various artists,
Women of Rembetica
(Rounder Records, 2000)

When Tom sent out the latest list of CDs up for grabs, he described Women of Rembetica as "scandalous Greek stuff." I thought I'd take a chance and try something new, so I volunteered to review it. Although I'm not very familiar with Greek culture, listening to this CD proved to be an interesting experience.

Rembetica is music of the Greek underworld, born in the port cities of Asia Minor and the Aegean during the 18th century. It reached its peak during the first half of the 20th century. Many female singers, known as Rembetisses, gained popularity and success in the '20s and '30s, challenging conventions and living free-spirited lives that found expression through this music.

Women of Rembetica gathers selections from a variety of these females, including rare recordings by Rita Abadzi and Roza Eskenazi. The CD also features songs by Marika Papagika, Ioanna Yeorgakopoulou and Angelitsa Papazoglou -- all of whom helped to make Rembetica popular. The CD contains 23 tracks in all, each ranging from 3 to 3 1/2 minutes in length. The songs reflect the unconventional lives these women embraced; some of the songs speak of reckless partying, faithless lovers or brazen flirtations, while others are full of grief which comes out in the wailing voices of the singers.

Many of the songs can be traced to Eastern/Byzantine roots, with their prominence of droning voices and swaying rhythms, evoking images of seductive belly-dancers and smoky, opulent surroundings. The songs feature a variety of instruments also: violins, cellos, spoons, mandolins, guitars, accordions and castanets.

The liner notes are truly essential, as they feature a brief introduction to Rembetica, artist biographies and glossaries of Greek expressions and musical terms. The booklet also contains black and white photos of the artists; these photos evoke the hedonistic glamour of the 1920s. Each song's lyrics are printed in both Greek and English, along with pronunciation notes.

While Women of Rembetica isn't "everyday listening," it is a historic recording that will interest fans of ethnic music. I'm not sure I'd drive around town with this blaring from my car stereo (these women can WAIL!), but turned down low, Women of Rembetica creates a soothing, trance-like atmosphere.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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