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Mantinada - A Uniquely Cretan and Poetic Way of Life

The National Herald

Photo: Angela Skoula

`Mantinada' is the art of musical declamation (recitative) in the form of a narrative sung to the rhythm of accompanying music. It is prominent in several parts of Greece but especially on the island of Crete where `mantinades' are performed with the accompaniment of the traditional Cretan instruments, the `lyra' and `laouto'. The word is derived from Venetian `mantinada - morning song.'

We met one mantinades expert from the famous village Anogia, in the Rethymno municipality. Lefteris Berkis writes mantinades and it is a way of life for him, a way of living every moment of happiness, sadness, love, death. Let's meet him.

The National Herald

Photo: Angela Skoula

“First of all, I want to thank you for the invitation from The National Herald and the chance to communicate with the Greek-American community. We have you all in our hearts because we miss you and we know the love you have for your country,” he said. “I am talking about friends and about people I don't even know. The feelings and desires to visit Crete especially, I know is something common for all Greek-Americans. I will say it through the words of our late `archangel', Nikos Xylouris: "'Einai kakourga i xenitia' - emigration is a bad thing” and the pain that it causes is not easily assuaged. I have my own people living far away and I know. But it is an achievement for you to have made it your second country and to spread the traditions of Crete there. Please, let me say that you are more Cretan there than we are here. You experience everything Cretan at full blast and we thank you for that. You are admirable torchbearers of the light of Greece. Ι hope this will last forever.”

He noted that Anogia, where he lives, “is a historical and bloodied place that through the centuries and the difficulties of mountain living and the three massacres at the hands of the barbarians, every time the people of Anogia survived, and they will always rise from their ashes and be reborn. They bloom, and move forward, and contribute. One of the ways that Anogia contributes to Cretan traditions and history is through the mantinada but also with music and dance.

The National Herald

Photo: Angela Skoula

Lefteris was happy to provide a full interview.

The National Herald: Anogia is famous for the people who compose mantinades, and they put their own signature on that tradition. Did that fact make you want to write your own mantinades?

Lefteris Berkis: Anogia is a village of feelings and memory. Their age-old story and the mountain Psiloritis and the rest of the Cretans shaped our culture. All these strong feelings made them people-poets, writing mantinades. All of them achieved putting their stamp, their personality, onto the traditions, to make their mantinades loved, understandable, and valuable not only in Crete but in the whole country. And all these with the help of the troubadours of Anogia. With their songs and music they put mantinada into people's hearts. Everywhere. This also happens in many areas of Crete, and everything starts from their personal experiences. I grew up with the feasts and the Orpheo-Dionysian companies in Anogia. I learned from the biggest and most famous people of mantinades. The passion is a big thing for me. It is something that teaches you things about the future but never lets you forget your roots. It's not necessary for someone to be a `mantinadologos' for him to be passionate, but a mantinadologos must be passionate and have a love for life. And he has the Grace of God in whatever he does.

My father, George Berkis or `Katsougris' was one of these people. Since I was a little boy I was listening to his mantinades at home, at weddings, celebrations, and other events, happy or sad. Powerful moments that mark you. I believe he is the first that initiated me to the mantinada. I think it is also the genes – but that happens only if you want it to. Nobody can make you do it, write it. It just comes naturally, physically. If there was a way to ask the mantinada what she was doing with me I'm sure she wouldn't know to tell me. I can't find a logical explanation – that is its strength. Poetry and art breaks free from logic and finds the heart and feelings.

The National Herald

Photo: Angela Skoula

TNH: When did you write your first mantinada?

LB: I really don't remember exactly, but I was a teenager, around 14-15 years old. I only remember that it was about teenage love and how you can forget that. Platonic love, because only I knew about it. That was typical in our village in those years, with all the strict traditions.

TNH: What is mantinada for a Cretan?

LB: If I think about the love I've received from people for my mantinades, and from what they tell me, I think it is a herb. A herb for the soul. A balm. Whatever a Cretan is experiencing, love, happiness, sadness, difficulty, there is always a mantinada that will make him express his feelings and will heal his soul. Except that mantinades are for Cretans the continuation of a tradition. It is one of the main reasons for me that Cretan tradition continues to grow. And it needs respect to keep it alive. Compared with other music styles in Greece that tend to disappear, Cretan music is blooming, and that is due to the lyrics. To mantinades and `rizitiko'. These are definitive for the continuation of Cretan tradition.

TNH: What inspires you to write a mantinada?

LB: To write a mantinada I have first to experience it. It must move me and make me search inside me. Then, the words come out easily. It's like doing a dance that already exists. The dance of the lyrics. That's how I came up with the title of my book `In the Dance of Lyrics.' I am inspired by people's perspectives and by nature. Nature for me is mostly the mountain - it's my leader. It evokes a lot of feelings and takes me from the deep past to the future. In that trip if I feel sadness or happiness. The mountain inspires me.

Beside the feelings – love, happiness – and people, I search for simplicity. It inspires me and I look for it all the time in the complicated and turbulent times we live in.

The National Herald

Photo: Angela Skoula

TNH: How did you decide to write a book?

LB: I wanted to put my mantinades and songs to paper. That is my first book and I believe whatever has to do with art, it's not ours, it's for everybody. We must give it to people, for them to enjoy it. It makes me search and think. It's our obligation as Cretans and I think a book can make us better people if the words we read motivate us to make them `praxi' – acts. And to be better people, with our passions that we inevitably all have.

I worked on it for many years and when I was ready, I gave it to people. It's doing very well – people loved it more than I expected. So I want to thank everybody for the love and support that I received. This makes me feel more responsible for the future expectations of my readers. And I promise that I will try hard for the best because I don't like discounts in art.

I hope soon we all get away from the virus and are able to travel to the United States and the Greek-American community. I want to bring the book to the Cretans there that are waiting for it. Thank you in advance for the philoxenia.