For over a decade, the folks in the Peloponnesian village of Leonidio pay tribute to their prized possession: the eggplant (or Tsakoniki Melitzana) with one of the most interesting festivals in Greece. Unique to the region, the light purple slender seedless eggplant is appreciated by chefs far and wide for its tender flesh and subtle sweetness.
This weekend, starting Friday, July 4, the Tsakoniki eggplant takes centre stage. In the words of the Leonidians: “Kaour ekanate… Oreyi ta Tsakonia e Athripoi ini xerounte na tsouni, na zioi tsai, na glegioi” (Welcome! The people of Tsakonia know how to eat, live and party.”
And that’s exactly what they will do at the annual Melijazz Festival paying tribute to the Tsakonian eggplant, which the European Union recognised as a product of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in 1996.
Hundreds head on down to the port village every year to sample the delicacies featuring the homegrown eggplant and to enjoy the music and dance. This year’s event features flamenco music, choreographies and lessons, belly dancing, percussion ensembles, Gypsy jazz bands, Balkan-jazz brass instrumentalists, traditional Cypriot music, DJ sets and much more.
Reviving Tsakonia Traditions
Nestled between the captivating Parnonas mountain range and the deep blue Myrtoan Sea, the busy little town of Leonidio, home to some 7,000 people, is the capital of the Tsakonia region, notable for its cultural and linguistic particularities. The Tsakonian or Tsakonic Language, said to date back to antiquity, is spoken to this day in Leonidio and the surrounding region.
Very few traditional Greek songs (demotika) have come down to us in the Tsakonic dialect primarily due to the small and scattered rural populations. As access to most of the villages (Kastanitsa, Pera Melana, Agios Andreas, Sapounakaika, Vaskina, Sitaina, Prastos, Tyros) in the Tsakonia was poor, most of the songs are sung acapella (without the accompaniment of instruments). It was usually at the weddings of the village’s most affluent that one would see instrumentalists including clarinet, violin and laouto players. The main instrument in the region was the “dilivira” (or six-hole reed flute) played in yesteryear by the shepherds.
Featuring prominently in the region’s tradition is the Tsakonikos dance, also known as a wedding song “Su eipa mana m’” (I told you mother… marry me off).
“Pouantza pete negoute” (Oh Birds Flying to Tsakonia) is a characteristic “Kleftiko”, or traditional demotika songs speaking of the achievements of the rebels during the 400-year Turkish rule. This song refers to the participation of the Tsakonian villagers in the Battle of Dervenakia in July 1822. These songs are also known as “Tragoudia tis Tavlas”, slow tempo songs of the table as they are meant to narrate a story and are never danced.
The snake-like dance “Tsakonikos” (also known as the Dance of Theseus) is believed to date back to antiquity and signifies Theseus’ venture out of the Labyrinth. According to myth, Theseus and his companions danced the “Geranos” a similar dance in order to prepare for the feat.