Cretan Music by Ross Daly

Ross Daly about Cretan Music

The musical tradition of the island of Crete is one of the most active and vibrant traditions to be found anywhere in Europe today.

Despite this fact, however, not many people are aware of it, and even fewer know very much specifically about it.

Regrettably ethnomusicologists, both Greek and of other lands, have done painfully little serious research into the subject of Cretan music, with the result that there is effectively very little reliable information concerning it readily available in print.

Crete was home to the oldest civilization in Europe and one of the oldest in the world, that of the Minoans.

Ever since that time Crete has been a crossroads where many different great civilizations have met, frequently clashed, and invariably exchanged influences.

Amongst these influences the most important would seem to be those of the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Venetians, and more recently the Ottoman Turks.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to accurately analyze what influences, if any, these various peoples had on the music which we hear today on Crete. It would seem to me to be unlikely that not a trace of the sounds of antiquity, have survived up until our day and equally unlikely that ancient music has survived unaltered up until the present.

What the reality between these two extremities is, perhaps no one will ever know. The aforementioned lack of serious research into this matter certainly does not assist in the process of what can ultimately only be conjecture. Knowledge is, of course, available concerning ancient poetry, dance, musical theory, science, and many other aspects of life, but "hard" musical evidence in the form of accurately recorded reproducible melodic material is regrettably unavailable.

This is not only the case with regards to ancient music. Equally we do not know, in any concrete terms, much about what the music of Crete might have sounded like during its later historical phases.

All we have are recordings of the 20th century, a very few texts which supply any form of bona fide musical information, the personal accounts of travelers of different eras, and a myriad of other texts which testify to the speculative prowess of countless other students of the subject, each with his own agenda.

Some of these are postulations are serious and many more quite definitely are not. This is not the place to expound on the enormous difficulties incurred by the study of the music of the distant past, nor is it my place to credit or discredit the work of a large number of people who have, in some way, breached the subject, directly or indirectly.

It would seem to make more sense here to simply present the Cretan music which is actually available to us, in the form of 20th century recordings, and leave the rest to qualified researchers in the hope that they will actually sort it all out one day.

Cretan music belongs quite squarely in the Eastern Mediterranean family of modal musical traditions and has quite noticeable common traits with other traditions of the region such as Arabic, Turkish, and of course, the music of other regions of Greece.

The principal instruments in use today are the lyra: a small three-stringed pear-shaped fiddle held upright on the left knee and bowed horizontally with a bow (which in earlier times had bells on it) held in the right hand, and the laouto: a large lute closely related to the Arabic oud with four courses of double strings made of steel, and movable frets made of nylon filament.

One of the interesting aspects of the lyra has to do with the fingering technique of the left hand. Unlike the violin and most other related instruments, the strings are not pressed by the fingertips of the left hand; rather they are merely touched lightly from the side by the back of the nails.

In this respect, the Cretan lyra resembles other lyra types found in the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan regions such as the Turkish fasil kemence, the Bulgarian Gadulka, as well as the lyras of the Dodecanese islands, southwest Turkey, Thrace, Macedonia, certain regions of southern Italy, and much of former Yugoslavia.

Interestingly enough this playing technique is also common to the bowed instruments of northwest India (Rajasthan), such as the sarangi and kamaycha, as well as to some of the bowed instruments of Central Asia, such as the Tuvan igil and the Mongolian morin khuur.

Interestingly enough, nowhere in the intermediate region between these very distant lands is this technique encountered. Apart from the lyra and the laouto, other instruments can also be found on Crete.

In the far western as well as the far eastern regions of Crete one would more often than not encounter the violin rather than the lyra.

Indeed, in western Crete, a heated debate has arisen in recent decades concerning which instrument of the two is a more authentic vehicle for Cretan music.

Unfortunately this discrepancy is the result of a now obsolete ban imposed on violin-players by the state radio in the 1950s at the instigation of a researcher named Simonas Karras. Karras himself was under the sway of extreme nationalist ideologies and regarded the violin as a European imposition which simply supplanted the "native" lyra in certain regions.

In fact neither instrument is truly indigenous to Crete (the oldest recorded presence of the lyra dates to 10th century Thrace, in Crete it seems that it appeared in the early 18th century), and previous to Karras' intervention, it had never occurred to lyra-players and violin-players to look upon one another with animosity.

In the mountainous areas of central Crete a small bagpipe known as askomandoura was at one time commonly found, and in the urban centers, a small long-necked lute similar to the saz called boulgari was prevalent. In the eastern regions around the Sitia area a small double-faced barrel-drum known as daoulaki was the main instrument accompanying the lyra.

The askomandoura, boulgari, daoulaki, and sfyrohabiolo (a small flute) are all very near to extinction, although some young musicians have, in recent years, taken them up and a revival of interest in them seems, hopefully, to be imminent.

In recent years, the mandolin has gained considerable popularity as an instrument to accompany the characteristic 15-syllable rhyming verses known as mantinades.

Quite commonly a group of people will sit together and engage in something between a dialogue and a competition of mantinades to the accompaniment of a mandolin playing repetitive phrases known as kontylies which allow considerable freedom for the singers.

The mandolin has been present on Crete for quite a long time (its presence is well-documented in Ottoman times), and in certain areas of central Crete, it has enjoyed relative popularity in older times.

