From a Hookah to an iPhone

Mystery Music on American TV

It started with an iPhone ad — one of three ads, so far, that have led me on odysseys of discovery. I’m definitely on the same page with the folks selecting music for these ads. The choice of lesser-known artists and styles whets my musicology chops with unexpected surprises, expanding my listening repertoire with even more great stuff. Roll over, Beethoven. This ad, though, was startling, startling because I didn’t recognize the musical style at all. Having traveled, listened, and taught world music for years, it takes a lot to find music that is so alien to me. What was happening here?

The ad: In a mountainous region, a modern young woman takes photos with her new cellphone as the gnarled elders of the village beam, inviting others to join in. I wondered where the rugged, yet charming scene was set — maybe Italy — but despite my extensive Italian study, the only word in I understood was fotografía. Most confounding of all, though, was the music.

A boisterous group of male voices, such as you might find in a Turkish Janissary band, a plucked instrument that could be anything from a Hawaiian ukelele to a Turkish bağlama, and the strangest bit of all, yodeling. What was this music?

I got my first lead from an iPhone website. The music was performed by Kostas Bezos and the White Birds, a 1930s Greek ensemble specializing in xabagies, a fusion of traditional Greek music influenced, improbably but certainly, by Hawaiian music. Xabagies often borrows the light-hearted attitude, iconic slide guitar, and yodeling from traditional Hawaiian hula music, while emulating the ukelele with traditional Greek instruments and retaining their native Greek tongue. Take a listen:

Here’s the translated chorus, the only part used in the commercial:

Let’s go on a voyage to Honolulu, [yodeling]

If you do not like it, we’ll go elsewhere, too.[yodeling]

With straw skirts and flowers in their hair

Everybody dances the hula-hula there.

The rest of the lyrics tell a flirty little tale of Greek boy meeting Hawaiian girl who plays the ukulele and sells pineapples. In order to teach him to dance, she invites him to a party on the beach to dance all night in the moonlight, much like the teenagers’ Carolina coastal parties in the Sixties.

So we were in Greece. Italy’s heel (Lecce) is just across the Adriatic Sea from Albania, where yodeling is indeed done. Albania is just north, bordering Greece. All in the neighborhood, but what was this music?

I tried the academic sources, but couldn’t find it in any standard music encyclopedia. I tried Grove’s, Harvard. Back to Google. Somewhere in my search I found another musical style, rebetika. Xabagies is a subcategory of rebetika, a style of street music in Athens. Rebetika is also known interchangeably as rembetika (ρεμπετικα).

Part of the difficulty in locating information on this music was the fact that writing about the music was long considered subversive by the governments it chronicled. In 1968, cultural anthropologist Elias Petropolous served prison time for publishing Rebetika Songs [Ρεμπετικα Τραγούδια]. He reports that both bouzouki and bağlama (a micro-mini version of its Turkish cousin, which is why it sounds like a ukelele) were chosen by protest musicians because they were “very portable, easy to make in prison and easy to hide from the police.”

Greece in the 1930s was a time of great instability. From 1924, when the modern Greek republic was proclaimed with Pavlos Kountouriotis as president, to 1935 when Giorgios Koundylis used a rigged election to nullify the republic, six coups and two earthquakes irreparably damaged the country, returning the world’s first democracy to a monarchy under George II. Meanwhile, Turkey, a fledgling nation that had just granted suffrage to women, agreed to a compulsory population exchange with Greece. This resulted in two million ethnic Greeks and Turks being forcibly expelled from the lands of their birth. The Turkish Greeks brought the modal patterns of classical and popular Turkish music back with them.

Rembetika songs were part of the underground, pro-democracy protests. In impromptu basement gatherings where women were often, but not always, shunned, music flourished, nourished by ouzo, Turkish coffee, hand-rolled clove cigarettes, and homemade instruments forbidden by the ever-changing regimes. Similar revolutionary fusions thrived around the world: swing in the U.S., flamenco in Spain, the tango in Argentina, the samba in Brazil, the plena in Puerto Rico.

