Meet Markos Vamvakaris (“Mark Cotton”) – Patriarch of Rebetiko

Some things are not quite what they seem: hardly an earth-shattering perception, but you have to start somewhere. I imagine that a fair number of GPers have spent a holiday in Greece. I dare say that a lot of you will have witnessed a “Greek Night” with all the bouzouki and dancing fol-de-rol. Especially that Zorba’s Dance. Well, with that one you were not observing an ancient ritual of dance and music. Both the music and the dance are a modern synthesis of styles and were composed and choreographed for the famous film with Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. Rumour has it that the steps were modified because Quinn had an ankle injury. Nevertheless, you will also have seen the proper arms-linked  and solo dances called hasapiko (butchers dance) and the zebekiko, named after a tribe of Anatolian warriors. These are authentic. The bouzouki? It appeared in Greece from Constantinople in the early part of the last century and was associated with low-life and drugs, and the exponents of it were hounded by the police. In the course of the show you will inevitably have heard a style of music called rebetiko. This is where Markos enters the stage.

Markos was born into poverty in 1905 on the Cyclades Island of Syros in the Aegean Sea. He was the first-born child of a Roman Catholic family. Such people were called “Frangos” by the Orthodox Greeks, derived from “Frankish.” His father worked as a stevedore, coaling ships at the local port Ermopoulis, which was bigger than Piraeus in those days. He later devised a way to repair large baskets used for fruit and veg, and made some money, but even that involved the back-breaking work of collecting the willows and reeds. Markos’s schooling was punctuated with helping his father to carry the weaving materials long distances and barefoot. In 1912 his father was called up for the Balkans War against the Ottomans: a fairly obscure campaign these days but at the time it meant the acquisition of Thessaloniki by the Greeks. Imagine your second city being occupied by a foreign power – oh, wait! His father’s absence marked the end of Markos’s childhood and he went to work in a cotton factory. Even at that young age he had an eye for the girls, something that would later bring him mixed blessings. He worked at various other jobs, greengrocery, newspaper vending, bootblacking – a proper work ethic, though of course you did it or starved. His childhood was full of music as his father was a performer on the local type of bagpipes, and Markos would accompany him round the tavernas playing a dogskin drum. That’s one for Ginger Baker’s collection. This brief résumé hardly does justice to the harsh life he was leading as no more than a child in which he made early contact the with the sleaze of docklands and dives, but he grew to be a big unit well able to look after himself. He mixed in some very dubious circles, although bizarrely his first spell in jail was with his mother, who had been caught smuggling sugar and cigarette papers around the town during the WW1 blockade. His life on Syros was brought to an abrupt end in 1917 when he rolled a large boulder down a hill which crashed through the roof of a house below. Scared of the consequences he stowed away on a boat to Piraeus, about 75 nautical miles away. In the event it turned out that no one was hurt and anyway the house belonged to an absent aunt, so there were no charges.

In typical Greek family style Markos had another aunt in Piraeus with whom he stayed, and by hanging around the docks he came into contact with stevedores who knew his father. He was taken on unloading and loading coal, paid by the ton. Imagine the strain on a growing body undertaking that gruelling work. His family joined him in Piraeus and his father was also taken on as a stevedore. Markos was drawn to the low life of a major port and began to patronise the dives, especially the tekes or hashish dens. He stuck to the work for fours years during which he picked up with and married a girl called Zingoala, whom he described as a tigress. Trouble. One day he was carrying a massive load on his back and was almost run down by a tram. It scared him witless and he took stock of his life of drudgery.

