1 Introduction

Another important matter over which I’ve been thinking these days is the role of the musician. The main exponent of Cretan values. The symbol of what being Cretan is all about. This man who stays up entire nights, greeting people, shaking hands, with men beating around him in alcohol induced raptures .  A man who doesn’t get tired of greeting those who know him nor those who don’t. A man who memorizes the name of all those who are introduced to him, and expresses his gratitude every time somebody invites him over and brings him a glass or even a bottle of whiskey. A man who opens his mouth when, at a glendi1, the one serving  pours wine or raki on the tip of his lips. “That’s my man””. (field diary)

2. The guardians of Cretaness

But musicians might also be seen as cultural ambassadors for Crete and upholders of most Cretan core values (‘tradition’) in their work.” (Dawe 2007: 22)

The musicians are the main portrayers of the kritika. Without them there’s no music. Without them there is no glendi. They are the keepers of the dialects in their songs, those who express in various shades one way of understanding the relationship of the people with the island, those who sing to their land and their people. They are the guardians of the island, what Kevin Dawe (2007) has named the keepers of tradition, and what I rather refer to as the guardians of Cretaness, because I believe they express a variety of issues about Crete and about what it means to be Cretan, a plurality which has a common element in music.

Being a musician of kritika in Crete endows you with status, a social category which is surely difficult to find in other westernized societies in performers of popular or traditional music. One of my informants, Giorgos Xylouris, was telling me that in Australia, a country where he lived for about eight years, every time he came in contact with government employee and was asked his profession, he would answer proudly that he was a musician; then the clerk on duty would look at him as though he was good for nothing. On the other hand, the way he was treated on the island of Crete was the complete opposite. At the end of the concerts or during one of the musician’s short breaks, one of the most recurrent images is the number of people who want to say hello to him. “And I could see that, at a certain moment, the people approached him, almost in a state of worship. The role of the musician in this society is impressive, I don’t know if the priest is really as important” (field diary)

During a conversation with the wife of one of the musicians I was told “Speaking about the figure of the musician and the importance and meaning within the Cretan society, I recall the words of H., when she told me that the musician bears the weight of Cretan tradition (kratai tin paradosi), and this fact stresses a particular  way of doing things and their character as well. I guess some more than the others, but it is still very important”.

Moreover I myself have been invited with my partner and two friends to a wedding by the musician who was playing at it, without having any relationship to the bride or groom. That is to say, the musician has the privilege of inviting you wherever he plays, the right to do it without being questioned by anybody. His charisma within Cretan society gives him this authority.

The death and funerals of the musicians of kritika become moments of “national” mourning and of recognition as the most highly esteemed ambassadors of the island. The premature death of the singer, songwriter Nikos Xylouris (1936-1980), known as “The Archangel of Crete”, shocked the whole island, and his name is now ranked the greatest men of Cretan history. “I still recall the way my family was crying when Psaronikos died” (M.K.). Nowadays it is common to see a photograph of him in a privileged spot in some coffee houses or restaurants in several locations on the island. Streets are named after him, as in my village, as are squares, and a theater, there are monuments to him in Heraklion. The same could be said of musicians such as Kostas Moudakis (1926-1991) and Thanassis Skordalos (1920-1998), considered two maestros of Cretan music and recognized by their contribution to the music of Crete, and who enjoy the benefit of having their respective homages all across the island.

Made possible by the role of the musicians in their community, and because of their large numbers, in 1981 “a group of Cretan artists had the idea of creating a musicians association, to also convey messages to the places where they live, for example, to bring music closer to people in remote areas, to play in an orphanage, a geriatric home or for people without families. And in the case of the musicians, to find ways to help those of us in need” (N.I.)This non-profit association currently has, according to the president, 600 musicians and singers as it’s members.

3. An affair of “men”

The comment of the night was the one of Lidia; she was amazed at how men were so free to grab one another while celebrating. Masculinity is a characteristic trait in this society, at least it is much more obvious in certain glendia2, where the woman is a character of lesser importance; in front of the musicians there are only men: singers, grabbing each other, shouting, drinking…” (Field diary).

