The revival of bagpipes in Crete

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Posted in categories: Greece, Music

I have written on this blog ten years ago on my discovery of the changes in the traditions around Cretan folk music this past century. These changes have taken me by surprise: if you are immersed in an (albeit commercialised) folk music tradition, you assume it was ever thus. In fact, Cretan music used to be a lot more diverse a century ago than it is now, with a lot more instruments, and a lot more distinct musical traditions at play: these have been consolidated now into a single tradition of lyra and laouto.

One of the instruments that has passed from the contemporary tradition is the askomadoura, the bagpipe (literally “bag-pipe”: the mandoura is a single reed pipe, which also used to figure more prominently in Cretan music than it does now.)

I have been intrigued to hear of recent attempts to revive the bagpipe tradition in Crete. I have finally had the opportunity to hear recordings by such a performer, Alexandros Papadakis. What intrigued me most about hearing Cretan music on the bagpipe (which I’m so used to hearing on the knee-fiddle), is that it sounded pretty much the same, and that it made sense for it to sound the same. The modern repertoire of the lyra combines Western violin tunes (with a wide range), and Central originally lyra tunes. The lyra before the 1920s (the lyraki “wee lyra”) had a limited range: just a sixth, with tunes played on the left or right string. The middle string was a drone. And the lyra rendering of folk tunes continues to have a lot of ornament and trilling.

Sounds tailor made for the bagpipe.

In fact, it sounds so tailor made as to make one suspicious. The lyra was only introduced in Crete in the 14th century; the bagpipe, one might well surmise, was around longer. The Celtic fiddle tradition also has a lot of ornamentation and trillings—cranning—which is believed to have been derived directly from the earlier bagpipe tradition. And of course, the notion of drone strings on a stringed instrument is unusual for contemporary bowed instruments (though admittedly not for earlier instruments like the hurdy-gurdy). The notion that the original lyraki sounded like it did because it drew from bagpipes is not the most daft idea in the world.

I’ve also had recent occasion to listen to folk music from the Dodecanese, particularly from the next islands along from Crete, Kasos and Karpathos. The music sounds like missing links to the development of Cretan music; in fact, I heard a dance from Rhodes with the same tune as a well known Cretan pidikhtos dance (the one Kostas Mountakis made popular, on the new tuning of the lyra—which makes much more sense on the violin)—and then continued it with a new tune I’d never heard before.

Now these are amateur observations. A little while ago, I happened upon the blog “Karpathian Diaries” of Pericles Schinas, one of the quality commenters on Nikos Sarantakos’ blog. Pericles is not an amateur observer: he has a doctorate in musicology, on Greek bagpipes.

The latest article on Pericles’ blog is “The askomandoura in Crete: tradition and revival”, a paper he gave in the First “Musics of Crete” conference in 2014. The conference proceedings were never published (pity, because the paper after his confirms what I’d thought about the bagpipe/lyra nexus), so the text is available only on his blog. I learned a lot from his paper, and I thought everyone else should as well. Translation mine.

A terminological clarification: Pericles discusses the tsambouna, which is the Aegean/Pontic bagpipes; the gaida, the bagpipes played in Thrace and Macedonia (and throughout the Balkans) are better known in Greece, but are not mentioned in the article. I have chosen to translate tsambouna as “bagpipes” throughout in this article, for the sake of familiarity, but properly speaking both the tsambouna and the gaida are bagpipes, and Pericles would have translated it as just tsambouna. The gaida has a chanter pipe and a separate drone pipe; the tsambouna (Italian zampogna) has two parallel pipes yoked together, the melodic pipe with more holes, the bass pipe with less. Pericles does not consider them to be the same instrument, and the tsambouna does not properly have a drone, the way the gaida does (which is why Pericles is less impressed with the parallel with the drone string of the lyraki).

The following is a map of the villages mentioned in the article. The villages are coloured by province: Agios Vasilios in blue, Mylopotamos in green, Apano Riza in purple, Lasithi Plateau in red. (Gavalokhori, not traditionally bagpipe territory, is in grey; I have also added Olympos in the neighbouring island of Karpathos.)

