Cyprus Mail

The island’s musical past

When I was little, we had a holiday home in a mountain village. My parents fell in love with the place; my sister and I fell in love with the people. Pericles was the goatherd, Paraskevi the halloumi maker, and Yiannis, an ex-POW, owned the pantopoleio in the village square. Two doors up was Dionysis the komodromos, whose Dantean forge rang with clangs and clanks day and night. And at the top of the village was the mangipas, Chariklia, who held a very special place in my heart: I will always remember running back down the hill clutching a scrumptious, fresh-from-the-fourno loaf…

This was barely 30 years ago, but most of these people – along with their professions – have faded softly into history. And it’s left to our scholars to record a way of life that has, in a few short years, almost entirely disappeared. Which is where Nicoletta Demetriou comes in. Because this ethnomusicologist and life writer has been diligently recording the stories of those who once practised one of the island’s most intriguing professions: the fiddlers.
A fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and the driving force behind the upcoming documentary The Cypriot Fiddler, Nicoletta is fascinated by the island’s musical past – particularly the wedding fiddlers of yesteryear who have long, she says, “captured my imagination. These were boys who, at the age of 10 or 11, would leave home to live with their masters. Many of them would learn a trade – barber, carpenter, cobbler – along with the music, because fiddling was a seasonal occupation. They just entered another life and had to make do, and I love the idea that they needed to help with whatever had to be done while learning to play the violin or the laoutro.”

Both the exigencies and the highlights of the fiddlers’ lives are detailed in the documentary, as the last of both the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot fiddlers discuss their way of life, and the craft they once practised: “Being a fiddler was indeed a craft, not an art,” Nicoletta emphasises. “These fiddlers were a concrete professional class in Cyprus until the 70s; they were very much part of the wedding – they had to be there at all these rituals, playing the night before the wedding, on the day while the bride and groom got ready, accompanying them to the church and through into the evening’s entertainment.”

Today, of course, fiddlers are still present at many local weddings, taking part in the celebrations; citing an expression coined by anthropologist Victor Turner, Nicoletta clarifies that the fiddlers’ performance has now moved ‘from ritual to theatre’. “Nowadays what you get is something that has become completely cut off from the rituals surrounding the wedding; a bit of folklore, if you like, which is inserted into very modern twenty-first century weddings. As Cypriot society and the Cypriot soundscape have changed, this class of musicians has slowly died out. And, of course, with them died, not so much their music, but their way of life, their way of talking about music.”

From apprenticeship to motivation, performances to payment, Nicoletta has been documenting – both in writing and in film – the fascinating stories behind this traditional profession for the last few years. “Back in 2005, I was in Cyprus for a year doing fieldwork as part of my PhD in ethnomusicology, and I began interviewing musicians. At that point, I was interested in a particular group of folk songs, and as part of that I always asked about the musicians’ lives, their backgrounds. At the time I had no idea what I was going to do with these stories, but I saved them and made a mental note of them without really knowing why at the time…”

Seven years (and innumerable academic achievements) later, Nicoletta was elected to a fellowship at Wolfson College which allowed her to combine her passions of ethnomusicology and life writing, “and this,” she explains, “is what took me back to the fiddlers. I went back to these stories that I had saved,” she adds, “and felt it was time to come back to Cyprus in a more physical way.” In May 2013 – with funding from a joint British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant – Nicoletta returned to the island to start a new series of interviews with the remaining fiddlers “in order to produce a narrative for this project…
“I had already decided before my return that I wanted to give something back to the fiddlers: I didn’t just want to collect their life stories and present them in an academic article, I wanted to produce something that they and their children and grandchildren could enjoy and save for the future. So the documentary was my way of not only telling their stories in their own words, but also of giving back.”

Today, with fewer and fewer of the fiddlers still remaining, Nicoletta’s documentary is a testament to a way of life that no longer exists. “This place has changed so much in the last 50, 60 years. It always amazes me to think about that change; I suppose I have a hidden nostalgia for that way of life, a nostalgia for something I haven’t actually experienced: I do wonder what my life would have been like if I had lived at that time. Perhaps, along with giving back, that’s one of the reasons I’m making this documentary. And,” she concludes, “to enable the fiddlers to tell their own stories to others.”

It’s a sentiment which resonates, especially for those of us who remember the island’s not so distant past, and a way of life which – even as two little girls ran home down the cobbled streets with a steaming loaf of bread – was dying out. And it’s thanks to the dedicated scholars such as Nicoletta that these memories are now being both preserved and revisited. Ask yourself what you truly – and clearly – remember from your childhood, and you’ll see why projects such as The Cypriot Fiddler are so very important.

The Cypriot Fiddler
A crowd-funded documentary by Nicoletta Demetriou, part of a project which will also, in time, include a book. The film will be screened for the first time at 7pm on April 7, at the Home for Cooperation in Nicosia. Entrance is free, and all are very welcome to attend. There will be live music and food after the screening; meals should be booked in advance by calling the Home for Cooperation on22 445740

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