Remaining dormant for nearly half a century, somehow this traditional Greek music is now reborn. Part of this interest is exemplified by a museum dedicated to rembetika great Márkos Vamvakáris. The museum opened in Melbourne in 1995. Folk guitarist and music journalist Mike Cooper notes that Melbourne houses the largest Greek population outside Athens.

This interest may have influenced Risto Pekka Pennanen’s 1997 article in the British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Petropoulos’s book Songs of the Greek Underworld: The Rebetika Tradition, and Yannis Chorbajoglou’s Rebetika: Music from the Old Greek Underworld. These latter two were published in 2000 and 2012, respectively. The 2014 paperback re-release of Gail Holst-Warhaft’s 1975 book, Road to Rembetika: Music of a Greek Sub-culture: Songs of Love, Sorrow and Hashish fanned this renewed interest.

Standing beside these scholars are young preservationists like Ta-ki, grandnephew of legendary rembetika figure Nikos Mathesis (known as “Crazy Nick”), who served as mentor to Vamvakáris, helping launch his recording career that popularized the bouzouki. Like some of the subjects of the narcocorridosballads of drug dealers that evolved from corridos, ballads of heroic political revolutionaries of the Texas/Mexico border territoryNikos was apparently a criminal, although in revolutionary times “criminal” could easily be a value judgment made by those in power, very much like unarmed African Americans murdered by the police or fellow citizens are often painted as criminal. As these anti-authoritarian dissenters were frequently tossed in jail, a category of music developed called “prison rembetika.”

So now I had some idea of where this song was from, but what about the yodeling. I was already aware that yodeling was found outside the Swiss Alps, having taught the ululation of Central African ethnic groups in my non-western musics courses. I also knew that traditional cowboy songs in the U.S. included this vocal technique and seems like there was some vague memory of yodeling as part of Hawaiian folk music. Bart Plantenga’s book Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling confirmed this memory, identifying Hawaiian yodeling as ha’i. But “Pame sti Honolulu” doesn’t seem like protest music, so I looked to the song that aficionados identify as iconic rembetika style.

The somewhat mysterious artist, “A. Kostis,” to whom it is attributed, is thought to be Kostas Bezos himself, leader of the White Birds, but also a cartoonist and writer. “Stin Ipoga (Στην Υπογα, In the Basement),” unrelated to “In the Basement,” a song of the same name by blues queen Etta James, tells the story of those basement jam sessions in Crazy Nick’s home where members of the counter-cultural resistance could be raided at any moment, like U.S. juke joints during 1920s Prohibition.

A. Kostas, “In the Basement” (translated with the aid of Dr. Timothy Winters, Professor of Classics at Austin Peay State University)

Hey you behind,

Behind the shed

They roughed up a tough,

Roughed up a tough guy in the basement.

In went a co-

In went a cop with his piece

And he popped off some ro-,

Popped off some rounds up at the ceiling,

And then he fell,

He fell head over heels,

He blew out our hoo-,

Blew out our hookah standing in the middle.

And then she li-,

Mrs. Koula lit it up once more

Yeah, she’s the one

The one who keeps hidden cash and smokes stored,

Hey, so long Mi-,

So long Mitsos, with your odd-looking shape,

You are the one,

The one so messed up from all that hashish!

Ta-ki, Crazy Nick’s grandnephew from Boston MA, adds a rock rhythm section with a back beat in the video he produced in 2009. The video tells the story of the music and his great uncle’s contribution.

After enjoying several surviving arrangements of this song and its hypnotic asymmetrical meters, I realized I had traveled a long distance from thinking I could not make anything comprehensible of this sprightly iPhone commercial music, to finding that everything I had heard was there and could be explained. The metal-stringed bouzouki is indeed similar to the ukelele and bağlama. The male singing style I heard as Turkish was popular in Turkey, brought to Greece by refugees. I also found that the rembetika style was popular in Istanbul. The yodeling I heard as partly Hawaiian was popular in Hawaii. Perhaps because both are seafaring lands, Hawaii’s music caught the ear of Greek dissidents. It works. I had just never known all these characteristics had ever been put together, rather like my first time having shrimp and grits. Both unexpected, but both rather tasty.

A Stanford-trained musicologist who recently took a career swerve after 20 yrs in Texas. With a Columbia MFA in writing & translation she moved back home to TN.

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