This comment was made by a friend of mine who was holidaying on the island and was seeing a glendi for the first time. A comment that reflected what was happening on the dance floor, but also what was taking place on the stage. And our informants have also confirmed it. “Crete has always been androcentric, even if women have the run of the house. We respect women; it is not that we have left them aside, but it is an androcentric community. Not long ago women couldn’t leave the house at night, it was forbidden. Then it seems normal that there are no women. I think that this is a social phenomenon rather than a musical one” (G.M.) A division of the feminine and masculine role on which the Church would have also had an influence. “Cretan men and women have different roles, as in other closed communities. Due also to the influence of religion. I believe that little by little this is going to change, but this difference still exists, I still sometimes hear “she is a woman and has to stay at home taking care of the children; she is not going to play the lyre, is she?!” (G.X.)  And the lyre player Kelly Thoma adds: “For some reason there are more men composers. As an image I think that in Europe the number of male and female musicians today is more or less the same. As you go towards the east, you see mostly men musicians as well as composers. I think that this is a restriction of a society, if you are a woman, you have to be a mother, and it’s difficult to make it compatible with the glendi in Crete. There are theories that say that God gave women the possibility to create life, for that reason God gave men the possibility, the grace to create music. I heard that.”

Throughout the history of kritika over the last hundred years it is difficult to find a single recording by any women playing a musical instrument; it is a bit easier to find a woman that sings. In the case of Viannos, the historian Sabas Petrakis was telling me that there were women who used to sing, even though their performing scope was very limited. “In Viannos there were many women who sang. They didn’t play the mandolin, and they never came to the singing show, there were only men. Women used to sing with the group.” Maria Koti when referring to her peasant grandmother was telling me “before, in Crete, women could sing and sing some mandinada, in the rest of Greece a woman could undertake a professional career, not in Crete, here it was taboo”. It seems though that little by little this is changing, there are women who play, and more who will play in the future” (Minas). This is also confirmed in the very same case of the rizitika3: “If you go to a village the song (rizitika) doesn’t begin until they bring the food. There is one that starts off and the rest of the group responds; women don’t take part, there’s no tradition, there are women that sing and they can do it well, but there’s no tradition. There are women who sing kritika in Chania, but in an amateur fashion, at home, with friends, but not in a professional manner, there’s a woman from the association that sings, and she can even sing some rizitika; before it was impossible, she didn’t even sit at the table. They used to prepare the meal; we are not living in 1930 but it is a very masculine situation”. (N.G.)

The role of women tied to the domestic matters and confined to reproduction would be another reason for this separation, necessary for the development of the agropastoral economy of Crete: “Later on a short conference took place run by the former mayor of Anogia4 about the role of women in the shepherd’s family, especially before current times, when the shepherds were forced to leave their homes to seek pastures for the animals on the plains for five or six months, and women had to look after the children” (field diary). On the other hand, the fact that the music was strongly linked to the glendia also puts limits on a woman’s possible active involvement in the cretan music.

4. Women: outside the glendi

As I previously stated, in the past there were virtually no women singing in public nor any working as professional musicians. A fact that the commentator Nikos Anetakis corroborated: “In the discography there are few women, I’ve also asked myself why there are so few of them. Perhaps it’s the trend, the fashion…, people are not used to seeing women who sing and play”. In fact, I have only found one lyre player before the 80s, Aspasia Papadakis5. When talking about her last record published (1988), Kevin Dawe commented on the differences with respect to the male world: “Aspasia Papadakis adopts a submissive attitude on her record. She treads carefully in a male domain (and she does not appear to play at weddings). Titled Ta Monopatia tu Ponu (‘The Paths of Pain’), the record is a celebration of her devotion to a man” (2007:74). That is to say, women, if the play, adopt either a submissive role or quite differentiated from the one of men.

