Fahren, fahren, fahren … auf der Autobahn!

Aided and abetted by ‘Kraftwerk’, I was on my way to Crete! 4 hours by plane, but only 2 hours by car - to London’s Islington Folk Club, temporary outpost of the Cretan Diasporá.

Urged on by this incongruous German ‘Dissidenten’ music, London’s Clerkenwell district was mine in no time at all.

Finding my luck at The Horseshoe pub took more doing. As usual, anybody asked shrugged their shoulders ‘I’m not from here’ before I could even venture my question. I drifted on, to find myself in a charming old square of village character. The only person I could find to ask, before I used my own eyes, stood in front of it, without knowing it.

It was soon clear why there was only one person outside. Everybody else was inside. The place was heaving. Crete, however, seemed as far away as ever – until, that is, I saw somebody using an unmarked door for a quick exit, it seemed.

Up the stairs, through a bit of fresh, foggy air and into another shed-type building. The lady at the desk by the entrance left no doubt: I had reached my destination. Presidentially seated across two chairs to accommodate her volume, was the secretary of the folk club, solidified into an institution. One quizzical look at me, with well-worn Rajasthani jacket for cover, made it clear to her I was not one of them. ‘You are not a member, sign here’, she said disapprovingly, to which she added without a moment’s hesitation: ‘Any concessions?’ Me? Me!? Concessions? Me, of Bob Dylan’s ‘May you be forever young’ generation’?

It was time to put down my bottle of rum-laced pineapple juice so I could sign in as somebody’s, anybody’s guest.

‘Wha’ d’you want with thaaaat?’ the female Cerberus asked contemptuously, pointing at my ‘designer drink’ with disgust.

‘Have they run out of beer downstairs?’

Duly chastened for not possessing beer-swilling qualifications*, I quickly scribbled my scrawl into the visitors’ book and shuffled into the room, already filled into every murky corner with hearty singing. ‘Well, well, a right rollicking sea shanty from Shetland, before it was even time to start’, I acknowledged to myself smugly, seeking a green plastic chair in the third row with a column behind me to lean against, rather than a comfortable ocean vessel of an empty armchair in front of me.

Taking up position, settling my drink, I screened the smoke-filled penumbra of folk club lighting in the room in search of Greek looking artists, square-headed and of rounded comfort stature. Nothing. Not even a Trojan Horse in sight. Not that the dingy, well-used surroundings looked anything like I imagined Troy.

* My qualifications as a complete fraud have been well established since I chose to live in an oast house, owing its existence and character to the craft of beer-making, without ever imbibing the hop product.
On stage a group of friendly Vikings, of an older hairier generation, sawed away at their violins like there was no tomorrow, cracking jokes to each other while playing.

A clatter of applause later, they vacated. A portly man, from top to toe dressed like a folk singer from ‘Cardigan Bay’, stood up from his armchair, with negligible difference to his height. Without a word of introduction, he launched into a lovely, nasal sea shanty, with tragic, elegaic transitions between major and minor scales, and sat down again, by a few inches.

No time for applause. On the other side of the room, a tall man, with his number-two short hair giving away his youth, seamlessly continued with a song of his own, also laden with sad phrases. A wink from heavy eye-brows later, the ‘facilitator’ of this gathering had urged the next singer into action, who sprouted forth, it seemed, from an invisible group in the back of the room, and issued more musical gloom, from a head sporting a number nil hair cut.

A few tentative claps later, a tall, be-trousered lady with mousy hair, strode to the stage, her violin clamped under her chin before her, stopping short of ascending it. She was tall enough. Through barely navigable fjords of Nordic fiddling, she waylaid us into believing we knew where the melody was going. Foiled every time! Minimal scope for sing-along happiness, alas! The applause, or paucity of it, mimicked her aimless meanderings, attempting to map the Norwegian coastline. By the grace of God, she left the limelight as pluckily as she had entered it. 5 for effort, 5 for courage, with a bonus fart for art.

