[Invited Submission - Special Issue]

Rebetika and Catharsis: Cultural Practice as Crisis Management

By Yona Stamatis


In the context of the economic crisis in Greece, cultural practice serves as an important local level coping mechanism. Participants in the popular Rebetiki Istoria rebetadiko in Athens have adapted their nightly musicking into a crisis management culture. As the working-class audiences enjoy relevant rebetiko songs of the early twentieth century, they work through their anxieties about the current economic situation. The theoretical framework for this discussion is catharsis that describes emotional release achieved through music or art. Proposing a cultural approach to catharsis research, the article offers a clear tripartite theoretical model for the examination of catharsis in diverse musicking contexts.

Keywords: rebetika; catharsis; music therapy; coping mechanism; economic crisis; crisis

Rebetika is for sitting, listening and healing ones pain.
It is not music for wild dancing or for crazy entertainment.
- (P. Vassiliou, personal communication, November, 2007).


This article places a recent ethnographic study of music performance in a rebetika venue in Athens, Greece within the growing field of analysis of the current economic crisis. Through an examination of the music culture of the popular Rebetiki Istoria bar [rebetadiko], the article suggests that cultural practice functions as an important local level coping mechanism for relieving crisis-associated stress. The theoretical framework for the study is catharsis, the purgation of negative emotions, such as anxiety and fear, especially through music and art. The article engages catharsis in two ways: it conveys a degree of the local understanding and practice of rebetika as cathartic coping mechanism in one music community in Greece, and it provides a theory of catharsis and music that mends earlier models for examining similar issues in anthropology and ethnomusicology.

This study of the Rebetiki Istoria culture as cathartic coping mechanism is interdisciplinary in nature. It embraces medical ethnomusicology, a discipline that considers the role of cultural context in the determination of the physical and psychological effects of music. In addition, it engages cultural anthropology, the study of social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special focus on the creation of shared meanings and interpretations. The article is organized into three parts. Part I considers definitional discrepancies that pervade discussions of catharsis in anthropology, ethnomusicology and music therapy. Then, it presents the theory of catharsis by sociologist Thomas Scheff (1979/2001) that offers a clear tripartite model for achieving catharsis in diverse performance contexts. This model suggests that catharsis depends upon participant ability to recall, distance, and discharge distress in particular ways. Part II is an ethnographic discussion of the local music culture in Rebetiki Istoria, contextualized within working-class experience of the economic crisis and the need for catharsis from crisis-related stress. Part III applies Scheff’s theory to this music culture in order to examine the role of rebetika in achieving catharsis. It incorporates the catharsis theory with slight modifications to privilege contextual evidence and consultant testimony over the application of a predetermined set of physiological factors in determining catharsis. This fieldwork-oriented examination is intended to build upon earlier contextual models of catharsis and cultural practice and to serve as a paradigm for future research.

Music, Catharsis, and Thomas Scheff’s Theory of Catharsis

A Survey of Catharsis Across the Disciplines

Interdisciplinary interest in catharsis studies has resulted in a significant bibliography on the subject. However, a survey of this scholarship reveals a lack of consensus about its definition and no widely accepted theoretical paradigm for catharsis (see Friedson 1996; Gouk 2000; Janzen 1992). This may be due in part to the open-ended nature of the term. The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines catharsis as the “purification or purgation of emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art” (Webster). The open-ended nature of this definition leaves room for diverse interpretations. For example, it does not explain how art is engaged to purge emotions or whether the effects of catharsis are temporary or permanent.

Ambiguity has permeated examinations of catharsis since the earliest texts on the subject, many of which continue to inspire hermeneutical debate (Entralgo, 1970). Perhaps the most famous example is found in Poetics, in Aristotle’s response to Plato’s condemnation of tragic drama for arousing the passions. Aristotle proposed that under particular circumstances, the viewer of tragic drama could achieve emotional catharsis. However, he did not define clearly his use of the term catharsis or clarify how one might distinguish it from other kinds of emotional release (Lucas, 1968).

In recent years, definitional confusion has become especially pronounced with the rise of medical ethnomusicology, a discipline concerned with the medical and therapeutic uses of music. Many (Aigen, 2013; Ansdell, 1995; Kenny, 1982; Michel, 1976) decry the multivalent uses of fundamental terminology like catharsis, therapy, and healing that obfuscate conventional understanding of the terms in the music therapy discipline. In medical ethnomusicology, this confusion surrounding catharsis is due in part to the lack of consideration of catharsis or even of music and healing by standard ethnomusicology texts and reference books.[1] In addition, many scholars use the term to suggest a type of emotional release without providing any further clarification (Lacava, 1992; Saxonberg &Waligórska, 2006; Visvis 2008). Those who do offer a definition evidence a lack of engagement with catharsis as a theoretical concept (Holst, 1995; Ronen, 2009). Finally, many authors do not incorporate the use of the term catharsis in their study of closely related phenomena (Friedson, 1996).[2]

Numerous scholars question the incorporation of catharsis as a useful theoretical paradigm. Some cite a lack of consensus over whether catharsis depends upon a conscious effort by the participant or if it can be achieved without purposeful intention. Others take issue with its temporary nature, rejecting catharsis for its undependability as a permanent cure. Even psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, who once championed catharsis as therapeutic technique, later abandoned it in favor of other methodologies, like psychoanalysis and behavior modification (Scheff, 1979/2001). And while catharsis once permeated anthropological discussions of ritual, the term lost its centrality in the field during the second half of the 20th century. Noted anthropologists like Radcliffe-Brown (1952) and Evans Pritchard (1965) began to reject the term, suggesting that catharsis in ritual is just as likely to create distress in its participants, as it is to have a positive effect.

In this paper, I argue for the relevance of catharsis as a theoretical paradigm. Above all, catharsis continues to serve a prominent role in consultant descriptions of their own cultural practice. Rebetiki Istoria is a telling example, as participants often use the term to describe their musicking (Small, 1998) experience. In Greek, the term ηκάθαρση maintains connotations similar to those of the English equivalent. The Dictionary of the Modern Greek Language offers the following relevant definitions:

Philol. (mainly in relation to tragedy, in agreement with the definition of Aristotle in his Poetics) redemption from emotional pressure brought about by a narrative work, the purification of feelings that it brings, in its final outcome; Psych. η κάθαρση refers to the therapy of a diseased soul state by remembering the traumatic experiences that brought it about. (Babiniotis, 2008, p. 801)

In Rebetiki Istoria,the use of catharsis is closely linked to this general definition. Perhaps the most representative and clearest explanation of catharsis and rebetika was given by George, a regular Rebetiki Istoria participant:

I come to Rebetiki because where else would I go? There is nothing for me at those other so-called rebetadika. They [the musicians and audiences of other rebetadika] don’t understand. They don’t understand what rebetika is all about… I come here because Pavlos is here and Vangelis, and George and Maria… They are “my people.” They understand me and they understand rebetika. They suffer just like I do—in the crisis—in this hellhole of a country—If you spend a night here listening to the music… It is a kind of catharsis… you know, those rebetika musicians said it better than anyone today could… and in the morning you have the strength to face another day. What can I tell you? I sit, I listen, I drink, maybe I even dance, and somehow I am able to withstand it all again. (George, personal communication, March, 2010).

In his description, George describes his rebetika experience as a kind of catharsis and alludes to Scheff’s tripartite paradigm of catharsis that includes recalling, distancing, and discharging of distress—as well as the role of shared cultural understanding in its achievement. It is this participant understanding of catharsis as emotional relief brought about by cultural interaction that I engage in this article. Because of the communal aspet of the music culture, I place special significance in the role of knowledge practice in achieving catharsis, which entails engaging culture in order to rewrite cognitive understandings of ones personal situation within the fabric of the social environment. In the next section, I examine the connections between music and catharsis and examine important research on the topic.

A Brief Survey of Music and Catharsis

Determining the connections between catharsis and music is a complex and multifaceted task. A fundamental question is whether catharsis depends on the sound of the music or on the context of the performance, or on a combination of the two. The famous early discussion of music and catharsis by Aristotle in Poetics offers little insight:

Take pity and fear, for example, or again enthusiasm. Some people are liable to become possessed by the latter emotion, but we see that, when they have made use of the melodies which fill the soul with orgiastic feeling, they are brought back by these sacred melodies to a normal condition as if they had been medically treated and undergone a catharsis…All experience a certain catharsis and pleasant relief. In the same manner cathartic melodies give innocent joy to men. (Burnet, 1905, p. 126)

While Aristotle emphasized the importance of music in the achievement of catharsis by viewers of tragic drama, he failed to define his terms or to locate the source of catharsis within musical notes or within the context of their performance. Some scholars propose that the cause of catharsis lies within musical notes and scales. For example, in his Discourses on the Homeric Poem, Italian Renaissance writer Torquato Tasso examined the emotional effects of particular musical modes:

The Phrygian and Lydian modes, and the one formed by combining them are much more desirable in tragedy and the canzone as in these they can move the mind and, so to speak, draw it out of itself. But they are not suitable for instruction… Since music was invented not merely to entertain idleness or as a medicine and catharsis for the mind but for instruction as well…A solemn and steady music like the Doric will serve the heroic poem better than any other. (Cavalchini, 1973, p. 199)

Like many of his time, Tasso searched for effects of music on human emotion and psyche by examining the construction of musical works and their perceived inherent powers. He concluded that among the many roles of music such as instruction and entertainment are those of medicine and catharsis for the mind.

