Authenticities and Cretan Musics

By: | Post date: September 17, 2009 | Comments: 10 Comments
Posted in categories: Greece, Music
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I’m not posting about Quebec or Acadia for a while, for absence of stimulus, and seasonal illness: I’ve stayed home sick three days so far this month, and those days have not been spent blogging (nor reading those books on Acadian I’d borrowed.)

I’ll still post on identity construction, closer to home; and the emphasis is on “construction”. Actually, the emphasis is on folk music, but you’ll see what I mean.

This post is even more meandering than usual for an Opɯcɯlɯklɑr post on identity, so the nickel summary is: Cretan music is neither as homogeneous, nor as primordial, as it is currently presented. (Obvious parallel to the construction of Greek identity, which I mercifully won’t spell out.) That’s bad, but the fact that it’s changed is not bad: it’s life.

I no longer listen to Greek music, pop nor folk nor art; truth be told, I don’t consume much art any more at all. But in my teens and twenties, I did a lot more. And I’m grateful to the Greek State, for Government TV screening folk music from a different region of Greece every Sunday: you could easily get a feel just by watching from home, for how diverse Greece is musically. (I doubt my younger cousins, watching in the era of privatised TV, got the same opportunity.)

Thinking back, though, I don’t remember any music from the Ionian islands on TV: none of the mandolins or barbershop trios that make the music of Corfu and Zante so unmistakably Italian, so divorced from what was happening in the mainland. That omission should have given me pause at the time, but I was like ten. A smart ten, but not clued about every subtlety in identity construction.

And living in Crete, I got particular exposure to Cretan folk music, which continued when I returned to Australia. Cretan folk music is played on the lyra, a pear-shaped knee-fiddle. Like the fiddle, it derives from the rebab and the rebec, and its antiquarian name is not the Greeks’ fault (for once), but the Venetians: lira di bracchio. Three strings, d-a-e′, stopped by the fingernails; a hoarse, full sound. It’s accompanied by the laouto, a strummed instrument closer to the Arabic ud than the Western lute. The laouto mostly machine-guns powerchords to the beat, but at its best, it swaps riffs with the lyra—the lyra more melismatic, the laouto in shards.

This would be pretty representative of current practice:

And so has it been as long as I rememember. As it turns out, not much longer than I remember.

When the family went to Greece in ’89, my mother asked the local record store owner for a mixtape of Cretan music. (Those of you under 30 may want to google what a mixtape is. We didn’t have iPod Shuffles back then.) The store owner asked if he might not put some music on the B-Side by his father, the renowned lyra-player Giannis Dermitzakis. Sure, we said, he was renowned and all.

What on earth was this, I wondered when I got to the B-Side. Guitar accompaniment? (And rather more arpeggiated than I thought tasteful.) Why was the lyra tone so nasal and hollow? And what was with those annoying jingle bells, dogging every bowstroke? This was some kind of joke, right?

This, in fact, was what Cretan folk music sounded like until 1920.

To go further, this is what rural Christian East Cretan folk music sounded like until 1920. Maybe without the guitar; but Dermitzogiannis’ guitar was no more inauthentic an accompaniment to the lyra than the laouto powerchords are. The laouto, and before it the boulgari (cf. the Turkish saz), was borrowed as a rhythm section from a distinct musical tradition, tabachaniotika: Muslim Cretan folk music. (Or Urban rather than strictly Muslim, and tabachaniotika may not be its original name: see extensive debate on Rebetiko forum.) The laouto was borrowed to replace the jingle bells, the gerakokoudona “falconry bells”, which were attached to the lyra bow and served as its rhythm accompaniment.

And the lyra itself really did used to sound that nasal and hollow. The construction of the instrument changed in the ’30s, giving it a deeper sound; struck by this, contemporaries called it the vrontolyra, the thunder-lyre. The construction also gave it a fourth string, and violin tuning (the viololyra); the fourth string did not last, but the retuning did, and the lyra was able to take over the West Cretan repertoire, which until then was the exclusive domain of the violin.

It had to be, because the orginal lyra (now called the lyraki, “li’l lyra”) only had a six note range. Sure it had three strings, but the side strings were drones: the tuning was d′-a-e′. And once you know that, you realise that the dances of a Cretan night out really aren’t all from the same tradition. The West has its syrtoi, leisurely melodic dances with a reasonable range fit for violin. The East has fitful, manic, repetitive riffs, which typically fit comfortably in six notes. Not the same kind of music at all.

