Canada’s premier Greek rembetika ensemble, The Rembetika Hipsters release their third album, Kafeneion (ka-fay-NEE-on), on Tuesday, January 4, 2011. It has been over six years since their last CD, Dinner in Polidroso, a period in which the Hipsters toured all across Canada and in Greece, changed half of their personnel and enjoyed a weekly residency at the much-loved Calgary restaurant Pegasus.
The title of the album refers to a place which is at the centre of life in any Greek village. The kafeneion is a coffee shop, traditionally a place where men gather to play cards or tavli (backgammon), read newspapers and chat with their friends about local politics. You will often see them sitting with their komboloi (worry beads) and a cup of Greek coffee which can last for hours.
The band was started as a duo in 1996 by Nick Diochnos (bouzouki, vocals) and Allen Baekeland (guitar,vocals), longtime musical pals who were looking for a departure from their rock and country backgrounds. Nick had taken up the bouzouki under the teaching of master Toronto musician Kostas Apostolakis, who introduced him to the incredible and somewhat forgotten catalogue of pre-WW II Greek rembetika songs. Nick and Allen began performing these songs in Calgary Greek eateries, where they met and added Ben Johnson (percussion), Lincoln Frey (clarinet) and Brigitte Dajczer (violin). This lineup began writing and recording original songs in the rembetika tradition, coloured by jazz, rock and experimental music. The band released two acclaimed CDs, Architects of Narghile (2001)and Dinner In Polidroso (2004) and toured festivals, clubs and concert halls from the Maritimes to the Yukon.
The departure of Dajczer to Montreal (Les Gitans De Sarajevo, Briga) and Johnson to the Kootenays (Adam Shaikh) necessitated a band overhaul, which started with the recruitment of violinist Jonathan Lewis in 2004, most known for his role in Calgary's much-loved Plaid Tongued Devils. Lewis quickly became captivated by many styles of Greek traditional music, and has recently journeyed there in September 2010 to study in Kastoria under virtuoso violinist Aourel Kyrio. The band also added Giorgos Iosifelis on bass (the band's second native of Greece) and percussionist Malcolm Lim.
Rembetika (rem-BET-ika) , which some have called the "Greek blues" with its songs of poverty, dislocation, heartache and hashish, has its musical origins in the former Greek communities scattered across Asia Minor and in the shanty towns that emerged around port towns such as Pireias and Thessaloniki in the early years of the last century. The music is characterized by its use of swirling Middle Eastern rhythms and modalities, and in the use of unusual stringed instruments such as the bouzouki and the tiny baglama.
Kafeneion was produced by Jonathan Lewis, and showcases the band moving in some new musical directions in their own compositions and arrangements . Besides revamping a few classic Rembetika songs, the Hipsters take detours into other Greek folk music styles. These include Epirotika, the polyphonic music of the northwest region of Epirus, which is dominated by clarinet and violin improvisations (Don’t Look Me in the Eyes); Nisiotika, the music of the Aegean Islands, often in 7/8 "kalamatiano" rhythm (as on Michaela Tripticho), and Laiko, the popular bouzouki music of the 60s (Run, Hipster!).
Two members of Calgary's jazz community make guest appearances on Kafeneion. Vocalist Zoe Theodorou revisits her Hellenic heritage, recording in the Greek language for the first time on Ferte Preza Na Prezaro (Bring Me Dope to Smoke), a rembetika tune from the 1930s originally by Rita Abatzi, and duetting with Allen Baekeland on the Laiko standard Oi Glaroi (The Seagulls). Drummer Jon May propels the funky 7/8 groove of the Lincoln Frey composition Snakes at the Euxine.
The band looks forward to touring across Canada behind this album next summer.