Locating the source of catharsis continues to serve as a point of disagreement across disciplines (Meyer, 1956; Tasso 1973). Recently, scholars have begun to place a greater focus on cultural context in the determination of the effects of a particular musical work on its audience. This is a fundamental tenet of ethnomusicology that suggests that music does not merely reflect perceived social and cultural realities but is instrumental in creating them (Stokes,1994). As such, cultural context and life experiences can never be separated from ones understanding of a piece of music. This trend is also evident in the growing field of music therapy, the clinical use of music by a trained therapist to aid in the physical, psychological, cognitive and/or social functioning of a patient. A distinctive aspect of contemporary music therapy is the characterization of music experiences as a therapeutic tool rather than the music itself. This implies that the agent of catharsis therapy is not only contingent on the musical selection but also on the listener’s experience of it in a particular setting (Pavlicevic, 1997).

Physiological and Cultural Approaches to Music and Catharsis

Current interdisciplinary scholarship evidences two basic approaches to identifying catharsis achievement through music. From a physiological approach, neurologists and cognitive neuroscientists associate catharsis with the physical effects of music on the human body such as alterations in the chemical compositions of the brain (Salimpoor, 2011). A primary goal of their research is to determine the potential of music to serve as a non-pharmacological avenue of medical treatment. For example, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has demonstrated that certain musics provide temporary relief from various symptoms including the inability to speak and a temporary frozen state for patients with advanced Parkinson’s disease (Sacks, 2007). In addition, a researcher at McGill University demonstrated that listening to enjoyable music and even anticipating listening to such music causes our brain to release the chemical dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers (Moore, 2011). Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses and enables people to see rewards and to take action to move toward a potential reward. As examined in detail later in this article, sociologist Thomas Scheff adapted this physiological approach in his examination of catharsis, offering a clear set of emotions and physiological reflexes associated with its achievement (1979/2001).

A cultural examination of music and catharsis has led anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and others to develop analyses that disregard or even strongly oppose approaches based on chemical changes, pulse rates, and other physiological elements. These studies locate evidence of catharsis in personal testimony and in ethnographic research in diverse musicking (Small,1998) contexts rather than in neurological and physiological phenomena that are difficult to measure. Here, the ability of music to facilitate the achievement of catharsis rests on the existence of a shared structured set of symbols that are interpreted in particular ways. The Effectiveness of Symbols, (1977) by Claude Lévi-Strauss is an early example of the contextual approach to understanding the efficacy of music to engender similar phenomena of emotional release like in rituals of healing and tension release. Examining the successful musical intervention of a Cuna shaman in a difficult childbirth, Lévi-Strauss concluded that the success of the no-touch healing ritual relies on a shared, structured set of symbols between shaman and patient. Loring Danforth drew similar conclusions about the role of cultural context in determining the healing power of ritual and music. Examining the Anastenaria ritual of Northern Greece as a system of ritual psychotherapy that involves music, trance, possession, and fire walking, Danforth proposed that the therapeutic effectiveness of the Anastenaria rests on its ability to provide a “structured set of symbols with which [the participant] is able not only to express, but also to resolve, the psychological and sociocultural conflict which may have been at least partially responsible for his illness” (Danforth,1978, p. 5). He identified the performance of the Mikrokostantino song as an important symbolic structure through which Anastenaria participants recall and resolve their own personal afflictions (Danforth,1978). And in his important examination of music and trance in cross-cultural contexts, ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget proposed that the physiological and emotional effects of music are inseparable from patterns of collective representations and behavior. As such, he concluded that one cannot draw universal conclusions about the effectiveness of particular music or social settings but rather that their effectiveness is context-specific (1985).

Thomas Scheff’s Theory of Catharsis: A Physiological Approach

Thomas Scheff wrote Catharsis in Healing, Ritual, and Drama[3], which provided a useful model for determining the achievement of catharsis in diverse cultural contexts (1979/2001). Examining the phenomenon from a largely physiological approach, Scheff defined clearly his understanding of catharsis as a process of emotional release signaled by certain kinds of physical responses such as laughing, crying and sweating. Scheff made an important contribution to the discussion for he enriched his definition of catharsis with a detailed methodology for recognizing and achieving catharsis in various contexts.

The first step necessary to achieve catharsis is the evocation of distress in which repressed negative emotions are recalled in various ways. In the case of tragic drama for example, this can occur through the creation of circumstances that are intended to induce certain emotions from the audience such as grief, fear and anger. Scheff (1979/2001) recognized that the ability of ritual, healing, and tragic drama to evoke distress and influence the audience to achieve particular emotions that lead to catharsis is context-specific. His consideration of the effects of violent movies and television shows on the viewer is a telling example, which he claims may differ significantly depending upon the age or the gender of the viewer.

The second step fundamental to the achievement of catharsis is the distancing of the participant from the cause of the distress. Distancing allows for cognitive processing of the situation of the tragic character in a play or a healing ritual for example, as simultaneously similar to but separate from that of the viewer. Scheff (1979/2001) described this distancing as “controlled identification” with the dramatic characters that allows an audience to function simultaneously as “participants in, and observers of, the dramatic scene” (p. 143). As such, catharsis relies on:

identification that is sufficiently intense […] that the audience participates with the characters in the emotion arousing scenes vicariously, but not so intense that the members of the audience forget where they are, relive the distressful experiences, and are unable to discharge. (pp. 143-144)

According to this theory, at the right aesthetic distance, there occurs a balance of thought and feeling that allows the audience to feel sympathy, empathy and pity for the characters but not to actually suffer their pain. Scheff compared cathartic drama to a roller coaster that is designed to help the “average participant […] feel great danger and complete safety simultaneously” (Scheff, 1979/2001, p. 63). It is this balance of safety and danger that prevents underdistanced or overdistanced emotion and that helps music function as a coping mechanism in Rebetiki Istoria.

The third step in the theory of catharsis is the discharge of the distress. This can occur through various activities that encourage emotional release like spontaneous laughter at the result of embarrassment, hot sweat as the result of anger and sobbing with tears as a result of grief (Scheff, 1979/2001). Scheff determined that the achievement of catharsis is based largely on detectable physiological and emotional releases that when experienced at the proper aesthetic distance, results in catharsis by allowing the participant to experience exhilaration and renewed clarity of thought.

Towards a Theory of Catharsis From a Cultural Perspective

Engaging Scheff’s theory from a cultural perspective requires two important considerations. The first concerns the physiological understanding of catharsis. Scheff characterized catharsis as consisting of two components: “an emotional content, which is signaled by physical processes such as crying and laughing, and optimal distancing, which is signaled subjectively by feelings of control, pleasure, and relief (Scheff, 1979/2001, p. 65-66). While Scheff provides an “exhaustive list” (47) of physical processes that are included in his understanding of catharsis, my research in Rebetiki Istoria demonstrates that while many participants confirm experiencing rejuvenating emotional release and feelings of catharsis through rebetika musicking, they exhibited few or none of the physical processes in Scheff’s list. As such, primary consideration is given to the perception of catharsis by the participants rather than by the observer’s predetermined set of physiological characteristics.

The second key consideration involves Scheff’s (1979/2001) call for optimal distancing. This article proposes that optimal distancing leads to catharsis when the participant is able to recognize and rewrite his or her personal situation as partially a result of larger social forces. Engaging culture in order to rewrite cognitive understandings of ones social environment is a common sociological phenomenon characterized as knowledge practice (Casas-Cortes, Osterweil, & Powell 2008; Eyerman & Jamison, 1991). As demonstrated in the ethnographic portion of this paper, this partial shifting of responsibility of painful emotions to context and circumstance is crucial to releasing anxiety and stress. Anthropologist Loring Danforth noted this phenomenon in his examination of the effectiveness of the Anastenaria rituals, describing the crucial shift of responsibility for unusual behaviors from the participant to the patron saint necessary to achieving catharsis (1978). In the field of psychotherapy, the closely related phenomenon of conscious insight is a primary goal of various therapeutic methodologies as a means of providing relief from stressors (Scheff 1979/2001). Conscious insight describes the development of a greater awareness of motivation of behavior, thoughts and emotions. However, knowledge practice differs from conscious insight in the role of shared culture in leading to understanding of ones individual and social situation.

