Sharing music, sharing life stories: The Cypriot Fiddler project
by Dr Nicoletta Demetriou
14 Jan 2016
In 2005, as part of my fieldwork for my ethnomusicology PhD at SOAS, I left London and went to Cyprus to do a series of interviews with elderly folk musicians. I was then studying a group of folk songs calledfones. What I was interested in was the change that had occurred in how these songs were conceptualised, around the mid-twentieth century, as a result of a nationalistic musicological discourse that appropriated and redefined them for reasons that had little or nothing to do with music. In order for me to see how this change had come about, I needed to talk to both younger and older musicians. I therefore began singing with a local music group, which put me in touch with many active younger performers, but I also began interviewing older traditional musicians, whom I would meet through the network of friends and colleagues that I had already established in Cyprus.
Every time I met an elderly musician, before launching into a discussion about fones, I would ask them to tell me a few words about the life they had led as instrumentalists or singers in mid-twentieth century Cyprus. I was doing this for various reasons: First, to put my interviewees at ease. Second, I was curious to know how music was performed at a time for which there is very little written data and when there are very few, if any, recordings. Third, and I think most importantly for me, because I like stories. So I would encourage these musicians to talk to me about their lives, letting them take the discussion in whichever direction they wanted. Their stories were fascinating. What’s more, they revealed far more than I could have imagined. They revealed not only the stories of individual musicians, but the story of a professional class that had, by then, all but ceased to exist – along with the landscape and people that existed around it. I made a mental note of these stories not really knowing why at the time.
Fast forward a few years, having finished my PhD, I decided that I liked stories so much that I wanted to do something about it. So I enrolled in a creative writing degree, choosing to specialise in life writing – that is, the kind of writing that deals with real people’s stories (so biography, autobiography, memoir, journal writing, and so on). A few years after that, in 2012, having been elected to a research fellowship at Wolfson College, Oxford, that allowed me to combine ethnomusicology with life writing, I went back to these stories.
In the mid-twentieth century, Cyprus’s weddings and fairs were filled with the sounds of fkiolarides (orthkiolarides, or violarides): the island’s traditional fiddlers. Cypriot fiddlers were men of limited financial means, who worked in the fields or had other occupations for most of the year, and who took up their instruments whenever there was need for musicians. Their art was indispensible; no ritual was considered complete without their participation. Yet the way these men learned music was far from ideal. For most of them, an apprenticeship of between six months and a year was considered enough ‘to get them going’ in the real world. They continued to learn their art on the spot, in village festivals and weddings, prompted by all-demanding audiences, who expected their fiddlers to be able to play whatever they asked for.
With the extensive urbanisation that followed Cyprus’s independence from Britain in 1960 and the eventual collapse of old village structures following the events that led to Cyprus’s de facto partition in 1974, this class of musicians slowly died out. Its demise also marked the disappearance of a distinct professional class, along with its unique apprenticeship methods and codes of conduct.
In May 2014, with the help of a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant, I went back to Cyprus to interview once again the few remaining elderly musicians I had met a decade before. My aim was to trace the lives of Cypriot fiddlers in mid-twentieth century Cyprus, by documenting the life stories of some of the last survivors of this class of musicians on both sides of the Cypriot divide, and present them in the form of a group biography.
While in Cyprus, I realised that, despite its potential contribution or intellectual value, no book on the Cypriot fiddlers could really be enjoyed by the fiddlers themselves – especially if it appeared in English. I wanted to produce something that the musicians themselves – and their families – could readily take pleasure in. So I made the decision to film these musicians and turn their stories into a documentary. I made contact with a local cameraman and technician, who agreed to help me with my work. Only I had no funding for this purpose. I needed to act quickly. With my oldest interviewee having just turned 97 years old, I had no time to lose. So in July 2015, I launched a campaign on a crowd-sourcing website, Kickstarter, with the aim of collecting the funds needed for the documentary to become a reality. The campaign was publicly launched on 22 July 2015 at the Home for Cooperation, the headquarters of the Association for Historical Dialogue and Research, a bi-communal (that is, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot) NGO in Nicosia’s buffer zone. A Facebook page was also launched on that same day, and the campaign ended with several musicians playing and singing outside the Home for Cooperation for several hours. What followed was astonishing. By 15 August 2015 we managed to raise the required funds for the documentary. The project featured in a number of local newspapers (in English, Greek, and Turkish), magazines, on the state radio and state TV.
By October 2015 the filming for the documentary – which lets the musicians tell their own story, in their own words – had finished. It is now being edited, and it will hopefully be ready for a spring launch in sunny Nicosia.
Nicoletta Demetriou is Research Fellow in Ethnomusicology and Life Writing at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, and Tutor in Narrative Non-Fiction on Oxford’s MSt in Creative Writing. She has a PhD in Ethnomusicology from SOAS, University of London, and an MA in Life Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is co-editor, with Jim Samson, of Music in Cyprus (Ashgate 2015), and is currently working on The Cypriot Fiddler project (documentary and book), which was funded by a British Academy / Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grant.