Syrtaki. Typically Cretan.
«Dance, did you say dance?». With a satisfied smile Zorbas, the main character in the film of the same name, snaps his fingers. In the background, the bouzouki begins to intone the sounds that everyone inevitably associates with Greece, if not with a Swiss tennis player cooking noodles. At the latest when Greece opened up to mass tourism in the 1960s and 1970s, Mikis Theodorakis «Zorbas Dance», as the song is actually called, became a worldwide hit. There is a «Zorbas» tavern almost everywhere in the world, and even 50 years after the release of the movie, the Syrtaki is still seen by many tourists as the ultimate Greek folk dance.
Those for whom Greece is much more than gyros and tzatziki may already know that the Syrtaki is a pure retort product. Michalis Kakogiannis, the director, created it for his main actor Anthony Quinn. For him, the dances of the island of Crete, where the story of the Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis takes place, were simply too complicated.
The music of Theodorakis' Syrtaki, however, has probably more in common with Crete than numerous travel blogs and travel guides reveal to us.
Koutsourelis Cretan Syrtaki (το κρητικό συρτάκι)
It is 1986, somewhere in Heraklion. An elderly, well-groomed man with graying hair, shirt and pleated trousers sits on a stage (see YouTube video). His Cretan lute lies on his lap. With recognizable cynicism, the musician turns to the visibly amused audience. He will now play the famous Cretan Syrtaki, he says. «The way I recorded the song. Not like this Theodorakis with his musical frills and furbelows.»
Georgios Koutsourelis (1914-1994) from Kasteli Kissamou then was 72 years old. By that time he had long since made a name for himself as a virtuoso of the Cretan lute. Hit compositions like «the perfume» (Το Άρομα) or «I complain about someone» (Παραπονούμαι μιας ψυχής) are likely to have been played at practically every festival then as now. Nevertheless, almost 30 years later, he was obviously still upset about Theodoraki's box-office hit, which was recorded and published in 1964. But why?
Koutsourelis was a folk musician and one of the best and most influential in his genre. As early as 1950 he had written the «Armenochorian Syrto» (Αρμενοχωριανός Συρτός) and published it for the first time. The similarities with the faster part of Theodorakis' Syrtaki, to which the average tourist likes to dance can-can or even start a conga-line, cannot be ignored.
In 1953, Koutsourelis even recorded a modified version of the piece with a new intro. He called his work «the Cretan Sirtaki» (το Κρητικό Συρτάκι), i.e. «the little Cretan Syrtos». Along with the already mentioned part, the typical offbeat of the opening melody in this version should be well known to Syrtaki Lovers. Even more striking is the title. Syrta (plural of Syrto) are danced and played all over Greece in a wide variety of regional variations. But only Georgios Koutsourelis created a musical peace called «little» Syrto. 10 years later a choreographer to Theodorakis' soundtrack of «Zorbas Dance» named the corresponding dance the same.
A stolen Song?
Did Theodorakis steal the song? Well-founded opinions on the rencontre between the two musicians can hardly be found. Ethnological musicologists like to refer to Theodorakis Syrtaki as the «arrangement» of Koutsoureli's «Armenochorian Syrto». Some Cretan Lute players I know usually prefer the somewhat less squeamish expression «theft».
It certainly doesn't bother them that a melody has been rearranged or, in this case, in certain parts practically has been adopted entirely. They also do the former. Rearranging is part of a living folk music tradition in Crete. What is not at all possible for them, however, is to adorn themselves with borrowed plumes. In other words: In their opinion, Theodorakis should have at least mentioned Koutsourelis by name in his albums.
Koutsourelis himself must certainly have had a financial interest in the issue of clarifying copyrights. On the Internet and on Crete, however, different things are said about whether a legal dispute has ever taken place. In Theodoraki's autobiography «The Streets of the Archangel» (οι δρόμοι του αρχάγγελου) the story is told roughly as follows. In the early 1950s, Mikis Theodorakis went to Crete to relax. As an opponent of the Greek military junta, he had previously been imprisoned and tortured for two years. At a church consecration festival (πανηγύρι) in the Chania region, he picked up parts of the melody of his later world hit. In 1951 he premiered it in his own version together with the Chania Symphony Orchestra in Athens. According to the autobiography, Theodorakis not unlike Koutsourelis cobbled his own arrangement together from a well-known traditional Cretan folk melody. The autobiography doesn't mention Theodorakis copying directly from Koutsourelis.
Who was right in the dispute between the two composers and musicians cannot and should not be decided after all these years. Koutsourelis has passed away in 1994, and Theodorakis had his 95th birthday in July 2020. Even without taking sides, both versions of the story testify quite clearly: the music of the famous Syrtaki is probably more Cretan than innumerable travel guides make us believe.
Σ. Κουρούση, Κ.Κονσταντιτσάνου: Μίλιε μου Κρήτη απ τα παλιά. Η Ηστορία της Ελληνικής Μουσικής. Αθήνα, 2016, 215-218.