Famous Cretan Musicians & Composers
Table of Contents
When we talk about famous Cretan musicians and composers, there are so many names that come to mind. In the first half of the 20th century, the so-called First-generation Masters of Cretan music were at the height of their popularity. Amongst them, we have Rodinos, Baxevanis, Kareklas, Charilaos, Foustalieris, Koutsourelis, and other less known but just as influential figures whose impact is still felt today.
In the second half of the same century, the baton was taken up by the next generation of “Greats”, such as Naftis, Skordalos, Mountakis, Klados and others, who taught and inspired those performing today. Here is also when the blind lyra-player Stravos with his incredible sensitivity and skills opened the hearts of the youth of Anogia and birthed a new generation of musicians. From this generation, and specifically from Anogia, came Nikos Xylouris – the ‘Archangel’ of Cretan music, who died too soon and at the height of his popularity. Today this musical legacy lives on in a multitude of performers all over the island, many of whom have left their mark on its sounds and development. Amongst these are the Irishman Ross Daly, Nikos’ brother Antonis (Psarantonis as he is usually called), the son of Giorgos Xylouris (Psarogiorgis) and many other talented artists.
Below, we take a closer look at some of the most important musicians in the Cretan tradition. Living or dead, they all have broadened the musical talent and wealth of the island. It is worth taking the time to listen and learn more about each artist and their musical style.
Beginning his life in a shepherding family on the slopes of Mount Psiloritis, Xylouris went on to become one of the greatest musicians in Crete and Greece as a whole. He not only revived the older Cretan musical tradition but managed to impress his personality, his ethics and his interpretive genius on one of the most important periods in modern Greek history. Nikos Xylouris was born in 1938 at Anogia – the oldest child in a family known for their musical talent and skills. Kostas Georgousopoulos has managed to sum up his contribution to the Greek music scene quite well here:
“When I first met Nikos Xylouris in the summer of 1970 – my life changed. An Announcing Angel, pure, innocent – from the land of myth and legend…he passed through our dry and dusty minds, amongst our muddy thoughts – just as a breeze from Heaven might do. Xylouris came from the festivals and feasts of the Cretan tradition – like an angel, like a messenger from another way of life. He was a lyra-player, he was a singer … Xylouris was an all-round genuine human being. Complete in himself, straight, careful with his word, happy to be in tune in all he did. You could not lie to him … with his disarming chuckle and his clear gaze he would unmask you and oblige you to admit to your falsehood. He knew how to expose hypocrisy, to reveal the solemnity of truth. As a lyra-player, you might think Xylouris had stepped right out of some Byzantine wall-painting – where the angels were playing lyra, touberleki and tampoura. As a singer, Xylouris came from Byzantium .. from the night-long vigils in Constantinople, when Damascus composed and Romanos the Melodist took musical flight. Through his voice lived on the ancient musical modes, the Byzantine scales, the ways of the East. Xylouris was a charismatic messenger who brought into our age the memories of the long continuity that is Greek music. He sang – and Sappho rejoiced, Kassiani was exultant and Kyria-Frosini gave fervent thanks.”
Stelios Foustalieris or Foustalierakis as he is sometimes called lived and worked in Rethymno (1911-1992). He is also one of the most important artists of the First-Generation. His musical tradition is distilled from the musical excitement produced by political interactions down the centuries – redolent of Asia Minor, the Aegean archipelago, infused with elements of rembetika and the like. Foustalieris belonged to a group of artists who dominated Cretan music during its interwar period, along with the likes of Charilaos, Rodinos, Baxevanis, Kareklas, Lagos and so on. His name and fame were associated with the bulgari (a stringed instrument), the so-called ‘Cretan tampoura’. Mostly self-taught, with some guidance from his uncle Antonis Papadakis (aka Kareklas) Foustalieris developed into a genuine virtuoso instrumentalist.
His career as a professional musician was set at an early age. He participated in local folk groups at weddings, baptisms and fests (glendia) in the villages of the area. Later he became a watchmaker too. In 1937 he made his first album – Odeon, the first of a total of thirteen.
One of his most important artistic achievements was how he brought forward the “bulgari” in his work in Rethymno and on record. This was the first time it moved to centre-stage as a solo instrument away from the supportive role it had always had to the more popular lyra and laouto. Unfortunately, the bulgari has today almost vanished from Crete. The influence of rembetika from the region of Piraeus is clear in his recorded albums– as are the rhythms, melodies, and improvisational techniques of Asia Minor.
Many years before what we now call “World Music” appeared on the scene, certain individuals had understood the enormous value and vast variety of the world’s various musical traditions and had dedicated their lives to their study. One such person is Ross Daly. Although he is of Irish descent, Ross Daly does not fit into any particular ethnic stereotype given that his life has been spent in many different parts of the world and his home for the last 35 years is the island of Crete in Greece. At a very early age, Daly discovered that music was, in his own words, “the language of my dialogue with that which I perceive to be sacred”.