There’s more diversity than that. Crete has bagpipes, I’ve read (askomadoura): but I’ve never heard them. Apparently my part of Crete, Lasithi, was renowned for its drums (daouli); never heard them either. I’m from the Eastern tip of Crete, and our village musician played the violin, not the lyra. The Tabachaniotika mostly left the island with the Muslims, and they took their boulgari with them, but a couple of songs stayed around.

The boppy Filedem started as a Muslim song, “Friend Adam (File Edem), don’t slaughter so many Christians during Ramadan” (unsurprisingly, I can’t find a performance online). Then it got appropriated by the Christians to needle the Muslims: “A Turkish lass goes to the mosque, she prays to change her creed; Turkish lass, your veil conceals your beauty, Filedem ” (here by the Lesser Xilouris brother, Psarantonis)—

and then was popularised as the anodyne “I’m in love with a married woman, God enlighten her so she may leave her husband, Filedem Alas” (here with the Greater Xilouris brother, Nikos, and ’60s flutes)—

The other survival of Tabachaniotika is the Staphidianos, as “I rejoice in my torments, I celebrate my bitterness”. It’s clear this is rooted in Muslim music once you know it—it’s an Amanes (it also gets called Χαλεπιανός Μανές, the Aleppo Plaint), with the unmistakable melismata of the Orient, and a gloriously expansive melody.

This recent instrumental version on lyra is clear enough:

Compare and contrast, moreover, six versions of the Aleppo Plaint: in Turkish, sung by a Greek refugee in the States; two early Greek versions; two tabachaniotika Cretan recordings by the boulgari player Stelios Foustaleris (there’s a post about it)—with not a lyra in sight; and finally a recent lyra-and-vocal recording.

I don’t like any of the six, btw, because I always get stuck on the recording I first heard, which was a glorious, full-throated plaint. It was on Manuel Dermitzakis’ mixtape in fact, so good luck finding out who recorded it.

OK, one more embed. An Arabic performance of the same tune. Linked to the Greek youtube by my friend Aktinotos:

One further deviation from the current Cretan mainstream has flourished—because it fits the Cretan heroic self-image. The south-west of the island, where blood feuds flourish and where no doubt they eat people alive, has Rizitika, “Foot-of-Mountain songs”, unaccompanied ballads of virility and vengeance. No instruments are allowed there: they’re presumably deemed too frivolous to sing of slaughter to. Those songs—a couple at least—have circulated around the island, although not in the dances where a lyra is played. I have an electrifying recollection of walking past a café late at night in my mother’s village, where twenty men around a table were belting out “I shall leave mothers without sons, and wives without husbands”.

There’s nothing authentic in men from placid Zakros singing a ballad from the murderous other side of the island. Nor is there anything authentic in the Great Nikos Xilouris recording it with instrument backup (and a misplaced dove graphic on the YouTube vid):

But then, there’s nothing authentic in any of it. There’s nothing authentic in taking a cleancut young man from the Rethymnon countryside, tussling his hair, and making him the icon of an island, and of a nation’s left-wing resistance.

That’s the Nikos Xilouris legend, and I can see at a more cynical remove the image manipulation that I couldn’t at the time. (That he died young contributed to the image building of course, no less than it did with his contemporaries in rock.) But that doesn’t meant there wasn’t also a Truth to that image.

There’s nothing authentic about taking one folk musical instrument among six or seven, and enshrining it as the Sole True representative of an island. The paper where I found out (at 26) that modern Cretan music has been reengineered shocked me—because I’d assumed authenticity. The paper was driven by the complaint of a West Cretan fiddler, that the same State TV which had promoted Cretan lyra performances when I was a child was blocking Cretan violin performances—because only the lyra was felt to be distinctively Cretan. So the lyra changes into a semi-violin, steals the violin’s repertoire, and then boots the violin off the stage. There is a rationale to that, but much less of a Truth.

Nor is there anything authentic in what Kostas Mountakis did to the lyra repertoire, bringing it in line with the new tuning of the instrument. The most manic of the East Cretan dances is the pidikhtos, the Jumping Dance. Or the Kastrinos, the Iraklion Dance, or the Maleviziotis, the Malevizi Dance; or, swapping straight lines for zigzags in the back-and-forth steps, the Stiakos, the Sitia Dance. In all its manifestations, the base riffs show you a dance that fits within six notes with notes to spare:

That’s not the version Mountakis recorded. The version Mountakis recorded starts that way, but it’s also worked out octave runs, and there’s no way that’s what used to be played on the lyraki. But of course, the Pidikhtos as augmented by Mountakis is now the standard version.

