Creta Shop - Crete books, maps, music, herbs

  ...online since 1996!





Bookmark and Share





People compose music, but when this music becomes particular to a remote geographical location, particularly when such location is historically significant, owing to the actions of its inhabitants through the centuries, then the human factor merges with the location itself. 

This is the case with the island of Crete. 

On many cultural occasions the terms Crete and Cretans are interchangeable. References to Crete or Cretans, evoke, among other things, Cretan music with its particular notes and characteristic sounds. This music relates the valor and spirit of Cretans through the centuries. It is a cultural artifact in musical form that has long been misunderstood by other Greeks in the mainland. 

cretan music lyra mantinades Cretan music encapsulates a code of daily action that befits those brave in spirit and bold in action. It reverberates the harsh and jagged rocky spine of the island, the fresh and free air of the mountains, valleys and gorges. In short, it is a reflection of the Cretan soul that roams free and accepts no limits. 

To be able to sense this feeling, one has to scale the rocky Madares, bleed in the effort it takes to divest oneself from all worldly wants and claim inspiration from the vast open spaces and distant horizons. 


The origins of music in Crete, and Greece in general, is associated in myth with the birth of the father of gods, Zeus, on Crete. According to Greek mythology Crete is the cradle of Zeus, music and dance. The legend of the birth of Zeus is associated with the Curιtes cult. The Curιtes were the warriors who danced round the cave where the baby Zeus was being nursed, covering his cries from his father Cronus by the clashing of their shields. Another mythical figure, Theseus, having completed his rescue mission on Crete reached the isle of Delos where he and his comrades performed a particular dance with steps mimicking the winding turns and bends of the Labyrinth. This type of dance is still in use in a number of Greek islands and is referred to as "geranos".


Although Cretan music was originally influenced by its contacts with eastern cultures, from 13th century onwards a new wave of musical trends of western origin established a foothold on the island as a more positive consequence of Latin expansionism. After the Crusades the Franks, Genoese and Venetians occupied the entire Aegean area including the island of Crete. They influenced life on the island in many ways and introduced novel sounds and poetic forms (rhyme), dances (Balos) and musical instruments (the violin). The latter was destined to play a major role in Cretan music in the years that followed.

Of particular significance to Cretan poetry and music was the influence of rhyming couplets by the end of 14th c. A.D. Years of cultural stagnation urged Cretans to adopt this artistic and literary novelty and assimilate it to the iambic fifteen-syllable meter that existed since the age of Aristophanes. The resulting combination is currently known as "mantinada", i.e. a rhyming couplet of fifteen syllables. This became a double-edged, but most favorite, tool of personal expression, applied to moments of joy and grief.

Artistic influences on Crete continued immediately after the Fall of Constantinople, when scores of church musicians abandoned the capital of Christendom to come to Crete. These learned men established schools where the Byzantine music was taught and practiced. In addition, famous Venetian musicians would come to Crete to entertain their long established compatriots in the city of Chandax (now Heraklion). Original Cretan music assimilated all these influences and adapted them to a unique style. In 1547 French physician Pierre Bellon came to Crete to investigate and later report the "warrior-like" dances of Cretans. In 1599 English traveler Sherley reported of boisterous dances performed in the streets of Chandax during the evening hours.

Francisco Leontaritis, for some the father of modern Greek music, was born during that critical period of Cretan music evolution. The oldest surviving folk song compositions in Greece date from 17th century and were found in the monastery of Iviron and Xyropotamos at Mt. Athos. Closer investigation of those compositions revealed that they were of the " rizitika " type from western Crete. Descendant compositions can be traced around the island even today. These folk song compositions must have been copied by monks who, contrary to formalistic requirements and in line with the rebel spirit of Crete, had not renounced innocent earthly pleasures. So, among manuscripts with church hymns they included folk songs which lay people sung on happy occasions. Besides, it is common knowledge on Crete and other Greek islands that church chanters and most priests are excellent folk singers. This is the case today with priest Aggelos Psilakis who sings the " rizitiko " songs.

In 1669 Crete fell to the Turks who established a reign of terror and absolute despotism. In spite of their hardships, Cretans never stopped voicing in poetic form their meager joys and surplus of sorrows. Georgios the Cretan (+1816) revived Byzantine musical tradition on the island. During the 17th century the lyre became the main stringed musical instrument of the island. It was then in pear shape form, not like the one we know today. That original lyre came out in two sizes: small lyre ("lyraki") which was emitting sharp sounds and the "vrodolyra", thunder-lyre, with a bass sound. That period the falcon-bells were first attached to the bow of lyres. Originally, those falcon-bells were attached to the neck of hunting falcons by the Byzantines. However, owing to lack of accompaniments the lyre players of the 17th century used those bells to beat time.