With these two considerations, the tripartite theory of catharsis and cultural performance outlined by Scheff (1979/2001) is an exceptionally useful paradigm for examining the Rebetiki Istoria music culture in the context of the economic crisis. In line with the model, achieving catharsis through rebetika depends clearly upon the tripartite process of evoking, distancing, and discharging distress. It is important to note that while rebetika music is the fundamental element necessary for this process, catharsis can occur through diverse interactions with the music that allow for the tripartite process including playing songs, listening to the music, engaging with the lyrics, dancing, and partaking in any combination of these activities. It is the shared symbolic structure of Rebetiki Istoria as working-class culture that allows for combined knowledge practice and emotional release necessary for this musicking practice to serve as cathartic coping mechanism in the context of the economic crisis. The next section of the article offers a case study for implementing the new context-based tripartite theory of catharsis to a musicking context by examining the Rebetiki Istoria music culture against the backdrop of the economic crisis in Greece.

Rebetiki Istoria as Symbolic Structure in Economic Crisis

Background on The Economic Crisis and Rebetiki Istoria

In order to understand the Rebetiki Istoria music culture as cathartic coping mechanism, it is necessary to examine the context of the economic crisis. In January 2009, the Greek economy tipped into recession and public sector debt reached an all-time high of 97.4% of the GDP. International media and economists alike described the situation as an economic crisis, “a long-term economic state characterized by unemployment and low prices and low levels of trade and investment.[4]” To finance its debts, Greece borrowed 110 billion euros from the International Monetary Fund and from Eurozone partners, under the condition that it curtail government spending and implement austerity measures. However, the ensuing capitalist restructuring policies had a catastrophic effect on the Greek economy and extraordinary consequences on everyday life. Implementation of a new economic model lowered the general standard of living and left millions of people impoverished. By 2015, unemployment had reached 25.8%; since 2008, one in four small and medium-sized enterprises had closed and the Greek stock market had fallen 83.9%; inflation and a 23% tax increase on most goods slowed to a crawl an already sluggish market and the rate of homelessness and suicide increased dramatically (Stamouli, 2015). The economic crisis quickly turned into a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Many Greeks questioned whether maintaining Eurozone membership was a suitable option for resolving the Greek economic situation, suggesting instead a return to the drachma currency and an increased national autonomy to regulate Greek economic practices. Hundreds of thousands of people left Greece to study or work in other countries.

Within the context of the economic crisis, Rebetiki Istoria came to serve as a political and cultural bastion of left-wing politics. To this working class community whose members are adamantly opposed to Greek Eurozone membership, rebetika with its Eastern modes and instruments embodies an imagined autonomous Greece while expressing shared experiences of social injustice. Rebetiki Istoria participantscharacterize rebetika as the perfect music to listen to in the context of the economic crisis and many believe that rebetika songs are more relevant today than when they first emerged during the early twentieth century. As characterized by Vassiliou:

Rebetika songs will never go out of fashion. And that is because nothing has changed in Greece. The economic situation, the corruption, [Greece’s] geographic position as a pawn for larger nations, it will never be fixed. Just look at rebetika. The songs are more relevant today with the crisis than they were when they were first written” (Vassiliou in Stamatis field notes, 2011).

Many describe how the music resounds with the experience of severe economic hardship during the crisis and expresses in its lyrics the shared lack of hope for change. “No one could have said it better than Markos… He was a poet of the people, and he sang about our problems more poignantly than any contemporary singer ever could. He already understood that this mess of a nation will never be fixed” (Vangelis in Stamatis field notes, 2011). According to many Rebetiki Istoria participants, a true left-wing party like KKE[5] could never gain power and the SYRIZA[6] party that did gain power in 2015 did little to improve the situation for the Greek people. As such, their musicking functions as coping mechanism providing cathartic release for its working-class participants who have long lost hope for improved life circumstances. In the next section, I offer a brief ethnographic account of Rebetiki Istoria and background on rebetika to give insight into its functioning as powerful symbolic structure for achieving catharsis.

A Brief Introduction to Rebetiki Istoria

“Long live poverty and death to the crisis!” Rebetika singer Pavlos Vassiliou calls out this characteristic phrase as he begins his performance of the well-known rebetika song, “The Crisis.” The song tells of another economic crisis, the Great Depression of the 1930s and its dramatic effects on everyday life. Though the famous rebetika musician Kostas Roukounas composed it in 1931, lately, Rebetiki Istoria audiences request regularly the song that expresses their own economic troubles and worldview. On one particular evening, long-time rebetika fan Christos makes the request. As soon as he hears the first notes of the song introduction, he rises deliberately from his chair, throws his head back and holds his hands up in the air. “That’s right,” he calls out, as he sways to the rhythm. “Sing about things as they really are…so that maybe one day they will get better!” He drowns this last sentence in a sarcastic chuckle. Patrons at surrounding tables clap in time with the rhythm and sing along with the lyrics[7]:

The taxes and the political parties brought about this crisis
that made the people unable to live

And all of the poor people are fighting to succeed
To earn their bread and feed their families

But it is impossible for him to make money
And every day he curses the damned crisis

Everyone has lost their mind and has gone crazy
And every day they curse the crisis they experience.[8]

A young rebetika fan pours a glass of wine and sets it on the floor in front of Christos. The glass of wine now provides a focal point for his dance. He has begun to spin around, his movements in sync with the rhythm. Vassiliou leans into the microphone: “What can I say Christo? Nothing ever changes in this country.” Christos calls out with his eyes closed. “That’s right, Pavlo. That’s how it is. But no matter, since we have kefi [high spirits], we’ll throw off all our worries tonight!” The song ends somewhat abruptly. Christos continues to spin around and around, the thud of his boots shaking the room.

The working-class atmosphere of Rebetiki Istoria is largely the result of specific efforts by owner and lead singer Pavlos Vassiliou. In 1981, Vassiliou opened the rebetadiko to provide a space for the working class to enjoy early style rebetika in the setting of a turn-of-the-century tavern. He was disappointed with contemporary posh rebetika venues that offered an updated style of rebetika performance that brought the music far from its working class roots. These other musical programs included an array of musical styles like nisiotika (island dances), archondorebetika (light rebetika), and laïka (popular song), and audience behavior was often boisterous and wild. For example, it was common for audience members to break plates on the floor, to throw flowers at the musicians in overt displays of wealth and revelry and even to dance on chairs and tables. To Vassiliou, resisting these changes symbolized simultaneously his respect for rebetika and his disapproval of the hybridization of the music that he believed was due in large to the ‘crypto-colonization” (Herzfeld, 2002, p. 901) of Greece by other Western European nations. Rebetiki Istoria would offer a strict musical program of early rebetika songs that resisted the social and musical changes of the newer popular style of rebetika that arose in the 1950s and condone a more modest means of enjoying the music.

The symbolic structure of the music venue as a political expression of leftist politics permeates the music culture and is evident even in its physical setting. For example, the rickety furniture, casual dress code, and modest decorations make a clear statement about the desired clientele. The walls that are covered with hundreds of faded photographs of the early proponents of rebetika, serve as a kind of shrine to the working class musicians who sang about the plight of the working class. And unlike other venues, there is little opportunity for patrons to display their wealth. For example, while offering a monetary tip to a musician is acceptable in other music clubs, in Rebetiki Istoria this is highly discouraged. The symbolic structure of the tavern is so effective that new customers are often caught by surprise by the modest setup: they enter the tavern wrapped in furs or wearing tailored suits, and after peering through the smoke-filled air in disdain, they make an abrupt U-turn and file out of the door.

A political and cultural expression of leftist politics, Rebetiki Istoria emerged as a unique live music venue, providing a space for working class youth to bond with like-minded company and to escape the stresses of everyday life. Vassiliou developed a devoted clientele of leftist working-class Greeks who appreciated the high-quality musical program and who sympathized with his political and cultural ideals. It was clear to musicians and audiences alike that rebetika songs of the early twentieth century remained entirely relevant and expressed clearly the troubles of the contemporary working class. In Rebetiki Istoria, powerful ideologies about rebetika characterize shared understandings of the music amongst participants. Above all, rebetika is working class music that resists conformity, decries social injustice, and rejects the Europeanization of Greek culture. These understandings are embedded powerfully in early rebetika sounds, lyrics, and dance practices, remnants of a long history of debate in Greece about the value of the music. The heightened appeal of early rebetika and of the Rebetiki Istoria culture in the current economic crisis becomes clear through a brief discussion of rebetika history.

