Songs of the Greek Underworld
The Rebetika Tradition

Elias Petropoulos *
Translation & Introduction: Ed. Emery
Illustrations: A. Kanavakis

Saqi Books

London, 2000

ISBN 0 86356 368 6


rebetology Visit Ed. Emery's Institute of Rebetology website

Back cover:

The tradition of rebetika song is at the root of all that is most vibrant and subversive in the popular music of modern Greece. In its origins it is the music of the poor, the dispossessed, the refugees and the migrants who came to Greece from Asia Minor before and after the First World War.

The Greek edition of this book is entitled Rebetology, thus according this musical and social subculture its rightful place in the academic study of Greek culture. Written as a broad-brush introduction to rebetika song, this concise and well-argued hook details the everyday life of the rebetes—who they were, where they came from, how they dressed, their weapons and styles of fighting, their sexual preferences, their culture of hashish and of prison life, all of which form the substance of their songs. Petropoulos flies in the face of traditional Greek academia with his painstaking explanation of how this apparently most Greek of musical cultures has thoroughly cosmopolitan roots; Turkish, Albanian, gypsy and Jewish. By tracing the figure of the rebetes back to the Ottoman empire, he shows how the language and music of rebetika song were imbued with Turkish influences, and how its ethos was one of free love, criminal behaviours and a challenge to established social norms.

Songs of the Greek Underworld is not only a learned and erudite text, accompanied by breakdowns of the rhythms and metric patterns of the different musics and their associated dances, but a salutary reminder of the shared cultural roots of Turkey and Greece. The book includes the text of songs from the tradition, and over ten line drawings by A. Kanavakis and 34 photographs.




Foreword: The life and times of Elias Petropoulos, by Ed Emery

Introduction, by Ed Emery

Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition, by Elias Petropoulos

The State of Rebetika Studies (Appendix A)

The Institute of Rebetology: Websites for Rebetika (Appendix B)

A Note on Xenophon (Appendix C)

A Selection of Songs: Words and Music (Appendix D)


The Writings of Elias Petropoulos: A Bibliography


Extracts (two songs, three languages)


The Ship from Persia
(Vassilis Tsitsanis)

The Ship from Persia
The Ship from Persia
was seized in the Corinth Canal.
Packed full of eleven tons
of sweet-smelling hashish.


Now all the lads are crying,
because they'll end up with no dope.

Mr. Customs officer,
who's going to pay for the loss?
And the Harbour Master
got mixed up in the story too.


They were tipped off,
good and proper,
and two poor devils
got caught up in the trick.


El barco procedente de Persia
(Vassilis Tsitsanis)

El barco procedente de Persia
El barco procedente de Persia
fue incautado en el Canal de Corintia.
Repleto de once toneladas
de fragante hachís.


Ahora todos los chicos están llorando,
porqué ya no van a tener su droga.

Señor aduanero,
¿Quién va a pagar por esta pérdida?
Y el capitán del puerto
también se vió involucrado.


Los denunciaron,
aunque parezca imposible,
y dos pobres diablos
se vieron atrapados.


Trad.: L. Laniel

Le navire venant de Perse
(Vassilis Tsitsanis)

Le navire venant de Perse
Le navire venant de Perse
a été saisi dans le Canal de Corinthe.
Bourré de onze tonnes
d'odoriférant haschisch.


Et maintenant tous les gars pleurent,
parce qu'ils n'auront pas leur shit.

M. le douanier,
Qui va payer pour cette perte?
Et le capitaine du port aussi
s'est vu mêlé à cette histoire.


On les a dénoncé,
bel et bien,
et deux pauvres diables
se sont faits chopés.


Trad.: L. Laniel

Ever since I started...
(A. Delias)

Ever since I started
smoking heroin
The world has turned its back on me,
I don't know what to do.

I started with snorting,
then I moved to the needle,
and my body began
slowly wasting away.

There is nothing left for me
to do in this world,
since heroin has caused me
to die in the streets.

Desde que he empezado...
(A. Delias)

Desde que he empezado
a fumar heroína
El mundo me ha dado la espalda,
no sé qué hacer.

Empecé esnifando,
luego usé la aguja,
y mi cuerpo empezó
a consumirse lentamente.

No me queda nada
por hacer en este mundo,
desde que la heroína me ha llevado
a morir en la calle.

Trad.: L. Laniel

Depuis que j'ai commencé...
(A. Delias)

Depuis que j'ai commencé
à fumer de l'héroïne
le monde m'a tourné le dos,
je ne sais pas quoi faire.

J'ai commencé par sniffer,
puis je suis passé à l'aiguille,
et mon corps est entré
lentement en déchéance.

Il ne me reste rien
à faire en ce monde,
depuis que l'héroïne m'a conduit
à mourir dans la rue.

Trad.: L. Laniel

*Elias Petropoulos was a poet, collector of songs, and a determined documentor of the manners and mores of the Greeks. His free-thinking views on sexuality, criminality, drugs and religion made him anathema to establishment Greece. The publication of Rebetika Songs [Rebetika Traghoudhia] earned him a five-month prison sentence under the Greek junta in 1968. At the age of 70, living in Paris as a self-willed exile, he was a powerhouse of ethnographic and literary activity. His other books include The Manual of the Good Thief, Holy Hashish:18 Texts on the Underworld and The Social History of the Condom. Elias Petropoulos died in Paris in September 2003.