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Music

The unbridled, unpredictable spirit of Crete

Expressed through urgent, repeated phrases with a growing intensity, progressively embellished, to accompany a wild and spontaneous dance. The rhythms are difficult, the beat strange-sounding to a non-Cretan ear. The instruments are unfamiliar too - there is the lyra, which looks a little like a violin but has three strings and rests on the knee when played, accompanied by the laóuto whose name - as it suggests - resembles the lute.

And what about the mantinádes - half-spoken, half-sung couplets of 15 syllables which are often composed on the spur of the moment and accompanied by the music of the lyra and laóuto! At celebrations – in fact at any opportunity that is presented – composers vie with each other to produce the best verses; competition is fierce in these ‘battles’ – after all, they have been practicing since childhood!

The villages of the ‘riza’ in the mountains of Sfakiá in western Crete have produced the Rizítika ballads, a rallying call for resistance against conquerors down the centuries since the Byzantine period. They are rousing yet mournful, colourfully evocative yet also expressing a dark despair. The songs of the távla – the table – are sung without musical accompaniment by two groups of singers in chorus and with responses, and those of the stráta – the road - are sung more often than not by a bridegroom going to collect his bride from another village.

A shepherd, whiling away his time with his herd of goats in the high mountains, will be so delighted when you chance upon him that he will sing one of the little rhyming poems called rímes- in an ancient iambic fifteen-syllable rhythm. Or perhaps he will whisk a little double flute (souravli) from his pocket and play you a little tune. In a mountain village you may hear the haunting mirolóyia, laments composed especially by professional female mourners. The soul of Crete speaks to you through its music - if you are listening.