Happy Birthday, Markos Vamvakaris (deceased)

May 10th is the day Markos Vamvakaris was born, back in 1905. He was one of the first and finest Rebetiko musicians.

Markos Vamvakaris was born into a poor Catholic family on the island of Syros in 1905. His father played the greek bagpipes called Gaida and Markos would accompany him on a dog-skin drum. When Markos was eight years old he left school to work with his mother in a cotton thread factory, which he promptly ditched and started picking up odd jobs like newspaper boy, butchers assistant, eventually getting mixed up with the underworld of the streets. He ran away to Piraeus in 1917, supposedly thinking the police were after him for some piece of mischief. There, he worked in a series of gruelling, poorly paid jobs. This was tough, low-down work, but the nights were all about hashish and women.

He frequented the tekedes and by his early twenties had taught himself bouzouki and begun to write songs.  He was kept in fine clothes by an older whore and hung out at the tekes every night. In 1925, Markos heard Old Nikos play bouzouki and was immediately hooked. Six months later he was playing at a teke when Old Nikos stopped by, he couldn’t believe it was the same kid who’d never even played a few months earlier. Nikos said they’d show Markos something in the morning and he’d come back and play it better than them in the evening. 

Even after he began recording, around 1932, and had gained a measure of fame, he continued to work at the Athens slaughter house. His early songs dealt with drugs and underworld themes. He broadened both his lyric base and his appeal when censorship was imposed on the music industry in 1937, though his music always remained within the rebetiko idiom.

Because the bouzouki was considered a low-class instrument, it had not been recorded commercially until 1932 when Yiannis Halikias (aka Jack Gregory), a Greek-American, recorded his “Minore Tou Teke“. The record was very popular, so Spiros Peristeris, who was working as a record producer, composer and instrumentalist for Odeon records in Greece, convinced Odeon to record Vamvakaris. In 1933, Peristeris supervised, and played guitar on Markos’ first recording session (although he had recorded two songs in 1932 for Columbia, they were not released until later). Markos recorded one zeibekiko, O Dervises, and one Hassapiko, O Harmanes. Markos hadn’t considered himself a singer but ended up doing the vocals on these records. They were very successful and Markos’ rough and powerful singing became fashionable.

Markos eventually teamed up with singer Stratos Pagioumitzis, baglamatzis Giorgos Batis, and bouzouki player Anestis Delias to form his famous Piraeus Quartet. 

His popularity was sustained throughout the 1930’s, despite growing political turmoil. The fascist Metaxas ordered the record companies to stop recording hashish songs and make rembetika respectable entertainment. This coupled with the new Greek passion for Italian cantades resulted in enormous changes in Greek rebetiko. And with that came the minor and major scales of piano, guitar and accordion none of which could play the quarter tones required by the old tradition. As a result the oriental flavour of rembetika started to disappear. Vamvakaris and his brother had a brief flurry in the late 1940’s with the famous Kalamata group which included famous musicians like Papaioannou, Hadzichristou and Mitsakis.

Eventually the style of rebetika that Markos had pioneered became more mainstream, and by the 1940’s Tsitsanis had started changing the subject matter to be about love and less about hashish, prison and other rebetika topics. Likewise, Hiotis started changing the sound of the music, adding two more strings to the bouzouki in 1956 (although he was not, as many claim, the first to do this) and moving towards a more flashy, electric and westernized sound. Markos continued to record in his older style through this period. He died in 1972.

Fragment of a novel found near a time portal

So, how does it
Well, you have some
sort of weird money substitute here. I have heard of Dogecoin, and there were
lots of things like that around, and it seems as if there is some kind of money
behind your society. But I don’t see any notes, or coins, just touch screens that
people do things with. What is going on?
Ah, the screens.
Those are available to everyone, but nobody owns them, unless Central does.
The Central Bank of,
well whatever. Promises, obligations, it carries out transactions of value, is
how I heard an academic describe it once. Look, it’s a set of rules on a
central computer system, that handles what money turned into.
Yes. The first rule
they had was that each identity, each person, has an amount of what you would
have called money, or credit, or value. And there was a basic weekly input that
was worked out to be enough to provide food and shelter for one person. Each
week that gets put into your account. Go shopping, and the value of the
shopping is taken out. Simple enough.
And your wages go in
there as well, presumably?
Oh yes. If you do
some work, you get some value paid in to reward you for it. But it doesn’t come
from the company or whatever that you work for. Central pays it. That’s because
companies are not people, workplaces are not people. So they can’t have identities,
and if there’s no identity there can’t be owned value at Central.
But you’re getting
paid for your work?
Somebody tells
Central you have done something of a certain value for them, and Central
rewards you. But there are no billionaires owning the factories and
accumulating huge wealth from them. If you want to start a business, or just
need help to do more of something you want to do, that creates value, Central
will accept your statement that you are doing it. They’ll take your statement
that an identity deserves a certain reward, validate it, and put it in your
Why would anyone do
that if they can’t get rich from it?
That’s one of the
really funny things. What we used to call businessmen, entrepreneurs, you know
them, well, it turns out they just like to do what they do, even if they don’t
actually become so rich that nobody else has any money. They do it anyway. Sure,
they get the basic input every week, and they get the value of the things that
are sold.
Then surely, they
can become very rich?
No. The rule you
need to know about next is what stops that happening. It’s quite complex, and
is a sort of smoothing. Each week, all accounts are smoothed. If an identity
has a lot more value than the average, it is reduced. They don’t lose it all,
but they can never build up a huge amount either. Crazy overspending doesn’t
all get repaid, but if you have less than you will need to stay alive it will
be partly repaid so you will not starve. Nobody starves any more. We are rather
proud of that.
Is there a book of

There must be,
somewhere, but mostly there are a lot of computer programs and a rather big
database. There are programmers as well, constantly refining the system. I know
some of them. Maybe we will go and see a few, soon.