We Chicagoans can be forgiven our chauvinism when it comes to the blues. From the time we first get our mojos revved up, we’re nursed on the notion that the authentic urban blues originated here–sweet home Chicago and all that. But the blues is actually a widespread phenomenon, and you can look farther than Saint Louis, Kansas City, Houston, and Detroit. Think distant. Think Greece.

Greek urban blues–“rembetika,” as the genre is known to Greeks–isn’t some cross-cultural borrowing. It’s an indigenous music that was born around the same time as American blues and grew out of many of the same social components: mass suffering, displacement, migration to the city, the poverty-stricken life of a refugee, the fleeting joys of freedom, and the insidious horrors of institutional oppression. It’s not surprising then that rembetika’s themes resound familiarly in our ears–the euphorias of drugs and sex, the romance of the underworld and cult figures–and underneath them a searing metaphysical sadness cuts straight to the marrow. Songs about fucking, fighting, gambling, smoking, drinking, loving, losing, and, maybe most of all, about mourning. Just as African-American blues has the archetypal figure Stagger Lee, rembetika has the figure of the manghas, an existential badass cowboy built of similar stuff.

In the same way that virtually all American pop since the 50s has been informed by the blues, so, too, has Greek popular music been tinged with the sound of rembetika, right down to its totem instrument, the bouzouki. But the earliest, most “eastern” sounding styles are considerably more affecting than your typical pro forma Zorba nightclub number. Sometimes rembetika is raucous, a celebration of life against all adversity. But when it is sad–not cathartically “stomping the blues,” as Albert Murray insists American blues does, but getting down into the depths of despair and wallowing a while–there is no bleaker, more soul-choking sound in the world. When it’s like this, rembetika is not merely melancholy, it’s a glimpse of the abyss. The singer achingly slides into a note, and you don’t need to speak a word of Greek to get the gist.

Rembetika’s history tracks back to around 1922. As the Ottoman Empire wheezed its last breath at the end of the Turkish-Greek war, an exchange of religious minorities (Greek Christians living in Turkey, Muslim Turks living in Greece) sent nearly one and a half million refugees into Greece, including many professional and semiprofessional musicians. All of them had already been living the estranged life of an outsider, even before becoming displaced. Huge settlement camps sprang up outside of Athens and its port city Piraeus, with the dispossessed diaspora establishing its own vibrant underworld of cafes, whorehouses, and hash dens: the birthplace of Greek blues.

Many of the musical forms, instrumental combinations, and song styles of rembetika were already around before this turn of events–indeed, the term “rembetika” was in use long before 1922, and Greek musicians were recording rembetic and Smyrnaic songs as well. Elements of ancient folk and classical court music of Asia Minor saturate some parts of the repertoire. The two volumes of Archives de la musique turque (Ocora) compile Turkish recordings, mostly from before the resettlement, and could, in fact, almost be rembetika; the musical similarities lived on past the end of the bloody war, as evidenced on Istanbul 1925 (Traditional Crossroads). But the rembetika genre’s themes and stars arose out of the particular circumstances faced by these new urban Greeks. So when Roza Eskenazi sings, “When you get high / Straight away you’re a king, a dictator, a god, ruler of the world / When you take [cocaine or heroin] you’ll rejoice / And from then on, everything will seem rosy,” and when her rival Rita Abatzi sings, “I wish I were a flea, my love, to come and get up close / And embroider your tender body with pain,” the specific images and emotional impact are drawn from the refugee imagination.

Until recently there have been only three collections of rembetika available on these shores, though they all remain strong introductions to the music. Greek Oriental: Smyrnaic-Rebetic Songs and Dances (Folklyric), Greek Oriental Rembetika 1911-1937 (Arhoolie), and Rembetica: Historic Urban Folk Songs From Greece (Rounder) cull together some of the great moments from what Folklyric calls the “Golden Years”–up until the Metaxas regime attempted to censor rembetika in 1937. They’re taken directly from the massive latent catalogue of Greek- and Greek-American produced 78-rpm records. A few more single CD comps have appeared recently, including Rembetica in Piraeus 1933-1937 and Lost Homelands, both on the Heritage label out of England, and Smirneiko et rebetiko: les grandes chanteuses on the French label Silex.