No peace for the wicked, though! Ear-splitting screams and shouts now pierced the air, the facilitator rushing up and down between the chairs tumultuously, swaying like a toppling tower, screeching English poetry in exaggerated fashion, elongating vowels like comedians of forgotten eras and jumbling syllables into syncopated nonsense. It was like a sudden eruption of a volcano that imploded on itself in embarrassed modesty. Nobody quite understood the import of this histrionic interlude, and, indeed, the lanky young man, far too tall for his own good, shrank back to soft-spoken sanity, welcoming a group he breezily introduced as Perrybolla. Groans issued from somewhere in amongst the audience. I glanced at the smudgy programme, and understood. I now knew where the Greeks were sitting in the audience.

Two men melted from their midst and took the stage.

‘Ta Perivolia’, said the curly-haired half of the duo softly, by way of minimal correction of the previous announcement, as soon as they were seated, and they stretched for their instruments behind them, which, it now became clear, had been littering the stage all the time, without bursting into sympathetic resonance.

A deep, long-drawn sonorous chord from the lyra, the small Cretan pear-shaped 3-stringed violin, bridged the 4 hour flight to Crete at a stroke. We had arrived at the gates to the orient. The roly-poly Shetland sea-shanty-singing folk singer leaned forward intently.

And off they went, the lyra forging the way ahead with barely restrained gusto, swivelling on the player’s left knee, as is the Eastern fashion, to accommodate the energetic attack of the bow. A few bars into the proceedings, the laouto player, the curly-haired Cretan on the Cretan lute, fell in with the lyra at a lively trot. No sooner established in unison for a bar or two, than the lyra changed tack, scampering off into a different direction, dropping into a capricious canter, with the laouto player changing pace, with an inward smile of recognition.

With the exception of the small Cretan contingent in the audience, the English folk ‘choristers’ clearly had never heard anything of the like before and listened with delighted alarm. This music was clearly complex, polyrhythmic, and not to be trifled with by obvious anticipation. Nor was it anything like the Greek bouzouki music they had come to believe to be the universal expression of Hellenic holiday happiness.

It was clear that not even the ‘Viking’ musicians of the English folk music band had had the slightest inkling of true Cretan music; by way of transition from their idiom to that of Crete, they had stretched everyone’s patience with a disembowelled version of ‘Zorba the Greek’ before vacating the stage. The simple plot of Zorba, undoubtedly located in Crete, where the Tourist Police can pinpoint the bay in North-Western Crete where Anthony Quinn disported himself, was, alas, underscored with a catchy tune by Theodorakis played in popular Greek, halting plink-plink style, so driving authentic Cretan music forever into the shadows of the brooding mountains of this rugged island.

But then, the Cretans themselves do not help their own cause. Rather like the ‘cante jondo’, the ‘deep song’, of the Moorish flamenco music of Andalucia, which the gypsies do not generally sing in public, to avoid prostituting their more maudlin emotions, the Cretans do not like their music played in coastal tourist tavernas and happily give way to more sanguine, sunny popular tingle-tangle music.

Our duo at The Horseshoe’s Islington Folk Music Club had meanwhile meandered through a couple of syrtos dance numbers before the lyra player, clearly fully united with his instrument, promised a few comments about the music. An observant listener had noticed a large green plastic ‘straw’ the laouto player was using to pluck his lute in waxing and waning staccato fashion. The soft-spoken, curly Cretan now revealed that this item had replaced the erstwhile quill plectrum but assured us that the plastic was still of original Cretan provenance. Don’t we know it! There is a lot of it about, as any visitor to Crete’s South-Eastern coast knows only too well.

The terrors of traditionalists pacified with this amusing concession to progress, the musicians out-manoeuvred expectations yet again by abandoning the twin-set of their instruments for two mandolins, where, by contrast to the clear master-slave relationship between lyra and laouto, both instruments now played intertwining themes of a rizitika drinking song normally only sung, if not just growled.

The audience successfully stunned, our musical magicians followed this up with one of the more raucous, tempestuous sousta dances, galloping away on lyra and laouto, with constant changes in mood, speed and scales. The bow now flew and bounced across the little lyra like an unruly weaver’s shuttlecock running amok amongst the strings, with minimum notice of frequent changes of scale, effortlessly weaving in and out of the major and minor scales of this world - and that beyond.

A young Irishman in the audience, all beard and hair, gave in to the satisfying felicities of the transitions, rolling his head as if mounted in a universal joint. A slim, dapper Cretan man sitting next to me put down the newspaper he had been reading throughout, swept along at last and tapping out the wild rhythm of the music with every limb available.

