One of the greatest of all rembetika singers, Rita Abatzi (or Abadzi, or Abatsi) led a life with many contours that still remain a mystery to would-be biographers. Born in Smyrna (Izmir) somewhere around 1914 (although some accounts say 1903), she was part of a mass exodus of about two million people who emigrated to Greece after the burning of Smyrna in 1922. (Her father is thought to have died in the tragedy; accompanying her to Greece were her mother and sister, fellow singer Sophia Karavali.)
Abatzi began recording 78-rpm sides in Athens in the early 1930s, performing with all the major artists of her day; along with recording rembetika, the dusky-voiced Abatzi also sang Smyrnaic melodies, popular tunes (demotika) and island songs (nisiotika). During the height of her fame, she was one of the most beloved stars of rembetika, along with fellow singer Rosa Eskenazi. While the two vocalists are said to have maintained a collegial and even friendly personal relationship, the singers often vied for the first shot to record new songs and record companies capitalized on their professional rivalry to sell even more sides.
For reasons that remain unclear, Abatzi largely stopped performing and recording after World War II, and she died in June 1969 in a suburb of Athens. Many of Abatzi's very fine early recordings have been reissued on various rembetika compilations, including Women of Rembetica (Rounder) and Women of the Rebetiko Song (FM). It's also worth seeking out the now out-of-print-collection Rita Abadzi: 1933-1938on the British label Heritage. Anastasia Tsioulcas