No one plays the Lyra like the Cretans. Hearing the Cretan Lyra is an incredible way to experience the boldness and the beauty of the spirit of Crete.
The Cretan Lyra
This beautiful stringed instrument is descended from the Byzantine lyra. A Cretan lyra can be pear shaped, or oval. The body and neck of the instrument are carved from a single piece of wood. Even though some are now carved from imported woods, the preferred woods are also cretan – that of the plane tree, walnut, or mulberry.
A Cretan lyra has three strings, played with a bow. Unlike the violin, the Cretan lyra is played upright, resting on the lap of the seated musician.
Instruments like the Cretan lyra are found throughout the former Byzantine Empire, such as the “Politiki” lyra – the lyra of Constantinople, and the Calabrian lyra of Southern Italy.
Every region in Greece has its own folk music traditions, instruments, and songs. Of these, the Cretan musical tradition is one of the most popular throughout Greece. Cretan music is deeply stirring, exciting music. The tempos increase, and famous lyra players are known both for the speed of their playing and for the sheer endurance, keeping up the high emotional pitch of song.
To hear such a player live is an exciting emotional experience, not to be forgotten. It is truly a privileged glimpse, on what it means to be a Cretan. Cretan lyra at its best is a window onto to Cretan psyche.
The Origins of Cretan Music
The roots of Cretan music are varied and deep. The melodic, hypnotic and singsong chanting have their roots in Mantinades – traditional couplets of fifteen syllables that have their roots in the Byzantine era. The Erotokritos, a famous epic love story of the 17th century, written by the Cretan poet Vitsentzos Kornaros, uses this same pattern of rhyming. Mantinades are a living part of Cretan culture today. After a meal and some raki, some Mantinades are not at all uncommon, in villages especially.
As for the form of Cretan music, Arabic music plays a role, too. Some Cretan songs, like Rebetiko songs, will begin with a Taksim or Taksimi, an improvisational introduction that brings listeners into the mood of the song. The Taksim is a mode of Arabic music.
Cretan Lyra and Traditional Dances
The music of the Cretan lyra is rhythmic and exciting. You will find it impossible to sit still. In the heat of the moment, you may even wish to dance. Some dances enjoyed in Crete and common to Greece – like the Kalamatianos – are not difficult to pick up.
Other Cretan lyra songs accompany dances of great complexity and significance, such as the Pentozali. The dance- which means “five step” (pente is ‘five’) takes its name from the 5th uprising of the Cretans against the Ottomans. “Zali” also means dizziness though – appropriate for the speed and complexity of the dance. The dancers, like the lyra players, have great skill and stamina.
Where to Hear the Cretan Lyra
Wherever you have the chance to hear the Cretan lyra – even in a restaurant or cafe – the purity of the music gives you a deeply authentic experience. Many restaurants, especially in areas frequented by tourists, will have live Cretan music.
If there is a folk dancing event, this will be an even better opportunity to listen to the Cretan lyra. The steps of the dancers – wearing beautiful folkloric costumes – will bring you into the mood, and you will have a sense of the music’s meaning in context.
But, saving the best for last, the ideal setting to hear Cretan lyra is at a village festival. All villages have a main church, and this church will have a patron Saint. The feast day of this Saint is celebrated by the whole of the village. Chairs and tables transform the square and the surrounding streets, and there will be superb music and dancing into the night, accompanied by wine flowing freely and excellent traditional foods.
As you drive around the island, take notice of posters advertising festivals or concerts.You don’t need to read much Greek – just look for a black shirted musician with a lyra on his lap, and read the date. Snap a photo on your phone and ask at a cafe for details of where the village is.
Needless to say, traditional Cretan weddings are also an ideal opportunity to truly experience the music of the Cretan lyra. If you are so fortunate as to be invited to a wedding, you’ll have an unforgettable experience.
Are There Any Villages Famous for Cretan Lyra?
The beautiful thing about Cretan music is that truly it is a part of Cretan daily life. Most villages will have some lyra players and other musicians.
But one village in particular is very famous for Cretan lyra. This is Anogia, a village over 700m high on the slopes of Mt. Psiloritis. It is a beautiful scenic drive of an hour and fifteen minutes from Heraklion, or an hour and a half from Rethymnon.
One of Crete’s most legendary musicians, named Nikos Xylouris but popularly called Psaronikos, was from Anogia. He passed away in 1980, but both of his brothers – Antonis Xylouris, or Psarantonis, and Yiannis Psilouris, or Psarayiannis -also became popular Cretan lyra players.
Psaronikos became a famous composer as well. One of his beloved works is the adaptation of the Erotikritos (mentioned above), the beloved Cretan epic poem.
Anogia is a famous village even without its cultural heritage. First of all, it is near the Ideon Cave, one of two caves that the honor of being the birthplace of Zeus. But it is Anogia’s rugged terrain, and its equally rugged inhabitants that give the village its legendary reputation. The people of Anogia are famous for bravery, throughout both the Ottoman occupation of Crete and during WWII. This is a town of famous rebels, and rebellion. The village was burnt twice by the Ottomans. More recently, in retaliation for Anogia’s role in the kidnapping of a German general, the village was razed entirely to the ground.
Anogia, therefore, is the logical birthplace for a famous Cretan lyra player, as the village embodies the bold spirit of Crete, reflected so deeply in the music.
Cretan Lyra in the Contemporary Era
One of the things that marks the significance of the Cretan lyra is the fact that it is very much a living tradition. This is not the music of older Cretans, but of all Cretans. You will see many young people learning to play the lyra and dancing with great spirit to its music.
The Cretan lyra also serves as inspiration for contemporary musicians.The vibrant rhythms of the music of Crete and the traditional lyra are completing elements in the more experimental works of contemporary musicians. The Cretan lyra is not just a vital part of Cretan traditional culture, but of contemporary Greek culture as well.