The askomandoura or askobandoura is the Cretan name of the tsambouna, a wind instrument proper to the tradition of many Aegean islands and other regions of Greece, which is also found in the same or related forms among other peoples. Greek tsambounas have some basic characteristics in common: two parallel pipes of the same length with single reeds, one always with five holes, and the other with one, three or five; a yoke (a railed foundation for the pipes) ending in a bell, and a bag made from a whole animal hide. The details of construction vary, generating a variety of versions of the instrument, so that almost each island has its own bagpipe.1 Some of these minor differences influence the sound of each variant of the bagpipe, while others only impact its appearance.

In the same way, the bagpipe repertoire has some basic common characteristics which run through all local traditions (even those that were geographically isolated, like Pontic), but which are realised so differently in each locale that each local repertoire can be recognised as an autonomous whole.

The same holds for playing techniques and the rendering of tunes: each islands plays in its own way, so that some islands have a distinctive way of playing which others reject as erroneous, so that the sound of the bagpipe in each island is recognisable. Yet the particular characteristics of each local style are a choice among a relatively limited set of options common to all islands.

Finally, the role of the bagpipes and its music in the community, the circumstances when it is played, the social profile of those who play and listen to it, and even the changes in its popularity (retreat in the second half of the 20th century, resurgence since) also follow a common Greek-wide pattern which varies from place to place but not essentially.

So whatever happens with the askomandoura in Crete is the local version of a Greek-wide reality.


The general impression is that the askomandoura used to be played throughout Crete. But we only have specific testimony for a few regions, all of them in the Rethymnon prefecture or further east. There are four places where the bagpipes were definitely played until recently, or still are, according to what we currently know: the Mylopotamos2 and Agios Vasilios provinces of Rethymon, Apano Riza with the valley of Messara (as a single region) in Iraklio, and the Lasithi Plateau together with the semi-mountainous regions to its north.3 There is testimony that in the living memory of now elderly Cretans, Zaros (Apano Riza) and the surrounding region had some hundred bagpipers,4, while in some villages of the Lasithi Plateau, the bagpipes were the only instrument in use.5 It is safe to conclude that at least in some regions, the instrument was quite widespread, particularly among shepherds, who would have played it to while away the loneliness of grazing (cf. the Greek-wide stereotype of the shepherd playing the flute), but also for recreation in family or other narrow circles, and occasionally in serenades or larger feasts, such as weddings or Carnival. The bagpipes were not played by self-defined musicians: it was a hobbyist instrument, which only occasionally surfaced in public life.

It seems that its popularity receded rapidly around the middle of the 20th century. World War II, with the German Occupation and the Greek Civil War, may be considered the milestone after which noone new picked up the instrument, with very few exceptions. In the Agios Vasilios province of Rethymnon bagpipes must have already fallen silent in the 1960s. Elsewhere there were still bagpipers even up to this century—some are still living; but their numbers have long ceased to be replenished. The last place which produced new bagpipers after the war must have been Anogia.

So throughout the second half of the 20th century, bagpipers were a closed community who aged and died off without being replaced. The same path towards disappearance held for the circumstances when the instrument would be heard, and its repertoire. Everyone who withdrew from the art or died took his knowledge with him, never to come back. With the exception of “Baxes” (Manolis Faragoulitakis, 1923–2004) from Voriza in Apano Riza, who tried to keep the bagpipes in public view and made some recordings, only a few fragments of the collective knowledge of the bagpipes have been recorded.

In the beginnings of the 21st century, a little before the instrument died out forever, four new instrumentalists appeared: Kostis Mouzourakis (1975–) from Gergeri in Apano Riza; Giannis Robogiannakis (1979–) from neighbouring Zaros, Alexandros Papadakis (1977–) from Ardakhtos of Agios Vasilios province, and Manolis Fronimakis (1968–) from Gavalokhori of Apokoronas province, in Chania.6 The involvement of all four with the bagpipes began between 2000 and 2003. Mouzourakis was the only player who got to hear bagpipers play in his village, which means that there was never a gap in transmission in Gergeri. The other three first heard the instrument through recordings. Robogiannakis had access in the village to his uncle, Antonis Stefanakis, who did not play the askomandoura any more (for health reasons, probably while he was living overseas), but who still had relevant experience, and still played the mandoura (pipe), as he continues to do. Papadakis in his village and the surrounding area only had access to old people who remembered the last bagpipers several decades prior, while Fronimakis is from a region that as far as we know never had bagpipes.

