Monday, February 05, 2018

Philadelphia: The Birthplace of Rembetiko

Rembetiko is Greece's urban blues. Like the tango in Argentina, rembetiko was considered criminal, low-class, and unworthy of recording creating a typical paradox. One of Greece's national music genres was practical illegal in Greece. In comes immigration. The first rembetiko songs were recorded in the United States under the growing industry of ethnic music. The economic equation is simple. The 78 RPM vinyl industry was beginning to collapse as radio disrupted record sales. Providing free music (supported by advertisements) and reaching every corner of electrified America, radio was the internet of the 1920s. There is one population, however, that the English-dominated radio could not reach, the millions of immigrants that had landed on American shores. Record companies swiftly recognized the diversified audience, and rushed to capture each ethnic corner of the market. That's how American record executives aggressively sought out the Greek rembetiko players in the U.S., and eventually, establishing recording studios in Greece. The dominance of Greek music in this ethnic market is interesting. Although the twelfth largest immigrant population, Greek recordings made up for a fifth of the total recording output by 1940.

The history of Greek rembetiko is the history of Greek immigrant musicians in the U.S. According to music historians, the first rembetiko song recorded in the U.S. was by Marika Papagika, the first female superstar of Greek music. She and her husband Kostas (Gus) Papagikas (who played santouri) had immigrated to the U.S. in 1914. By 1925, they also established the first Greek music nightclub, called Marika's, in New York, on 34th Street and 8th Avenue. Papagika made the first rembetiko recording in American record history in 1918 for RCA Victor, and released in 1918. The song, "Minore from Smyrna," is perhaps the most amazing three minutes in Greek music history. RCA Victor was located in Camden, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia. Along with Columbia Records (in New York) it dominated Greek recording history. RCA Victor did not only produce the vinyl records but also the hardware on which to play it, the Victrola phonograph. So, imagine being in Greece ca. 1920, where your only recorded Greek music was not only recorded in Camden, but it was played on a Victrola platform brought by a Greek immigrant.

In spite of the international popularity of rembetiko or its dominant place in the national narrative of Greek music, there is relatively little scholarship on the particulars of its creation. I offer a small discovery on the primacy of Philadelphia in rembetiko history due to its proximity to RCA Victor recording studios. The Nipper Building, where rembetiko history was made, still survives. Its iconic stained glass windows can still be seen (see photo above). Most enticing is the fact that RCA Victor's vault of masters was dumped into the Delaware River and incorporated into a concrete dock in the 1960s. Theoretically, they could be archaeologically rescued (see a community-based heritage group that would like to accomplish that here).

My research on Philadelphia's Greektown has made a slight turn on the archaeology of rembetiko. If Papagika recorded the first rembetiko, then George Katsaros is a close second. Katsaros is additionally interesting for his adaptation of the guitar into a hybridized fingerpicking style that reflects African-American blues that he encountered in his itinerant performances throughout the U.S. His love affair with Mexican movie star Riorita orients him outside an ethnic bubble. Like Papagika, Katsaros's recorded his first song "Greek Pleasure" at Victor RCA in 1919. 

The circumstances of Greek recording history are murky. Historians and the Greek community has paid disproportionately little attention in creating the historical archives that shepherd their musical tradition. Since rembetiko music in the U.S. flourished during Prohibition, the Greek performance venues were typically speak-easies and shrouded in secrecy, very much like the censorship that criminalized the performance of rembetiko music in Greece during the 1930s. As a community, Greek Americans have been more comfortable to highlight food and commercial success over drug addiction, persecution, poverty, or sexual oppression, the themes of rembetiko music. Thanks to the devoted obsession of a small group of record collectors, we have at least saved some of the vinyl documents. Amanda Petrusich reports on the culture of collecting in her excellent book Don't Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records (2014). The centrality of Greek musicians is evident in many of the other wonderful pieces that Petrusich has written for the New York Times and the New Yorker.

