, to have an example in Australia – as it would happen in New York or Constantinople and Salonica years ago – of these people whose culture is combined, who don’t see a difference in each other. It’s a subtle and subversive way to remind everyone that this dichotomy and binary notion of east-west, north-south really doesn’t exist for musicians. If you’re a musician, you start playing and you find authenticity in your voice,” he adds.

This is testament of the political nature of this music traditionally of the disadvantaged. “If you were marginalised, if you had transgressive behaviour, rebetiko opened its doors for you. There are songs about drug use and oppression and crime and I find it fascinating that this form of music allowed those voices a space. Nothing was out of bound for rebetes, good or bad. This is an aspect of the music that makes it appealing to audiences for generations, and allowed for marginalised people to relate to it. It also challenges this problematic notion of black and white, eastern and western,” he says.

“Rebetiko says to Greeks that we’re as much Asian as we’re European. For Greek Australians, this is particularly important. Up until very recently Greeks were not very white in Australia,” he points out. “We need to reclaim it in some ways and a good way to do that is to have a music that brings you together. We’re the ones who were called ‘wogs’ and were mistreated; we should never treat anyone the way we were treated and this music reminds everyone of our roots.” He believes that it’s important to remember that even Greek refugees from Asia Minor were not treated well by Greeks, because no refugee is treated well by someone who thinks they are superior financially.

“In due course, the cultural impact was tremendous and I have no doubt that the mass input of refugees in Greece today will be tremendous as they are slowly integrating,” he says, describing how in his recent trip to Greece he met with African Greeks and Middle Eastern Greeks who spoke fluently and had both identities.

“We have to break down stereotypes,” he stresses. “Some of the musicians playing in the festival will also be playing at the Turkish Festival and it’s important to say to our Turkish cousins to forget the politics, this is who we are. We’re all the same here.”

The team behind Rebetiko Festival: Con Kalamaras, Fotis Kapetopoulos, and Kon Karamountzos.

*The Melbourne Rebetiko Festival takes place on Saturday 10 March at the Melbourne Recital Centre. For tickets, go to melbournerecital.com.au