A Conversation with Cretan Multi-Instrumentalist Stelios Petrakis

Stelios Petrakis was born in Sitía, a port town and a municipality in Lasithi, Crete, Greece.  He has held a love for traditional Cretan music since he was eight years old, when he started learning how to play the lyra at a music school his father established.  

He has since spent his life composing, performing, recording, touring, collaborating, teaching, and building traditional classical instruments including the Cretan and Turkish lyra and laouta, and the bağlama/saz instruments of Asia Minor and contemporary Turkey.  

Stelios’ Cretan Trio consists of Stelios Petrakis on the lyra, Mihalis Mavroudis on the lute, Christos Markakis performing traditional Cretan dance and percussion, and special duets with Dimitris Chatzakis on piano.  They’ll be at The Cedar Cultural Center on Sunday, November 11th before heading on to Carnegie Hall. Get tickets to this rare US performance here.

Petrakis Photo by George gavalas (2).jpg

MJ Gilmore, Box Office and Office Manager, conversed with Stelios Petrakis through Skype from The Cedar’s green room, while Stelios joined her from his workshop in Heraklion, Greece, where two lyras were in the process of drying.  He talked about his passion for traditional Cretan music, collaborations, his mentor Ross Daly, his creative process and style, the process of making instruments, and his life philosophy.

When I am playing music, or when I am trying to compose, I feel it opens a door to what we don’t know, or to describe what we can’t describe with words. This is my musical religion. I can express all of my inner thoughts and sentiments through this musical process.
— Stelios Petrakis

MJ: Hi, Stelios!  We are so excited that you will be performing at The Cedar!  Will you start off by letting us know your background on how you started playing traditional Cretan music?

Stelios: Hi, nice to meet you! We are looking forward to performing at The Cedar Cultural Center.

I was not born into a musical family.  My first introduction to music was a happy accident!  My father was the mayor of the small town Sitía, my home town, and at that time when I was seven or eight years old, he founded the Municipal Lyra School.  He did this with Giannis Dandolos, under the supervision of Kostas Mountakis, a famous lyra player of that time and teacher of all my lyra teachers.  In order to set a good example to the citizens of Sitía, my father was the first to send his children to the school!  So one day he asked me if I would like to go with my brother to the music school, and I said why not!  So it began like a game.

Later, when I was a teenager, I performed with students in school and at my university.  Lessons became rehearsals and rehearsals became touring around Europe. Every time things were getting more and more serious. Now, I am making my first tour through the United States. It started out like a joke and to a point it is still a joke!  I don’t want to lose this feeling of playing music. You add some musical embellishments according to your taste or mood. It began like a game, I was not born to be a musician, or a lyra player!  I was a normal kid playing with my friends!

M: You also earned a law degree?

S: Yes, I am a lawyer.  As soon as I earned my degree, I showed my diploma to my mother, and then I was finished with law! I was at the Athens University studying law, but at the same time I was getting lyra lessons from my teacher Ross Daly, who is a famous Irish composer and lyra musician. So I was taking law to ensure my mother that I was the best law student, but at the same time I could be in Germany in a concert hall.

Stelios Petrakis' Instrument Workshop 11.02.18.jpg

M:  I have seen pictures of the traditional folk instruments you make, and they are beautiful.

S: Thank you, I am a luthier, and actually I have divided my place in two, one is for music, recording, rehearsing and interviewing, and the other part is the workshop full of the necessary building tools.  The varnish on two lyras is drying right now!

It takes about two weeks to make a lyra. I make the instruments that I can play, so I can judge the quality and see on my own where I can make an improvement. I make traditional classical instruments including the Cretan and Turkish lyras and lutes, and the bağlama/saz instruments of Asia Minor and contemporary Turkey.

In collaboration with my teacher Ross Daly, we have developed within the last 15-20 years a new type of lyra, a lyra with sympathetic strings.  These are extra strings that only resonate, you don’t play them, they just do harmonies when you play the main strings.