George Katsaros is an exception to the historiographic oblivion that shrouds most of his contemporaries. He retired at Tarpon Spring, where a couple of Greek-American folklorists and historians collected his stories. I thank Tina Bucuvalas, curator of arts for the city of Tarpon Spring, for all her insights on Katsaros, see her recent The Greeks of Tarpon Springs (2016) and an interview on the new journal Ergon. I also thank ethnomusicologist Panayotis League, whose deep insights on Katsaros are not only musical; he got to meet him at his grandmother's house as a kid in Tarpon Springs. Katsaros was rediscovered by a Greek audience in 1995, when he was invited to perform two important concerts in Athens and Thessaloniki, just two years before he passed away at the age of 109. The most important scholar on Katsaros is Steve Frangos, who conducted an extensive oral history project that lead into a Master's Thesis at Indiana University, "Yiorgos Katsaros: Last of the Greek-American Cafè-Aman Singers," (1992) and an article, “The Last Café-Aman Performer,” Journal of Modern Hellenism 12-13 (1995-96), pp. 239-256. Katsaros's guitar playing has received more recent interest in a CD re-recording of his songs by Greece's premier guitarist Demetris Mystakidis, who has reconstructed Katsaros's weird string tunings (listen here.) Clips from Katsaros's oral history were recently featured in the BBC documentary Music of our Times, see "America's Ottoman Diaspora" (2017).

During the last year or so, I have been studying Philadelphia's Greektown with my students. We have reconstructed its spaces digitally by repopulating the old buildings with its original occupants, based on the US Census and historical maps. The core of Greektown was demolished by urban renewal and the expansion of Jefferson Hospital in the 1960s. For the lost buildings, we have analyzed some 700 old photographs from the City of Philadelphia archives. This includes a 1917 photograph of a Greek establishment on 1018 Locust Street marked by the Greek letters on the window shop "Greek Kaffeneion." Image at beginning of post. While reading Frangos's thesis, I was shocked to discover the significance of this corner.

Katsaros travelled widely through the U.S. and performed at countless Greek venues. As he noted in his interview, every city with Greek immigrants had a dozen performance spaces. Philadelphia was not special. In fact it ranked as seventh most populous with Greeks, far below New York, Chicago, and Lowell. But Philadelphia had the recording studios across the river at Camden. And it was in Philadelphia that Katsaros was discovered by the agent of RCA Victor in 1919 and was invited to record the second oldest rembetiko, "Greek Pleasure." In his interview, Katsaros is explicit about the Philadelphia detail. He names the two venues where he played, Culture Restaurant and Kentron Restaurant. He even gives the address "1018 Locust Street" and notes that it was across from the Stephano Brothers tobacco factory (the largest Greek employer in Philadelphia). The kaffeneion that our study of Greektown had identified in the photo (top) shows Kentron Restaurant two years before Katsaros performed there. The contemporary Sanborn Fire Insurance map from 1919 (left) plots 1018 Locust on the southeast corner of Warnock and Locust. North, along Warnock Street, we see the seven-story Stephano Brothers factory at 1014-16 Walnut Street built in 1908 and marked yellow to signify concrete frame. Parenthetically, both the RCA Victor and Stephano Brother buildings were designed by the prominent architectural firm Ballinger.

The 1920 US Census, moreover, lists two tenants in the upstairs floors of this address, a George Skapavos restaurant cook, and a Gregores Boulous dishwasher. These two tenants were most likely the working staff that managed the venue downstairs. Although Katsaros identifies 1018 Locust as the Kentron Restaurant, he does not give an address for the Central Restaurant. However, he notes that his music group was moving from to another. Looking at the business directories from 1912, we learn that this block of Locust Street had no less than four Greek restaurants. What is a business directory? Beginning in 1904, Greek publishers in New York published a guidebook that was distributed to potential Greek emigrants. These guides gave an introduction to life in the U.S. but also contained a directory of Greek establishments in every city to help the immigrant navigate the new country. The map below plots the 1911 Philadelphia directory published by Serapheim Canoutas.

A cluster of four dots on the 1000 block of Locust locates the epicenter of Greek restaurants in Philadelphia and names their proprietors.

1012 Locust St, B. Sirios
1015 Locust St, John Parbos
1018 Locust St, Geo. Thomakos
1031 Locust St, N. Kromidas

The objective of our Greektown study has been to reveal the archaeology of Greek immigration in one city. We combined diverse sources in a geospatial database as the groundwork for a physical, archaeological investigation of the remains. Unfortunately, no further work can be done on the 1000 block of Locust Street because it was demolished in 1967. The Greek establishments were rembetiko was first performed lie buried below Jefferson's Alumni Hall, which takes up half of a city block. With the excavation for the foundations and basement of this building, there will be no physical remains. The green space of Lubert Plaza, in front of Alumni Hall, most likely retains the basements of the north side of the block. As would be typical in demolition practices of the 1960s, these basements are backfilled by the debris of the brick buildings above.