Rebetika: A Brief History

Rebetika is an urban popular song genre that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century in Athens, in Asia Minor and in other major cities around the world with a large Greek population. Two main stylistic traditions emerged: Smyrneika from Asia Minor and Pireotika from the mainland. On the mainland, the Smyrneika and Pireotika influenced each other and songs were written that expressed the new and often trying conditions of everyday life in the city. Here, rebetika emerged as distinctly working class music in the context of the tavern, the teke [hashish den], and the kapilio [small tavern offering barrel wine and appetizers]. Song lyrics expressed everyday life, centering on topics such as unemployment, being a refugee, love, loss, and poverty. The lyrics were simple and direct, filled with vivid imagery and powerful emotion—usually sadness and pain. Basic instrumentation included the bouzouki (a plucked lute with three courses of double steel strings), the baglama (a small-sized bouzouki), the guitar, and the voice. Women appeared in these venues often as singers or accordion players.

Rebetika quickly garnered a negative reputation. Differing from mainstream art music and popular music in social milieu and musical characteristics, rebetika was an easy target for diverse criticism. Those who desired a strongly European-influenced popular culture rejected rebetika, characterizing it as Eastern in character for its musical modes, timbres, instrumentation, and language. Others rejected the music for its association with the working class and with a hashish-oriented subculture. At various points throughout the twentieth century, rebetika was censored or banned in an effort to impose particular perceptions of how Greek music should sound. Still today, one can purchase a number of books and recordings that advertise rebetika as the music of a supposedly dark and mysterious underworld or as the music of the streets[9]. And young Greeks incorporate rebetika into their own adolescent rebellion, playing songs on a bouzouki and a guitar as a means of diverse individual and political protests. In Rebetiki Istoria, rebetika songs are neither of the streets nor are they connected to a drug culture. Instead, they comprise an urban folk music genre, and are understood as an accurate representation of Greek working class experience. What’s more, they are understood to embody a Greek national identity that rejects Western European culture and economic systems and instead lauds contemporary working class experience.

Rebetiki Istoria as Catharsis

“What if they gave a crisis and nobody came?” (from the title of Hirschbein, 1997)

The Economic Crisis and Rebetiki Istoria

While Rebetiki Istoria participants have long considered rebetika songs an accurate depiction of the social injustices of contemporary Greek society, this ideology has become even more prominent in the context of the economic crisis. Now participants intertwine their musicking with political resistance in a manner obvious and undeniable. For example, united in their distaste for the perceived exploitation of Greece by its leaders and by other European Union nations, patrons created a new tradition in which they chime in during the performance of a song by chanting various political slogans. This results in a powerful counterpoint of rebetika songs with words of resistance: “Εμπρός λαέ μη σκύβεις το κεφάλι, τώρα με το ΚΚΕ αντίσταση και πάλι!” [“Forward people, do not bow your head, now with KKE, resistance once more!”] or “Χωρίς εσένα, γρανάζι δεν γυρνα, εργάτη, μπορείς, χωρίς αφεντικά!” [“Without you gears do not turn, worker, you can do it without bosses!”] Vassiliou notes a distinct change in the Rebetiki Istoria audience and culture since the onset of the economic crisis: “The clientele has changed, and their behavior has changed. Yes, Rebetiki Istoria always appealed to the youth and to Leftists. But now the situation has become exaggerated. Now ANTARSYA[10]brings groups of twenty to thirty people here and they stay until the morning” (Vassiliou in Stamatis field notes, 2013).

Rebetiki Istoria helps unify politically the working class of various leftist persuasions. Regular participants are active members of a wide range of left-oriented political parties like KKE, ANTARSYA, SYRIZA, and self-proclaimed anarchists groups. They appear in the front line at rallies holding the flags whose thick wooden bases double as a form of protection. While participant affiliation with various left-wing parties is cause for some disagreement, their shared rejection of certain political figures and ideologies serves as a powerful bonding mechanism. This communality is aided by the common rebetika repertoire that is understood to express the shared fate of the working class. Interestingly, this camaraderie transfers also into the political realm in certain ways. For example, at anti austerity marches, I have witnessed Rebetiki Istoria participants overlook their political differences and seek each other out to march together. In addition, when rioting anarchists destroyed much of Ippokratous Street, Rebetiki Istoria remained unscathed though Vassiliou is known as a staunch supporter of KKE and as an advocate of nonviolent resistance. The feeling of camaraderie was evidenced in the following exchange between a prominent figure in the riots [whom I will call Giorgos] and Vassiliou who disapproves of violent demonstrations:

VASSILIOU: Your friends really destroyed Ippokratous this time.
GIORGOS: You noticed didn’t you, that we didn’t touch Rebetiki Istoria?
VASSILIOU: Of course you didn’t. Where else would you spend the night?

This anecdote demonstrates clearly the partiality towards Rebetiki Istoria amongst diverse left-wing groups in spite of certain political differences. Vassiliou often tests the limits of the community bond. For example, it is not uncommon for him to send the waitress into the kitchen to bring out the red KKE flag a patron had brought from a recent rally. With minimal resistance (she is a self-proclaimed anarchist), the waitress emerges with the flag and parades around the rebetadiko accompanied by cheers from the crowd. Once more, despite their mild political differences and significant economic worries, Rebetiki Istoria musicking helps patrons unify and achieve remarkably good cheer.

Rebetiki Istoria Musicking as Cathartic Coping Mechanism

In order to understand how Rebetiki Istoria musicking functions as cathartic coping mechanism within the crisis, it is necessary to examine briefly the role of such mechanisms in the alleviation of stress. Coping mechanisms are characterized as specific efforts, both behavioral and psychological designed to master, tolerate, reduce, or minimize stressful events (Taylor, 1998). They take two basic forms: active coping strategies that are designed to change the nature of the stressor or ones perception of it and avoidant coping strategies that keep people from addressing stressful events directly. The combination of active and avoidant coping strategies in Rebetiki Istoria in the form of emotional release and knowledge practice, allows the music culture to function as cathartic coping mechanism for working class Greeks experiencing the crisis. This becomes clear in the application of the revised version of Scheff’s (1979/2001) model of catharsis to this music culture that includes: evocation of distress and knowledge practice; distancing of distress; and discharge of distress. Fundamental to this new model is the understanding of catharsis from a cultural context rather than as evidenced in specific physiological reactions.

Step One: Evocation of the Distress and Knowledge Practice

This paper applies to the rebetika culture Scheff’s (1979/2001) tripartite model of catharsis with slight modifications. For example, it suggests that the first step, the evocation of distress, is a profound agent of catharsis when combined with “knowledge practice,” the engagement of culture to gain new perspective on social situations (Eyerman & Jamison, 1998, p. 23-24). As Rebetiki Istoria participants engage in various activities that help them relieve their stress, they participate in truth-bearing practices that bring increased cognitive insight about their social situation. It is the shared symbolic structure that allows participants to evoke the cause of their distress in various ways.

The music of rebetika songs is an important element in the evocation of distress and in the enabling of knowledge practice. For example, in the rebetadiko, the very sound of the instruments functions as a powerful semiotic structure. The timbre of the six-stringed bouzouki is a particularly meaningful symbol, understood largely through shared semiotic interpretations about self and other. The bouzouki is an instrument with a long history of persecution in Greece for its associations with an early-twentieth century deviant subculture that strayed from mainstream ideals for a Europeanized Greek national culture. It was understood to promote a national identity that embraced Greek Ottoman history in dress, language, demeanor, and music associated with Turkey and the Middle East. Today, these associations remain. As such, often audience members call out cries of delight when the musicians begin to play their instrumental selections. “That’s it! That’s the real rebetika. That’s our music!” they call out. Or, “Cheers to you Pavlo with the stroke of your pick. Tell them how it is. Show them!” For working class Greeks, the very timbre of the six-stringed bouzouki bears a host of connotations about social, economic, and national identity and embodies their ideological resistance.

The zeïbekikos rhythm is another important aural symbol that leads to knowledge practice. The 9/8 pattern of beats permeates much of the rebetika repertoire. It is associated with its accompanying zeïbekikos dance, which, as examined later in this article, is associated with displays of autonomy, strength, and masculinity. Hearing the guitar play the zeïbekikos meter is enough to encourage an audience member to get up and dance. The zeïbekikos rhythm is so powerful in fact, that certain zeïbekikos songs have taken on shared symbolic meaning. The Zeïbekikos of Evdohias is a telling example. This song has no lyrics and a simple repetitive melody, and yet it has become a yet beloved means for audience members to achieve emotional discharge by listening, clapping along to the rhythm, or dancing. In fact, the emotional response of audience members to this song is so profound, that Pavlos Vassiliou overlooks the fact that it strays a bit chronologically and stylistically from early rebetika and allows its inclusion in the music program.

