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Hard Lives and Hash Dens in Greek Music

The Manhattan apartments of Jack Gregory (born Ioannis Halikias) were for three decades, from the 1930s to the 1960s, a meeting-place for Greek and Turkish-speaking musicians; a place to jam, hang out, smoke, and score hash. In the vernacular of the Greek underworld, they were tekehdes, hash dens. Gregory was a bouzouki player—the bouzouki is a Greek, long-necked, steel-stringed lute with a rounded back—born in Sparta, Greece in 1897, and had done a short bit in Sing Sing in 1927 for attempted grand larceny. The prison's receiving blotter records his two-word answer as to why he did it: "Easy money."

That document, tracked down by the amazing, obsessive, and still-teenaged researcher Aydin Chaloupka, is one of few remaining of Gregory's career. We now know made his living mainly as a bookie and weed dealer (involved well beyond his own ethnic circle, helping to get the stuff into Harlem). The four instrumentals he recorded in 1932 and 1933 for Columbia Records in New York were influential and transitional in Greek culture. Columbia's contract with Gregory included stipulations that he would not be paid royalties for overseas sales and that he would be tied to the company for, rumor has it, 30 years. So after making them two great records, he simply refused to set foot in their studios again. Fuck them. Who needed them anyway?

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One of those four tunes, the 'Minore tou Teke' ('Minor Key Song From the Hash Den'), found its way to Greece, where it was covered on record by six other artists in six months. There had been other bouzouki records before, but the 'Minore tou Teke' was the first real hit. Before that, most serious Greek performers on record had played instruments like those used in Italian music (guitar and mandolin), those used in the Ottoman courts (oud, violin, kanun), or those used in rural folk music (clarinet and lauto). The bouzouki was a specifically urban instrument with strong associations with the world of criminals. It was the instrument of prisons and hash dens. It was the sound of contempt for cops and squares.

When the 'Minore tou Teke' hit Athens, an ocean and a continent away from New York City, it found a public ready and waiting for its dreamy, trance-like pace and its implications of a life lived in the margins. Through the 1920s, a generation had come up through the slums of Athens, underemployed, outcast, and pissed off. In the port of Pireaus, a style had emerged with the great bouzouki player and songwriter Markos Vamvakaris at the center.

Vamvakaris was born in 1905 and raised poor on the island of Syros. At the age of 12, he caused an accident that made him think that he was wanted by the police. Paranoid, he fled to Athens and worked first as a stevedore and then, for 15 years, slaughtering animals—jobs he hated. He found solace in the arghul, the water pipe, at tekedhes (hash dens), where he played bouzouki, was hassled by the police, and became part of the world of thieves, killers, and scoundrels.

In 1922, Vamvakaris witnessed the massive influx of a quarter-million refugees from the city of Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey). A military conflict between Greece and Turkey had caused the city to burn. Thousands lost their lives. The massive Greek population of the city was rounded up and forcibly relocated to slums around Athens. The city doubled in size in two weeks. Many lived in utter squalor for years—most of them women, children, and older folks. In his memoir (newly translated into English by Noonie Minogue and published by Greeklines in the UK), Vamvakaris remembered: "How can I make you understand what it was like? Disaster!...People lived in disused railway carriages and old shacks or they put up makeshift tents. A catastrophe, I'm telling you pal, a massive disaster!...What those poor people went through is beyond anything...absolute rock bottom. That was after they were already screwed over by the Turks who drove them out. And when they got here, the same! They did whatever they could. They were screwed. They did everything you could possibly imagine to make a crust of bread and put a roof over their heads."

The situation was too much for the cops, and they cracked skull. The existing middle class spit on them. Hey, Baltimore—is any of this sounding familiar?

Writing in Morocco in the 1970s, Paul Bowles theorized that booze is acceptable in the Western/capitalist world because it commits one to extroversion, but cannabis could never be totally accepted because it commits you to introversion, which is no good for business. Likewise, alcohol dims the sound of the inner voice while cannabis works well for contemplation, making it compatible with Islamic cultures. This dichotomy was played out in law in the porous and shifting boundaries between Greece and Turkey at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. You could drink in Greece, but not smoke dope, although the law was rarely enforced before the 1920s. In Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, you could have your raki, so long as you didn't get noticeably drunk, but smoke your fill. So, when the refugees arrived from Smyrna, despised and abandoned by their countrymen, many hit the pipe as a matter of custom from back home in Turkey, and many smoked as a point of pride because, well, fuck the authorities, they can't tell me what to do.

The cops would send the smokers to jail. In jail, the smokers learned to hate the cops and to be better criminals. They'd come back out, smoke more, get thrown back in, ad infinitum. And it all went into the songs played in the tekedhes and the cave retreats where Vamvakaris and his friends found refuge from the miseries of life. Getting stoned and naming names, Vamvakaris would sing: "Fix it, Stavros, fix it up/ Light the flame and cook it up/ Crazy Nick—pass it to that guy/ Make that carpenter fly high…

One fixture on the tekedhes scene who knew Vamvakaris was Thanasis Athanasiou, a musician, instrument builder, artist, and life-long smoker. Even as an old man, he would tell visitors, "it's time for my medicine," several times a day before lighting a spliff. Such was his reputation for smoking in the 1940s that, returning home from the market one day, someone stopped to tip him off that the cops were waiting for him back at his place. Rather than face jail, a beating, or both, he simply turned around, walked to the dock, got on a boat with the clothes on his back, and left the police waiting for him for 25 years. He made his way to New York and found his compatriot musicians, including Jack Gregory with whom he recorded on some of the 10 additional sides that Gregory made under his Greek name for independent labels in the '40s. When Athanasiou drifted back home to Greece, he taught the music of the 1930s to a new generation in the 1970s and 1980s.

The bouzouki generation that came up through the 1920s and 1930s in Greece saw many losses. One of Vamvakaris' brothers died on the street of heroin, and the other got life in prison for murder. Others died of deprivation during the occupations by the UK and Germany in the 1940s. The government, meanwhile, cracked down on music and censored songs about criminal activity. What remained were songs of love, longing, and hardship, and a new generation of flashy, hot-shot virtuoso bouzouki players came along. The music descended into respectability, and the bouzouki, the sound of protest, of life in the margins, and of a head full of smoke became a symbol of national Greekness as new generations forgot the trials and dreams that birthed it.

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