And that’s not authentic either, but that’s a pretty narrow and thankless notion of authenticity anyway. Greece needed a young Cretan with tussled hair and a heroic voice as an icon. Men in Zakros cafes needed songs to sing out into the night sky. The music is a vehicle, not a museum piece.

True authenticity is not about repeating Mountakis’ Pidikthos note for note, as Ross Daly did in a recording I heard once. Ross Daly is cool in very many ways—

—not least being an Irishman who decided to turn himself into the Xilouris Bros’ Ginger Uncle, and does interviews on Athens TV with a Cretan accent heavier than any native-born Cretan who’s made it to Athens TV. From his fanclub page, here’s Daly forty years ago, with Nikos Xilouris in the middle, and his teacher, Mountakis, at the right:

But repeating his teacher’s dance note for note is not getting the point of the music. True authenticity is appropriating what was played before you, and making it your own; and that includes adulterating it. Which is what Mountakis did, and what the transmogrifications of the Aleppo Plaint do.

(Daly has more than made up for his failure to innovate on Mountakis, by inventing a new lyra modelled on Indian string instruments, with sympathetic strings. He also has written up a more knowledgeable summary of Cretan music than this. Including something I didn’t know until tonight—that the use of the violin in my village on the eastern tip of Crete was not an aberration: Zakros too was violin and not lyra country.)

True authenticity in Cretan folk music is not about playing the selfsame riffs in the selfsame manner as a hundred years ago. It’s about having some muso friends over for some roast meat and raki shots and some riffs. And having those riffs pattern into recognised dances. It used to be a lyra in the Eastern countryside and a fiddle in the Western countryside and a boulgari in the towns and just your vocal chords and a rifle in the South-West (and I have no doubt the roast meat was human there). Now it’s thunder-lyra and lute. It used to be stern men with headkerchiefs and a knife at the ready; now—why, now there’s even female lyra-players.

And the recordings now (not just hers) have dialect consultants, to make sure the rhymes aren’t in too standard a Greek.

But the music lives: that’s why it changes, because it’s not yet in aspic. You can still have musos over in the village, and you can still go to a Cretan music night out in Iraklion. And on a night out in the ’20s, lyra players would also play waltzes, and with the mass mobility of Modern Greece, lyra players now will also play mainland kalamatianos dances; none of it’s authentic, but I’d rather the inauthenticity of a living tradition, than the authenticity of a museum, or the artificial scrubbing a culture clean of its inconsistencies. Like a Crete that only plays the lyra, or a Greece that only speaks Greek.

I say that, as a Western Multi-Culti; yet even that artificial homogenisation becomes living, and its own organic tradition; so I’m guilty of aspic myself in hankering for bagpipes and boulgaris. The modern monoculture of lyra and lute dates from the ’30s; but at its best, it has come up with wonders. An ethnically homogenised Greece is a pernicious artifice, but new diversities and parochialisms and sentiment have emerged, because that’s what human beings do. The Ottoman Selanik, where Ben-Gurion saw for the first time a Jewish working class that could make it on its own, is gone. It was been replaced by Thessaloniki, Mother Of The Poor—the new home of the Asia Minor Refugees. But Mother-Of-The-Poor is not more fake or less heartfelt than Mother-Of-Israel because it is newer, and it’s certainly not a pale imitation of Athens. It is its own beauty, it too is a home.

The mistake in making a fetish and a museum piece of culture, is it fails to acknowledge that culture changes. The past of Salonica is Jewish, not Pontic. But its present is Pontic, and its past before the Jews was Byzantine, and it’s all Salonica, and all valid.

I was shocked to find there were no thunder-lyras in 1900. But there were no rebecs in Knossos either. There was a Cretan music before bowed instruments and manic riffs, although we’ll never know what it was like. That doesn’t legitimate banning violins and bagpipes and drums from any representation of Cretan music, nor Corfiot mandolins from representation of Greek music: that’s the levelling impulse of centralisation, and its main offence is that it’s boring. But that is not to take anything away from the greats of the thunder-lyra, from Mountakis or Xilouris or Skoulas or Garganourakis. Saying Cretan music is only the thunder-lyra is a lie; saying there is great Cretan music on the thunder-lyra is not.

Especially when the thunder-lyra remembers that there have also been other Cretan musics, and it too chooses to take up the Aleppo Plaint.


