No musician is an island unto himself

British-born Ross Daly presents a cross-section of styles from his adopted homeland of Crete.

Ross Daly (photo credit: Bastian Parschau)
Ross Daly
(photo credit: Bastian Parschau)
When is an Irishman not an Irishman? That’s an easy one, especially in the context of the closing show of this year’s Oud Festival. When he’s a Cretan.
The transcultural gent is Ross Daly, a 60-year-old English-born lyra player of Irish descent who has been living on the Greek island of Crete for the past 37 years. Daly’s November 17 concert at the Jerusalem Theater (9 p.m.) will feature another lyra player, 34-yearold Kelly Thoma, who hails from Piraeus not far from Athens. She has performed with Daly worldwide over the last three years. She also studied with Daly at the Labyrinth Musical Workshop, which he established 30 years ago in the Cretan village of Houdetsi. There will also be a couple of lauta players on stage with Daly – 47-year-old Cretan Giorgos Xylouris and compatriot Giorgos Manolakis, who will also sing. And Israeli percussionist Zohar Fresco, with whom Daly has collaborated on numerous occasions, will embellish the visitors’ rhythmic and textual output.
Jerusalem Theater audiences used to the more popular forms of Greek music are in for a rather new experience on Saturday evening.
“What most people seem to know from the movies is the urban bouzouki tradition of Greek music which, in fact, is not at all representative of the rural folk music,” Daly explains. “In Greece, there is a rather sharp divide between the rural folk traditions and the urban tradition of bouzouki. In each of the Greek provinces, you will find a totally different musical idiom.”
Daly says that Crete has its own musical traditional. “Because Crete is an island, and quite a big one, it has a culture of its own. The prime instrument is the lyra, accompanied by the lauta, which is a distant relative of the oud. The music is of a modal nature and has nothing of the harmony you find in popular Greek music.”
In that respect, Cretan music has something in common with Arabic music. “I don’t know if it is a coincidence or not, but certain idioms of music from the region of eastern Algeria, around the region of Constantine, bear a striking resemblance to Cretan music. And there are certain Turkish elements in Cretan music, as well as something from older times, a leftover from Venetian times. Before it was occupied by Greece, Crete was occupied by the Venetians [13th –17th century]. So Cretan music is quite different from what most people would recognize as Greek music,” he says.
In addition to all the outside influences, there are clear differentiations between musical subgenres in Crete itself. “Crete is divided into four provinces, each with a distinct sound of its own, so there is a lot of variation coming from within the island itself. The singers we will have [at the Jerusalem concert] will be mostly representative of the music of central Crete, but we will try to present a cross-section of the music of Crete, with the different styles and approaches from the different regions.”
It is not just the instrumental endeavor that is of importance here.
“Also, because Cretan music is music that is sung, the lyrics are very important. There is a strong tradition of folk poetry, and we’ll hear some examples of that in Jerusalem,” he says.
In one respect at least, Cretan music is inward looking and unlike, say, fado from Portugal, which has a strong bluesy element that feeds off a sense of longing for that which lies beyond the sea. Cretan music is very much land based. “Although it is an island, Crete is not very connected to the sea in spirit,” notes Daly. “Cretan culture is very much a mountain culture because the island has these enormous mountains. The people of Crete don’t have much to do with the sea. This is perhaps a reflection of the time of the Venetian occupation, when the Venetians tended to occupy the coastal areas and push the local population into the interior of the island so they would not start a revolution,” he explains.
Daly started his own preoccupation with Crete over 40 years ago. “It really happened by chance. In the summer of 1970 I went with a friend to spend a month on the island. I’d already started studying modal music and was very impressed by the music I heard there. I thought that I’d like to go back there someday to work more on that tradition.”
He subsequently expanded his musical research with visits to Afghanistan and India, and in 1975 was planning to make another trip to the Indian subcontinent. However, convenience won out, and the rest is history.
“At the time, I’d gotten a bit tired of doing so much traveling, so I thought I’d head for Crete, which has a rather nice and gentle atmosphere. I didn’t know how long I’d spend on Crete, but one thing led to another and I ended up staying. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was something I allowed to happen,” he says.
Daly has since become a fixture of the local music scene and is one of the foremost exponents of traditional Cretan music. He has also become a regular in this part of the world, appearing at the Oud Festival on several occasions over the last 13 years, as well as other events here. Daly also cuts quite an impressive figure, with his flowing gray locks, luxurious moustache and scintillating instrumental work.
Unlike some other artists who were due to appear at the Oud Festival but then opted not to do so for political reasons, Daly believes it is important to maintain a dialogue. “I do have serious issues with some of the policies of the Israeli government, but I also believe that the way to promote understanding is not to cut off contact. I don’t think artists are outside politics in a special little bubble of their own, and I think each artist has the right to express himself, politically, artistically or however he wishes, in his own way. But my own choice in that area is that, yes, I will openly express my political views, but I don’t believe in cutting off contact.”
Ross Daly will perform at the Jerusalem Theater on November 17 at 9 p.m. For tickets and more information about the Oud Festival: (02) 624-5207 ext. 4 and