In Rebetiki Istoria, music with lyrics presents a heightened potential for evoking distress and allowing for knowledge practice. This is because the presence of a narrative opens up a host of possibilities for interpretation and distanced identification with the people and situations discussed in the lyrics. Numerous scholars have noted that narration can help audiences revisit personal experiences through the actions of others, reliving these moments at a distance and giving them an ending. In Structural Anthropology, Claude Levi-Strauss cited the cathartic character of narrative in his discussion of Shamanistic invocations of ancient myths. Myths do not necessarily provide answers to irresolvable problems of the past but “symbolic response at the cathartic level of imaginary plots, characters and representations” (Kearney, 2007, p. 53). Characterizing myths as machines for the suppression of time, Strauss emphasizes the ability of the viewer to identify with the characters of myths so strongly that he reexperiences past events. Psychologists Maria Louise Von Franz and Bruno Bettleheim support the cathartic function of myth in the processing of painful events of such magnitude that one was unable to fully register them: “Myths enable us to experience certain otherwise inexperienced experiences—that is, events that were too painful to be properly registered at the time but which can, après coup, be allowed into expression indirectly, fictionally, ‘as if’ they were happening” (Kearney, 2007, p. 141). Music with lyrics can function in a similar fashion, providing a structure of imaginary plots and characters with which the audience can identify and which allows one to empathize with the character and re-experience past traumas at a distance.

In Rebetiki Istoria, song lyrics provide a structure of relatable plots and characters with which the audience can identify and empathize. Their identification with the lyrics is so strong that the process serves as knowledge practice allowing participants to gain renewed understanding of their own social situation. Lévi-Strauss discusses this cathartic character of narrative in his examination of ancient myths with which one may identify so strongly that one re-experiences to some extent past events in ones own life (1958). Psychologists Maria Louise Von Franz (1996) and Bruno Bettleheim (2010) proposed that it is the audience identification with characters that allows a myth to serve as cathartic narrative through which the viewer may process personal painful experiences of great magnitude. In the rebetadiko, audience identification with the song lyrics occurs in numerous ways. For example, many songs describe situations that resonate clearly with participant experiences of the crisis. This is evidenced in the incorporation of song texts and song requests into conversations. In the following example, a heated political debate about the cause of the crisis dissipates only with the performance of an appropriate song. The conversation takes place between longtime rebetiko patron Kostas and Vassiliou:

“What’s happening, Kosta?” Vassiliou asks.
“Eh, I’m waiting to die,” Kostas responds, a wry smile on his lips.
“Any business?” Vassiliou asks.
“Nothing.” Says Kostas.
“Eh, same here.” says Vassiliou.
Kostas replies: “It’s as we say, it gets worse each year.”
Vassiliou; “Yes yes, that’s how it is. Well, what can I say. We’ve got your political party to thank for this mess.”

At this point the atmosphere becomes tense as Kostas and Vassiliou take turns blaming each other’s political party for creating the crisis. During a lull in the conversation, Kostas begins to hum the song, “Those Who Have a Lot of Money” by Markos Vamvakaris. Vassiliou acknowledges this signal and as Kostas rises to dance the zeïbekikos, the musicians play the song.

“Those who have a lot of money
I wonder what they do with it
I wonder when they die aman aman[11],
if they will take it with them…”[12]

“That’s right, Pavlo. Tell it how it is!” cries Kostas. When the song ends, Kostas smiles and pats Vassiliou on the shoulder. Once again tonight, the music has functioned as a balm and Kostas and Vassiliou are friendly and in good spirits.

Audience identification with rebetika songs is aided by the enormous rebetika repertoire of the Rebetiki Istoria musicians that allows them to fulfill nearly all audience song requests. This facilitates audience identification with characters of the songs because each participant can create his own personal repertoire of favorite songs. Also, numerous songs express the working-class experience of the economic crisis and the shared worldview that blame for the crisis lies with others. “Κατηγορώ την Κοινωνία” [I Blame Society] by Vassilis Tsitsanis is a telling example. This song is told from the point of view of a man who struggles to make a living as a victim of cruel fate and of an unforgiving society.

I blame malicious criminal society
That always throws the poor man into despair
I blame society for this terrible situation.

I blame man with his hardened heart
For taking joy in the misfortune of others
I blame society for this terrible situation.

I blame the lowness and greed
The fake mask and black betrayal
I blame society for this terrible situation.[13]

In this song it is the callousness of society that is to blame for the misfortunes of the impoverished. This social positioning of the subject of the lyrics as innocent victim is important in individualized character identification by Rebetiki Istoria participants for it shifts the blame from the individual to the social system. This knowledge practice and cognitive distancing are crucial to achieving catharsis in music because it allows the participant to recognize his own fate as part of a larger social system. Audience identification with these songs is evidenced in diverse ways including by singing along to the music, dancing the solo zeïbekikos, and by expressing their enthusiasm and investment in the song by calling out characteristic phrases [επιφωνήματα] during a song performance. These include, “That’s right, tell it as it really is!” “Let’s Go!” “Tell it like it is, Pavlo, so that one day maybe things will get better!”

Distancing of Distress

Thomas Scheff (1979/2001) emphasized the role of cognitive distancing in the achievement of catharsis, which enables one to simultaneously re-experience a difficult life event and process it cognitively. In Rebetiki Istoria aesthetic distancing from the songs occurs in numerous ways. Perhaps most significantly, participants are distanced chronologically from the content of the lyrics as nearly all songs in the Rebetiki Istoria repertoire were written before 1955. This chronological distancing is clearly evident in numerous ways; for example, often songs tell stories of people who have long passed away or about situations that no longer exist in Greece like rule by a monarchy. In addition, the linguistic style of many song texts emulates a manner of speaking that was unique to the urban working class of the early 20th century. Many songs contain linguistic phrases that are no longer in vogue and that feature slang words that are no longer commonplace. In fact, many contemporary Greeks do not fully understand the jargon and Rebetiki Istoria patrons rely on Vassiliou to explain these terms.[14]

Chronological distancing exists in Rebetiki Istoria in the shared participant understanding that one cannot compose new rebetika songs. This is because the musical and linguistic expressions that characterize rebetika are no longer in vogue, which would render new compositions somehow inauthentic.[15]As such, musicians and audiences must rely on the repertoire of songs that circulated in the late 19th and early 20th century. Distancing occurs also through the presence of intentional anachronisms in themusic culture. These include the soundscape of the rebetadiko,as the musicians reject the hybridized musical style of rebetika that became popular in the mainstream after the 1950s. Musicians refuse to incorporate the tetrachordo bouzouki [four-course bouzouki] or to perform with the simplified vocal ornamentation style, and they retain the complex system of musical modes as opposed to transposing many songs into major and minor keys. And aside from a faulty sound system and rickety electric heater, there are few elements of modern technology visible in the rebetadiko.

While the democratic process of song requests allows audience members to listen to their personal song choice, it also contributes to the experience of distancing. Since all Rebetiki Istoria participants may not feel an equal connection to every song or empathize with every character, they often wait impatiently for the performance of someone else’s song request to end. This is clearly evident when audience members request songs that reference situations to which many members of Rebetiki Istoria cannot directly relate. “Ο Πόνος του Πρεζάκια” by Anestis Delias is a telling example, which tells the story of a drug-addicted musician whose dies at a tragically young age.

From the time I started to smoke dope
The world turned its back on me
And I don’t know what to do.

Wherever I go people bother me
And my soul cannot take
Being called a junkie

From sniffing it up
I went to the needle
And my body slowly started to melt

There is nothing left
For me to do in this world
For dope has left me to die in the streets.[16]

Those who cannot relate to the song or who do not enjoy its melody may not feel a direct connection. Often, they may approach the musicians as they are performing to request their own song, an act that never fails to bother the performers for the demonstrated lack of interest in the current performance.