Markos’s first experience of smoking hashish through the arghile or hookah, or hubble-bubble, made him puke, but he persisted with it and in doing so fell among thieves, murderers, pickpockets, prostitutes and junkies. Although newly-wed he put himself about a bit and began to take on the style of the social hierarchy of the gutter: there was the koutsavakis, a swaggering ladies man with twirling moustachios and an affectation for wearing a jacket with the right sleeve empty (a police chief once rounded them up and cut off the empty sleeves), and for the lethal wielding of knives at the hint of disrespect – not much new under the sun there. Best left alone. Next came the mangas, a man of few words with little respect for authority but also chivalrous and with principles, such as providing for his family. Markos was probably higher than koutsavakis and mangas, an ultra-cool dervisis (dervish), reserved and dignified, respected by his peers. Hashish had been declared illegal in Greece in 1890 but smoking in the tekes went on regardless, though not unmolested. The police would mount raids and smash up the arghiles and treat the denizens to three days in prison. The best stuff came from Turkey but – a note to users – it was heavy duty. Markos’s two brothers succumbed to it. One went mad at the age of 17 and lived on as a head case before dying of hunger in the Occupation, while the other turned into a scary brawler who was eventually imprisoned for murder.

Markos finally gave up his arduous working life as a stevedore and took work in a…slaughterhouse. It really isn’t easy to identify with lives like this, is it? Even he couldn’t take the slaughter after an episode he recounts  where a hand-reared calf seemed to weep tears as he approached with the knife. He became a skilled skinner and avoided the mayhem. It was while he was working as a skinner that he had a light-bulb moment when he heard some old fisherman playing bouzouki. It wasn’t a well-known instrument and it certainly wasn’t used in the way Markos was to develop. He swore an oath that if he didn’t master the bouzouki in six months he would chop his own right hand off. You somehow believe him. Thereafter he gave up work and concentrated on learning to play. It must have been a Robert Johnson crossroads pact with the devil because he indeed emerged after six months as a bouzouki beast. No lessons, didn’t know how to tune it, but lots of hashish which he didn’t even have to pay for. His playing became so popular in the tekes that the manghes stood him a smoke.

Bassman, Going Postal
Manghes with posh arghiles. Many were made out of coconuts

When he was twenty Markos was called up into the army. Surprisingly he wasn’t averse to the idea, and with his fitness and native intelligence he could have done well. As it was, it was a farcical period of more or less permanent glass house where he spent a peaceful time stoned, playing a baglamas (a tiny bouzouki sometimes made with a tortoise shell), and composing songs. When he wasn’t doing jankers he was AWOL. It was all brought to a mutually-agreeable close and he was given his discharge. He even rather enjoyed his “service.”

The music scene was changing with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Smyrna (Izmir) in the population exchange after the 1921 Catastrophe when the Greeks were booted out of Asia Minor: similarly, vast numbers of Turkish-speakers were uprooted from Greece. The world has always been a turbulent place. The newcomers brought a different sound to the rather earnest Greek Italian-influenced folk scene and the styles were quickly absorbed. As the refugees were dumped in the poor areas around Piraeus and Athens Markos came into constant contact with the musicians and dope fiends, so it was natural that he incorporated some of that “Smyrna” sound into his music. He began to play informal, unpaid gigs round the tekes and associated with other pothead musicians. He formed a band which became the original Greek “Fab Four.” Still in and out of prison after being busted on regular occasions these musicians sought nothing more than to play and smoke. They used to take to the hills literally to avoid the raids, while Markos was playing the field with the ladies. Nothing new about the concept of groupies. Markos’s band played in no more than a wooden shack to packed audiences (shades of The Cavern). Later Markos set up his own venue which was wildly successful but continually harassed by the police. You couldn’t get a permit for the place unless you became a police informant, and Markos was not that kind. Rather than become a grass he closed his own place down. Fortunately for him a record company had heard about him and in 1932 he began to make records of his own songs. Markos had no high opinion of his own voice (and having listened you may agree) but the record company (Colombia) insisted that he sang. His voice is metallic, grating and deep, but he does carry the tune and give it such an earthy, gritty vibe. Think Howling Wolf. These songs were in the rebetiko style. Often called the Greek blues ( a term I deprecate as it introduces some inappropriate associations) it is the music of Greek urban life at the sharpest end. No need to dwell on the origins of the word “rebetiko” – the experts can’t agree – but it is the music of the prisons, the gutters, the worst jobs, the hashish dens, and above all, the fatal attraction of women. Markos had got the t-shirt on that collection, and his songs were an unfiltered description of his life. He himself did not much use the word “rebertiko”. He preferred the word “laiko” (popular) observing that the songs came from the heart of the working man.

