The passion of rembetika
Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street is not much of a Greek precinct anymore, some say. It has become a pocket of Greek-themed shops, without the same soul of yesteryear when it was a thriving hub.
Still, for me, it’s the only place where – as if you were in Melbourne’s sister city Thessaloniki – you’ll have your most memorable night out with the sounds of rembetika. The sum of ten tables gather around musicians at Tsindos tavern and the night begins.
For the last three years, Tsindos tavern has been featuring unconventional and spontaneous rembetika nights, every Wednesday. The day is set, yes, but the spontaneity and unstaged feel with which the Rembetika Quartet play is inevitable.
Their audience is those in love with rembetika. Without a doubt, it is a niche one; everyone can listen to rembetika, but not everyone can live its lyrics.
Sometimes it’s just random tourists who pass the tavern and wish to be a part of the warm atmosphere taking place behind Tsindos’ windows that face Lonsdale street.
With a limited number of tables – or at least the tables in the close proximity of the bouzouki, baglama, oud and guitar, and mesmerizing voice of Jenny Theologidis – you can expect to be turned away from the door if you don’t come early.
If you come to a Rembetika Quartet show more than once, and then they don’t see you for a while, be prepared to answer the unpleasant question – where have you been for so long? It is a kind of loyalty that runs between the musicians and the faithful audience. It is not talked about; it’s implied. And once you hear Con Kalamaras, Jenny Theologidis, Wayne Simmons and ‘Borsta’, the current members of Rembetika Quartet, playing, you just want to stay loyal to them. Just as those who wrote and sang rembetika songs in 1920s Greece stayed loyal to their burnt homes and uprooted past in Asia Minor.
“It’s a really good parea,” Con Kalamaras tells Neos Kosmos about the group he has been playing with the last three years.
“We play rembetika from the 1920s to 1950s. We share the same interests, and YouTube links and new songs as well. The number of songs that we have learnt together is incredible,” Con says, with the excitement of a child in his voice.
With some members of the quartet having full-time jobs, it is after hours that they pursue their musical passion through rembetika. Their rehearsals consist of learning how to play new songs through YouTube links they send to each other. The songs are ones they have a special bond with, or songs that their fans – as far away as the UK – ask them to play. The practice comes to fruition every Wednesday – as the performance is, as Con says, worth ten rehearsals.
“We try to practice, but normally we just send each other the links, and we just decide what key we are going to play the song in, and that’s it. And every time when we play – it’s a premiere, even for us.”
Though he works at a radio station as a marketing and events manager, Con says it is the passion that gets you out of bed in the morning. In the case of Rembetika Quartet – it’s rembetika in its purest form.
It comes as a surprise once you witness their impeccable performance, to find out that it was given by Melbourne-born Con, Jenny and Borsta; and one Aussie, Wayne Simmons, who is, as Con puts it, more Greek than Greeks.
“I just think the music and lyrics are so beautiful, and it’s far beyond anything coming out now. Even the recordings from the ’20s and ’30s, they almost make you want to cry. Maybe it reflects the hardships that people who wrote or performed the songs went through.”
The Greek urban music, that grew out of particular urban circumstances, rembetika resonates with the crowd. Its lyrics reflect the harsh realities – crime, drink, drugs, poverty, prostitution as well as death, displacement, exile and nostalgia.
“When you have people that have been ripped out of their homes, and they are singing about it – then I believe it. With any art form, if I’m not convinced, I’m just not interested. And that’s what I like about rembetika,” Con says.
Three things have been consistent in the quartet’s career at Tsindos – their love for rembetika, their faithful audience and the choice of rembetika song they play. Alongside celebrated rembetika songs, the quartet tends to play the more rare and less known ones. That’s their way, Con says, not only to bring back ’20s and ’30s rembetika but also to, very importantly, strike a balance.
“You can introduce people to music they wouldn’t have heard of. We get to play the music that suits the audience, but on the other hand you don’t want to play just cheesy music to make everybody happy.”
“You never know who is going to be in the audience; even if it’s only one person, you have to make sure you play as for 20,000 people.”
Rembetika Quartet performs live at Tsindos tavern (197 Lonsdale Street) every Wednesday from 7.30 pm. To watch them perform on YouTube, visit their YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/rebetikamusicmelb/videos