Another instrument which has become popular as an accompaniment to the lyra in recent decades is the guitar.

This is in many ways unfortunate, given that the guitar, with its chordal mentality, necessarily imposes western tempered tonality on an otherwise modal tradition in which microtonal intervals were once one of its central features.

The contemporary accompaniment to the lyra (which is usually one laouto and one guitar) has entirely negated the use of microtones by lyra-players who are now obliged to adapt to the tempered intervals of the guitar and laouto (whose movable frets no longer move).

Most of the music of Crete, however, is dance music which is played at local festivals (panigyria), weddings, baptisms and other such festive occasions.

These dances are usually quite fast and require considerable skill on the part of the dancer, but also restraint and finesse.

The main dances are the Malevyziotikos, the Pentozali (slow and fast), the Sousta, and the Syrtos.

Other dances do exist, but for the most part they can be considered to be sub-categories of those fore-mentioned.

The remainder of the Cretan repertoire is comprised of songs which are not intended as accompaniment to dance.

Perhaps the most important of these songs are those which are referred to by the generic name rizitika.

These songs were originally sung exclusively on western Crete, without the accompaniment of instruments, by a group of men sitting around a table.

For this reason they are also known as traghoudia tis tavlas, literally "table songs".

Rizitika (sing. Rizitiko) songs are characterized by their very serious and austere nature, their remarkable verses which reflect a very developed poetic tradition (frequently allegoric and obscure in meaning), as well as by their intricate melodies.

The rizitika songs are also the only texts found in Cretan music which do not employ the technique of rhyming verses.

Rhyming verses were introduced to Creta during the time of the Venetian occupation of the island (1204-1670), and some researchers suggest that the unrhymed rizitiko lyrics perhaps reflect an older poetic form, and that, potentially, some of the extant lyrics themselves could perhaps pre-date this time.

There is clearly a case for suggesting connections between the rizitika songs and Greek Orthodox Church hymnology.

Other song-types are those found in urban centers and ports which reflect clearly influences originating from Asia Minor.

Also worthy of special note are the melodies used to accompany the epic poem Erotokritos, which was written in the mid 17th century by Vitsentzos Kornaros. This enormous epic poem holds a very special place in Cretan culture and, at one time, it was not unusual for even an illiterate person to know it in its entirety by memory.

Cretan discography is quite extensive and recorded examples of Cretan music from the beginning of the 20th century up until today are readily available.

In fact, if one merely types "Cretan music" into any search engine, a very large number of pages belonging to online retailers of Cretan music will appear.

If one listens to the older recordings by players of the early 20th century, it is immediately apparent that Cretan music has undergone major changes during the ensuing decades.

My own preference is definitely in favor of the great masters of the past such as Andreas Rodinos ( a legendary lyra-player whose renditions of Cretan music are still today the point of reference, he died in 1937 at the untimely age of 22), Manolis Lagos (a very "classical" lyra-player from Rethymnon who was active in the early 20th century), Giorgos Tzimakis (a lyra-player and excellent singer from Hania who is today in his mid nineties and still playing), Nikolaos Saridakis (a very sensitive violin-player from Kissamos, western Crete), Stelios Foustalierakis ( he was the greatest exponent of the rare saz-like instrument boulgari and also the composer of some of the greatest classics of Cretan music), Giannis Bernidakis or "Baxevanis"( the foremost singer and laouto-player of the early 20th century), Kostas Mountakis (one of the greatest lyra-players of the 20th century and an extraordinary singer, he was also my teacher), Athanasios Skordalos (A superb lyra-player from the village of Spili in central Crete.

The friendly rivalry between Skordalos and Mountakis, which extended over a 40 year period, accounts for an enormous percentage of the creative work done in Cretan music during the second half of the 20th century), Michalis Papadakis or "Plakianos" ( recordings of "Plakianos" are unfortunately rare, he was the finest representative of the school of lyra-playing from the region ogf Apokoronas in western Crete), Nikos Xylouris (from the village of Anogeia in central Crete, he is generally regarded as the greatest singer ever to have graced Cretan music, he was also a very fine lyra-player and composer), Giannis Dermitzogiannis (a lyra and violin player from Sitia in eastern Crete, he was especially adept in the use of bells on the bow of the lyra) Leonidas Klados (a very innovative and creative lyra-player from the region of Messara in central Crete who is still active today).

These are but a few of the great names of the past, there are many more who are definitely worth investigating.

The present terrain of Cretan music often appears a bit bleak in comparison to that of older times. There is, of course, no shortage of lyra-players (indeed there are literally thousands of them!), but the whole sound is now noticeably affected by contemporary urban Greek pop music.

There are however definitely some musicians of the younger generation whose work is excellent: Stelios Petrakis (a lyra, laouto and saz player from Sitia who has seriously studied musical traditions of neighbouring countries and who freely but tastefully employs elements of them in his own work), Giorgos Xylouris ( the nephew of the great Nikos Xylouris and son of Psarantonis, he is an exceptional singer and laouto player whose contribution to Cretan music is destined to be very important), Dimitris Sgouros ( a lyra-player from Agios Nikolaos in Eastern Crete who is the best living example of the style of his region), Zaxarias Spyridakis ( a lyra-player of great creativity and virtuosity who was one of Kostas Mountakis' foremost students).

Again, these are but a few names, many more exist and they are definitely worth investigating.

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