Athens, Greece

Because You Asked Why I came

By Bobby Damore

I met her at the club where she dj’d, a place called the Key Bar. She had some friends with her and I met all of them there. They were nice people. The man in the group insisted that he and I only speak in Greek. I managed to do so only slowly, while Anastasia implored us to give it up. A short girl with an aquiline nose, a thick mess of black hair, and a hipster’s fashion and music sensibilities, she and I attempted sex the night we met, but she had gotten me too drunk and I couldn’t get it up with the condom and all. On this night I was hoping for round two, a second chance, not because I really wanted to have sex with her, but so I could redeem myself and make it so that calling what we did “sex” more accurate. She’s a busy girl, some sort of well-known journalist. Well-known for what, she didn’t tell me.

I hated the bar we were in. Too modern. More to the point, it was too loud and I coudln’t hear anyone talking. Why do they have to turn up the stereo so loud? A few of her friends left, and I saw my opportunity for the three of us to do the same. I suggested we go to a place called Rebetiki Istoria, a bar/cafe where they have live Rebetika music. Rebetika is the blues music of Greece. It’s golden age was the 1920s to the 1950s. Everybody in Greece loves Rebetika, and so they naturally obliged.

It was a long walk from Psyrri to Exarcheia, but we had much to talk about. Anastasia was interested in why I would want to be in Greece, not just because of the economy crumbling but in general. In her mind, Greece was just about the last place anyone would want to live and she regretted passing up her own opportunity to leave it. Her questions were not merely inquisitive; they had an edge to them, a sharp edge that cut me and got my attention. Her questions were imploring and critical – I at once felt an urge to answer her genuinely and an urge to curse her for her insolence. I told her many times already that I was here following my musical dreams, but whereas this would be enough for your average person, even if they didn’t think it was worth it, it wasn’t enough for her. This was her opportunity to proclaim to an outsider all of her grievances against her mother country, the place that nurtured her growth and betrayed her trust. The place that built in her a sense that maybe Greece could be a respectable country finally, and then used that same sense to beat her in the face. Perhaps there was also a humanitarian bent to her screaming. Maybe she was actually worried that I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Certainly, I didn’t know everything before coming, but I knew it would be hard and that’s really the most important thing I needed to know. I mostly brushed her off, figuring that her business as a journalist would turn anybody into a void of negativity. Every one of Anastasia’s friends was more understanding of why I came and what I was doing even if they agreed with Anastasia’s criticisms of Greece, but she was out to prove to me that I had made a mistake.

Her friend asked me what I thought of the air in Athens. I remarked that I thought it had improved since eight years ago, because I remembered the mucus in my nose turning black and this time around that wasn’t happening. He said that his job was to study the air quality in Athens and that it may actually be worse, since if you can see the pollution in your nose, then that means it’s big enough to be filtered. But if you can’t, then it may actually be entering your lungs.

All well and good, I already knew that Athens was a smoke choked city halfway on fire with anarchists, heroin addicts, and mobster politicians. In fact, that’s the only environment where Rebetika truly made any sense and I very simply was on a mission to become a part of the music I was in love with.

We arrived at the club very early, 9pm, and it was empty. Not even the band had shown up. It was only the waitress. The place was very pretty from the outside. It was an old building, blue and in an ornate, neo-classical style, which isn’t very common in Athens anymore but a little more common in Exarcheia. There is one wooden sign next to the door which says “Rebetiki Istoria” but other than that there is no trace of the existence of good times, drinking, dancing, music, or smoking within. If the police still cared to shut down places like this, they could very easily walk right by it and not see it. Within, the walls were old and stained, but continued in this ornate style, as if there would be a meeting of dignitaries or holy men, only they’d have to be from hell or something. Pictures and paintings covered the walls. Paintings depicting scenes from Rebetika songs. A man in a suit walks in on another man sleeping in his bed and takes out his pistol. His mother and his wife, presumably, try to stop him by giving him alcohol. Other pictures have guys in suits partying in hell, or partying in some tavern, or smoking on a mountain, or smoking with lots of girls, or smoking in hell. One painting depicts the Nazi Occupation. Another depicts the lost Greek homelands of Asia Minor, where my grandfather was born and where many of these musicians were from. The photos were old pictures of all the greats and all the legends of old times. All the people who basically created modern Greek music, enshrined in their own personal club, where the songs they wrote would continue to be deified by ever new generations of venerators and imitators. There were no windows. The club was obviously formerly an abode, since there were rooms that had the doors taken off to open up the space. Many small tables were crammed next to each other. The place had the smell of constant smoke, as if it would always smell like a club. Indeed, this felt like the place I was looking for.