These sympathetic strings (sympathetic vibration) exist in various instruments, such as the lyra from Bulgaria called gadulka, or sarangi from India, or in instruments played in the Renaissance and the Medieval times. As orchestral playing was developed during the classic age, these instruments were creating uncontrolled harmonics for the pieces the composers were writing. So sympathetic strings stopped existing in those instruments, because composers would like more clear tones throughout the harmonies. But sympathetic strings really sound great if there is no orchestral playing.

I also make mandolins.  Mandolins have been incorporated into the music of Crete.  We have many mandolin soloists in Crete, and music that is especially written for the mandolin. I make the Neapolitan/classical style of mandolin.

M:  You also make the saz instrument.  What is the difference between the modern and traditional saz?

S: The saz is the bağlama from Turkey.  In the 1920s-1930s, the instruments were more of a treble/middle sound. The tendency in the early 1990’s was to build a bigger bodied instrument, in order to create a richer and more robust sound. As a result the sound and shape of all of the traditional instruments changed, to include the Cretan lyra, laouta, bağlama, and lyra from Istanbul.

Now with our modern technology with the use of mics to amplify sound, we don’t need robust instruments.  Now it’s good to have both options, the modern and traditional. Power is not an issue anymore. This is why the traditional types have revived.  So my colleagues and I try to rebuild the older shapes, because sometimes I feel we have lost something. We haven’t lost the sweetness, but we have lost something, so it is good to find it again!  

M: I read that you recycle 120 year-old cedar wood for your instruments?

S: I receive a telephone call every week from builders that renovate old houses asking me if I would like the old cedar wood from our rooftops!  It is prohibited now to cut cedar trees. There are only thirty cedar trees left in the valley of Lebanon. These cedar trees are 2,000 years old. Lebanese cedar was imported during the Ottoman Empire from Southern Turkey and Lebanon to all the islands of the Aegean sea and Crete. So we find them in Cretan houses, but the wood was imported during the Ottoman Empire. Cedar was also used in castles, to include castles in Morocco, you can smell the cedar from the castle doors. It was the main wood used during those times. So on one side we cannot use cedar wood from Lebanon, and on the other side if I don’t take the renovator’s wood here in Crete, they would just burn the wood. This situation is similar with the mulberry wood. So I feel I am kind of rescuing this wood/treasures.  

M:  The decoration on your instruments is beautiful!  Will you describe how you decorate your instruments?

S: I have studied traditional instrument decorating techniques in museums. Some of the traditional instruments are decorated with sea turtle shell and ivory. I found a very good factory in Italy that creates an imitation of sea turtle shell.  It is working very well, it looks very similar to the real material. I don’t want at all, even a little bit, to be a part of the crime of using real animal material. We have to be more sensitive about these things as we remain on this planet.  

Apart from adding decorative material, you can also carve the wood. I also use varnishes to protect the instruments and highlight their beauty. I am also influenced and inspired by the designs of Antonio Stradivari who decorated violins during the Renaissance time.  Instrument making was a dream for me. Every musician has a dream of making her/his own instruments. When you get the passion to make instruments, it never goes away!  You can imagine my first experience making an instrument was a disaster--100 problems! The second one was much better! I am still trying things and trying to find the best recipe.

Ross Daly gave me a window into the world.  At that time, the entire world opened up to me. My musical experience with him is unique and irreplaceable.  The most important thing is that he was always encouraging me to be inspired and try things on my own.
— Stelios Petrakis

M: Who are your mentors and how have you mentored your students?

S: My most important teacher is the Irish musician and composer Ross Daly. He lives in Heraklion, Greece and is active all over Europe and worldwide.

I met Ross Daly when I was eight or nine years old, and then there was a gap before finding him again when I was a student at Athens University. He was the first to believe in me and invite me into his musical group Labyrinth.  We were touring all over Europe. We have played in many, many important venues: Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Théâtre de la Ville in Paris, and Herodion Theater in Athens.  

