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Rembetiko Club Astrofeggia

Review by Claire Bostock

Athenian nightlife has a reputation for getting started when the rest of Europe is going to bed.   The Greek government once tried to impose a 3.00am closing time on nightclubs in Athens. Greeks took to the streets and the Government hastily backed-off, leaving Athenians free for revelry until a time of their choosing, rather than by ministerial decree.   Greece is, after all, the birthplace of democracy.

Music clubs in Athens are places of pleasure for which the Greeks have their own specific word - the famously untranslatable “kefi".   “Kefi” is uniquely Greek and even the Greeks themselves struggle to offer an explanation.   Try “abandonment of self to the spirit of joy, passion and high spirits”.  No wonder we Brits find it hard to grasp!

So, in search of “kefi”, and keen to try a little “abandonment of my self”, I’m in an ancient rembetiko club in downtown Athens.  Rembetiko music loosely translates as the “Greek blues”;  emotions the average Athenian is all too familiar with as he struggles with Greece’s crippling austerity cuts.

It’s 10.30pm, the place is empty, and I’m clearly unfashionably early.   Fortifying myself with ouzo, I wait.   Around midnight, a small army of bouzouzki-wielding musicians strike up.  As the gift of Dionysos flows, spirits escalate, and the dancing starts.   For Greeks, dance is a national passion, and it’s this passion that provides a temporary escape from the grim economic death spiral on the streets outside.   They’re dressed for an occasion,  the men dignified in suits and ties, women sensual in glamorous finery.  Whirling and circling, men dance to an emotional Zeimbekiko, a timeless dance with ancient roots, which still has a powerful presence in today’s modern Greece.  

Disappointingly, “plate-smashing” is now a thing of the past.   Alarmed at injuries sustained by large amounts of china being enthusiastically hurled at dancers, Greek “Health and Safety” decrees that flowers, rather than plates, should be used as missiles.   Customers purchase handfuls of carnations and shower the musicians and dancers with pink and white blooms.  Waiters regularly sweep the dance floor of flowers before it disappears under a sea of appreciatively-launched flora.

By four in the morning, every table is laden with bottles of expensive whisky and wine - if Greece is broke, then it’s certainly marking the occasion with heroic behaviour and admirable stamina.  Three generations of the same family have linked arms and are performing an enthusiastic Syrtaki, while the great-grandfather (92, I’m told) has been helped on to a table to dance a solo Hassapiko.   Carnations fly through the air. Is this the “kefi” I came looking for?    Financial crisis or no financial crisis, it seems Athenians are not the type to lock themselves indoors and sink into depression when the economy goes adrift.      

Athens may be peering into the economic abyss, but I get the feeling that the Gods are still controlling the threads of Greece’s destiny with Dionysion abandon, and it’s as though the Greeks still sense them every moment of their lives.

Astrofeggia is at 294 Patission Ave and Kontou street. It is open Friday-Sunday in the non-summer months. Telephone: 210 2010160 or 210 2233077. Currently Antonis Repanis is playing here and still going strong at 78.

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