The origins of rebetiko can be traced back to the middle of the 19th century. For the first time in 1850, Western European and Greek dignitaries examining the state of prisons in the Ottoman Empire reported the existence of songs about the misery of imprisonment that they had heard in the prisons. At the time, in the 1880s, Athens had a passion for Italian opera up until the time when the first "Sandur-Cafi" was opened (which was later renamed "Aman-Cafi"). By 1886, there were Aman-Cafis all over the town, and the audience of Athens became divided. One half was a fan of the music coming from Asia Minor, while the other half was of the opinion that the Amane (long-drawn-out love songs) are not a part of Greek musical culture.
10 years later, the time of Aman-Cafis was up, and the Operetta became the place where the whole town was going. The style stepped out of the dark and showed itself on the revue stages of Athens. The music played there was greatly influenced by the significant migration to and from the Greek territories between 1912 and 1922. The composition of society was continually changing, a lot of refugees and have-nots flooded the outskirts of towns in the hope of finding jobs and being able to start life anew. The songs were about law-breaking actions, love affairs, the traditions of smoking hashish and narghile, and, to a limited extent, social events. The government strictly censored the lyrics of the songs, and disturbed with police raids the places "under surveillance" where the rebetes performed. Following the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922, the music of refugees, folk music, the songs of the islands, and every other musical style greatly merged with, and influenced, one another, which resulted in the creation of rebetiko.
Starting from the 1930s, so-called "wine songs" were being written, which also became an integral part of rebetiko. Rebetiko was primarily the music of towns, more specifically their ports, such as Smyrna, Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Piraeus. Its outstanding representatives from 1938 on are: Markos Vamvakaris, Vasilis Tsitsanis, and Manolis Hiotis. A rebetes is one who performs rebetiko songs. The origin and meaning of the word rebetiko has been unclear to date.
The Asia Minor Catastrophe: the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. As the closing act of World War I, the Treaty of Sevres (August 10, 1920) assigned to Greece the entire territory of Thrace, including Western Anatolia around the port of Smyrna. In 1921, the Greek Army invaded the above-mentioned territories in order to exercise authority. The Turkish nationalist forces lead by Mustafa Kemal - notwithstanding the decision of the Turkish Government in power - were unwilling to accept the European resolution and went to war against the Greek Army. In the first year the Greek successfully preserved their territories, but in the second year Kemal reorganized his army, found allies and military supporters in the person of the young Soviet Union, and launched a successful offensive against the Greek forces. After nearly two years of fighting, the war ended in 1922 with the Turks burning down the city of Smyrna.
Kemal, in accordance with his nationalist ideology, wished to build a "clean" society, and therefore ordered that all inhabitants other than of Turkish nationality must leave their homeland, and that the Turks living in Greek territories should return. This decision resulted in an enormous exodus. Millions of Greeks were forced to emigrate in dramatic circumstances, and nearly half a million Turks moved to Turkey. The Greek emigrants increased the population of the motherland, particularly that of the big cities, by nearly two million in total. Most emigrants came from poor neighborhoods with slight chance for a successful restart. This unilateral political decision resulted in unpredictably many further problems, and its effect is felt even today. The Treaty of Lausanne (July 24, 1923) "legalized" the consequences of the dramatic events that had already taken place. It rescinded the provisions of the Treaty of Sevres, and put Eastern Thrace, the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, and the port of Smyrna under the control of the Turkish Government.