Ross gave me technical knowledge, he introduced me to other lyra musicians and he has valuable experience.  I feel he has lived with my Cretan ancestors! He also gave me a window into the world. He is a multi-instrumentalist, he has knowledge of other musical traditions such as Ottoman classical music, folk music of Turkey, Iranian and Indian music.  At that time, the entire world opened up to me.

My musical experience with him is unique and irreplaceable. The most important thing is that he was always encouraging me to be inspired and try things on my own. He also helped me with recording and production.  He has done this with all of his students. All of his students are composers, creators, musicians that have a clear and intense vision of the music they create. The most important thing that Ross Daly taught me was to follow my own path. This is also what I try to teach my students, apart from the technical skills that you can learn everywhere.

In my music, I try to be in a calm and open state. If you are in this state you can give, get and maybe understand each other in a more in-depth way than what words can give.  I try to give music the best of myself.
— Stelios Petrakis

M: How do you describe your music?

S: It’s been three years now since I had a comment on Facebook from a listener of my music. He wrote to me, “Thank you very much, because you are opening to me some windows to the unknown.”  So I was glad, not because of the poetic compliment I received, but because he understood me.

When I am playing music, or when I am trying to compose, I feel it opens a door to what we don’t know, or to describe what we can’t describe with words. This is my musical religion. I can express all of my inner thoughts and sentiments through the musical process. While being on stage, composing, or recording, I try to be as empty or as concentrated as possible. Sometimes I use some poems or lyrics, but I strictly select it, I don’t want the lyrics to not precisely express what I believe.  In my music, I try to be in a calm and open state. If you are in this state you can give, get and maybe understand each other in a more in-depth way than what words can give. I try to give music the best of myself.

M: I enjoyed watching your joyful TEDx Heraklion performance online!

S: Yes, we felt joy, energy, lyrical, and sentimental. I like the emotional change within a concert and try to find good ways to use all of our skills to create a good show. This is difficult especially when you play for an audience that listen to you for the first time.  It’s easy and difficult, because you can play free of expectations that the local fans have of us, but at the same time if they aren’t familiar with your style of music, they might easily get bored, or they might think each song sounds too similar.

We have to play a wide range of our music in a short amount of time. We have to play music that exemplifies Greek history, traditional instruments, our new ideas, powerful parts, softer parts, and you mix all of this together and make the setlist for the concert. I really enjoy playing to audiences who don’t have expectations and I don’t have to prove something. You go there and you share the night.

M: How is Cretan traditional music similar or different from other parts of Greece?

S: A friend of mine from France listened to my music for the first time said he thought it sounded like a cross between Italian and Turkish music, and he was right!

Cretan music is a part of Greek music, we have an upright fiddle called the lyra and the big lute. It has influences from the islands of Greece, Turkey and Italy. For example in other parts of Greece, they play the clarinet, which we don’t have in Cretan music, and also composition styles are different. A listener could consider Cretan music as Greek music, but the listener might notice that there are some differences. Cretan music is not very heavy music, most of it does have lyrics, and is happy and fast!

M: I noticed that you will have a traditional Cretan dancer performing with you when you come to The Cedar Cultural Center.

S: Yes, music and dance in Crete is very common!  A new thing is that the dancer will dance solo, as we do in our trio. It is a challenge for dancers to dance solo, because if you dance together, you do more spectacular things!  To dance alone you have to have all of your balance and technique, but you have to double the energy. We will have a lute player that will sing, I will play some lyra solos, and a duet with a piano player. The dancer will also play some percussion.

M: I’m curious how your Greek/Cretan history, mythology and nature have influenced your music.