The overwhelming majority of men in the music of the island, for Stelios Petrakis, is a phenomenon that has grown ever stronger from the 1950s to the present: “From Moudakis until now, the musical style of Crete has been more male oriented. In the Protomastores6 epoch, there were some women who sang. I think that music was more open to women before, as it is the case of the recordings by Samuel Baud-Bovy”. This statement, in my opinion, needs clarification, firstly because in the recordings of the Swiss ethnomusicologist  women sing songs related to the daily tasks, songs of lament (myrology) and lullabies, and there isn’t any woman that plays an instrument. And during the era of the so called Protomastores, as Giorgos Manolakis points out, there was Laurentia Bernidaki, who had recorded some songs, but she was accompanied by her brother Giannis Baxevannis, who also sang and played the lute. Or the daughters of the lyre player Alekos Karavitis, who also had recorded some songs with their father. That is to say, the woman is practically left out as a performer of the kritika and her role, in the glendia, is reduced basically to dancing: “Now the music is more dynamic and highlander, more pastoral (he beats on his chest playing Tarzan). His hair out in the open, 4X4, a pistol, which excludes women very much, but gives them lots of space in the dance floor, because everybody wants a woman”. (St.P.). That is to say, the spaces between genders continue to be clearly defined, apart from that some informants also attribute biological limitations to the fact that women don’t play in the glendia: “There are no women who play professionally. Women can’t spend all night playing; they can’t be two days straight without having hardly any sleep, be late at home and make friends with men. The glendi is a male thing” (A.M.).

The association between the glendi and the kritika is very strong, but, with the passing of time, music also separates itself from the feast, and what’s more, it is open to different spaces, something that also favours the fact that there are more women performers of this music: “The glendi, I think, is the defining characteristic of Cretan music; therefore, if the role of women is to dance and the role of men is to play, it is difficult to see women playing. Now, just as the music is separating from the glendi, more women are beginning to come out to play”(M.B.).

In fact, today I only know of two women who play in the glendia, Tasoula and Maria Skoula. Both women play the lyre, but as my sources have let me know, there is the circumstance that the first one plays accompanied by her husband on the lute, and the second one with her brother, although the latter “doesn’t play much at night” (Minas). That is to say, they don’t go alone and there is always a man from the same family beside them, as once was the case with Laurentia.

Despite all this, there are more women ever more connected to this music, without having to go through the glendi: “In Crete, music is clearly a male sport (he laughs). There are very few women that play, for example, Tasoula, but I guess she plays because her husband plays the lute, and before that there was Aspasia. Now at Labyrinthos7 there are many women who play” (K.T.). In Athens I also find Georgia Dagaki, who plays the lyre with a rock setting, and she accompanies the British group The Animals, Eric Burdon on their tours. The musician and professor at the conservatory, Dimitris Pasparakis, is helped by an assistant, Maria, who dedicates herself to teaching the lyre and who never has done a glendi, and who in a conversation held with me confirmed that she had no intention of doing so. “Kelly Thoma also mentioned to me that to her music is fundamentally to listen to (not do dance to); for this reason she prefers to perform in closed venues or theatres, preferably places where there is no need to use amplification. In fact, the whole interview was focused on tracing a journey, the one that she is taking,  totally different from the one that can take a musician that plays kritika; the only common element is the instrument and the Cretan music that they both love, even though she prefers to listen to it with the headphones on” (field diary).

5. Professionalization

It is during the inter-war period (Reraki 1999:64) that professional Cretan musicians emerge, mainly in the province of Rethymno and the central part of the island. To be more specific this is the era of the first recordings, which gave the music a systematic dimension with the new possibilities of recording added to the vibrant world of the glendi. At the same time, a substantial number of songs and dances from the traditional repertoire have acquired an “identity” related to the world of music that has been recorded for the first time. Such is the case of Syrto of Rodinos, a definitive performance of a syrto8 dance, now a classic, recorded by a renowned lyre player during the above mentioned period.