Rebetiki Istoria participants are distanced aesthetically from the rebetika songs in their role as audience members as well. Their participation as audience in the performance of the song is regulated to clearly defined behaviors that include listening, dancing, clapping to the rhythm, or singing along with songs in a subdued manner. Singing too loudly, dancing wildly, or taking over the performance in any way that draws attention away from the song and towards the participant, is considered disrespectful and inappropriate. Performing musicians experience the music also at an aesthetic distance: in order to honor the many audience song requests, they maintain only minimal control over the contents or order of the program. This means that on any given evening, musicians may perform many songs to which they do not feel a direct connection. Finally, the finite nature of the rebetika song contributes to aesthetic distancing. Rebetika songs generally last between 3-5 minutes, and thus allow participants to recall particular life situations through the songs in an ephemeral way. In addition, the song outcome may be very different from that which the audience experienced or anticipates in real life. This discrepancy allows the viewer to develop strong empathetic connections to the characters but also to recognize their distance from them.[17]

Discharge of the Distress

“I don’t know how other people manage, those who do not have rebetika.”
(Vangelis Nikolaidis, Rebetiki Istoria guitarist)

In Rebetiki Istoria, various elements help participants discharge crisis-related stress. These include developing group cohesion, achieving kefi, singing, and dancing. Rebetiki Istoria participants engage in what psychologist Stanley Schachter called the affiliative tendency, (1959) the search during anxiety inducing conditions for company with people experiencing a similar situation. This behavior can lead to: (a) cognitive clarity, in which subjects gain greater insight on their collective situation; (b) direct anxiety reduction, as a result of the comfort, support and reassurance received from others; and (c) self-evaluation, in which one establishes a framework for understanding ones social position (Schachter, 1959, p. 26). Gaining temporary strength in numbers with others experiencing a similarly distressful situation is a powerful means of discharging distress; it encourages group unification and identification which can lead to individual and shared empowerment, a gained sense of control over ones situation and subsequent catharsis.

In Rebetiki Istoria, musicking encourages group unification and the discharge of distress in numerous ways. One example is the process of entrainment, “whereby two rhythmic processes interact with each other in such a way that they adjust and eventually ‘lock in’ to a common phase and/or periodicity” (Clayton, Sager, & Will, 2004, p. 2). Entrainment can take the form of simple rhythmic coordination through music like foot tapping or more complex synchronization of group behavior. Alan Lomax (1982) demonstrated the importance of rhythmic entrainment in building social relations:

Rhythm [plays a role] in linking people, by providing a common framework of identification…The important role of rhythm in group behavior suggests that we can view the rhythmic aspects of communication as essentially social in nature – a system that binds individuals together into effective groups and links groups into communities and polities. (Lomax, 1982, pp. 149-150)

John Blacking characterized this notion as “the experience of ‘falling into phase’” (1983, p. 57) with others. Timothy Rice explained that “acting together in rhythm to the music, people turn an individual psychological response into a social resource that brings communities, affinity groups, and entire societies into sync with one another” (2014, p. 50). In Rebetiki Istoria, rhythmic unification draws together musicians and audience; asthe musicians play a song, the audience hears the characteristic ostinato that characterizes almost all rebetika songs. They clap and tap their feet in time, the dancer moves to the music, and they move in sync with other participants.

Rebetiki Istoria participants strengthen group cohesion and relieve stress in other ways. For example, during certain songs, nearly everyone present sings along loudly with certain song lyrics. Audiences tend to chime in on subversive lyrics that concern political matters or that reference alcohol or hashish. For example, a performance of the famous song “Whoever Becomes Prime Minister” by Markos Vamvakaris usually encourages this behavior. The audience sings along with the italicized lines: “Whoever becomes prime minister/ they will die/ they will be chased by the people/for all the good they do.”[18]Significant bibliography examines the value of reciting song texts as mechanisms for the psychological release of emotion (see Holst-Warhaft, 1992; Ottenheimer 1979). Freud and Breuer suggested that the act of speaking could adequately release negative affect through catharsis. In this understanding, language serves as a substitute for action like crying due as a symbolic act of speaking. In Rebetiki Istoria, the discharge of distress is heightened when audiences sing lyrics to songs that maintain particular relevance to their shared social situation. This is clearly evident in the volume with which they sing and through their body language that often involves them rising out of their chair and throwing one arm in the air in time with the song rhythm.

Kefi,a feeling of high spirits and good humor, is an important term with which rebetiko musickers describe group tension release. Kefi describes the feeling of emotional intensity or soaring elation achieved through music or dance similar to achieving high spirits, pleasure, or even communion (Blau, Keil, Vellou-Keil and Feld, 2002).[19]Papataxiarchis and others suggest that while kefi is an individual emotional expression, it relies on the presence of the group. “Ideally, kefi is reached in glendi, a collective field of expression and festivity where male communion reaches its highest form” (Papataxiarchis as quoted by Cowan, 1990, p. 107). Demeter Tsounis emphasized the necessity of the group to encourage the individual expression of kefi through music making and dancing. According to Tsounis, these feelings cannot exist without the support of the collectivity (Tsounis, 1995). Despretdescribed kefi as “a dynamic matching process that consists of pairing moods”, (2001/1999, p.110) and Jane Cowan (1990) described it as “an ideal state of communal sociability” (1990, p. 106). In her discussion of Greek dance, anthropologist Patricia Riak proposed that, kefi can serve as a cathartic expression of the human spirit (2007). However, she did not explain how this occurs, or define clearly how this allows for the experience of catharsis.

In Rebetiki Istoria,dance is a powerful tool for achieving kefi and for inducing stress relief. The solo zeïbekikos is the most popular rebetika dance and is understood to be a heightened form of expression of ones emotional investment in a particular song. A fundamental element of this music culture, the zeïbekikos serves as the focal point of many songs as musicians and audience members focus on the dancer and its unique and powerful emotional expression. Long-time rebetiko fan Giorgos once said to me, “There is no greater feeling than dancing a good zeïbekikos. When you have kefi to dance, whatever you’ve got, whatever has been troubling you just melts away” (P, Vassiliou, personal communication, March 01, 2011). Vassiliou echoed this understanding of the cathartic experience of the solo improvisational zeïbekikos dance: “It is as if the dancer carries the weight of the world on his shoulders and through the dance is able to relieve some of the burden even if just for a little while. Of course, you have to be in the mood to dance. And to play music for that matter. If you don’t have kefi, there is nothing anyone can do that will help” (Vassiliou in Stamatis field notes, 2007).

The fundamental role of the zeïbekikos in Rebetiki Istoria culture merits a discussion of the connections between dance and catharsis. Many dance scholars suggest that as an activity that engages the whole body and brain, dance is an important tool for stress relief. Stress is a “whole-body phenomenon” (Baum,1990, p. 658) that occurs when the individual is unable to accommodate imposed demands (Munroe,1989). In this understanding, stress is a “negative emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological, and behavioral changes that are directed toward adaptation either by manipulating the situation to alter the stressor or by accommodating its effects” (Baum,1990, p. 653). As such, the mere physical exertion of dance can provide healthy physical fatigue and psychological distraction from unpleasant feelings (Munroe, 1955). In addition, dance encourages active imagination (Jung,1959), the use of expressive body movement as a means to give form to the unconscious. Psychiatrist Lambo (1965) described dance as fundamental to the achievement of catharsis and to the prevention of depression and the accumulation of other psychic stress (p. 41). Judith Hanna (1988) offered a physiological hypothesis for the effectiveness of dance in stress relief: “when a person neither fights nor flees because physical action in the immediate situation is inappropriate, biochemical elements of energy may remain in the body” (p. 11). The physical activity of dance permits a natural release of stress related hormones. In addition, the exercise of dance increases the circulation of blood carrying oxygen to the muscles and the brain and alters the level of certain brain chemicals, as in the stress response pattern. Vigorous dancing induces the release of endorphins thought to produce analgesia and euphoria. (p. 12)

From a physiological understanding, dance can increase the physical strength of the body by building muscle density (Willford, Scharff-Olson, & Blessing, 1989), and help maintain physical health by lowering high blood pressure and the resting heart rate (Hui, Chui & Woo 2009).

In the popular imagination, the most popular rebetika dance, the zeïbekikos, is often connected with notions of stress release and catharsis. The solo improvisatory dance, commonly characterized as a vehicle for the celebration of machismo for the male dancer,[20]is associated with the rebetika ideology of heroic strength in the face of injustice. Tragaki (2007) describes the zeïbekikos dance as an expression of internal strength that overcomes pained emotion: “Zeïbekikos is a celebration of masculinity danced in movements and gestures expressing an authoritative yet introspective performance of pain and self-contained pride that metaphorically reasserts with the mangas’ [tough guy’s] dominance of public space” (p. 40). The zeïbekikos is also danced by women who also assume a form of female assertiveness. “The solo zeïbekikos, a traditional male dance with martial origins, has come to symbolize a particular Greek expression of assertiveness for both men and women… When women perform the zeïbekikos, they appear to acquire the symbolic assertiveness of the dance, translating it into a type of contemporary feminism” (Tsounis, 1995, p. 99). Public performance of strength and agility while focusing on overcoming ones troubles help rebetiko musickers gain symbolic control over their troubles.

