Crete, With Strings Attached

Manolis Katsantonis has been hand-fashioning lyras and other stringed instruments in Crete for 15 years.
Manolis Katsantonis has been hand-fashioning lyras and other stringed instruments in Crete for 15 years. (By Joanna Kakissis)
Sunday, December 9, 2007

The rugged Greek island of Crete may be the last place on Earth where kids love their grandparents' music so much that they play it every weekend.

In Rethymnon, a pretty seaside town of about 40,000 people, the wail of the ancestral lyra always trumps the boom-thud of European rap and the goat-throated howls of Athenian bouzouki singers. Young men in black sing mandinadhes (14th-century couplets) during impromptu concerts at cafes and tavernas. Young women, dark hair in thick Minoan curls, dance the quick-footed kastrino to the crescendo of music.

There's a good chance those young musicians have gotten their instruments from Manolis Katsantonis, a retired police officer who has been hand-fashioning stringed instruments here for 15 years. He worked out of his home for 10 years before opening his shop, En Chordais, in Rethymnon's Venetian old town. He offers one-of-a-kind specimens of the Cretan lyra as well as other stringed instruments: the bouzouki, guitar, baglama, oud and mandolin. He also makes replicas of ancient Greek lyres and even creates his own instruments if he's trying to strum just the right sound.

"I've loved music since I was a boy, but when I played it I had to admit to myself that I was below average," said Katsantonis, who has a round face and the generous mustache of a traditional Cretan man. "So one day I decided to make myself a bouzouki and play it on the beach by myself, just for fun. Then my friends wanted one, and then their friends wanted one, and soon I was making them all the time after I got off police duty."

Soon, orders for other instruments started coming in. Topping the list was the lyra, the pear-shaped, three-stringed fiddle that headlines Cretan music. But here he faced some big-name competition.

Manolis Stagakis, a well-known Rethymniote musician and craftsman, had been making his exquisite Cretan lyras since the 1940s, operating out of a landmark workshop in the old town. When he died in 1995, his grandson, also a lyra craftsman, moved the shop to Kastellakia, a suburb. The Stagakis name still carries cachet and draws many customers.

Katsantonis studied the work of gifted artisans like Stagakis for years before he tried making a lyra of his own. As he became more confident of his pieces, he asked his musician friends to test the sound. "When they closed their eyes and played without stopping, like they were in a dream, I knew I had finally made a good one," he said.

The lyra and the laouto, a lute with four sets of double strings, voice the island's dramatic lyrical poetry and folk songs: epics such as the 17th-century poem "Erotocritos," a bloody and romantic story by Cretan Renaissance writer Vitsentzos Kornaros that follows the love-struck son of a royal adviser as he tries to woo the king's daughter with erotic serenades.

Those songs still reign on Cretan playlists. "Tradition means everything here," Katsantonis said.

En Chordais is still a labor more of love than of profit, but Katsantonis has a steady clientele of musicians and collectors. On a recent afternoon, a 20-something couple tested a lyra and a bouzouki, a mother visiting from Australia inspected a mandolin for her young son, a black-clad Adonis strummed a laouto, and a French couple admired an ancient Greek lyre.

The lyras start at about $440, and some instruments, such as a specially crafted laouto or bouzouki, can run as much as $2,200 or more. Katsantonis uses wood such as walnut, maple or mulberry for an instrument's body and often layers it with intricate designs of mother-of-pearl. It can take anywhere from a week to a month to make an instrument, he said.

"Sometimes I spend so much time on something that I fall in love with it. Like with that one," he said, pointing to a gleaming bouzouki. "Someone wants to buy it, and I'm both happy and heartbroken."

-- Joanna Kakissis

En Chordais, 38 Varda Kallergi St., Rethymnon, Crete, 011-30-283-102-9043 or 011-30-693-638-7345,

© 2007 The Washington Post Company