The Lyrical Themes of Rembetika: A Woman Scorned

I’m a sunny guy who grew up loving melancholy music. Grunge was my bag, Radiohead my sweet love, The Smiths an overwrought delight.

What I never properly noticed, though, was the heavy shit my parents were listening to.

My parents are Greek immigrants to Melbourne. Greeks love Greek music — and all Greek music has rembetika as its basis.

Rembetika is best described as bleak as fuck. Like a good Jewish maternal stereotype, Greeks do love their heavy-handed melodrama. But what makes rembetika more than a caricature is its foundation in the horrible times Greeks lived through during the first half of the twentieth century.

So over the course of a few posts, I plan to highlight some of the lyrics of popular songs that are venerated by pretty much every Greek of my parents’ generation and would make any Australian parent of the current generation blanche.

And in this post, the lyrical theme I present is The Woman Scorned.

In the male-dominated world of Greek society in which these songs were written, life could be especially brutal for women. Women had few rights and barely any recourse that extended beyond singing mournfully about their plight. When a man did a woman wrong, the effects could be catastrophic, and songs of women scorned are a particular source of lyrical power.

Perhaps my favourite is Γεννήθηκα για να Πονώ, or I Was Born To Be Hurt. Combined with Marika Ninou’s fierce singing, the song stings with bitter resentment and a deep wish for vengeance. Here are some of the choice lines:

Γεννήθηκα για να πονώ και για να τυραννιέμαι
I was born to be hurt and to be tyrannised
την ώρα που σε γνώρισα βαριά την καταριέμαι
that moment I met you, I curse it deeply
Με πλήγωσες και δεν ξεχνώ που τόσο έχω κλάψει
You hurt me and I’ll never forget how much I’ve cried
να γίνει η κατάρα μου φωτιά και να σε κάψει
May my curse become fire and burn you

Reminder: this is a classic song that everyone in Greece knows. It’s as well known there as Hound Dog or Tutti Frutti, a song the whole family will sing along to.

Next is a more melancholic song of mistreatment and woe. The song is called Αντιλαλούνε τα Βουνά, or The Echoing Mountains.

Στενάζω απ’ τις λαβωματιές κι απ’ τις δικές σου μαχαιριές
I moan from my wounds and from your stabbings
λαβωματιές με γέμισες και μ’ έφαγαν οι πόνοι
You’ve covered me with wounds and the pains have overtaken me
και στη φωτιά που μ’ έριξες, τίποτα δε με σώνει
And from the fires you’ve thrown me into, nothing will save me

Αντιλαλούνε τα βουνά σαν κλαίω εγώ τα δειλινά
The mountains echo out when I cry at sunset

The mountain echo of your cries at sunset is just a standard Greek song. This is not considered emo.

And my third and final example of a woman’s lament for her man’s treachery:

Κρίμα τους κόπους μου και τις θυσίες μου και όσα τράβηξα τόσο καιρό για σένα
It’s a shame that my efforts, my sacrifices, everything I went through for you
κρίμα τα όνειρα και τις ελπίδες μου τα πήρε ο άνεμος και πήγανε χαμένα
It’s a shame that my hopes were taken by the wind and forsaken

Εσένα δε σου άξιζε αγάπη εσένα δε σου άξιζε στοργή
You weren’t worthy of love, you weren’t worthy of affection
έχεις στο αίμα σου την αμαρτία είσ’ ένα ψέμα χωρίς ψυχή
You have sin in your blood, you are a lie without a soul

Next time someone does you wrong, you go tell them: you are a lie without a soul.

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