Making music with tradition

The legendary tradition of instrument making in the Tsakirian family began in 1924 when Karolos' grandfather, Agop, emigrated from Turkey and opened his first shop in the mother city of rebetiko music, Piraeus

Music has healed me so many times both spiritually and physically. It was this love of mine for music, and the issues of displacement and migration, of a desperate search for a place in this one precious life we have been given, that laid foundations to the personal connection I felt when writing this article.

Karolos Tsakirian was born in Piraeus; as one of a long line of traditional instrument makers from Izmir (Σμύρνη); a family of Armenians from Asia Minor who settled in Greece after the destruction of Izmir.

As with all refugee families of that era, life never had certain continuity.

It was filled with finding the place of belonging in the new order of things while trying to settle in Greece; with migration – of his grandparents, his father and himself – to the promised land, the United States of America.

The only constant in a long and uncertain path to belonging of the family Tsakirian were traditional instruments that all the Tsakirian men have made through three generations.

I am sitting in Karolos’ shop in Aristotelous Street near Omonia, looking at the musical instruments and Karolos’ busy work bench.

Before we immerse in conversation, I think to myself how the music is and has been the most immediate form of art that mankind has to its advantage.
It has been used to heal, to praise, to convey love, to protest and to worship. It was through music and words that the Ancient Greeks discovered theatre.

The Tsakirians

Karolos is the third generation of luthiers in his family. His grandfather Agop Tsakirian was making instruments in Izmir, before migrating to Piraeus with his family in 1922 and setting up a shop in 1924.

His father Onnik Tsakirian moved the business to Athens in 1961. Onnik Tsakirian was considered one of the best luthiers of his time.

The legendary bouzouki player Manolis Chiotis played his instruments – including the famous black bouzouki Chiotis is playing in several Greek films of that time (1960s).

In 1970 Onnik moved to the USA, continuing his struggles to make a living and to be able to stay in America.

It was only when the Fender guitar makers employed him that he was able to get his green card, as he was considered to have special skills. Once he had the green card he moved to New York and set up shop in Astoria.

In 1973, young Karolos moved to New York to study and eventually learn his father’s trade.

In the meantime, Onnik’s wife was looking after the shop in Athens with the technician Gregory Kolosoglu.

After seventeen years in New York, Karolos returned to Athens, opening a bigger shop in Aristotelous Street next door to the original Athens shop.

“Why a luthier?” I ask.

“Passion and obsession,” replies Karolos, who is skilled in making zoura, bouzouki, baglama, laouto and classical guitar.

He himself plays guitar and bouzouki that he played professionally while in New York.

He has made instruments for famous people in Greece such as Babis Goles, Lucky Karnezi and Christos Nikolopoulos, to name just a few.

As a boy, he first started making the decorative designs on the bouzouki with black plastic, acrylic, mother of pearl, abalone shell and ivory.

The future of traditional instrument making is not that bright in Karolos’ eyes. He is realistic – he won’t be able to make decorative hand made versions for much longer.

“There is not much profit margin in these,” Karolos says, highlighting the countless hours of work that go into each piece.
“It is the more mass produced version that will prevail,” he says.

Karolos is more optimistic about young Greeks who are turning back to the traditional instruments, even going one step further.

They want the three string rebetiko version of the bouzouki. It was Manolis Chiotis who introduced the extra cord on the bouzouki and made it sound more like a guitar.

What about young Greeks embracing non-Greek music, I ask.

“There is beauty in all good music and especially for those that make music there is a great sense of fulfilment,” he tells me.

What about identity, with his family being Armenian, then Greek of US diaspora for many years?

Coming from a city as multicultural as Izmir, Karolos says there is no conflict with being a Greek Armenian and embracing the two – almost identical –
cultures. Even the old Smirneika (Σμυρνέϊκα) love songs talk about women of different ethnic backgrounds.

His extremely beautiful 23-year-old daughter, who goes by the exotic name of Veanous and who I meet at the shop, was born in New York and is now studying Philosophy of Science at Athens University.

With Veanous learning her father’s trade, it is likely that the next generation of Tsakirian luthiers will be female.

For more information and to see Karolos Tsakirian’s handmade instruments, visit www.tsakirianbouzouki.com