All four developed a passion for the askomandoura, and they started seeking traces of its tradition wherever they could. At least the first three (we do not know about Fronimakis) contacted Baxes in Voriza, and they agree that he helped them as much as he could. Papadakis’ research also brought him to the island of Karpathos. Naturally, the four soon became acquainted. They started promoting the instrument, playing it whenever they could. Generally they were encouraged to do so, although there were some exceptions. Robogiannakis and Papadakis were already professional musicians (percussion and lyra respectively), and they started incorporating the askomandoura, in small doses, in the repertoire they would play during weddings and festivals. The other two do not play professionally, but only among friends and in informal parties.

The next decisive step in the revival of interest was the Gergeri meetups, which all four have taken part in, one only once, others more regularly or each time. Since 2006 Gergeri is the headquarters of “Piping Shepherds”, an annual event dedicated to Cretan folk wind instruments (not just the askomandoura, although it does figure prominently), but also to becoming familiar with other local traditions in Greece based on old folk wind instruments, and with the possibility of fertile cross-pollination. “Piping Shepherds” was an initiative of Giorgis Langadinos and the then mayor of Gergeri, Fanouris Ikonomakis. Since 2011, when the Kallikratis administrative reform, combined with the general social, political and financial crisis in Greece suddenly terminated the formal arrangements, the inhabitants of Gergeri have taken it on themselves and continue to run it, if on a smaller scale, to this day.

The structure of the event (both the formal and informal proceedings), particularly in the first year which set the pattern for the rest, impressed the bagpipes on participants as the main instrument of the event, and especially the spontaneous jam sessions following every year, which made quite an impression on the village with their explosive, emotive ethos.

Through the recording issued in 2007 of the first meetup, the Gergeri events started to become known throughout Crete. So a groundswell gradually built up behind the askomandoura. In various parts of Crete, whether they used to have a corresponding tradition (Agia Varvara, Gergeri, Anogia) or not, young people and children started taking an interest in learning the bagpipes, and lessons were organised.7 Gergeri appears to be the centre of the entire movement. The new bagpipers promote the instrument, and an audience has started to develop which wants to hear it. This modern movement, which is connected to the old tradition with a thread, is Crete-wide and not local, although each musician is obviously influenced by their local music.

This narrative has equivalences in the bagpipe traditions of other islands, which showed the same pattern independently of Crete: a popular and widespread instrument until the middle of the 20th century, then a tendency for the continuity of the tradition to be broken, a retreat until 2000, a sudden new interest in the new century by isolated passionate new musicians who ended up becoming researchers, then organising collective musical events, and finally revival of general interest, new bagpipers, lessons, new opportunities for playing, a new enthusiastic audience. All these local currents have merged for the past few years into a unitary movement to revive the bagpipes.

Currently there are a few dozen bagpipers in Crete under 40 who are learning or actively playing, and the disappearance of the instrument has been averted for at least the next half century. They are all in essence followers of the first four.


Those four musicians were confronted by many problems in their first steps, the solution of which demanded much patience, time, effort and persistence; it forced them to become researchers. They started off without knowing where they would find any instruments, how to play it or who would show them how to play it, without being able to follow any custom of how to combine the bagpipes with other instruments (as no such practice existed), and without an audience. They opened up a path in all these domains, which is now much easier to navigate for those following in their footsteps. But they faced an additional problem, which it is interesting to see how they dealt with: what to play.

The bagpipes can’t play everything. Bagpipes have a limited gamut of six notes (usually G–E, though they may be other absolute pitches, but with the same range); so they can only play tunes with notes within that range. That might seem a very narrow constraint, but there is a wide repertoire that fits within it: many islands of the Cyclades and the Dodecanese have enough matching tunes for the bagpipes to cover every function of social life formerly (weddings, carols, Carnival, parting, celebrations, serenades, etc.), as well as the contemporary demands of dances. Even in Crete, “for example, a bagpiper can play around 30 syrtos tunes, which is no small number” (Manolis Fronimakis), and “it has a limited scale, but that scale is used for many tunes of Crete” (Giannis Robogiannakis).8

But range is not the only criterion. The bagpipes, in the generations and centuries its tradition was cultivated, had set their own criteria of what it could play. It has its own repertoire which varies from place to place, but has some general constants throughout.

