E S S A Y S  > Nomades en vol

Nomads on the Wing - Or: “A Week in Crete with Bratsch”.

The new millennium has just begun on the southern coast of Crete. Bratsch has lured hundreds of people onto the narrow street near the harbour of Agia Galini playing a touching musette. Charming French ladies pass around glasses of champagne. In the harbour a German pyromaniac kindles a huge fire-works. The air in the street is a mixture of smoke from Bengal lights and barbeque aromas.

The mood is one of unbridled enjoyment: Bratsch is playing belly-dance music. That energy bundle Giorgos “Pharos” (the fisherman with his own fish restaurant; with all the Giorgos, Nikos, and Yannis around, it always helps to mention the respective profession, peculiarity, or nick-name), smiles amid his wrinkles, which are the kind of wrinkles only a fisherman can have, places a table in the middle of the street, grabs Kiki decisively by the arm, puts his other arm under that beauty’s knees and carries her to the table. With the help of Jorgos (who runs the petrol station and is dressed up to the nines today), Kiki is put standing on the table. She laughs, looks seductively into the faces of the musicians, who now play even more exuberantly, and starts to dance. Because of the rotating movements, her tiny blouse, which consists solely of narrow leather braids, provides views that make the young kids present blush, though many’s the one who wishes her long wavy hair did not conceal the view so often. In anticipation of the fashion of the coming decade, her belly is free, and sometimes the moon reflects on her shining skin. Using circular breathing Nano plays his clarinet and raises the instrument in the direction of the sky, which seems so much closer here; Dan’s deep voice can be heard singing to his bouzouki, as he constantly winks at Kiki; Pierre stands beside her lasciviously with his contrabass and nods his head vigorously when someone holds a glass to his mouth. François, eyes rolling, moves closer and closer until Kiki’s belly and his accordion seem to form a unit. Then, as a young dark-skinned boy – who could be directly out of a Kusturica film, with his patent-leather shoes and long side-burns – jumps onto the table and pushes one of his legs between Kiki’s, making very obvious rhythmic movements, Bruno’s bow dances on his violin as if performing an act of love.

The street vibrates. Instinctively, Bratsch now strike up a Macedonian dance piece. Dan produces fast accords on the bouzouki repeatedly interrupted by little filigree soli, and sings along in his husky voice. Initially, Bruno plays his violin in the emotional low key of the legendary Ion Petre Stoican, but then the bow entices tones from the strings in the highest keys, partly sentimental, partly wild. Nano’s clarinet gurgles, moans, rejoices. François’ fingers dance across the accordion interweaving Balkan figures with little phrases reminiscent of Charlie Parker. Elated, Pierre plucks the thick strings of his contrabass, adding rhythm and depth. As the piece continues and the group sing in their unmistakable harmony, the bank director puts his arm around Dan’s shoulders, closes his eyes and sings along voluminously. Giorgos (the architect) dances merrily with his son on his shoulders, and the little lad still claims today that he “saw the crazy fellows from Paris”. Popi’s black-and-white dog Orca has obviously lapped up too much alcohol from the ground and is now turning in circles in the midst of all the legs, trying to catch his own tail.

People then repair to Kosmas’ tavern. Giorgos (the lyre player and music teacher) joins Bratsch with a number of other lute and mandolin players. The orchestra, now expanded to include Cretan musicians, just cannot be stopped. They play as a unit flung together in this almost uncanny atmosphere of wild creativity. The philosopher who came along with us speaks of “transcendental metamorphosis”, while his young lady friends tells him to “leave the periphery and fly with us!” Yannis, the captain accompanying us, always in the best of spirits, jumps up and with great laughter throws a plate, a bit too high; the antique ceiling lamp falls onto a large salad bowl. Automatically, the musicians play a bit softer in the now darkened room. Jean-Mo, otherwise in charge of the group’s stage lighting, is excited: “Here even the plates operate the lighting”, and Gilles, the group's sound man, adds, “… to say nothing of the sound. If things go on like this, we'll be out of a job.”

In the early morning Dan is standing between the fishing boots in the harbour with his bouzouki, singing in his still very hoarse voice – old songs from the former hashish bars of the rembetes in Piraeus. Our philosopher, back down to earth in the meantime, inquires, not altogether unjustifiably, about “omni-historical intersubjective correlations in the perception of good music”. He girlfriend looks at Dan and replies: “You mean that ominous goose pimple factor, don’t you?” Whenever Dan stops singing, Hyronimos, the donkey in the neighbouring valley of Agios Georgios, emits his bellowing tones. Misunderstanding these sounds, a city dweller among us calls out that, “Bratsch has put a spell on the whole area and eroticised everyone, as you can hear.” He had thus put his finger on something essential. ...

We then set off for Anogia, the last village along the northern road to Crete's highest mountain, the majestic Psiloitis. Loudovikos – the gentle voice of Crete – played and sang some ballads for Bratsch in the “Church of Love” which he built. A little later, in a huge restaurant in the countryside, Dan knelt down in front of Loudovikos and reciprocated with an Armenian ballad. The other Bratsch musicians joined in, creating a further musical spiral based on the extremes of Balkan music: deeply sentimental dreams and wild passions. At the high point of this ecstatic performance, Giorgos (with the raki in the boot of his car) stuck his head between Bruno’s legs, and suddenly the latter was playing his sirba violin solo one rung higher, as it were, on the shoulders of a dancing Cretan Zorba. The Colombian woman with us on the trip was reminded of carnival in Barranquilla and danced salsa around the two men. Our philosopher, also a proven Shakespeare expert, recalled King Lear and pleaded to God not to let him go mad! This time his girlfriend was not with him so he decided to return on foot by way of the snow-clad mountains. Jorgos called after him: “You’ll surely meet the odd musician Psarantonis and can throw stones at the moon with him.”