  • […] plenty of Amanes—the slow, chromatic laments that were emblematic of Smyrneika, and which I’ve looked at before, in the context of Muslim Cretan music. Vamvakaris on the other hand recorded just one amanes, and […]

  • […] have written on this blog ten years ago on my discovery of the changes in the traditions around Cretan folk music this past […]

  • […] plenty of Amanes—the slow, chromatic laments that were emblematic of Smyrneika, and which I’ve looked at before, in the context of Muslim Cretan music. Vamvakaris on the other hand recorded just one amanes, and […]

  • kostasv says:

    there is no "authentic" in any music. people make the music "evolve" …or even die!

  • Excellent piece!

    Mylonas' show is still on, by the way.

  • opoudjis says:

    I quizzed my mother, and got confirmation that Zakros was violin country: I remember Kalomiros the fiddler, but there was also a Pavlos the fiddler in her youth, and a third fiddler, who also played in Ierapetra. And when my grandfather used to own a café (a very long time ago now), there'd be dances with fiddle playing and luncheons every Sunday night. Fulfilling the social purpose of getting young Zakrites to flirt.

    Young Zakrites now play the lyra, because that's the Cretan folk music that has been mass-marketed to them. So unlike West Crete (Hania, not Rethymnon), where the violin tradition holds out, the violin tradition out East is probably dead.

  • opoudjis says:

    I didn't know about Shakespeare in the Bush, and it is indeed a trip. Thank you!

    Schwab's essay about the piece is somewhat uncharitable, but only somewhat: Bohannan does indeed start by looking down on the tribespeople's misconstrual of Shakespeare, and talks down to them, but I'm not convinced she's joking when she says the Tiv taught her to look at Shakespeare differently—or at least, to question her own assumptions of universality.

    But Schwab is quite correct that the greatness we feel in Hamlet as Westerners is not about the plot—screw that, it was already in Saxo Grammaticus. The greatness is in the literary and performance context, it's in getting inside Hamlet's head, in iambic pentameter. That goes out the window even when you translate Hamlet into another European language, never mind translating a plot into a culture that has no notion of ghosts.

    Of course, the introduction to The Klingon Hamlet which i wrote played with notions of different reception of the text—I had been reading 20th Century Shakespearean criticism in high school. And one of Cavafy's non-canonical poems retells Hamlet from the viewpoint of an ordinary Danish citizen, who *of course* sides with Claudius, and knows that the subsequent change of regime is more important than Hamlet's mad protestations of fratricide:

    Yet Fortinbras, who profited from it all
    and gained the throne so easily,
    gave full attention and great weight
    to every word Horatio said.

  • John Cowan says:

    See also "Shakespeare in the Bush for the difference between local and universal significance.

  • John Cowan says:

    Long and long and long ago, my children, before the days of AIM and the repurposing of the word indigenous, there was a young anthropology student. And the young man was interviewing an Indian chief, and not merely a chief, but the eldest of his tribe, the only one who remembered the ways of his people now lost in the mists of time, replaced by Keds and Elvis and Coca-Cola, to say nothing of other and less innocent things.

    And the young man saw that the chief was sometimes faltering, sometimes doubtful in his answers, a little hesitant in his recall of the dead past. And betimes the chief could not answer the young man's question at all, and would repair to the inside of his house; for the chief, like the others of his people, had long since abandoned the Old Way of shelter in favor of the white man's houses, though to be sure not particularly good ones. And when the chief returned therefrom, his answers were fluid and unhesitating, detailed, complex, and most excellent in quality.

    And the young anthro began to wonder. "Perhaps there is a yet older chief within the house", he thought; "more knowledgeable, more wise — perhaps bedridden?" And so the young man broke the frame, and asked the chief wherefore he would go into his house and return with such wonderful answers.

    And the chief made no reply, but went into his house, thinking to himself, "This young man is very ignorant. He wishes to learn the ancient ways of my people." And the chief returned carrying a battered old book, and he was thinking, "By great good fortune, I have a book which tells of them. The ignorant young man does not, alas, possess this book. I will tell him what it says."

    With horror, the young man saw that the book which the chief held in his ancient hand was neither more nor less than the relevant volume of the Handbook of American Indians issued by the U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology in the generation preceding. And the young anthro returned to his home, a sadder but a wiser man he.

  • opoudjis says:

    Looks like I'm wrong about the lyra being a result of Italian antiquarianism from the lira di bracchio: the Italian instrument is named for the Byzantine lyra, so the antiquarianism is closer to home after all…

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