The Greeks have a healthy love of their own history, and that extends to the underclass subculture that cradled rembetika in the 20s and 30s. As a result, Greek divisions of major record companies like CBS and EMI have kept collections of rembetika, taken from their respective back catalogs, in circulation, and the independent Lyra label went further by compiling and releasing valuable–though virtually unobtainable–compilations with special themes. In that same mode a couple of years ago an Athens-based company called FM Records initiated an incredible 12-volume series called the Greek Archives that is now, at least for the moment, distributed in the States.

The Greek Archives series is reminiscent of the small labels like Yazoo, Wolf, Biograph, Krazy Kat, Rosetta, and Herwin that took great care in recompiling, documenting, and bringing to light the huge backlog of black “race” records (blues and way beyond) that were produced in the U.S. before 1940. Each Greek Archives record comes chock-full of notes, some portions of which are translated into English (unfortunately, the song lyrics are only transcribed in Greek). FM has intelligently grouped the material into topical categories. For example, three discs concentrate on the vast amount of rembetika produced by expatriate Greeks in America (volumes one through three), including the outstanding singer Marika Papagika (who moved to New York in 1918). Women of the Rebetiko Song includes more material by Papagika, Abatzi, and Eskenazi–the latter of whom is my unconditional fave. Like that master of Arab vocal music Oum Kalthoum, Eskenazi hovers around a note, teasing the tonic with delicious melismata.

The Arabic- and Persian-influenced music originating in Smyrna (which was an urban center three times the size of Athens in the mid-19th century) is the focus of Memory of Smyrna and Unknown Recordings of Songs From Smyrna 1922-1940, while Constantinople in Old Recordings listens in on the other major Turkish point of origin. Though I had hoped that Armenians, Jews, Turks & Gipsies in Old Recordings would have music by these groups, the record actually consists of songs about them (in most cases about beautiful Armenian, Jewish, Turkish, and Gypsy women); no doubt it’s a more cohesive concept for those who understand the lyrics. For listeners fascinated by the romantic underworld aspect of the music, Songs of Outlaws and Songs of the Underground offer cool snapshots of the bouzouki-slinging, hash-toking roughnecks. The second of these has one of the series’ highlights: “Stavrakas’ Entry Into the ‘Tekes.'” It’s an audio version of a scene from a shadow-puppet play featuring two manghas, stoned out of their gourds, in rapt but slurred conversation. Between the vocal parts a strange percussion instrument creeps in–I did a blindfold test on worldly wise percussionist Hamid Drake, who was delighted and baffled by what turned out to be the sound of a gurgling hookah, a water bong in action!

Other highlights abound. There’s the wild vibrato of Victoria Khaz (like Eskenazi a Greek Jew) singing “Come to Me, Butcher Boy” (volume two), or the gruff voice of Greece’s Howlin’ Wolf, Markos Vamvakaros, on “Carmen in Athens” (volume twelve). It’s unfortunate that Vamvakaros’s inimitable pipes weren’t more extensively (or characteristically) demonstrated in the series; for more of him, search out his collection on the Margo label. More special moments include the surprising sound of xylophone on Papagika’s “Teacher” (on volume ten, Traditional Song by Rebetiko Singers), the brass band that accompanies her on “My Little Mullet” (volume six), and her remembrance of old Athens, “Gunman From Vathi Square” (volume one), recorded in Chicago as early as 1920. But I wouldn’t trade any of them for Eskenazi’s soul-eviscerating “When You Are in Pain and He Doesn’t Want You” (volume two).

After the initial run of releases, finding that they’d only scratched rembetika’s surface, FM issued 24 more compilations in the series, some of which range far afield from rembetika proper into other Greek folk traditions and more vivid themes such as Songs of Prison Life, Wine Songs, Songs of the Taverna, Tangos of the Thirties, Dream Songs, and Songs of the Sea. They’ve also released single-artist studies of key figures Yorgos Vidalis, Stellakis Perpiniadis, and Panayotis Toundas. With such a rich, diverse, and plentiful recorded history (Eskenazi alone laid down hundreds of sides), there’s enough rembetika around to keep its archivists and fans endlessly busy.

“Lonesome place don’t seem like it’s home to me,” sang bluesman Tommy Johnson in 1930, in a studio in Grafton, Wisconsin. “Lord, this old lonesome place don’t, mama, seem like it’s home to me.” Eight years later, across the Atlantic in a studio in Athens, Apostolos Hatzichristos echoed the thought: “It is a sorrow, mother, it is a great pain / To wander alone in a strange land.” Blues is blues, wherever you come from and wherever you go.