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Ross Daly: 'Greece today resembles a country coming out of a war'

The master of Cretan lyra returns to Melbourne and shares his insights on tradition, the Greek crisis and the benefit of not having the burden of a 'national' identity

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Ross Daly

We can either see ourselves as blessed to share this planet with so many other unique and remarkable human beings with whom we have so much to share, or we can perceive ourselves as being cursed to share this self-same planet with a massive number of 'foreigners' whose very existence is an existential threat to our own. It's our choice and it really is that simple.
02 March 2017

At this stage, Ross Daly need not prove himself. Originally perceived as 'an Irishman in Crete', he has done more for Cretan music and culture than most, gaining international acclaim. For more than four decades the lyra virtuoso has been a guardian of Cretan music, an avid explorer of cultures and a visionary educator. Since the early 1980s, his 'Labyrinth' musical workshop has been an incubator for young talent willing to delve into tradition and bring it forward to the present. Long accepted as more than an honorary Cretan, the musician will fly from Houdetsi, the village near Heraklio which he calls home, to Melbourne, to take part in a new world music event, Bohemia.

What should the audience expect from your performance at the Bohemia event?

Our performance will consist of compositions of my own as well as of Kelly Thoma, who will be performing with me. This perhaps needs a bit in the way of clarification, as the 'genre' which we serve is as yet little known. This genre we refer to as 'contemporary modal music', a term I coined almost three decades ago to describe contemporary compositions which draw their inspiration from the myriad of modal traditions which are still very much alive in today's world and which continue to develop on their own trajectory. Modal music is found primarily, although not exclusively, in the vast geographical region extending from northwest Africa, through the Balkans, the Middle East, Transcaucasia, central Asia and India right up until western China. After many years of studying the foundations of these traditions (which, on many levels, are intricately intertwined), as well as as much repertoire as was humanly possible for me (it's nigh unlimited), Kelly Thoma and I, as well as many other colleagues of ours who followed, each in their own way, a similar course, dedicated ourselves to the development and cultivation of a musical genre which freely incorporates influences from these various traditions into compositions which, although they draw on regional and 'ethnic' sources, do not actually belong to or reflect any such given tradition per se. Sometimes we utilise existing forms from one or the other of these traditions, and at other times we create new forms which frequently afford us somewhat greater 'freedom', as some people might refer to it.

What are the ideal conditions for your music to best reach the audience?

Our music is instrumental, which immediately gives it a rather more abstract quality than one usually encounters in vocal music (songs). It also tends to be rather esoteric in nature (not what you would refer to as party music), although it does at times have Dionysiac or ecstatic elements, which reflect influences from such traditions (eg. in our case Cretan, Pontic, Rajasthani, etc.).

It is also music which gradually 'manifests' on a canvas of silence, so it's very much suited to a concert environment rather similar to that which is also conducive to western classical music. I am of course aware that many people in recent years have been highly critical of the classical concert hall format, often referring to is as "cold" or "lifeless", etc. I must admit though that I strongly disagree with this criticism. I fail to see what's wrong with having a comfortable chair, a clear view and a clean sound within a decibel range which respects the human ear, all in an environment which affords us the opportunity to actually focus in an undistracted manner on the music itself. I'm afraid I fail to see the advantages of what has come to be the standard format of many 'world music' festivals: standing audiences in frequently seriously inclement weather having their intestines rearranged by thundering basses. I therefore believe that, if our audiences are afforded with conditions conducive to listening attentively on a deeper level, they will indeed do exactly that without any expectations on our part being either necessary or relevant.

The Cretan music tradition has proven to be very persistent in time, becoming one of the strongest Greek sub-cultures. To what do you attribute this?

Cretan music, in my view, constitutes one of Europe's most vibrant living traditional musical idioms. There are literally thousands of young aspiring lyra players on Crete, many of whom are quite exceptional. Some of these young artists approach 'tradition' as a platform for creative activity resting on a solid foundation of collective knowledge, not merely as an excuse for a lack of inspiration leading to the pointless regurgitation of a zombified past. These artists have my deepest respect and admiration, as it is they who will carry Cretan music into an even brighter future.

Having said this, however, I should also make note of the fact there there is another category of young Cretan artists who seem to be attempting to transform Cretan music into yet another branch of today's pop culture, albeit with a Cretan twist. This is an unfortunate tendency in my view. Cretan music, like many other traditional idioms, is a timeless collective entity, a concept wholly unrelated to what we have come to refer to as 'pop' .

What does tradition mean to you?

Tradition is a much misunderstood realm of activity. To my mind it represents access to the collective body of knowledge deriving from the distant depths of human experience right up until that of the present day through a process of 'initiation', in the context of an apprentice-like relationship with a mentor, whose foremost concern should always be assisting the apprentice to fully awaken their love and passion for music, while all the while serving as a guide through the depths of knowledge right up to the heights of inspiration.