Like kefi, the zeïbekikos dance is an individual expression that relies on the symbolic structure of the group. As such, the achievement of tension release and catharsis through the zeïbekikos hinges upon the ability of the dancer to engage with his internal thoughts in the presence of an interested entrained audience. Vassiliou emphasizes the careful balance between individual concentration and awareness of the audience:

The person who dances one zeïbekikos dance after another, he is not truly getting rid of his meraki [troubles/longing]. It is a show for others to watch and applaud. The true rebetis is so moved by a particular song, by its lyrics or its music in such a profound way, that he is moved to get up and dance and he almost forgets that anyone is watching. (Vassiliou in Stamatis fieldnotes, 2007)

Gail Holst shares the understanding that the dance is a solitary expression of catharsis for the dancer that depends upon the presence of a group:

The dance took place in public, people were watching it, and yet it appeared to be a private, introspective experience for the dancer. Sometimes there would be applause for the dance, sometimes not, but the function of the dance was certainly not to entertain the company. It was as if the dance served as a sort of catharsis for the dancer, after which he sat down at his table and continued eating and drinking with renewed appetite. (Holst, 1983, pp. 11-12)

The successful zeïbekikos dance relies on the tension between being lost in ones thoughts and demonstrating this to ones audience. Jane Cowan (1990) noted a similar phenomenon in the patinadha dancers of Sohos.

Relieving stress through zeïbekikos dance depends on group cohesion and audience behavior. This is because empowerment through dance and subsequent catharsis depends not only on physical exertion and expression of the subconscious but through entrainment and approval from other participants. A zeïbekikos dance encourages particular kinds of audience behavior. For example, if the audience feels that the dance is a true expression of pain and not just an acrobatic show, they will interact with the dancer in certain ways: they may clap along to the rhythm of the dance; his friends may kneel on the floor in a circle around the dancer and clap to the rhythm; an audience member may place a glass of wine in the center of the dance floor in order to provide a focal point for the dancer. As such, the zeïbekikos dance is also context based and its physical and psychological potential to encourage catharsis depends upon group cohesion.[21]

The verbal descriptions of the dancing experience by the zeïbekikos dancers portray the perceived cathartic function of the dance. Common descriptions of the dance include “I let get of my worries,” and “I dance until I forget and feel better.” Pavlos Vassiliou describes the zeïbekikos in terms of emotional release that relies on the interaction of the dancer and the musicians:

The zeïbekikos, the dance rhythm that characterizes the man that is lost in the psychological state that is created by the sounds of the instruments, lyrics and rhythms. The dancer many times feels that we wants to take off, to fly, to not step on the earth, he believes he is alone and like another Atlas, carries on his shoulders all the troubles and worries of the world. He wants with one movement to throw off all that which weighs on him. (Vassiliou in Stamatis, 2011, pp. 298-299)

Demeter Tsounis (1995) observed a similar phenomenon in his study of rebetika music and the zeïbekikos dance in Adelaide:

The zeïbekikos, of all the Greek dances, is typified by Greek people as the most cathartic dance. Comments like, ‘I break out,’ ‘I let go of my worries and inhibitions,’ ‘I don’t care what other people think’ indicate that zeïbekikos dancers experience feelings of liberation from the mundane world and everyday relationships. (Tsounis, 1995, p. 95)

Psychologists have found that an improved sense of control over ones situation functions as an active coping mechanism and as such can be crucial to the achievement of catharsis.[22]As such, the zeïbekikos serves as a vehicle of individual empowerment and the dancer often feels a sense of accomplishment after completing a solo zeïbekikos. Participants acquire a more prominent role in the rebetiko musicking also as they help direct the flow of the musical event by making song requests and by dancing.


This paper examined cultural practice as a cathartic coping mechanism. The case study was the music culture of the Rebetiki Istoria club in Athens, Greece within the context of the contemporary economic crisis. Positioning the economic crisis as a social construction, it examined the rebetika culture as a coping mechanism for dealing with crisis-induced anxiety. The fundamental theoretical paradigm for this examination was the tripartite model of catharsis outlined by Thomas Scheff (1979/2001) in his examination of catharsis in healing, ritual, and drama. Adapting the model slightly to a cultural approach to catharsis in a group musicking context, the paper offered a theoretical construct for ethnomusicologists and cultural anthropologists to examine catharsis from a contextual rather than a physiological perspective. The new tripartite model consisted of the evocation of distress and combined knowledge practice, the distancing of distress and the discharge of distress. The ethnographic examination of Rebetiki Istoria as cathartic coping mechanism was intended to serve as an example of the application of this theory in context.

It is likely that other forms of group cultural production in contemporary Greece including street art and theatrical productions serve as cathartic crisis management. Further research could determine the cathartic function of diverse artistic activities in the context of the crisis. Catharsis studies would benefit from a physiological approach that incorporate Thomas Scheff’s (1979/2001) model and a cultural contextual approach that incorporates the revised model of catharsis proposed in this article.


[1] See Bruno Nettl’s Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology (1964), Nettl’s The Study of Ethnomusicology: Thirty-one Issues and Concepts (1983, 2005); Helen Meyer’s Ethnomusicology: An Introduction (1992). See also fundamental music reference books like the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Sadie, 2004).

[2] While his description of music and emotional release might fall under the category of catharsis, Friedson uses the term catharsis only once in passing, when describing his own emotional reaction to dancing the vimbuza: “Dancing vimbuza was an intense, cathartic experience that had left me physically and emotionally drained” (Friedson, 1996, p. 19).

[3] Scheff revised the work in 2001.

[4]“Economic Crisis” 2014 Def. 1. The Free Dictionary Online. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/economic+crisis.

[5] Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδος [Communist Party of Greece]

[6] Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς [Coalition of the Radical Left]

[7] All song lyrics in this article were translated by the author.

[8] “H Κρίση” [The Crisis] Lyrics, Poems, Translations: Flowers of our Soul. 2014. . Retrieved from http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=43411

[9] Petropoulos, Ilias. 1979/1991. Ρεμπέτικα Τραγούδια. [Rebetika Songs] Athens, Greece: Kedros Press.

[10] Η Αντικαπιταλιστική Αριστερή Συνεργασία για την Ανατροπή [Greek Anti-capitalist Left]

[11] Aman translates loosely as “woe is me.”

[12] “Όσοι έχουνε πολλά λεφτά” [Those Who Have a Lot of Money] Lyrics, Poems, Translations: Flowers of our Soul. 2014. http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=4820 (Visited Nov. 01, 2015).

[13] “Κατηγορώ την κοινωνία” [I Blame Society] Lyrics, Poems, Translations: Flowers of our Soul. 2014. http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=4820 (Visited Nov. 01, 2015)

[14] This style of speaking was known as mangia, and was easily recognized by its unique intonation and by the use of slang words (see Holst-Warhaft, 1990).

[15] Many rebetika musicians that perform in other venues believe that one can compose rebetika songs today including Vangelis Korakakis and Ioannis Agathonas.

[16] “Ο Πόνος του Πρεζάκια” [The Junki’es Lament] Lyrics, Poems, Translations: Flowers of our Soul. 2014. http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=11094 (Visited Nov 12, 2015)

[17] Rebetiki Istoria musicians agree that the most successful rebetika experiences take place when a careful balance is maintained between songs chosen by the musicians and by the audience.

[18] Vamvakaris, Markos. “Whoever Becomes Prime Minister” Lyrics, Poems, Translations: Flowers of our Soul. 2014.

[19] Mediterranean and Middle East societies refer to similar states of emotional intensity, engagement or ecstasy with the terms tarab and qeif.

[20] The origins of the zeïbekikos dance are disputed and various scholars trace its origins back to ancient Greece, to India and Turkey and to the war dances of the zeïbek tribe of Thrace. For more on the origins of the zeïbekikos, see Tachtsis (1964) and Korovinis (2005).

[21] This echoes the fundamental belief of dance movement therapy that connects the therapeutic potential of dance movement to active imagination. Dance therapy is based on the assumption that the mind and the body are in constant reciprocal action. Combined physical exertion and reprocessing of distress allowed for therapeutic benefits.

[22] Scholars have found that participant selected music possesses unique qualities more likely to provide emotional catharsis and improve mood than non-participant selected music (Brown, Chen & Dworkin, 1989).


Aigen, K. (2013). The study of music therapy: Current issues and concepts. New York, NY: Routledge.

Babiniotis, G. (2008). Λεξικο της Νεας Ελληνικής Γλώσσας. [Dictionary of the Modern Greek Language] 3rd Edition. Athens, Greece: Kentro Lexikologias E.P.E.

Baum, A. (1990). Stress, intrusive imagery, and chronic distress. Health Psychology, 6(6), 653-675. doi: 10.1037/0278-6133.9.6.653

Bettleheim, B. (2010). The uses of enchantment: The meaning and importance of fairy tales. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Blacking, J. (1983). How musical is man? Seattle, WA. University of Washington Press.

Blau, D., Keil, C., Vellou-Keil, A., & Feld, S. (2002). Bright Balkan morning. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House.