Through Greece the bagpipes repertoire is divided into two main branches, melodic and piping [“tsambounisto“, Schinas’ coinage], which roughly correspond to songs and instrumentals, respectively. The melodic repertoire consists of songs which would be recognised whatever instrument they were played on, since the composition is identified with the tune; they are characterised by melodic unfolding and periodic structure. The piping repertoire includes compositions based more on the particular characteristics of the bagpipes than on melody proper, and they are characterised by motival development and a chain structure.9 The piping repertoire usually includes fast dances like the ballos, the sousta, and various pidikhtos dances; one can observe the consistent phenomenon of the same dance on the same island having a different tune when played on the bagpipes, and when played on the lyra or violin. In Crete, too, the Anogia pidikhtos for example has different turns on the lyra and on the askomandoura, and indeed a different rhythm: whoever knows only one of them would not automatically recognise the other as the same dance.

In Crete the melodic repertoire is mainly represented by syrtos dances, and the piping repertoire by various local variants of instrumental pidikhtos dances (Anogia pidikhtos, Gergiani pidikhtos, Maleviziotis etc.) There is also a significant category of the repertoire in between the melodic and the piping, kondilies: simple tunes in four-bar phrases which are chained together but which may also be sung. Freestyle chains of couplets are sung to kondilies, which often end up as verse dialogues and conversations, and which may also be danced to as a siganos or other dances.

A typical festival nowadays, both in the regions where bagpipes are played and elsewhere in Crete, is dominated by syrtos dances. Since this was already the case before the askomandoura reappeared, the new bagpipers adjusted to it, and in order to develop a repertoire they sought out, among the huge number of available syrtos tunes, those that would fit in the six notes of the askomandoura. The pidikhtos dances each have a unique melody: there is just one Maleviziotis or Anogia pidikhtos tune, in contrast to the hundreds of syrtos tunes; so they do not encourage variety. Kondilies tunes also vary, though not as much as the syrtos, and the time dedicated to kondilies during a festival is a fraction of the time dedicated to the syrtos.10

But it seems things were quite different in the old bagpipes tradition. In particular, askomandouras never played the syrtos, just kondilies and pidikhtos dances. There is no irrefutable proof of this, but the indications are strong. There are no syrtos dances in the few recordings of old bagpipers (with one exception, in Anogia, which will not be discussed here for lack of space; see footnote 14). Baxes is said never to have played the syrtos on the bagpipes, or indeed anything other than what he has recorded;11 not because he did not know the tunes—on the contrary, he played many syrtos tunes on his other instrument, the sfyrokhambiolo (recorder). Moreover, the syrtos is not native to any of the regions with an attested bagpipe tradition: it comes from Chania, where it was and still is played on the violin, the main instrument there. The syrtos spread eastward to the rest of Crete gradually through much of the 20th century, where it was adopted by lyra players and other instrumentalists, became popular with the public, and took root.12 The spread of the syrtos was one of the steps that led to the formation of what is nowadays known as “Cretan music”, a Crete-wide idiom which shows some homogeneity despite local variation; this is very different to the older state of affairs, when there seem to have been clearly distinct local traditions on the island. (This does not mean that Crete-wide music has fully displaced local traditions.)

The hypothesis that the bagpipers, in contrast to other instrumentalists, resisted the innovations of Crete-wide music and stayed faithful longer to their local traditions—in other words, that they refused to play the syrtos—raises some questions. Why would they be more conservative than lyra players?13 How could a tradition survive if its repertoire incorporated everything but its main modern component, the syrtos? And why does that now seem to be impossible, with bagpipers violating the narrow traditional connection of the instrument with its particular repertoire (something valid throughout Greece and not just Crete), in seeking out syrtos tunes?