Other Greektown properties, however, survive. Their backyards could be explored. For the birthplace of rembetiko, digital archaeology must suffice, as we populate the individuals listed in the census (below) into a digital reconstruction of the city where Katsaros lived and recorded the second oldest rembetiko.

One final note about dates. The reason why Katsaros has not been considered "the first" like Papagika has to do with a clerical ambiguity. Although he claimed the song was recorded in 1919, the official historian of Ethnic Records did not find any written testimony in Victor's archives for a recording until 1927 (Spottwood 1990). Steve Frangos' oral history settles that problem, as Katsaros confirms the original date. Although Katsaros is explicit about the Philadelphia venues, he tells another story where  RCA Victor representatives approached him while performing in New York. 

Much work remains to be done in the archaeology of rembetiko. Consider the most important performance space in 1920s Greek history, the high-end "Marika's" on 34th Street, New York. We know so little about it, although, we do have a photo of its exterior by Stieglitz (I haven't found it yet). Does this mean that our Philadelphia Greektown project needs some comparative work from New York? For the time being, I am thrilled that we have put Philadelphia on the rembetiko map; more importantly, we have  narrowed it down to an actual building with a visible materiality (through the photos), a cartographic context (through GIS), and a human specificity (the census).

I thanks Panayiotis League, Giorgos Anagnostou, and Tina Bucavalas for their advice. I also want to thank my students Lizzy Wood and Cassie Garison who walked every corner of Alumni Hall looking for clues and practically lost their minds digitizing data. I am only an amateur music historian. I have tried Katsaros's crazy guitar plucking style and would love to take a guitar out to Jefferson Hospital's green lawn and relive a 1919 moment.


Bucuvalas, Tina. 2016. Greeks in Tarpon Springs, Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia.

Canoutas, Seraphim G. 1911. Greek-American Guide, Ελληνο-αμερικανικός οδηγός, 4th Year, New York: Helmis Press

Frangos, Steve. 1995-1996. “The Last Café-Aman Performer,” Journal of Modern Hellenism 12-13, pp. 239-256.

Frangos, Steve. 1992. “Yiorgos Katsaros: Last of the Greek-American Cafè-Aman Singers,” Master’s Thesis, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Petrusich, Amanda. 2015. Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records, New York: Scribner.

Spottswood, Richard K. 1990. Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the U.S. 1893-1942, vol. 3, pp. 1133-1234.


Antonios Zavaliangos said...

Awesome. Awesome. Awesome.
Thanks for the excellent work :)

Dimitrios Damopoulos said...

Hello Kosti,

Thanks a lot for a very interesting article, your research and you references. You bring to the light details of that period that are not known even to people who have devoted time to understanding on how that music came to be.

However, IMO, there are also seem to be various important misconceptions in this article on what rembetiko is and how, when and where it was formed. I am referring here to the musicological claims that you make.

In case you are able to read Greek (I apologize, I am not familiar to your work, so I am not sure!), some (informal) objections to your analysis can be found here: . This is a thread on the most well-known forum of (not only) musicians who play and enjoy this music today (and that' s how I got notice of your article!).

In summary, I think no-one who has done research on rembetiko would coincide its birth with the occurrence of its first recordings, as you seem to be doing here. Secondly, even if you want to focus on recordings, which are only a glimpse to the evolution of the rembetiko, there exist earlier ones of the type of music that Papagika recorded: The song that Papagika sings at your link had been recorded in 1909 in Smyrna, Thirdly, these songs do not fall into the category of rembetiko. Rather, they were the popular music of the people of Smyrna (including other places) back then (i.e., since the 19th century). They are certainly part of parental musical genres from which rembetiko was born, but they are not the same thing.

For a working definition of rembetiko that many people agree (not everyone though) you can check this thread (in Greek): . I admit that there is no universally accepted definition, but my point is that there is a distinction between rembetiko and the music of Smyrna, that Papagika recorded. The music of Katsaros is indeed closer to the spirit of rembetiko and some would say it is rembetiko, but still I find it unlikely the musicians of rembetiko in Piraeus in the 1920-1936 period were influenced by his recordings.


Dear Dimitri
Absolutely. The musical form was created in the Greek world before migrating to the US. I just find it interesting that the rembetes of Piraeus were playing records first recorded in the US rather than the other way around. I wanted to explore how Philadelphia might have contributed to the recording industry (like New York). Rembetiko was performed all over the US but first recorded in Camden, near Philadelphia. Thanks for your insights and recommendations of websites.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States