If, for reasons purely of utility and economy, activity in handmade crafts has dropped over the last few years, there is an art form that is in absolutely no danger of being lost. On the contrary music and dance are flourishing.
Through the small and major festivals that locals participate in, they come into contact with and become the “mystics” of a great musical tradition, comprising of Cretan music and its dances.
Following the thread of the history of the traditional music of various peoples and the history of instruments, you will wander through Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Central Asia, all the way to distant and vast China, and you will observe that despite all their differences, the peoples of these lands have so many characteristics in common: their love and pride in creativity, their need to express themselves and communicate between them through the paths of music.
Cretan musical tradition is considered the “most alive” in Greece because it continues to evolve and creatively incorporate modern musical elements, while it also manages to express and comment on modern reality in a lively way. Especially during the many celebrations and feasts, musicians do not limit themselves to going through the motions of repeating basic musical melodies. They enrich their performance with improvisations, which are accompanied by corresponding improvisations by the dancers.
The roots of modern cultural events must be searched for in the celebrations and feasts organize throughout rural Crete, drawing mainly on religious holidays or historical anniversaries. Almost all of the villages in the region, with the initiative of the cultural associations or on their own, continue to organize feasts which are a reason for local populations to get together, while they also contribute to the preservation of the land’s customs and traditions.
Lyra, laguto, bulgari, habioli, askomandura
The basic instruments used in Cretan music are the lyra (pear shaped standing violin) and the laguto (type of lute). In eastern and western Crete they use of the violin instead of the lyra is quite common. In many cases the bulgari (type of baglama or small bouzouki) complements the lagouto in accompanying the lyra.
The mandolin is also used often, especially in ‘kantades’ (impromptu musical expressions, often people will wander the village streets and sing love songs – serenades).
An important position in the musical tradition of Crete is held by wind instruments, such as the habioli (Cretan flute) and askomandura (island bagpipes), which is a “grandchild” of the ancient askavlos.
The basic Cretan dances are the Pentozalis (its roots hold back to the ancient pyrrhichios – pyrrhic dance), Maleviziotis, Sousta, Siganos and Chaniotis (syrtos). If you are given the opportunity to attend a feast, do not miss it and have no second thoughts about joining the dance circle, even if the steps look confusing. The most popular dances at feasts are Chaniotis (syrtos), Siganos, and Maleviziotis (pidichtos – jumping dance). Especially in Ethia, a local variation of the pidichtos survives, Ethianos Pidichtos, which, if you are lucky, you might see the older village locals dancing.
Cretan traditional music mainly includes dancing tunes. In many cases, however, the music purely accompanies the song, which can be put into two basic categories. The most popular is that of the fifteen-syllable couplet mantinades, mainly dedicated to love, which are often sung at traditional feasts and kantades. The ease with which Cretans compose mantinades for all occasions, is widely known.
The second important category are the tavla songs, which are sung mainly in the villages at the foot of the Lefka Ori mountains in Chania, and that is why they are called rizitika (riza – root, from the root of the mountain). Depending on the theme of the lyrics they are divided into frontier songs, heroic songs, historical songs and love songs.
There is also an idiosyncratic profile in the music and art of the Asterousia region, where established musicians, poets and dancers have left us an authentic musical tradition of the highest quality, as well as the authentic identity of all the events related to it (good company, kantades, feasts).
Mantinades are iambic fifteen-syllable rhyming couplets that first appeared as a poetic form in the late 14th century, and since then have been cultivated in many regions of Greece, especially on the islands. In Crete mantinades have flourished and have been established as one of the most basic means of emotional expression. The basic mantinades “vehicles” are the lyra players and the rhymers, but also regular everyday people.
Mantinades are a steady form of poetry that is completed within one couplet. This type of poetry is obviously very difficult, because thoughts and feelings must be expressed fully within a stifling word limit. Pauses and repetitions of words in the same mantinada should be avoided. This is why there are few good mantinades. To characterize a couplet as a mantinada it must be written in the Cretan dialect, it must make sense, it must have poetic elements, such as originality, inventiveness, imagination, allegory and it must create images.
Mantinades are the folk poetry of Crete. They do not live in books but in the people and nature, they are effortless, as they come from the person’s life, express his character, his spiritual growth and his morals, with a verbal power that springs forth from the crystal clear spring of his tongue, without any falseness or unnecessary elaboration.
Mantinadologoi or rimadoroi (mantinada singers or rhymers) were very sought after in companies of friends. When two or more would meet at the same feast, there were incredible “battles”, the so-called drakarismata (crashes) or kontrarismata (challenges).
In the drakarismata each mantinada comes to deflect or ridicule the one just spoken by the opponent.
An exchange between the guests and the hosts, for example, could be:
-‘Chilia kalos to vrikame tou filou mas to spiti
apou ‘chi ton avgerino ke ton aposperiti
[-We’re a thousand times glad to have found our friend’s home
which has the morning and the evening star on the sky’s dome]
-Kai esis kalos orisate, chilia kai dio chiliades
O kampos me ta loulouda ke tis prasinades
[I welcome you a thousand times and two
in this plain of flowers and green plants too]
-Chilia kalos orisane oi filoi oi g’edikoi mas
K a de choroun sto spiti mas, pano stin kefali mas.
[A thousand times welcome to our friends
if our house won’t fit them, let them sit on our heads.]
-Stin kefali de vgenome giati tha gremistume,
Mono ‘rthame sto spiti sas mian tsikoudia na pioume.
[We’ll skip the head because we’ll fall
We’ve only come to have a tsikoudia with you all]