This dialogue eventually led him to the great modal traditions of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent where he finally found the musical archetypes that he had been searching for all his life. In these traditions, he encountered music that was not merely a vehicle of self-expression, but which was able to take one beyond what one normally perceived to be the boundaries of one’s self into other trans-personal realms of experience. This discovery changed everything in Ross Daly’s life and he subsequently gave up all other activities and dedicated his life to the study of the innermost secrets of these musical traditions as well as to the art of composition. He subsequently travelled extensively, studying under many of the world’s greatest masters of modal traditions. Since 1975 he has been based on the island of Crete where he is universally recognized as one of the foremost experts on the island’s rich musical tradition.
The island of Crete in Greece is a base for his personal and musical research as he continues travelling around the world performing his music. He is also particularly well known and respected for his ability to bring artists of different and seemingly unrelated traditions together in collaborations of unique quality and depth. In 1982 he established the Labyrinth Musical Workshop which is today found in the village of Houdetsi 20 km south of the capital city of Heraklion. Each year hundreds of students from all over the world arrive in Houdetsi to study with some of the most renowned teachers of modal music from all over the world.
Ross Daly’s impressive collection of more than 250 instruments which he has collected during his travels over the years is also permanently on display in the building of the Labyrinth. After many years of intensive training in a variety of musical traditions, Daly turned his attention largely to composition drawing heavily on all of the knowledge which he has acquired during his long apprenticeships. Today he has released more than thirty-five albums of his own compositions as well as of his own arrangements of traditional melodies that he collected during his travels.
He has performed in many important international venues and festivals.
Today, he continues to travel and perform in Greece and abroad whilst simultaneously directing the Musical Workshop “Labyrinth” in the village of Houdetsi on Crete.
Giorgos Xylouris (also known as Psarogiorgis) is one of Crete’s leading performers. He plays one of the most beloved instruments, the lute, and is known for the distinctive form of traditional music.
Giorgos Xylouris grew up in a family of legendary musicians from the mountain village of Anogia and was exposed to the deep musical culture of Crete from a young age. His uncle Nikos was a major figure in the revival of Greek folk music and the development of modern political song in the 1970s. His father, Psarandonis, also continues to take traditional music in new directions. His uncle, Psarogiannis, is also a distinguished lute player. Psaragiorgos, as Giorgos is often known, has focused his inherited talent for innovative performance on the role of the lute.
Normally, the lute provides the rhythmic backing to the lyra, which is a treasured instrument in Cretan tradition. In this role Psaragiorgos is unrivalled. He can build up a pace that seems almost out of control yet maintain the supple precision demanded by the dancers. In this new role of a lead instrument, he has made the Cretan lute a tool that can frame and adorn any song. In addition to playing for traditional festivals, Psaragiorgos is a seasoned concert performer internationally, not only in the context of folk and world music but also in collaboration with rock musicians. He is a compelling example of a treasured tradition and will enchant anyone that takes the time to listen to his pieces.
Antonis Xylouris, known as Psarantonis was born in the harsh landscape of the renowned village of Anogia in Crete island. The setting changed dramatically during World War II and, and became a centre for rebels and revolutionaries. Here, Psarantonis became a living legend of music, enriching the Cretan, Mediterranean and European scene with unique sounds, exquisite music and unparalleled and unique interpretations. His first album was released in 1973, and since 1980 it has been discovered by international listeners when invitations to major festivals in Europe, America and Australia started to pour in. His lyre is on display today at The World’s First Global Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, United States. Among the first to discover him in Greece is Manos Hadjidakis. He also would go on to establish a special award for “a strong and idiosyncratic musical personality who plays the lyre and is called Psarantonis”, and awarded him as “First lyre player of Greece” at the Music August organized in 1979 in Anogia.
The ancient mythology of Crete lives in the music of Psarantonis. Whether he talks about Zeus, or the construction of the first lyre by the mythical shepherd Chadipera, or the Kourites, or expresses with his lyre what he feels as a living myth of his homeland, Psarantonis confirms, with his physical presence and with his art, the ancient myths of Crete. Psarantonis manages to bring the myths to life not only with his skill but also with his faith in them, as he approaches them “with reason and with a dream”, believing in their modern presence and energy. Within the lyrical whisper of his lyre, the “sweetness” emerges from the murmur of the stumps, the chirping of the birds and the sound of the flute represent the shepherds of Psiloritis. As Kornaros once said, “the roar that the earth, the wind and the roar” are the elements of Crete that Psarantonis brings to his music and can be heard and felt by the audience. Yet, there are also moments when his sharp bow drags you to the edge of the cliff and shows you the rugged and harsh landscape of the island.
Ancient and young at the same time, Psarantonis has the dynamics of rhapsody and with his unwavering power in improvisation manages to create the atmosphere of awe, agitation and shiver, just like the great jazz musicians. A true connoisseur and genuine lover of tradition, unruly and restless, by nature unexpected and revealing, Psarantonis is considered today as the daring, but at the same time thoughtful renewer of tradition.