Somewhere at the back some people had begun to dance, at the head of their line another upright Cretan youth, in multi-pocketed khaki trousers, laying down exquisitely graceful small steps in grotesquely clumpy trainers. Our duo played up a frenzied storm as if a whole orchestra, ending it unexpectedly at the top of the commotion, leaving all high and dry and aching for more. Time for beer and crisps.

The second half started, the lyra player now amplified on his colleague’s earlier brief enunciation of ‘Ta Perivolia’ by explaining that it meant ‘Orchards’ and that there was a definite article involved, so promiscuously mixing meaning with Greek grammar. More musings of a semi-private order revealed some connection with a village near Rethymnon, though this did not do enough to explain the non-Cretan appearance of the accomplished lyra player, looking more like Berthold Brecht than Nikos Xylouris. The fact that he switched effortlessly between throw-away Greek and English with North London inflexion did nothing to lift the mystery.

He had treated us to over an hour of music with barely a word of explanation, music that to most of the audience was completely strange and unknown, let alone classifiable. He now explained a little about the connections with some types of Turkish music and instruments, and even proceeded to play a piece on the even smaller Turkish kemençe, from which he coaxed a soul-stirring tune with mellifluous meditative melancholy. Encouraged by the interest shown, he ventured that Cretan music had become markedly more oriental since the great population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in 1923 when the opposite could have been expected, a clear example of the cultural absurdity of ethnic cleansing. In fact, listening to the traditional music of the rural Yayla tribe in South-Western Turkey, one can only be struck by the similarity of their way of playing their folk fiddles with the lyra playing of the Cretans, though the latter may be characterised by a degree of playful caprice and artistic wilfulness not easily encountered anywhere else, possibly bred by the inaccessibility of their mountain fastnesses until fairly recent times.

The Turkish tune played on the kemençe, small but perfectly formed, sounded like purest artistic distillation of emotion, simple yet infinitely sophisticated.

As if to compare and contrast this to Cretan music, our duo now proceeded to play some slow lilting Cretan mantinades, as if a dessert to the main energising dishes of the first half, lyrical sweet tunes of a narrative kind, weaving their enchanting stanzas in a dreamy, reassuringly repetitive simplicity. No wild changes of scales, no daring chords here, but just a simple unfolding of a tale, in traditional question and answer style between lyra and laouto, to be swayed to in a simple-step line dance, more contemplation than movement, until the musicians made a mad, sudden-death playoff dash for the end that left the dancers in dishevelled disarray.

That only left a suitable capping stone to be put in place to complete the edification.
A couple of chords, played with urgent premeditation, heralded the beginning of the end. The Erotokritos! What else?!

The Erotokritos is a ballad of variable length whose history, though recent, tails off into myth and mystery. It is supposed to have spread from Eastern Crete, under the reign of the Venetians, and has become the national epic of Crete that can be added to freely by any performer, indeed, often is, as a matter of poetic bravura.
Any self-respecting performer will add new verses, often scurrilous, new twists, always beguiling, to the interminable epic, indulging the Cretan passion for impromptu versification of their loves and lives that goes right back to antiquity.

Its steady rhythm and meandering musical repetitions make it ideal for a night of gentle communal dancing without end in sight, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction in ways the Cretans have been famed, and mistrusted for, since Homer.

As the epic grows from year to year, it seems it is the communal work of weaving their own truths that matters, re-defining the absolute, as a Cretan friend of mine agreed. Its form and tradition links it with the epics of the Iliad and Odyssey, and its openness, indeed open-endedness, makes it impervious to the passage of time. The dancers can, and do, melt in and out of the endless line at any time, without ever breaking the continuum, like life itself.

Even at The Islington Folk Club, 4 hours away from Crete, as the crow flies, the line of dancers snaked around the club until all were swept up without exception, all swaying gently to a common purpose, drawing strength and comfort from one another, oblivious to the world outside.

The world outside itself had turned into a dream – a dream of orange fog swirling in the muffled cones of London’s street lights. All life’s froth from inside the pub was soaked up, stilled, moth-balled in the autumnal misty cloak of London’s Clerkenwell.

Was Crete really only 4 hours away?