“Music finish!” That was Lady Rembetika’s emphatic answer to my question: “Do you have live music here at night?” You’ll find her along a waterfront row of cafes and shops on the island of Corfu. Instead of smiling hopefully at passing tourists, as most Corfu proprietors do, she sits at the back of her empty café glaring, daring you to approach. I had no choice but to accept her dare: she was playing first-generation rembetika on her sound system, and her walls were covered with photos of the men and women who made that bitter, astringent music, drenched deep in hashish and heartache. Markos Vamvakaris was there, alongside Roza Eskenazi, Vassilis Tsitsanis.
There was also a large photo of Lady Rembetika (I never got her actual name) from perhaps twenty years prior. She sits surrounded by young musicians; she once had a career as singer. Now she runs a forlorn café in which I was sole customer one bright May afternoon. She served a tasty fish called barbouni as I gawked at her walls and marveled at the music she played.
I couldn’t resist pointing at the photos and calling out the artists’ names, which made an impression. I completely floored Lady Rembetika when, hearing the instrumental intro to “Gel, Gel,” I blurted out, “That’s Marika Papgika!” The vocal hadn’t started yet. Lady Rembetika looked as if I’d shot her. “Yes!” she said. “Marika Papagika! Yes! ” It wasn’t clairvoyance that told me it was Papagika: “Gel, Gel” has an intro like “My Girl” which, once heard, you know could only be that song. It must’ve been that which brought down the pictures: One of a young Tsitsanis, pensive over his bouzouki, and the other of a young Roza Eskenazi, a shining success clad in furs. “You are from California,” Lady Rembetika announced. “You love rembetika. These are yours.”
“You like Greek coffee?” Korstas (at least that’s how I heard his name) makes ceramics in the open air a few doors down from Lady Rembetika. He also plays bouzouki. I had stopped to listen while he played; he then invited me to join him for coffee. Korstas had made his instrument himself, the bowl carved from mulberry. He played something I recognized, though the title eluded me. When he finished I said, “Bravo! That’s from Markos Vamvakaris.” Korstas looked stunned: “Yes! Markos Vamvakaris! You know! How you know?” I said something about listening to a lot of recordings, and YouTube, but Korstas stopped me: “Sorry, no understand. English no good. It’s OK.” Our language barrier didn’t matter. We passed the bouzouki back and forth for a long while, sharing Greek and American music, Greek coffee, mutual respect and a common love for the music of rembetika’s grand old man, Markos Vamvakaris.