S: The older I get, the more this topic interests me!  They haven’t influenced me consciously in my compositions, but unconsciously they have. Cretan/Greek mythology is a source of inspiration. I feel musicians always start with notes and technical things and then you add meaning to the composition later--you baptize it with some meaning that is your’s.  The notes are first and then later they come together: the ideas, mythology, nature and emotion.

M: I would love to hear about your albums, to include your collaboration with your father on your album Kismet.

S: Each album has its own identity. When I interpret and play a traditional Cretan piece of music, I hear myself on the radio, I recognize it is me.  Over the years I have created my own style and my own phrases. I have two options either to create in the local traditional forms, obeying the rules and having the challenge of being fresh, or I can compose and not obey traditional musical rules.  I have some compositions that don’t belong to any tradition and it’s really beautiful--you can describe it as universal. One of those songs would be the first song the album Orion, Voreia Monopatia/Northern Paths.

I wrote the song Kavo Sideros off the Kismet album with my father. Kavo Sideros is the cape to the east of Crete. I had the melody which was a Cretan melody with influences from two small islands to the east of Crete, between Crete and Turkey.  These small islands have a rich tradition, so I named this song "Kavo Sideros" (Cape of Saint Isidore) which is the east cape - end of Crete towards these small islands. After I had the name and it was a beautiful composition, I noticed that the first melody was slow and could be sung.  I asked my friends, my brother and my father to help me write the lyrics.

I am also happy to see that local Cretan people are playing my pieces, because this makes a continuation of my music in tradition.  My song Voreia Monoipatia/Northern Paths has been used in many documentaries and my song Pare me Nyhta/Take Me by Night has been performed during Cretan concerts and festivals.

M: You have collaborated with many musicians.

S: So far all of the people I have collaborated with have been good friends. We have personal and artistic things in common.  We have common stories and we feel we can collaborate and create something great together. At the point where I am now, I have received proposals from producers to collaborate with more established/well-known musicians. It’s another way of working and it’s a challenge, but I am open to new things!

Enjoy life.  Life is a gift given to us.  With my family, I try to be myself.   I don’t like lies or pretending. If they love me or hate me, they love or hate the real thing. I like truth and I like the pleasure of life, of each moment, because I consider life is a gift given to us.
— Stelios Petrakis

M: Do you have a life philosophy?

S: Enjoy life.  Life is a gift given to us.  With my family, I try to be myself.   I don’t like lies or pretending. If they love me or hate me, they love or hate the real thing. I like truth and I like the pleasure of life, of each moment, because I consider life is a gift given to us.  I recently found out an Ancient Greek saying which I find very comprehensive and describes my life: Μουσικήν ποίει και εργάζου. Make music and work. This was an order that was given to the Ancient Greek Philosopher Socrates, while he was dreaming.  So I think I am making exactly that in my life, 18 hours every day—making music and work!

M: Who has musically influenced you?

S: I like to listen to all types of music. Some bands and artists inspire me, to include Greek and Turkish music. I like to listen to flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía from Southern Spain.  Not only because of his technique and speed, but also because of his vision.  He dared to be open and take many different paths. When you walk in front, you remain alone sometimes, and then you have to stand up and keep going. He has taken so many paths with huge inspiration and huge heart.

Spanish musician Efren Lopez influenced me long before we collaborated together.  I am a big fan of the British band Iron Maiden.  My daughters also like them a lot!  I am a big fan of the works of Ross Daly, including his group Labyrinth, as well as his collaboration with the Greek guitarist Achilleas Persidis and the band “Notios Ichos.”  I love the musicians of my Cretan musical tradition especially those of the Xylouris family. In music I am trying to find what I like: depth, strength, lyrical, and very soft.  

M: Stelios, thank you so much for our interview today!  We are very excited to see you and we are looking forward to your show!

S: Thank you!  I am looking forward to performing at The Cedar Cultural Center!


Get your tickets to see Stelios Petrakis with Uskudar Electic at The Cedar on Sunday, November 11th 2018
here.