We sat in a corner and I changed the subject. We went back into trying to teach me Greek by only speaking Greek. I forget what we were talking about. They asked me to play my bouzouki before the band showed up and so I did. I played songs until customers began to arrive and then the guy with us decided to leave. They were thoroughly impressed, not only that someone from Texas could be so interested in the music, but that they’d be so good at playing it. The waitress had overheard me playing and told the band about me after they showed up. I was called into the back room to meet them, with Anastasia giving me a not so gentle push to go and meet my dreams. Of course, there was no way of knowing if I was going to meet my dreams.

The band consisted of lively characters, casually dressed in modern attire, subdued dark colors, jeans, ribbed, tight shirts, gruff and full of cigarettes and booze. They smiled the smile of pranksters, tricksters. Someone had already taught me the word psonyara, which means a person who thinks they’re much better than they actually are. They had the smile of a psonyara, someone with attitude, people who think they’re hot shit. They looked upon me with a kind of tired, over it, been there look and quickly brushed me off – if they even noticed me. The head of the band, also the owner of the club, beckoned me to come.

In Greek:

“Give me your bouzouki!”

“No!”

(laughter)

“I’ll play you a song first.”

(laughter)

“No, first you give us your bouzouki!”

I pulled out my bouzouki to start playing and the lead bouzoukist in the band reached over and snatched it from me. Everyone in the group hunched over it inspecting every last inch. They poked, prodded, placed ears over things, plucked and pulled and played a few notes.

“It’s crap,” said the lead.

“Let him play and then we’ll see,” replied the owner. “Play us your best song.”

I took a seat and played a song called “Markos the Jack-of-All-Trades”, a song where a man and a woman are arguing. She acuses him of evading his marriage vows because he’s been chasing other women. He claims he’s been too busy working all these jobs this whole time to be able to find the time to marry her. It’s the song I know the best because it was the first Rebetika song I ever learned. I used to get stoned and listen to the 78 rpm recording over and over because of it’s hypnotic, pulsing rhythm and the way the singers sound like they’re dogs barking ready to pounce, but somehow eloquently, like nobility. I escaped into the world of the song, performed the opening melody and began to sing the first line.

“Okay that’s enough. Stop now.”

“Huh?”

“Stop playing. You’re good. You’re very good. Come tomorrow evening between 9 and 9:30 to perform with us, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Nice to meet you. We have to go on stage now.”

The “stage” was just a space cut into the wall in the next room. It had the effect of bringing the experience right to your table since they were on the same leve as everyone else. I appreciated this set-up, since you could clearly participate with the performers as they played. The next day would be my first public performance in Greece. I returned to my table and told Anastasia what happened. She became very excited for me. The band took their seats and she and I began to make out hard and solid for what seemed like ten minutes or so. This was definitely a high point in the life of any musician anywhere, to get the job and get the girl in the same night. Her lips tasted like victory, or white wine. I’m not sure since I was too drunk at this point. I don’t see the difference between victory and wine anyway.

The place was full, packed. The music was not loud, but the people were. It was very lively. The crowd was mostly young, with some people of all ages filling in the rest. There was a group of people who moved from England to some island back in the 60s to start their own school for the islanders who didn’t have one. They professed their love of Greece and Greek music when Anastasia predictably questioned their motives for deciding to live in Greece. They gestured to the lively and boisterous crowd, getting hammered and joyously yelling, singing and dancing all over the place as their reason for staying. Anastasia admitted that having fun is the one thing Greek people tend to be good at. In fact, it was the reason why she didn’t take the job offer in New York, because she knew this doesn’t exist in America. Songs about crime and living as a bohemian, with intricate melodies, stirring poetry, dark themes, high passion, driving rhythms that shake your bones; Rebetika is the siren call of Greece, if I may use a gratuitously overused Greek metaphor. In this case, it may be true though. The music I love has brought me to a Greece teetering on financial and economic ruin, a Greece on it’s way down after so many years on it’s way up. I really had no way of knowing if I was jumping into my dreams or into my ruin. The bouzouki, sqeaking it’s woody, spring loaded twang, distracted me from any thoughts of utter ruin. I had a strange sense of being at home, like everyone here could be my best friend for the night if I simply spoke with them.

Before we left, she reminded me of how evil and terrible Greek people are, that I should be careful of these people who have invited me into their band. She said they will do terrible, horrible things to me. I told her that all artists are terrible people and that she should fucking relax for god’s sake.