The influence of the violin is seen in the "viololyra", violin-lyre of 1920; another stringed instrument popular in eastern and western Crete up until 1940's. The modern lyre is a crossbreed between the "lyraki" and the "vrodolyra". It was first made in 1940 by an old lyre player and amateur instrument craftsman Manolis Stagakis. Since 1950 this lyre has been the most popular instrument on Crete. The falcon-bells were removed since the "boulgari", another smaller stringed instrument, served as accompaniment to beat time. The "boulgari" came to Greece, and Crete, from Asia Minor with the Greek refugees in 1915. In 1920 a new stringed instrument, the lute (or "lagouto") plays an antagonistic role to the "boulgari". The lute had been naturalized to Crete since the age of Vintsentzo Cornaro, albeit in its Renaissance version. Various modifications were effected to the lute in the years that followed. In 1920 the lute started to function as an accompaniment to the lyre and gradually replaced the "boulgari" altogether. Today the latter is almost extinct.


Eventually, following a few hundred of years of Turkish occupation and struggle, the Cretans gained their freedom and the island united with mainland Greece on December 1, 1913. The years of struggle and misery never bent the spirit of Cretan who were now willing to make a fresh start in life. Again, music echoed the spirit of Cretans to go on with life.

In the years that followed immediately after the union of Crete with mainland Greece, a new technological development, the vinyl record and record player, provided new impetus to traditional music. What is more, people started streaming the places where various performers of traditional music appeared almost every night and on any happy occasion all over the island. These musicians became the vehicles of local musical tradition and rendered it in their own particular way. Cretan music was then in the process of change by the influx of amateur and professional performers. The popularity of Cretan music in general produced a new generation of performers who were destined to break new ground in the history of Cretan music. This new generation of performers soon established themselves as the flagship of Cretan music and their fame skyrocketed. They were much in demand by all people who organized social events and celebrations of all kinds. They traveled from one location to another and exerted strong influence on people's perception of Cretan music. Their influence increased with the advent of radio broadcasting. By then the village of Anogeia had become the metropolis of lyre performers who, in one way or another had been the protιgιs of this village. Wider acceptance of lyre players and other traditional music performers required the informal certification of the Anogeia community.


Follow this link to read details on all the great masters of Cretan music and listen to online real audio  samples


The fruitful cooperation of earlier masters of Cretan music with the younger generation immediately after the war was decisive for the future of traditional Cretan music. Cretan music has been climaxing since the beginning of the 20th century. Skordalos and Mountakis, the post-war masters of Cretan music broke new ground with novel sounds. They pioneered musical highways to be followed by the younger artists who picked up from where those late masters left off.

During the first couple of decades after the war, radio broadcasting was firmly established on the island. Also, record companies were flourishing on mainland Greece. This period was characterized by the very slow pace of time, which was profusely expended in all kinds of feasts/event, civil or religious, and merry making. It is known that wedding feasts, for example, lasted for seven days in a row. The island of Crete reverberated in the sounds of the lyre and accompanying instruments. As a matter of fact it was then that Cretan music was working its way towards becoming one with everything that the island of Crete symbolized. The fame of a distinguished list of popular artists, like ripples in a lake, spreads beyond their native localities to reach other regions on the island and even beyond. These masters worked hard to give Cretan music a uniform backbone upon which their descendants are now called to make their own contribution.

Cretan associations in mainland Greece and abroad were thrilled with the idea that renowned Cretan music performers were more than willing to travel in order to entertain them. However, for most Cretans abroad this entertainment was more like an opportunity to strengthen their bonds with the island of Crete. For the second and third generation of Cretans abroad the performance of Cretan artists was more like an initiation or education into the basic constituent elements of the Cretan soul. At the same time, back on the island, Cretan music clubs were sprouting like mushrooms. Nikos Xilouris or Xylouris

By the end of 1960's, amidst the proliferation of folk music clubs and performers, Cretan music took a new turn. In the person of distinguished traditional Cretan artists, e.g. Xylouris, Psaronikos, etc., it came in contact with composers of deep theoretical background and formal education. This more artistic and sophisticated rendering of Cretan music, with Nikos Xilouris in 1969, raised fiery objections from Cretans who were less flexible and blindly tied to tradition. Niko Xylouris was a distinguished performer from the village of Anogeia. During that time he had been invited to perform in Athens, at a club named "Kritiko konaki". At the same time, Ierapetra born composer Yiannis Markopoulos employs folk music performer Psaronikos, also from Crete, as leading voice in his compositions. That was the last straw for all those Cretans who felt that folk music was going astray. They accused Niko Xylouris of "treason" and launched venomous criticism of his artistic experimentation in Athens.

In spite of the criticism, Niko Xylouris met with unprecedented success. Charalambos Garganourakis followed suit. Folk Cretan music had found a solid foundation upon which to grow further. Traditional music performed by musically educated lyre players is now becoming very popular. A number of concerts of significant musical compositions, e.g. Chroniko, Rizitika, Ithageneia, took place around the world. The fans of Cretan music grew significantly, particularly with the commercially successful film "Zorba the Greek". Garganourakis, crete

The popularity of Cretan folk music climaxed from mid-1970's to mid-1980's. Back on the island of Crete, musically educated Cretan artists are now part of the long musical tradition of the island. However, folk artists, generally amateurs but spirited, enjoy wider public acceptance. 


