6. Dialogical singing and the ghlendi (Karpathos, Olymbos)


Dialogical singing usually occurs in the context of a commensal performance widely known as the ghlendi [10]. Commensality in the course of the ghlendi implies eating and drinking, singing, playing of music and dancing together. Yet the ghlendi is not just a particular form of commensal entertainment, or an occasional performance of sociality. For the people of Karpathos, it constitutes a powerful symbol of their cultural identity. The symbolic significance of the ghlendi is most evident in Olymbos, the northern district of the island. To understand the cultural centrality of the ghlendi in Karpathos, it will suffice to discuss some of its main performative tenets. One of the most important dimensions of the ghlendi is improvisation. As a symbolic domain of social action, the ghlendi is synonymous with making manifest. Improvisation in the ghlendi implies expressing actually lived experience and, eventually, establishing a reflexive mode of being-in-the world. The most central and, at the same time, most elaborate form of improvisational performance in the ghlendi is dialogical singing. In fact, it is the extempore dialogical singing of mandinadhes that defines the performing core of the ghlendi practice.


Karpathos, 1988

The Olymbos Ghlendi

(file wmv, 2' 24", 1.74 Mb)

Making manifest through extempore dialogical singing constitutes the main thrust of the performative dynamics of the ghlendi. What becomes manifest in the ghlendi is not simply the cultural identity of the performers but the social ethics of its performance. Performing in the context of the ghlendi is not just realizing a life-world, but endowing it with social authority. What is said and done in the ghlendi --behaviors of eating and drinking, attitudes toward singing and dancing or manners of playing music-- acquires by implication a socially indisputable character.

The authority of the ghlendi is conducive to empowering the perceptions, ideas and practices of its performers, transforming them from ordinary realities to extraordinary expressions [11]. The word used by the local people to describe this transformation is paroussia [12]. Paroussia means literally “revealing or making manifest”. What is revealed in the ghlendi is the performative community of the ghlendi participants. By “performative” I mean both the performing and the performed aspect of it. Hence, paroussia is actually “where the community reveals itself”. The paroussia revealed in the ghlendi is not just one expression of its manifestation, but an exceptional reality. The social significance of the paroussia of the ghlendi is associated with the extempore dialogical singing of mandinadhes. What is sung in a ghlendi is generally considered as an authoritative assessment, a unique expression of social criticism. Nobody, no single person or group of people, has the authority to change such an assessment. To modify its value one would have to deal with it only in the performative context of paroussia, whether the paroussia of its actual enactment or any other paroussia, in another ghlendi.


What makes paroussia such a potent symbol of community in Karpathos is primarily its gender dynamics [13]. In Karpathos and even more so in Olymbos, dialogical singing is strictly considered as a male activity. Women are excellent singers and composers of mandinadhes, but they are not supposed to sing in public. What they do though with the performed mandinadhes of the male singers is significant for the whole community. Women sing these mandinadhes again on certain public occasions: in the fields or inside a house, and almost always in the exclusive company of other women. This practice attaches special importance to male singing by attributing new facets of meaning to it. In so doing the female singers recast the meanings associated with the male authority of the paroussia of the ghlendi [14]. Female reflexivity regarding male extempore dialogical singing is socially significant not only as a metacommunication, but also as a distinct dynamic that is conducive to the actual singing of mandinadhes by the male performers. The presence of women in the ghlendi coincides with the slow dance phase of the occasion, whereby both men and women participate. While dancing the slow dance, kato horos, men sing mandinadhes in praise of their female dancers [15].This part of the ghlendi is witnessed also by the chaperones of the female dancers, who are mostly older female relatives. Be it as it may, gender segregation regarding singing in public is a social rule in Karpathos, as it is most evident in the female dialogical singing of dirges, the mandinadhes of grief. This is an exclusively female realm of performance. Men do not sing dirges in public. What they do though, after the mourning period has elapsed, is to express their grief by singing sorrowful couplets in the context of the ghlendi.


In the life world of the ghlendi, temporality and subjectivity are experienced as dialogical realities. Performing excellence in the ghlendi is not determined solely by the ability of a person to perform skilfully any of the various aspects of the ghlendi whole, but mainly by his ability to be good at being a performer of the community of the ghlendi participants. And as they do with other things, they have a name for the person exhibiting this ability. They call him a meraklis. Being good at being a performer of community suggests that the meraklis is aware that his performance will be assessed by his peers as an expression of cultural conduct, rather than merely as an artistic activity. This is a central premise of the ghlendi aesthetics, determining the temporality of the dialogical exchanges. Experienced singers who are skilled both in the art of composing extempore mandinadhes and of singing them in the dialogical sequence prescribed by the ghlendi convention, refrain from singing more than a couple of mandinadhes in a row. Such reluctance on their part is not dictated by a lack of skill, but by the dialogical dynamics of the paroussia. The temporality of the ghlendi belongs to the whole community of the ghlendi participants. Nobody is allowed to appropriate it. Hence, monopolizing the time of the paroussia is an unethical act which invites serious criticism. Such criticism is strong enough to disqualify any performance, no matter how great its artistic merits might be, as a problematic behavior. Similarly, the response to any unlawful changing of the theme of the dialogical singing is vehement criticism. An unjustified change, regardless of the artistic value of the mandinadha, is regarded as an offense to the ghlendi community; hence, the concerted reaction against it. The performance of paroussia is incompatible with any performance that is reduced to self-referential artistry. The offenders of the paroussia are criticized severely by their peers as being indifferent to the community of the ghlendi participants or unable to cope with it. The violators of the intersubjective ethos of the dialogical experience of the ghlendi receive what is locally seen as the ultimate form of punishment: a mandinadha castigating their inconsiderate behavior.


The temporality and intersubjectivity of the ghlendi are made manifest in the paroussia of extempore dialogical singing. This is what I perceive to be the essence of the ghlendi life-world. However, the ghlendi cannot, and should not, be reduced to the writer’s reality. As a cultural symbol of Karpathos, the ghlendi stands out as a distinct and autonomous reality, with its own particular experiences, expressions and communications. First and foremost, the ghlendi constitutes both an actual mode of living in the world and a particular modality of relating this experience. Such a culturally realized interface between experience and expression appears to be an ideal topos, symbolic space, to explore the significance of the ghlendi not only as an ethnographic referent, but as a reflexive and dialogical modality of ethnography itself.

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