In this way, a category of musicians has emerged who stand out for their fame on and beyond the island, and because their recordings have begun to be part of the collective memory of the islanders. The semi-professional practice is introduced, and the majority of musicians combine music with other activities. That is to say, around certain musicians there is social recognition, a reputation. Little by little the payments that those musicians receive are more important, and besides playing in the glendia other venues for this music appear, the kendros9. At the same time, Cretan communities established off the island books the musicians for their celebrations10. This evolution involves the professionalism and complete dedication to musical activity of a significant number of musicians. But that doesn’t exclude the existence of quite a few semi-professional and amateur musicians. A division that has given rise to all kinds of comments among the informants. “With the professionalism barbarity sets in (with reference to the use of sound devices). When you leave a wedding feast, your ears ring for four days and this is a disaster. In Crete, if you play the lyre just a little bit and meet a friend who plays the lute and you both perform in a glendi, you are called artists right away. And it can’t be, if those are artists, what are we supposed to call Moudakis? Our life is going the wrong way. (…) When men used to play in an amateur fashion there was more culture” (M.S.). A situation that is attributed to the amount of money that circulates in and around the feasts: “Now, in the glendia, there is a business, it is not like before; right away they give the lyre to a kid with a wide circle  of acquaintances and he is called an artist” (N.A.). This situation has given rise to all sorts of questions around the great deal of music played at present:”What’s happening with the mandinadologos11, happens also to the lyre players. I don’t know if the issue is the need for the child to learn how to play the lyre or it’s the need of the family for the child to be a lyre player, because there’s money involved; in one night at Anogia one can collect thousands of euros”, in the words of the poet Mitshos Stavrakakis. In the same way that there’s a large proliferation of mandinadologos, there is also one of lyre players, although the difference is that the latter do it for money. “Nowadays most of the things are conditioned by consumerism. Up to when they are fifteen years old, they can play like a grown up mature person, but as soon as they start to play at weddings and begin to depend on money, everybody ends up doing the same, and it’s not by chance. They say that in Crete there are a thousand children who play the lyre, and so what? If everyone plays the same” (Sb.P.).

As I have mentioned during this discourse, Cretan traditional music has been changing with the times and in one way or another it has been expressing the changes the islander society has been going through, which have also shaped current music and has generated contradictory perceptions: “This exaggeration, to believe that one can have it all, you can see it in the songs as well as in the way they dance, the way the youngsters dance, also in the way of teaching. The way of life is passed on through music. Before, people endured difficulties, famine, wars, mankind was more humane, and this way of life was transmitted to the way they danced, their songs, their music. This old way of life went on for centuries, and it was passed on to one another from generation to generation; obviously, the level one wanted to reach was high” (D.S.). Changes that were not always accepted gladly as the president of the Cretan Musicians Association was putting forth to me during my visit with him at his head office: “Here you have a photograph of 1918. A feast where there is a group of people with lots of instruments: the lyre and the violin, the mandolin and the lute. F. plays the violin.(…) We can see a very nice photograph of a very nice community that little by little is fading away, and we have to see that that doesn’t happen, by means of culture and tradition”.

A call on the past and tradition that it’s refuted by the producer Kostas Fragkakis: “ Music doesn’t end neither here nor there. We cannot be in 2010 the same as we were in 1960, listening to a lyre and to a lute, seeing that, then, we would also have to ride a donkey instead of driving a Mercedes or a BMW; why don’t we keep tradition in this case as well? If we want to be on the side of tradition, let’s do so, but with everything. If you want to have that traditional listening you’d better live the life of that time.” In a similar manner Maria Koti expresses: “People, depending on the epoch they live in, have to understand what they listen to. Those who believe that they have to keep tradition alive I think they are wrong”. A vision of music as a being in motion, as a continuum, without being stuck in the past: “That’s the way I believe music should be, without rules, without police. Grabbing it from the roots but letting the tree grow” (Minas).