'Labyrinth' is a significant laboratory for cross-cultural pollination. What is the most important outcome of your work there?

Labyrinth is something which I love very much, but it is also something for which I personally have paid a heavy price. Running it is a very, very tough job! That therefore has been its greatest lesson to me (a former lover of laziness): to love and relish tough jobs which afford as much benefit to others as possible. The most important outcome would seem to be the incalculable amount of love for music which it has managed to inspire in its students and friends over the years.

After more than five decades of involvement in Greek culture, as an artist and an educator, what has been the most rewarding and challenging aspect?

The greatest challenge that I've had to face, like any other human being, has been to continuously and relentlessly apply whatever resources are at my disposal to the singularly exciting, albeit excruciatingly arduous task of educating a wholly ignorant self which was unceremoniously and unsolicitedly 'dumped' on me at my birth. My greatest reward is and always will be witnessing my students come into their own, thus far surpassing me.

What keeps you going?

That would seem to be air, water and decent food …

We live in a time of rising nationalism and of the west feeling threatened by Muslim migrants and refugees. As someone who has lived in different countries and been in touch with various cultures, how do you perceive the idea of national (or cultural) identity?

The circumstances of my life, from a very early age, have had the result that I basically grew up and subsequently lived all of these years (64 in number) without actually having what you might call a national, religious or other such identity. I was born elsewhere, lived elsewhere, ended up elsewhere, all the while triumphantly proving myself to be utterly incapable of either adhering to or rejecting any religion. From this standpoint I had the opportunity to experience life not as the 'product' of any given culture, belief system, or gene pool, but rather as an adventurous and intrepid explorer of loopholes. From this vantage point certain things seem very different to the way they appear to someone who experiences belonging to the realm of 'identities'.

Many people actively seek and yearn for such identities out of a need for the feeling of inclusion. Unfortunately, however, they frequently fail to realise that the greater part of such identities is exclusion rather than inclusion. If I 'identify' as Irish, I by default include roughly 15 million others worldwide who also identify as such, but I also exclude the approximately 1.7 billion Chinese (in China alone), among others, who do not identify as Irish.

This opens the door to circumstances (war, economic disparity, belief in a different deity, etc.) under which it could be potentially undesirable or even dangerous to be either Irish or Chinese, be it to one another or to a third party. We thus automatically acquire the word 'we', which is invariably accompanied by a warm, fuzzy, glowing feeling underpinning our smiling faces, as well as another word 'them', afforded to the hateworthy 'other' that we have so adeptly fashioned out of essentially nothing.

The world today simply can no longer afford such distortions of reality (not that it ever could really). We can either see ourselves as blessed to share this planet with so many other unique and remarkable human beings with whom we have so much to share, or we can perceive ourselves as being cursed to share this self-same planet with a massive number of 'foreigners' whose very existence is an existential threat to our own. It's our choice and it really is that simple.

Having lived in Greece for so long, what is your insight into the Greek society? Have you seen it change during these years? In what way has the country's ongoing crisis affected the social fabric?


I'm sorry to say that Greece today, in many ways, resembles a country coming out of a war. I suppose that it might actually be safe to say that indeed it is a country still experiencing, not coming out of, a war. It's just that it is not a conventional military war as we know it. Greece has a number of 'wars' on external fronts as well as internal ones and the country is literally being torn apart and decimated by this process which, unfortunately, looks like it's 'coming to roost' in many more regions of the world which, while at the present moment may appear to be rather better off than Greece, will in all likelihood soon find themselves in a similar miserable situation. In a world governed by greed and in which one's success is dependent on another's ruin, there can be no winners in the long run. One species survives at the expense of others, one society survives at the expense of others, one person survives at the expense of others. Where does this leave us? Is this what we're here for?

What is the role of music − especially a traditional one − in times of crisis?

Whenever I've been asked what music is to me, my answer has consistently been: "Music is for me the 'language' of my dialogue with whatever I hold sacred." By sacred I don't mean that which any given religion or spiritual tradition has told me that I should regard as such. Rather, the sacred for me is that which bears a clearly evident relationship to the entirety of being through the simplicity of its existence and its apparent refusal to 'explain' itself. For example, my dogs (five in number) are sacred to me, they simply 'are' and I find them immeasurably beautiful.

This experience finds its way into my music without any unnecessary interference from anything which I've been either taught or conditioned to think. Of course, in reality, everything is 'sacred' − my task is to allow myself to perceive and thus experience this 'sacredness' to actually be myself, in place of the ridiculous individual who I have come to refer to as 'me'.

What inspires you the most?

Being alive.

* Ross Daly will perform at the inaugural Bohemia world music festival, at Collingwood Town Hall (140 Hoddle St, Abbotsford) on Saturday 4 March. For information, call +61 (0) 3 9939 6700. Tickets available at www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=249462 On Sunday 5 March, he will perform at Caravan Music Club in Oakleigh

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