17 October 2017

Singing songs and
celebrating poetry
in a bar in Rethymnon

Celebrating Greek rhymes and songs, poets and poems, in a doorway in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

When I passed this bar in Rethymnon one sunny summer afternoon three months ago [9 July 2017], I was disappointed it was closed.

Συμπληγάδες or ‘The Clashing Rocks’ is a μεζεδοπωλείο or taverna specialising in mezedes, good wine, Greek raki and live Cretan music from Monday to Saturday. It stands on Vernadou, between the corners of Epimenidou and Xanthoudiou streets in the heart of the old city, close to the Neratzes Mosque, Petichaki Square and some of my favourite restaurants and tavernas.

It would be a pity if the notices on the door and the two side windows, in their brash and confident Greek lettering, turned tourists away, for this simple Greek shopfront is a celebration of Cretan poetry and song.

The middle panel on the door is a celebration of μαντινάδες, mantinades (singular μαντινάδα, mantinada), a unique poetic form of a narrative or dialogue, sung in the rhythm of accompanying music.

This poetic form is found throughout Greece, but is particularly associated with Crete, where mantinades are sung to the accompaniment of the Cretan lyra and the laouto, a stringed instrument resembling a lute.

The name comes from the Venetian matinada, ‘morning song.’ They typically consist of Cretan rhyming couplets, often improvised during dance music.

The rhymed Cretan poetry of the Renaissance, especially the 10,000-verse epic poem Erotokritos written by Vicenzos Kornaros in 1590, can be compared to this poetic style, and indeed couplets from Erotokritos have since been used as mantinades.

Mantinades have either love or satire as their topics. They are invariably composed in dekapentasyllabos or 15-syllable verse and are often antiphonal rhyming couplets, so that one verse elicits a response, this leads to another response, and so on.

The mantinada can express many emotions, including sorrow, joy, hope, desire, love, anger, revenge, and nostalgia.

Each mantinada is complete in itself despite its short length, like a Limerick. But most of them are not written down, and few of them are ever are published. They are often told and forgotten, or learnt by heart and passed on by word of mouth.

The first sign to the left of the door reads:

Μες του Ρεθύμνου τα στενά
σου λέω μαντινάδες
τρώμε και πίνουμε,
όμορφα μέσα στις,

Καλό φαϊ πολύ ποτό και
μουσική ζητάμε
γη αυτό οπότε σγαίνουμε
στις συμπηγάδες πάμε

Όταν μεθάω με τσικουδιά
ο ύπνος δε με πιάνει
τον ουρανο νομιζω γη
τη γη πως ειναι τασανη

We are in the middle of Rethymnon
I’m reciting mantindas for you
we eat and drink,
beautifully inside.
The Clashing Rocks.

Good drink, too much drink, and
music we call for
This is where we are going,
to the slaves we go.

When I eat with tsikoudia
sleep does not catch me,
the sky I think earth,
the land as it is.

The middle panel on the door begins:


The Clashing Rocks

Η πρώτη φέρνει δευτερη
κι η δευτερη ζαλάδες
κάτω από τα καθίσματα
κινούνται συμπληγάδες

The first brings the second
and the second jerks
under the seats
moving ‘starters’ (mezzes).

The third panel, to the right of the door, celebrates three great 20th century writers in Crete, Nikos Kazantzakis, Nikos Xylouris and Odysseus Elytis.

The first quotation is a popular citation from Nikos Kazantzakis:

Μια αστραπή η ζωη μας, μα προλαβαίνουμε –
Νίκος Καζαντζάκης

Our life is a flash of lighting, but we are ahead
Nikos Kazantzakis.

Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957) is a giant in modern Greek literature and he was nominated nine times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His books include Zorba the Greek, Christ Recrucified, Captain Michalis (first published as Freedom or Death) and The Last Temptation of Christ. He died 60 years ago this month, on 26 October 1957, and is buried on the bastion above Iraklion.

The second quotation is a Greek rendering by Nikos Xylouris of a well-known American Indian proverb that has given us the term ‘Rainbow Warrior’:

Ο άνθρωπος δεν θέλει πολλά
για να 'ναι ευτυχισμένος.
Φτάνει να 'χει δυο-τρεις φίλους
να τον αγαπούνε πραγματικά
και χρήματα τόσα για να
μπορεί να τους κερνά –
Νίκος Ξυλούρης

When the earth is ravaged and all
the animals are dying,
a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth
from many colours, classes, creeds,
and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth
green again. They will be known as the warriors of the rainbow

Nikos Xylouris

Nikos Xylouris (1936-1980), nicknamed Psaronikos, was a composer and singer from the village of Anogeia and the older brother of two other celebrated musicians, Antonis Xylouris (Psarantonis) and Yiannis Xylouris (Psaroyiannis). His songs and music captured and described the Greek psyche and demeanour, gaining himself the title ‘The Archangel of Crete’.

He was an eight-year-old boy when Anogeia was razed by the German army in 1944. He acquired his first lyra when he was 12, and at 17 he started performing at the Kastro folk music restaurant in Iraklion.

He made his first recording in 1958, and first performed outside Greece in 1966 when he won first prize at the San Remo folk music festival.

In the early 1970s, his voice becomes identified not only with Cretan music but also with the new kind of artistic popular music that emerged as other Greek composers wrote music for the verses of famous Greek poets, including Yannis Ritsos, Giorgos Seferis and Dionysios Solomos. When Xylouris died in 1980, he was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens.

The final quotation is from the poet Odysseus Elytis:

Εάν αποσυνθέσεις την Ελλάδα,
στο τέλος θα δεις
να σου απομένουν
μια ελιά, ένα αμπέλι κι ένα καράβι.
Που σημαίνει:
με άλλα τόσα την ξαναφτιάχνεις –
Οδυσσέας Ελύτης

If you take Greece apart,
in the end you will see remaining to you
an olive tree, a vineyard and
a ship. Which means: with
just so much you can put her back together.

Odysseus Elytis

Greece has produced two Nobel prize winners for literature – George Seferis in 1967, and Odysseus Elytis in 1979. Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996) was born Odysseus Alepoudelis in Iraklion on 2 November 1911. When he was three, the family moved to Athens.

His famous poems include Worthy it Is, Sun the First, and Orientations. He is one of the poets who revived Greek poetry, and several of his poems have been set to music and his poetry collections were translated in tens of languages.

After World War II, he moved to Paris in 1948 to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, and he worked for the BBC in London in 1950-1951.

In 1964, the composer Mikis Theodorakis started setting his Axion Esti (Worthy it Is) to music. In 1979, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in Athens on 18 March 1996.

Traditional Greek instruments in a shop in the old town in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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