Brendan Perry discusses migration, mangas and his new English-language Rebetiko album with GCT

Brendan Perry.

We romanticize rebetiko as a reflection of the Greek experience of genocide, migration, narcotics, poverty and the daily life of the underclass.

Having its golden years between the 1920s and 1950s, rebetiko is today protected by traditionalists who are ensuring this music style does not stray far from its roots.

However, even if we stray a little from tradition, in fact doing something as radical as replacing the lyrics from Greek to English, requires delicate care and responsibility, and certainly there are not many better suited musicians for this task than British-born Brendan Perry, also known for being one of the two members in Melbourne-founded Dead Can Dance.

Brendan Perry has released Songs of Disenchantment (Music from the Greek Underground), which is available to stream and download now.

Brendan Perry - Song of Disenchant (Music from the Greek Underground).
Brendan Perry - Song of Disenchant (Music from the Greek Underground). Pre-order available here.

In his album release, Brendan Perry said:

"The fact that there has been virtually no recorded versions of Rebetiko songs sung in English was also a great surprise to me and was ultimately the prime motivator for me to share these songs with an English speaking audience as well as pique the curiosity of the die hard traditionalist."

Greek City Times has spoken with Brendan Perry to find out exactly why an Englishman, who spent large parts of his younger days in New Zealand and Australia, fell in love with rebetiko.

Your music, whether it be solo or with Dead Can Dance, is boundless in the culture and time period that it draws its influence from. You explained in your album release that you first heard rebetiko in Greek cafes and taverna in 1970’s Melbourne but had not known what it was. What is it that drew you to Rebetiko music? 

I just loved that exotic mix of oriental refinement with Greek folk roots suffused with bluesy melancholia. I could immediately hear that this music was born out of a fusion between western and eastern musical traditions, a music of the crossroads if you will.

It was the songs of Roza Eskenazi and Rita Abatzi that eventually drew me in and switched me to Rebetiko. I had no idea what the songs were about initially but that’s the wonderful thing about music, it’s universal ability to convey emotion and sentiment without the need for a text.

Tell us about your formal introduction to rebetiko. 

Well initially my understanding came not from social contact, but from album sleeve notes and then from books such as Elias Petropoulos ’Songs of the Greek Underworld’ and Gail Holst ‘Road to Rembetika’. As soon as I read the first English translations of the lyrics, everything fell into place for me and just confirmed my initial impressions.

Historically speaking I found much that resonated within my own life having spent my youth playing in a punk band and hanging out with people living on the margins of society such as dealers, prostitutes and gang members.

It was dangerous, yet exciting and you certainly had to have your wits about you if you were to have any street credentials or credibility.

The enforced migrations of that period should also serve as a stark reminder of what is still going on today, people being forced to flee their homes because of war and ethnic cleansing. It’s so sad, everyday there seems to be a new conflict resulting from unresolved ancient enmities.

Brendan Perry - Song of Disenchant (Music from the Greek Underground)
Brendan Perry - Song of Disenchant (Music from the Greek Underground). Pre-order available here.

The mangas subculture is attached to rebetiko. Greeks themselves have difficulty in explaining the meaning of mangas in English. How would you define what a mangas is? 

Yes, this is a difficult one as they were a very singular and unique ‘group of individuals’, and therein lies the dichotomy of classification. How does one reconcile the fact that they were seemingly dedicated outsider loners and yet still identified themselves as a group through related dress codes, mannerisms and codes of conduct?

To complicate matters further there were different types of mangas, ranging from the full on hoodlum to the more sage like and thoughtful Derviside.

Suffice to say I would describe the ideal mangas as someone who is principled of mind, follows their own individual rules and ethics and is ready to use violence if necessary to protect their dignity and maintain respect.

Brendan Perry - Song of Disenchant (Music from the Greek Underground)
Brendan Perry - Song of Disenchant (Music from the Greek Underground). Pre-order available here.

There are third-fourth generation Greeks in the Anglosphere that have a weak command of the Greek language but still maintain their Greek identity. When producing your album, did you have in mind that you would be doing a massive service to the Greek diaspora by allowing the next generation to understand rebetiko music in English, or was this an unintended positive consequence?

Well my initial rationale for making this record was to introduce a non-Greek English speaking audience to rebetiko, although I was aware that it would cause some debate between cultural purists and musical aficionados alike.

If that really is the case then I am extremely happy to be of service and help young people become more aware of their cultural identity and history.

Personally, my favorite song on your album is “Christos, Play the Bouzouki” (Παίξε, Χρήστο, το μπουζούκι). You created an incredible rendition of this song that matches Greek music legends like Vassilis Tsitsanis and Stelios Kazantzidis who had their own versions of this song. What is it exactly that drew you to do your own rendition of this song?

Thank you so much… well I needed a closer for the album and thought this song was just perfect - the stoned protagonist slowly turning in his eagle dance to the zeibekiko whilst contemplating his sad life and looking forward to his final release from hardship and pain.

And your favorite version of the song?

My favorite version and the one that served as a template for this song was a recording from 1949 by Prodhromos Tsaousakis and Marika Ninou.

In your album release you mention something very interesting. You say your migration from England to Australia was a six-week long voyage on an old Greek ship called the ‘Ellinis’. 

Well I knew the voyage was going to be about six weeks long so I bought my first acoustic guitar with the intention of learning to play it during all the down time I was going to experience whilst on board.

The RHMS Ellinis was purchased by the Greek-owned Chandris Lines in the 60’s to facilitate travel, principally between the UK and Australia. We sailed from Southampton via Las Palmas, Capetown, Perth, Melbourne and then Auckland.

The passengers were mostly Brits and Irish so the amenities and activities were very much aimed at these cultures, not much in the way of Greek food or music unfortunately.

Having toured last year with Dead Can Dance, you made an incredible performance at the Odeon Herodes Atticus under the Acropolis in Athens. Can we expect live performances of the new album after COVID-19 restrictions end?

I have no immediate plans to tour this album but we had already planned to return to Australia and New Zealand with Dead Can Dance this year. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 this was postponed but now it looks as if it may happen in late 2021… pandemic permitting of course.

Dead Can Dance Live at the Odeon Herodes Atticus in Athens - July 3, 2019.
Dead Can Dance Live at the Odeon Herodes Atticus in Athens - July 3, 2019.

Although you covered a great range of rebetiko songs, there are many classics you missed. Do you have any immediate plans for a second album?

I know there are so many that I could have happily chosen but in the end I wanted to present a cross section of different styles of Rebetiko including prison songs, hashish songs and mangas songs.

At present I have no plans for a follow up, although one day I would love to perform these songs live with a Greek Rebetiko ensemble.

That would be very cool!

Thank you for your time.

We will certainly be excited to hear Brendan Perry live with an entire rebetiko ensemble, but until then, for those wanting a hard copy of his new album, LP's and CD's are available for pre-order here.

Brendan Perry's impressive album is also available on YouTube to be heard in its entirety.