There is a general and a specific explanation for the conservatism of bagpipers. The general explanation is that the bagpipes are a typical product of pre-modern times, when people covered their own needs to the extent they could. A bagpiper builds his own bagpipes using materials from their immediate environment, and uses it to produce the music they and their friends or community need, be it for entertainment or for functional reasons—not to stand opposite an audience as a transmitter monologuing towards them as receivers. This was a quite normal process for communities who also produced their own food, clothes, tools, houses, and knowledge. But as modernisation leads to specialisation and consumerism, people who normally turn to shops, tradespeople, professionals etc. for their every need will also do so for music, and will demand that musicians play for them to listen to. The collective experience of the bagpipers through the generations had not prepared them for such a role. The violin, the laouto, the mandolin, the modern form of the lyra are instruments with much broader musical capability, created by specialist instrument makers, and they are played not by any random shepherd—that is, any member of the community; but by the few who have cultivated their talent for music, and are more readily equipped for consumerist listening. The bagpipes, both in Crete and elsewhere, could not fit into the new circumstances. It remained, where and when it could, a survival of premodern times. The natural consequence was that it was played by fewer people more infrequently, up to the point where it would completely disappear.

The specific explanation is that, when the syrtos started becoming established in the regions where the askomandoura was still played, the bagpipes tradition was already declining: the few elderly players could barely preserve what they had inherited from oblivion. It was beyond them to work out how to make use of the new developments through the limited abilities of their instrument.14 Their starting point was very different from the bagpipe revivalists of our time, who have succeeded in finding those new pathways, despite great difficulty.

The explanation for the second question also lies in the connection of the askomandoura with premodernity. Without the syrtos, askomandoura music is limited and monotonous. But that is only a problem for the audience, and in premodern circumstances there was no audience. For example, a verse conversation through improvised couplets, which an entire assembly takes part in as creators, may be accompanied for hours by the same kondilies tunes; indeed, variety would compromise the functionality of the music, if the experience of the music distracted the participants from what they were doing to the accompaniment of the music. Even now, when a musical evening takes that form for a group of people, often only a few or even a single kondilia tune is repeated constantly, without anyone becoming annoyed. (I have repeatedly experienced this in Gergeri.) This holds when music is a vehicle for speech, and speech constitutes an action; it also holds when music is a vehicle for other actions, through dance or other more specialised functions. On the contrary, when music is only produced by musicians and is addressed to an audience without that audience participating in its creation, all attention is directed to the sound of music, which therefore needs to be more rich, varied, and able to maintain the receiver’s attention on its own.

The answer to the third answer is related. The new bagpipers who emerged at the start of this century took on this premodern survival, but were not themselves premodern. Even those who got to hear a living askomandoura tradition (Anogia, Gergeri) are modern people, bred on Cretan music in its modern form, which is primarily as something listened to. (After all, the same applies to their audience.) In modern circumstances for playing music, e.g. in an organised festival with musicians on a stage with microphones, and the audience below listening while they eat, drink, dance and are entertained, the traditional repertoire of the askomandoura, limited and repetitive—only kondilies and pidikhtos dances—would not only be monotonous and tedious, but would diverge so greatly from the established practices of musicians and audience that it was not even contemplated: it was inconceivable. That also applies to the very sound of the askomandoura, which was traditionally played on its own in some places, and in others accompanied by a drum and occasionally a lyra—whereas nowadays a bass plucked instrument such as a laouto or at minimum a guitar is considered essential in a Cretan orchestra, as an accompaniment to the main instrument.

The result was that the new bagpipers have mostly taken up the askomandoura as a mere instrument, as a means for producing musical sounds which, stripped from its traditional role and context, is used like any other instrument—that is (since this is after all Crete) as a variant of the lyra.15 This can be seen in the composition of bagpipe groups, which always include a laouto and generally follow the model of lyra groups (two laoutos, laouto and guitar, two laoutos and percussion etc.) Some players are aware enough to admit as much:

I play lyra-style […] I started on the askomandoura on my own, quite blindly, and I mostly translate from the lyra. I don’t think in terms of the bagpipes, see? […] There was no continuity of the bagpipes in Crete. What Robogiannakis and I and some others are doing is a revival. It’s not like Olympos [bagpiping village in Karpathos], where young people learn from old people and there is no loss of colour (Al. Papadakis16).

Note that the “translation from the lyra” is not just musical—repertoire, aesthetic choices in developing tunes, etc.; it mainly has to do with the very role and character of the instrument.

[For bibliography, see original post.]