Skoulas, the very successful musician who owns the restaurant, having watched this hustle and bustle decided for the first time to break a rule never to play live in his own restaurant. In the early morning hours, Bratsch were listening intently to songs of resistance: risitika. Ioanna, the lady professor, translated. The songs were about blood on the stones, pride, and the honour of the Cretans, the struggle against occupying forces and oppressors, but also about endless celebrations and the smouldering passion of lovers. The inner vibrations of the Bratsch microcosm resounded, and I’m sure that in the years to come they will add one of those songs to their repertoire, linking into the dreamy force of tradition, and surely breaking some of the rules, as they have no time for definitive forms.

Now, at the latest, we have to ask ourselves what we find so unique about this group? Are they modern traditionalists? There is no pigeon-hole into which this microcosm would fit. They track down the jazz elements in the music of the Balkans and the Mediterranean region and by creatively altering them produce a new musical essence. They give and take room for improvisation – so that the end of a piece can be either original or confused, but it is always joyful, for the journey continues. Joy and delight in music are the elixirs of their life. They blend sadness, opposition and melancholy with elation, humour, wildness and ecstasy, the childlike with the suddenly serious. They love anecdotes, in everyday life and in music. Sometimes they themselves become a staged anecdote, only to then suddenly and naturally turn the scene into a complex piece in 7/8 time. European soul music with elements of swing? They spirit their audiences off with them on dream journeys, where the routes and destinations are never clear. The tension they create with their music has something anarchic about it, awakening in the audience the desire to join them in overstepping the internal and external boundary lines. Bratsch’s delight in border crossing is authentic; here, the term authentic assumes a whole new dimension. I remember the words of the French music critic Bernard Davois: “Bratsch, that means imaginary streams, swaying in the wind – like a magic carpet on which the audience flies off, beyond fixed genres and borders.”

Before we left, a “Bratsch Palm” was ceremoniously planted beside a white and blue villa with a view of the Lybian Sea. The five Bratsch musicians stood on a slope among local musicians, including Lefteris with his lyre and Grigoris and Miros with their lutes. As a matter of course they played a Romanian-Cretan doina. The owner of the house was moved to tears and swore to the Gods of Olympus that he would care for that palm better than all the shrines on this earth. But then, typical Bratsch, the sentimental melody gradually gave way to a cheerfully cheeky klezmer piece. An international group of people danced with joy around the Bratsch palm.

On the flight back I was sitting between Bruno and Dan. Bruno, in his extremely hoarse voice, said, “Wow, was that a crazy week; the lyre is a damned fast instrument,” showing me the calluses on his fingers. Then Dan told me a story: “The Gharibians came from Armenia. They were astute trading folk who took advantage of the geo-strategic situation on the Silk Route for trading goods from East to West and vice versa. Business flourished in the 18th century, especially with France. Our family cooperated with the Russian merchant family of the Stroganovs. We supplied salt and pickled meat, the Stroganovs brought us furs from Siberia, a valuable commodity for the French aristocracy. We also had a restaurant; the Gharibians were master cooks, famous far beyond the borders of Armenia. After the French Revolution trading was repeatedly thwarded by legal problems, but the Girard family of lawyers from Burgundy assisted us and a close friendship developed between our two families.” Bruno continued: “Top quality porcelain from Limousin was not only in demand at the Russian court. We found just the right partners in the Peylet family, who lived in Limousin. The Jacquets lived in Normandy. Their roots went back to the Vikings. They helped us to do business with England. Last century they are said to have specialized in ventilators. These families meet in Paris each year for a celebration. Chance would have it that Dan, Pierre, Nano and I were musicians. More than twenty years ago we decided to form a group, a new small family, as it were, in this large association of families. But we needed a fifth man. The Castiello family from Naples, through whom we formerly exported goods to Marseille and Valencia, had not been to the last annual gatherings, but we had heard that one of them was supposedly a passionate musician. We set out for Naples. The grandmother of the Castiellos was hanging a washing line between two houses in the old part of the city. She sent us to the bars in the harbour, saying her grandson would be playing there somewhere. We found François just after midnight, playing belly-dance music on his accordion with an Algerian beauty dancing in front of him … You know the rest.”

We parted at Athens airport with tears in our eyes, and flew off in all directions. In their inimitably natural way Bratsch had roused feelings of love in us and in their many new Cretan friends. When will we meet again? But it is so difficult to tie these travellers down for any length of time, as, hopefully, they still have a lot of journeys to make.

Every evening in a pious ritual Kosmas places the table at the same spot in the street at which Kiki danced so passionately and erotically, for herself, for Bratsch and for us all. He does this in memory of a wonderful encounter, and in the hope that Bratsch would return, knowing full well that without them, no one on those other- wise gloomy winter evenings would have sung, danced, raved, and dreamed so unrestrainedly.

Yammas! Eviva, kie Chronia Polla Filli mou!

Christos Scholzakis