Brown, C., Chen, A., & Dworkin, S. (1989). Music in the control of human pain. Music Therapy. 8(1), 47-60. doi: 10.1093/mt/8.1.47

Burnet, J. (1905). Aristotle on education: Being extracts from the ethics and politics. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

“Catharsis” (2014). In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catharsis.

Clayton, M., Sager, R., & Will, U. (2005). In time with the music: The concept of entrainment and its significance for ethnomusicology. European Meetings in Ethnomusicology, 11, 3-142).

Christianopoulos, D. (1961). Ιστορική και αισθητική διαμόρφωση του ρεμπέτικου τραγουδιού [The historical and aesthetic creation of Rebetika song]. Diagonios. Vol. 1.

Cowan, J. (1990). Dance and the body politic in northern Greece. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Danforth, L. (1978). The Anastenaria: A study in Greek ritual therapy. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations Publishing (7818324).

Delias, A. (1936). Ο Πονος του Πρεζάκια [The Junkie’s lament]. Athens, Greece: Parlophone.

Despret, V. (2001/1999). Our emotional makeup: Ethnopsychology and Selfhood. (M. de Jager, Trans.). New York, NY: Other Press LLC.

“Economic Crisis” (2014). Def. 1.The Free Dictionary Online. Retrieved from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/crisis

Entralgo, L. (1970). The therapy of the word in Classical Antiquity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Eyerman, R. & Jamison, A. (1991). Social movements; A cognitive approach. Cambridge, England: Polity.

Eyerman, R., & Jamison, A. (1998). Music and social movements: Mobilizing traditions in the twentieth century. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/cbo9780511628139

Friedson, S. (1996). Dancing prophets: Musical experience in Tumbuka healing. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Gouk, P. (Ed). (2000). Musical healing in cultural contexts. London: Ashgate.

Hanna, J. L. (1988). Dance, sex, and gender: Signs of identity, dominance, defiance, and desire. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Herzfeld, M. (2002). The absent presence: Discourses of crypto-colonialism. South Atlantic Quarterly. 101(4), 899-926. doi: 10.1215/00382876-101-4-899

Hirschbein, R. (1997).What if they gave a crisis and nobody came? Interpreting international crises. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Holst, G. (1990). Resisting translation: Slang and subversion in the rebetika. Journal of Modern Greek Studies. 8, 183-196.

Holst, G. (1975/7). Δρόμος για το ρεμπέτικο. (Road to Rebetika: Music from a Greek Sub-culture). Athens, Greece: Anglo-Hellenic Publishing.

Holst-Warhaft, G. (1995). Dangerous voices: Women’s laments and Greek literature. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hui, E, Chui BT, & Woo, J. (2008). Effects of dance on physical and psychological well-being in older persons. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics. 49, 45-50.

Janzen, J. M. (1992). Ngoma: Discourses of healing in Central and Southern Africa. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Jung, C. G. (1959). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (2nd ed., trans. R.F.C. Hull). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kearney, R. (2007). Narrating pain: The power of catharsis. Paragraph: A Journal of Modern Political Theory 30, 51-66. doi: 10.3366/prg.2007.0013

Korovinis, T. (2005). Oi Zeïμπέκοι της Μικράς Ασίας [The Zeïbeki of Asia Minor] Athens, Greece: Ekdoseis Agra.

Lacava, J. D. (1992). The theatricality of the Blues. Black Music Research Journal, 12, 127-139. doi: 10.2307/779286

Lambo, T. A. (1965). The place of art in the emotional life of the African. American Society of African Culture Newsletter 7(4), 1-6.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1958). Structural anthropology. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1977). The effectiveness of symbols. Structural anthropology. Harmondsworth: Penguin Press.

Lomax, A. (1982) The cross-cultural variation of rhythmic style. In M. Davis (Ed.), Interaction rhythms: Periodicity in communicative behavior (pp. 149-74), New York, NY: Human Sciences Press.

Lucas, D. W. (Ed.) (1968). Aristotle poetics. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Meyer, L. (1956). Emotion and meaning in music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Michel, D. E. (1976). Music therapy: An introduction to therapy and special education through music. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas Publisher.

Moore, K.S. (2011). “Why Music Listening Makes Us Feel Good: The Chemical Link Between Music and Emotion.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/your-musical-self/201101/why-music-listening-makes-us-feel-good

Munroe, R. L. (1955). Schools of psychoanalytic thought: an exposition, critique, and attempt at integration. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Munroe, S. M. (1989). “Stress and social support.” In N. Schneiderman, S. Weiss and P. Kaufmann (eds) Handbook of Research Methods in Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine. New York: Plenum Press.

Nettl, B. (1964). Theory and method in ethnomusicology. London: Collier-Macmillan.

Nettl, B. (2005). The study of ethnomusicology: Thirty-one issues and concepts (2nd. Ed.). Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Ottenheimer, H. J. (1979). Catharsis, communication, and evocation: Alternative views of the sociopsychological functions of Blues singing. Ethnomusicology, 23, 75-86. doi: 10.2307/851339

Papataxiarchis, E. (1994). Les èmotions en Grèce égéenne. [Emotions in Greek Aegean] Terrain, 22, 5-20.

Pavlicevic, M. (1997). Music therapy in context: Music, meaning and relationship. London, England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Petropoulos, I. (1979/1991). Ρεμπέτικα Τραγούδια. [Rebetika Songs] Athens, Greece: Kedros Press.

Petropoulos, I (2000). Songs of the Greek underworld: The rebetika tradition (Ed Emery Trans.). London, England: Saqi Books. 2000.

Riak, P. (2007). A cultural interpretation of Greek dance. Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora. 33 (1&2), 39-59.

Rice, T. (2014). Ethnomusicology: A very short introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ronen, R. (2009). Aesthetics of anxiety. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Roukounas, K. (1931). The crisis. Lyrics, poems, translations: Flowers of our soul. Retrieved from http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=43411

Rouget G.(1985). Music and trance: A theory of the relations between music and possession. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Sacks, O. (2007) Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Vintage Books.

Sadie, S. (2004). The new grove dictionary of music and musicians (2nd edition). London, England: Oxford University Press.

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M. , Larcher, K., Dagher, A., & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipating and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience, January 09, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v14/n2/full/nn.2726.html

Saxonberg, S. & Waligórska, M. (2006). Klezmer in Kraków: Kitsch, or catharsis for Poles? Ethnomusicology, 50(3), 433-451.

Schachter, S. (1959). The psychology of affiliation: Experimental studies of the sources of gregariousness (Vol. 1). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Scheff, T. (1979/2001). Catharsis in healing, ritual and drama. Lincoln, Nebraska: iUniverse.

“Social Movement” (2014). In Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/topic/social-movement

Small, C. (1998). Musicking: The meanings of performing and listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University.

Stamatis, Y. (2011). Rebetiko nation: Hearing Pavlos Vassiliou’s alternative Greekness through rebetiko song. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from Proquest Dissertations Publishing (3476794).

Stamouli, N. (2015, January 28) The numbers: Crisis in Greece. The Wall Street Journal. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/briefly/2015/01/20/crisis-in-greece-the-numbers/

Stokes, M. (1994). Ethnicity, identity and music: The musical construction of place. Oxford, England: Berg.

Tachtsis, K. (1964) Ζειμπέκικο 1964: ‘ενα δοκίμιο.[Zeïbekikos 1964: an essay] In G. Host. (Ed.). Δρόμος για το ρεμπέτικο. [Road to rebetika] , (pp. 202-211). Limni, Greece: Denise Harvey.

Tasso, T. (1594/1973) Discourses on the heroic poem (Mariella Cavalchini, Trans. ). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, S. (1998) Coping strategies. MacArthur SES and Health Network. Research: Psychosocial Notebook. April 28, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.macses.ucsf.edu/research/psychosocial/coping.php

Tragaki, D. (2007) Rebetiko worlds: Ethnomusicology and ethnography in the city. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Tsounis, D. (1995). Kefi and meraki in rebetika music of Adelaide: Cultural constructions of passion and expression and their link with the homeland. Yearbook for Traditional Music. 27, 90-103. doi: 10.2307/768105

Vamvakaris, M. (1936). Markos as prime minister. (07 November, 2002) Retrieved from http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=101

Vamvakaris, M. (1936). Those who have a lot of money. (16 April, 2002). Retrieved from http://www.stixoi.info/stixoi.php?info=Lyrics&act=details&song_id=4820

Vellou- Keil, A. (1973/1978). Αυτοβιογραφία του Μάρκου Βαμβακάρη. [Autobiography of Markos Vamvakaris] Athens, Greece: Papazisi.

Visvis, V. (2008). Alternatives to the "talking cure": Black music as traumatic testimony in Toni Morrison’s "Song of Solomon." African American Review, 46(2), 255-268.

Von Franz, M.-L. (1970/1996) The interpretation of fairy tales. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.