Bassman, Going Postal
The “Fab Four” Piraeus Quartet, Markos standing at the back (1930)

Markos went on writing and performing his songs, in and out of relationships with women, and suffering at the hands of his wife who cheated on him just as much. She was fortunate not feel the point of a knife (though Markos’s mad brother nearly succeeded) but Markos took the pain and loss of face, and eventually obtained a divorce, for which sin he was excommunicated by the Catholic Church. That was the least of his worries. In 1937 the Metaxas (no relation to the spirit which is not brandy) regime instituted totalitarian measures, one of which was to ban songs about drugs. Many rebetiko composers gave up, but Markos boxed clever and swayed with the punch by avoiding drug references in his songs, which he considered an improvement. When not working locally he toured round Greece and continued to sell records. Financially he was doing well, but the War put a stop to all that. With starvation all around during the Occupation Markos was lucky to secure a steady gig where he was able to acquire enough food from his many black market contacts, as well as from Germans and Italians who admired his playing. He even married again and more or less kept his whole extended family alive, apart from the mad brother who died. Along with the horrors of starvation Markos had a shocking experience when ordered to report to Gestapo HQ. Petrified, he did so and it turned out they wanted him to become an informant on the resistance. Markos agreed just to get himself out of there and wondered how on earth he was going to avoid inevitable trouble. His luck returned as the Germans had to retreat from Athens a day or two later. A near thing, but his problems were not over.

At the end of the war Greece went into a paroxysm of civil conflict, and yet again Markos found himself between the warring factions: the puritanical communists warned him to clean up his songs while the royalists told him to carry on as usual. He somehow kept his nose clean and survived. His record success continued and he made money touring. Womanising also featured even though his wife produced three sons. Nevertheless, musical tastes changed and audiences began to demand lighter songs removed from the harsh realities of rebetiko. Hang it, someone even added a fourth string to the bouzouki to make it sound more European. Markos’s star waned and to crown it all he became incapacitated by arthritis – no doubt a legacy of the coal- and meat-shifting of his early years. He was saved by the spa waters of the island of Ikaria: one or two of you may know it. Able to play again he eked out a living but was ignored and dropped by those whom he had helped in the past. His reputation as the Godfather of rebetiko was resurrected by the students who saw in him a precious link with terrible times, which he recorded faithfully and truthfully in his songs. Compilations of his biggest hits sold in large numbers and he was well paid for occasional guest-artist gigs. He obtained some peace in his final years looked after by his loyal wife and three sons, but diabetes and heart problems took him off in 1972, aged 66 years. An austere, taciturn man of few words, Markos spent his formative years in backbreaking toil and hardship. He chased women, smoked hashish, and wrote wonderful songs about it all. He regarded the bouzouki as a sacred object and grew bitter at the followers who became millionaires without, as he saw it, paying their dues.

Markos’s legacy is huge in Greece. You won’t find many Greeks who can’t sing along with his best-known works, like Fragosyriani, about a pretty Catholic girl he spied on a beach in Syros. I was once in a taverna when some strolling players passed through: I slipped them a few euros to perform this, and after expressing amazement that a “xenos” (stranger) had heard of it, they swung straight in. Here it is:

Markos was unchallenged as a bouzouki master and his songs (which he claimed more or less came to him in his sleep) seemed to arrive when he was facing some sort of crisis, which he nearly always was, whether self-inflicted or not. Rebetiko sounds alien to us with its Turkish and Byzantine roots, and indeed many of the songs are played in the tricky 9/8 zebekiko time signature, but to Greeks it is like mother’s milk. It must be nice to have a culture which contains a body of songs that appeals to the whole nation. Mikis Theodorakis who scored the Zorba the Greek film soundtrack observed that  “We all, we are but branches of a tree. Markos is that tree.

© Bassman 2019

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