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    1. Whether we refer to “each island” or “Greek-wide phaenomena”, what we are actually referring to takes place in the broader region of the Aegean (many of the Dodecanese, most of the Cyclades, Chios, Samos, Fourni, Icaria, Crete), and the communities of Pontians and a few refugees from Western Asia Minor, wherever they have ended up.

    2. I am mainly referring to the the Anogia villages; but during the conference Kostas Panteris [the conference organiser] informed me that the neighbouring village of Gonies, which historically belonged to Mylopotamos and not Malevizi province, also played bagpipes. They were also played in nearby Damasta of Iraklion, as I was informed by the former piper Minas Nikoloudakis (Damasta, 1929–), whom I also met during the conference. (Interview with Haris Sarris and the author, Iraklion 2014–07–08.)

    3. I am indebted for this information to two friends, musicians and researchers: Alexandros Papadakis and Giorgis Langadinos, who have carried out investigations personally (the former in Agios Vasilis, the latter in the other regions), and were kind enough to share their findings with me, for which I am grateful. I had carried out a local investigation myself in Apano Riza, and more generally I have some personal experience with the region because of the Gergeri meetups (see below). The available bibliography and recordings is mainly from Apano Riza (Langadinos 2009) and Anogia (Baud-Bovy [Liavas ed.] 2006 + accompanying record.)

    4. Communication from the former bagpiper Antonis Stefanakis (Zaros, ca. 1935–); interview with the author (Zaros, August 2007)

    5. Oral communication from G. Langadinos, based on his personal research.

    6. My main source concerning the revival is my personal experience. I have known all four instrumentalists personally since 2006, when the first Gergeri meetup took place. I have been attending those meetups since without fail, and I have had extensive discussions on other events I have not witnessed myself with the other participants (mainly the four instrumentalists and the initial organiser G. Langadinos). I have gathered further information from personal interviews with them, as well as published interviews by three of them (except for Papadakis) in Lagoudianakis (2007).

    7. There is a risk of overemphasising how important the “Shepherds” are to musical culture in Crete. It is possible that some new bagpipers started independently of the movement in Gergeri, and without being initially aware of it, as indeed the first four bagpipers did.

    8. Lagoudianakis 2007, p. 91. Note that if a tune can be played on the bagpipes, that is an indication though not proof that it originated on the bagpipes (Baud-Bovy [Liavas ed.] 2006, p. 172; Baud-Bovy 4th ed., 2005, p. 38). In the case of Cretan syrtos dances, for example, the bagpipers are fully aware of the fact.

    9. On melodic embellishment vs motival development and periodic vs chain structure, see Sarris, Kolydas & Tzevelekos 2010, p. 72, and Sarris 2007, p. 268. In my dissertation chapter I argue at length for the need for a specific notion of a piping repertoire, beyond the more general notions of motive-based and chain repertoire.

    10. We should refer, even if in a footnote, to two other popular dances, the sousta and the pentozalis. The sousta consists of kondilies which show all the characteristics of the piping repertoire, but I have never heard a modern or older musician play them on the bagpipes. As for the pentozalis, it has a Crete-wide melody which originates with the violins of Chania, and is motive-based and chained but not piping; and a large number of local tunes, some of them attested on the bagpipes. So the common term pentozalis, pentozali, pentozalakia does not necessary have the same consistent referent.

    11. Confirmed by Al. Papadakis, G. Robogiannakis and G. Langadinos, all three of whom have met him (interviews and conversations with them).

    12. On the history of the spread of the syrtos from Chania to the rest of Crete, beside the general information scattered in many sources, I refer to the conclusions of the research undertaken by Langadinos and by Papadakis (see above, fn. 4).

    13. Or violin players, laouto players, boulgari players, etc. Note that even the sfyrokhambiolo, an instrument just as old as the bagpipes (though musically more flexible), played the syrtos. The case of Baxes is especially noteworthy: he played both instruments with a distinct repertoire on each, and would play the syrtos only on the sfyrokhambiolo.

    14. In the chapter of my dissertation on Crete I discuss the case of Anogia, which formed a consistent exception to this general observation.

    15. The presentation by Ch. Sarris, which was given right after mine in the conference, claimed that in previous stages in the development of Cretan music the reverse was the case: the old lyra was essentially a stringed bagpipe. See Liavas 1986 and Liavas 1994: 149.

    16. Interview with the author, Athens 2006–07–20

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