I walked her home. The air was cool and we were both ripped. It was a long walk that took us by a large park. We had lots of time to talk about “us” and what “we” were as a couple. She told me that her boyfriend of many years had recently dumped her because, apparently, he thinks she’s too negative. “Hmm, how could he have gotten that idea?” She told me to lay down the rules for her. She asked me, “What are the rules, so that I don’t hurt you?” I should have told her not to ask such ridiculous questions because I’d lay down some rules if I had to. Instead, I told her not to do the exact thing that I knew she was going to do. “Don’t tell me you like me and want to be with me, but then never meet up with me again.” She promised she wouldn’t and then she said that she had to go home alone. I didn’t see her again for a few weeks.

The next night when I showed up, there was no one except the owner and the waitress. There was a small stereo playing old recordings. The waitress sat smoking, dressed in all black, her curly Greek afro guided the wafting cigarette smoke to escape. The owner was sitting with his bouzouki and his whiskey. He very gentlemanly invited me in and sat me down next to him. He knew no English, and my Greek was still pretty bad so we just focused on playing music. The way it works in a Rebetika band is, whoever starts playing a song, everyone else just joins in if they know it. This is how it works during practice, while working on stage, or just hanging out. Somebody thinks of a song, and without saying anything starts playing it. At this point, nobody else is allowed to butt in and try to take over with a song they thought of. They must wait until the song is over and begin playing it immediately if they wish to play it. It’s an interesting form of etiquette. I find it both fair and liberating to have a small set of simple rules designed to keep people from playing over each other. If no one can play along with your song, then you stop and another song is selected. If no one knows the words, the song is skipped. No computers are consulted at any time. No Youtube, no online song databases. That’s all done in your private time because “the ones who wrote the songs and played other people’s songs back then had everything memorized” and that’s the level of skill and quality everyone is aiming for. The owner was impressed with my repertoire of some of the most obscure songs written by the most popular artists. I was in awe, simply because I had never been in the prescence of a bouzouki player who’s style and repertoire I respected so much, having a dearth of bouzouki players in America. His notes were harsh and present, they vibrated the air in front of my face. His age had done his skills well. His voice was in a traditional cantada style, which was a nice element. We went on like that until the lead bouzouki player showed up. The other guys in the group called him simply “the fat guy” even though by American standards he just had a large belly. The three of us played a few songs together but I had a feeling this man considered me an unwanted addition. They began to discuss the issue of me after I played a few songs for the fat guy. I didn’t understand most of it, but I think I got the gist of their argument. The fat guy was not on my side. He was coming up with excuses of why I couldn’t join. The main excuse was that my repertoire was too small. The owner insisted that I could easily learn all the songs they play if I keep coming back every day. He insisted that my style and skill was unique and good enough to be a positive addition. Yet this was unconvincing for the fat guy. At a later time, the waitress would tell me her suspicions that he was indeed blocking my access to the group because he knew I was better than him. It was a nice thing for the waitress to say to me and I choose to believe this because it is so flattering and because the guy was just generally a dick. He would stare at me while he was playing. He’d stare directly into my eyes with this look that said, “See, I’m better than you! Look what I can do, can you do this?”

Now, I’m not the kind of guy that cares to dethrone people who are that invested in their position. What would working with him have been like? I didn’t want to know.

Three other guys showed up which was a relief. They were much more lively and their styles were much more to my liking than that of the fat guy. One was young, and he expertly played some of the most difficult pieces in all of Rebetika. He was quiet and nervous but spoke English, so I got to know him best. Another was a guitarist. His strings were of nylon, which I hate. There’s no brute power in nylon. Nylon is for soft music that flitters. Rebetika is not soft music, even when it is fun, there is something terribly serious about this fun they have, as if it could be the last time they ever have fun. Nylon strings cannot convey this. Also, his style was unremarkable. But the third guy, an older gentleman, like the owner, was the king of the evening. He led us all. He took control of the entire affair and led us to a path of enrichment. He annointed us with his powerful singing voice, made me burst out laughing with some ridiculous move he pulled on the bouzouki. He was a clown, but one who could best us all at our own game. He was very fun to perform with.

Customers began to show up. It was a quiet night, it being a Sunday. The audience were silent and attentive. I had the chance to whip out a few obscure masterpieces that I save for the right moment to impress people and succeeded in doing so, but mostly I was in over my head. The fat guy was right about my small repertoire. But this was really a great honor, a night I will probably remember for a long time. When the night was over, the owner even paid me. It wasn’t much, 10 euros, but I took it as a token of appreciation, and as an endearment.

There were no girls for me on this night. But I walked out of Rebetiki Istoria with something far more important.

Locations in Athens

Key Bar
37  Praxitelous St.
Athens, Greece 10560
(+30) 210 32 30 380
Keybar.gr

Rebetiki Istoria
Ippokratous 181
Athens, Greece 11472
(+30) 210 64 24 937
rebetiki.istoria@gmail.com

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