These are arguments I question. At what point do these dynamic musical happenings with their wide variety and nuance, known as kritika, remain linked to the island of Crete and still differ from what happens in the rest of the country?“Here there is a lot more movement. You go to Heraklion and you see all the advertisements mustache-lyre12, mustache-lyre;  many things come out every day; there is little profit to be made. I guess, however, that there is a positive side to all this, that this matter is so alive; in Kefalonia (another Greek island) there is no tradition. Here, there’s a lyre player in every home; in Kefalonia people sing with the mandolin, but there isn’t any new material. On the islands there is a sort of insular skiladiko13, but there aren’t new things” (K.T.).


Alsina Iglesias, Jordi (2012):“Ta Kritikà: Viatge a la música de Creta”. Barcelona: Editorial Setzevents.

Baud Body, Samuel (2006):Mousíki katagráfi stin Kríti 1953-1954 (Enregistrament musical a Creta 1953-1954).” Atenes: Kentro Mikrasiatikon spoudon (Centre d’estudis d’Àsia Menor).

Dawe, Kevin (2007): Music and musicians in Crete. (Performance and Ethnography in a Mediterranean Island Society).” Toronto: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Herzfeld, Michael (1985): “The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Montain Village.” Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Reraki, Fotini (1999): “Le musical dans le panigyri à Anoya, un village de montagne crétois.” D.E.A en Esthétiques, Technologies et création artisitiques, Paris VIII.


All the interviews were recorded by the author of this essay in Crete between 2009-2010

  • Andonis Martzakis (A. M). Violinist. Souda (Xania) 30 years.

  • Dimitris Sgouros (D. S) Lira player and teacher. Kritsa. 41 years.

  • Giorgios Xylouris “Psarogiorgis” (G. X). Lute plauer. Anogia. 45 years.

  • Giorgios Manolakis (G. M). Lute player. Heraklion. 27 years.

  • Kelly Thoma (K. T). Lira player Athens. 31 years.

  • Kostas Fragkakis (K. F). Producer. Heraklion. 60 years.

  • Manolis Spanakis (M. S). Journalist and shopkeeper. Viannos. 55 years.

  • Maria Koti (M. K). Singer. Heraklion. 36 years.

  • Minas (Minas). Percussionist and shoemaker. 50 years.

  • Mitshos Stavrakakis (M. St) Poet and worker. Armanogeia. 57 years.

  • Mixalis Bitzakis (M. B). Producer and bass player. Merambelo. 30 years.

  • Nikos Anetakis (N. A). Broadcaster. Heraklion. 29 years.

  • Nikos Giakoumakis (N. G) Lawyer. Kissamos. 40 years.

  • Nikos Iliakis (N.I) Lira player. Heraklion. 50 years.

  • Sabas Petrakis (Sb. P) Local historian. Viannos. 60 years.

  • Stelios Petrakis (St. P) Lira player. Sitia. 34 years.

1We could translate a glendi like a feast, but I prefer to use the original concept, because endows an important cultural significance.

2Plural of glendi.

3Monophonic songs from the province of Chania, West Crete.

4Village with an important musical tradition, near the Psiloritis mountain, the biggest of Crete.

5 During my field work I tried to contact her, but due to her advanced age and an illness that made her convalescent in bed it was not possible.

6The firsts masters of kritika who were recording.

7The Labyrinthos is a musical school situate it in Xoudetsi (center of Crete). It was created in 1982, it is a reference to everyone who wants to study the denominate it modal music.

8Syrto or chaniotis one of the most famous dances of Crete.

9Locals around the island where you can listen music from Crete or celebrate a glendi, wedding, baptism or another kind of feast.

10“Once the summer season is over, the emigrants take the opportunity to prepare their own feasts, which has made it impossible for Giorgos to stop.” (field diary)

11The poets who write mandinades (Cretan poems).

12With reference to the amount of posters that promote a lyre player, either because he has made a new cd or to advertise a performance. The moustache is a sign of Cretan male identity, also characteristic in many musicians (Herzfeld 1988)

13Greek musical genre who appears during the seventy’s under the influence of the disco music and orientalizate scales.