We came across the first Café Kriti in 1984, strolling along the quayside at Chania, at the point where the Outer Harbour (the tourist bit) changes character and become the Inner Harbour (at that time more the working port and still where more local people eat and drink.)
It was early evening, and an extremely large and rather ugly man was heavily strumming a very large and rather beautiful lute-like instrument. Later that evening, after dinner, we took another walk past the café and found a music evening in full swing. The ugly man with the stringed instrument (later identified as a laouto) had been joined by a younger man complete with a lyra. Occasionally, the younger man handed the lyra over to someone else, and danced wild leaping steps.
Café Kriti was a dump: the koniak and raki were 30 drachmas; wine by the glass was topped up from half-finished empties, the toilet was the worst in Greece (which at the time took some doing): but the music was like nothing on earth we had ever heard before.
It was not the bouzouki-dominated laiki which is what is generally known as ‘Greek’ music. It was fast and hard; it was exotic and heavily inflected in sharps and flats way beyond the perameters of blues and folk: think the more extreme edges of Beethoven’s late string quartets. It was Kritiki. (There are plenty of examples on YouTube: try for example Thanasis Skordalos.)
In later years, we had some more great Kritiki nights, for example, an evening in Paleochora in 1989. In this case, the performer was Michaelis Tzouganakis.
It was one of those occasions when you see a poster on a telegraph pole and go along at the advertised time, say 8:30 pm. The Germans are already there, eating and drinking, expecting the band to come on. Nine o’clock comes and goes; as does nine-thirty. The Germans have finished their meals and are looking at their watches. Ten o’clock comes, the Germans start to drift out muttering “unversschämt” and “Frechheit.”
From then on, the pick-up trucks start arriving with families coming down from their farms and outlying villages, unloading their daughters dressed up to the nines, while the sons come down on their mopeds. The band comes on, and plays. And plays and plays. And plays some more. The families dance and sing, and eat and drink. The wine is replaced by raki. Then someone pulls an automatic pistol and fires it from his table in approval, across the road and over the beach road opposite. Hopefully it is blanks. But around 3:00 am, he fires the pistol skywards, unfortunately into the crown of an electric supply post, plunging the place into darkness. He has not been firing blanks and the concert is over.
Not every experience has been as dramatic, but we have generally had at least one great Kritiki experience every time we have been to Crete. The counterpoint occasion was again, a telegraph pole poster concert, by coincidence in Paleochora.
The venue was the Sunset café, and the artist was Kostis Avissinos, of a great Cretan musical dynasty. So we turn up suitably late and just catch the beginning of an unusually prompt start (within an hour of advertised time) and find ourselves watching and hearing an absolute masterclass from one of the legends of Kritiki. It was like finding Richard Thompson in your local pub, playing to twenty people. An astonishing event and a great musical experience.
So where do you to hear Kritiki? There are two parts to the answer. Many of the best events are not regular club (or kentro) nights: they are once in month or once in a season, and are advertised on posters on those telegraph poles, on trees and anywhere else where they might catch the eye, sometimes in the middle of the countryside.
However, there are excellent fixed venues, despite the demise of Café Kriti. This year we saw different bands play in three different tavernas on four consecutive nights in Chania: Faka (where we saw Andreas Lilikakis); To Xani, a brilliant taverna in the shadow of the old Chania Synagogue, which is acknowledged by the inclusion of old Greek-Jewish dishes on the menu, and where we had the privilege and joy to be invited to join an engagement party.
Finally, we were in Ta Chalkina. As their flashy website shows, the surroundings could not be more different, but by coincidence (or perhaps not) it is on the site of the old Café Kriti, down on the harbour. Likewise, the ethos is different: where the old place was amateur and makeshift, this new venue is efficient and professional, which is a good thing. Not only does it mean good sound systems and efficient and hygienic service, as well as good authentic food (the Askyfou lamb is just sheep meat on a plate, and the sheepiest thing I have ever eaten), it shows that there is an audience for this fantastic music which justifies big investment.
The concert? Well, another good feature of the place is that you can book a table for 8:30 and the music begins sometime between 9:30 and 10:00, inside (which is more atmospheric and may include dancing) and outside (which is cooler and more comfortable.) The band was very good the night we were there, although a little bit folk-rock, in that it had bass and drums – guys, it slows down the changes and makes it a bit samey – but still great tunes and songs in a tremendous setting.
Kritiki is in good health here, as it is elsewhere on the island: for example in Café Mesostratis in Rethymnon.
The second answer is that unfortunately, live Kritiki is hard to find in the UK, although there was a band played on the Renfrew Ferry in Glasgow about ten years ago as a part of a week of Greek culture run by the Scottish Greek community.
We have a dream that one day one of the great Greek restaurants in Glasgow – both Elia and Yiamas have Cretan connections – will put on a kentro night, perhaps for Celtic Connections. A set price authentic menu, wine and drinks extra, a Kritiki band and a dance floor on a cold and wet January night: it would be like winter in Anogia or Zaros.
Certainly, the music has a lot in common with the likes of the fantastic stuff played by the likes of Finlay Macdonald and Chris Stout, as shown here, especially from 2:50 onwards.
Or a double bill: Celts and Kritiki. What about it someone?