Success story of musician who thinks global but acts local

Ross Daly's worldview that: "There’s a way to belong but not to be a native... I live outside a national identity and that’s always been a great advantage... I can feel at home anywhere” is reflected in his music. Born in Kings Lynn, England and raised on both sides of the Atlantic, Ross studied the sitar in India and rabab in Afghanistan. He settled in Crete in 1974 because, to quote him: "Some things in life grab you; Crete and its music did that for me”. In 1982 he established the Labyrinth Musical Workshop in the Cretan village of Houdetsi as a loosely structured collective exploring the modal music of different cultures. He explains that he chose Houdetsi because "A village is better than a city for this, everything’s in walking distance. We began with one-week seminars, everyone living together.” Every summer the Labyrinth Workshops draw students from around the world to seminars and masterclasses taught by celebrated musicians from the modal traditions. In recognition of its contribution to European values including democracy, social justice and universal access to rights the Labyrinth Musical Workshop was given a European Citizenship Award in 2012.

Modal music is based on tones or modes rather than Western scales, and over the years Labyrinth has evolved into an wide-ranging educational institution dedicated to the study of the modal forms found between the north-west of Africa and west China. However the new modal music from Crete is not constrained by historic conventions, but instead provides a dynamic and evolving mileu in which musical orthodoxies are challenged and reshaped. As part of this evolutionary process Ross Daly has developed with his pupil Stelios Petrakis a contemporary version of the Cretan lyra which adds eighteen sympathetic (resonating) strings to the three bowed strings to strength the instrument's traditional sound.

Despite global recognition as a lyra virtuoso, Ross Daly sees himself not as virtuoso instrumentalist, but as a composer working with a wide geographic spread of modal source material. He explains that: "For me music is music and my interest in it has to do essentially with esoteric spiritual dimension and hardly at all with its exterior formal aspects. This interest in the more esoteric aspects of music eventually led me to the vast and timeless domain of modal musical traditions". Another felicitous product of the Labyrinth co-operative are the concerts that Ross gives with his fellow musicians, and in the photos which I took recently at a concert in Piskopiano on Crete he is playing with his wife and fellow lyra player Kelly Thoma, Yiorgis Manolakis (lute) and Yiannis Papatzanis (percussion).

Ethnic instruments are the tool that Ross Daly uses to shape his modal compositions, and I was privileged to see the collection of more than 250 string instruments from around the world that is housed in his home. This is a working collection and not a museum: on his 2008 abstract masterpiece Ελεύθερο Σημείο (Still Point) he plays Cretan lyra, kemençe, rebab, tanbur, laouto, yayli tanbur, gabak kemane, bulgari, kemencello, bouzouki, cura, sordina, oud, sarangi, double bass and synthesizer. (Download the album legally for free via this link.) Ross' commitment to modal music without frontiers means that he has collaborated with musicians from a wide range of cultures including members of the celebrated Chemirani dynasty of Iranian percussionists and the Tuvan throat singing ensemble Huun Huur Tu.

Ross Daly is a serial iconoclast: he dismisses world music as “an offshoot of the pop music industry with an emphasis on party music”, and his website carries this provocative message:
Whoever so wishes can download any or even all of my music completely free of charge (the only exception is my most recent recording “The Other Side” which is available from CD Baby). I have decided to do this because I would like my music to be easily available to anyone who wishes to listen without any financial dimension whatsoever. After so many years, I’m really really fed up with the financial side of the recording industry but I still love sharing my recordings with other people. This is the only thing that I could do in order to be able to continue enjoying that, and sharing my music is more important to me than any amount of money.
The Western classical music industry can learn from the success story of Ross Daly and his fellow musicians. Their music respects its roots and eschews dumbing down, while at the same time refusing to become a folkloric museum of sound. And they take their audience with them on their never-ending journey of discovery: Ross Daly is a folk hero in Crete and the capacity audience at the Piskopiano concert was comprised almost entirely of local villagers of all ages who listened attentively for 90 minutes.

Sharing is at the centre of the Labyrinth ethos, and despite Ross Daly's global profile - he played at Carnegie Hall in December - there is a total absence of celebrity posturing. I first made contact with Ross and Kelly after I wrote about their new modal music last year. Months later I contacted them again to say I was coming to Crete with my wife in September 2016 and could they suggest any concerts we should attend. On the basis of that perfunctory contact from someone they hardly knew they went out of their way - literally many miles out of their way - to provide hospitality and assistance when we visited the island. This despite a punishing schedule: they jetted off to Cyprus for a concert while we lazed on the beach, and were preparing to travel to India to play at the Jodhpur RIFF Festival. Can you imagine a celebrity classical musician providing similar hospitality if I pitched up in their home city? Coming to that can you imagine a celebrity classical musician playing a fundraiser for street dogs? Thank you Kelly and Ross for your kindness and your music. You are an inspiration; in fact you remind me of these words from that very wise Greek Plato:

It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.

My thanks also go to Panos whose online Greek Music Shop is based in Agios Nikolaos for his exemplary service and excellent ice cream. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


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