During the 1980's life on the island of Crete had changed considerably in relation to 30 years earlier. By then Crete had become a most favorite destination for most Europeans and, as a result the industry of tourism had grown out of proportions almost overnight. Economic growth and prosperity, or the pursuit of the same by young entrepreneurs, overwhelmed the powerful but sensitive character of Cretans and lured them away from tradition and age old customs.

Actually, tradition and customs are themselves bartered just like any other commodity or service in the leisure sector. This resulted in the degeneration of revered symbols and customs. An attitude of commercialism of everything sacred set in the conscience of most Cretans that were involved with tourism. Folk music could not escape this attitude and was eventually turned a cheap folkloric item.

The charm of high rising mountains and taste of "raki" (local drink) faded with the advent of western style discos, bars and whisky shots. It is obvious that Cretan conscience is lying dormant in the psyche of most Cretans. The worst part of all is that this hibernation of the soul requires the presence of an "enemy" to wake up, and such enemy is not yet perceived by most Cretans.


Cretan folk music declined during the 1980's but did not vanish. On the contrary, it was nurtured by private initiative with the setting up of folk music and dance schools and gradually gained in popularity among children of all ages. Parents were proud to watch their young children take their fist steps in Syrtos, Maleviziotikos, Pentozalis, Sousta and other popular folk dances of Crete.

Cretan folk clubs did not vanish either; they simply restructured and receded outside metropolitan areas, particularly of Heraklion. Traditional feasts, long and boisterous merry-making particularly during the summer, are still very much alive thanks to the efforts of certain bullheaded but meaning well individuals. These people strive to keep Cretan traditions alive by reviving social customs that nurtured the soul of Cretans through ages of hardships. They are known as "kouzouloi", a term which is used to describe the soul of genuine Cretans in a nutshell, i.e. an individual who, although confronted with a hopeless situation, strives to attain the impossible irrespective of consequences to himself and family. It is said that the Mylopotamos area of Crete is a breeding place of genuine "kouzouloi", while exemplary efforts to revive tradition are credited to Mylopotamitans. According to hearsay the following incident took place during a wedding celebration last year: a groom commissioned the services of two folk artists, a lute player and a lyre player. It was later became known that the father of the groom had done the same with the fathers of these two folk artists on his wedding day 30 years earlier. Is this an omen, a sign of hope?

During the last few years Cretan music has revived considerably. A considerable number of new generation of folk artists are talented and inspired. We look upon them to carry on the tradition into the new millenium. The name of some of these artists are: lyre player Stelios Bikakis from Assi Gonia; young composer, lyrics-writer and performer Dimitrios Vakakis; George Lekakis; Nectarios Samolis and Nikos Eliakis. In addition, Georgios Tsantakis from Sitia, Elias Horeftakis from Chania and Michalis Tzouganakis from Rethymnon. The list of these people does not exhaust the lesser known but talented individuals who aspire the make their own personal contribution to folk Cretan music.


As mentioned above there are a lot of young people, or perhaps not so young any more, who labour with traditional Cretan music in a most responsible way but are not slaves to platitudes and set motifs. Either through inspiration or sound musical education, they dare use various elements of folk music to express themselves in unique ways. The names Psarantonis, Ross Daly (Irish) and "Loudovikos" from Anogeia are well known to the public. Psarantonis, lyra player from Anogia

The HAINIDES group of young folk artists is one more example. The group enjoys wider recognition and has three records of Cretan ballads to their credit. PALAENA SEFERIA is one more promising group of young and educated artists, true scholars and researchers of early Cretan music.

I feel rather awkward because space constraints do not allow me to provide a few samples of Cretan music in this brief historical review. The same is true with regard to the citation of names of all those folk and educated artists who share the same dream, the revival of our musical tradition. One can not help but miss a couple of names. Forgive me if this is true in this case; but allow me to remind you that the edifice of Cretan music overshadows personal achievement and credit. It is the result of the boundless collective energy of generations of Cretans. It is their spirit we trust.


Order securely Cretan music performed by the Masters of the past and the greatest contemporary performers from CRETA SHOP


  • The Great Masters 1920 -  55 A 10 CDset containing recordings by Dermitzogiannis, Kalogeridis, Kalogridis, Karavitis, Kareklas, Koutsourelis, Lagos, Mavros, Mountakis, Baxevanis, Naftis, Papadogiannis, Rodinos, Skordalos, Stravos, Foustalieris, Harilaos, Harhalis, in a luxurious case, including a 216 pages informative booklet in English and Greek

  • "The masters 1955 - 95", a 10 CD set containing great recordings of: Giorgos Avissinos - Vasilis Skoulas - Psarantonis - Manolis Manouras - Spiros Sifogiorgakis - Nikos Manias - Giannis Xilouris - Gerasimos Stamatogiannakis - Haralambos Garganourakis - Giorgis Kalomiris in a luxurious case, including a 176 pages informative booklet in English and Greek

  • And much more...

Images and texton this page can be reproduced with written authorization of the publisher and as long as the source is referred to as "(published in STIGMES, the magazine of Crete)" and linked to http://www.stigmes.gr with credits to the writer and/or photographer




Questions and comments webmaster@stigmes.gr - Nikos Karellis 2001-11 All rights reserved