Musician, singer, songwriter George Karantonis: The remarkable story of Australia’s Greek Son

By 6 months ago

George Karantonis is perhaps better known as a designer, marketer and brand specialist, helping some of the world’s biggest brands with their commercial image.

Founder and creative director of Image Smart, his agency has been recognised with numerous global awards including the prestigious Australian Pacific (APAC) Best Branding Agency.

“Although we have worked closely with larger, brands including the likes of Gruppo Campari who own Aperol, Cinzano, Wild Turkey, Frangelico and other well-known brands, Sara Lee, Gate Gourmet, Marriot etc., it is the local Greek businesses that I get a real kick out of helping the most,” George said.

George has branded, helped start-up and build the commercial image of many Greek businesses in the Food and Beverage industry.  Businesses like Alevri, Stix and Pita, The Good Filo, Tella Balls Dessert Bar, Zeus Street Greek, to name just a few, as well as many in the FMCG, Retail and Blue-Chip markets.

“I enjoy helping fellow Australian born Greeks bring their dreams to life.  I like it when I see them excel and I really love it when they succeed!” George told GCT.

“I feel that we all need to help each other so that as a community we keep raising the bar and setting the new standard!  Greek migrants have contributed to so much here in Australia and I feel that we have a duty of care and responsibility to them, to ensure we, their children do the same.  It’s a matter of pride and principal!” George passionately exclaimed.

Helping to raise money for the less fortunate

George is also the long-standing Secretary of the Kalymnian Association of NSW, an organisation established in 1954, where the baton has been passed down from generations past to this generation’s capable hands.  The Kalymnian Association of NSW exists to help keep the small island’s culture, traditions and history alive with the main emphasis being on Greece’s future.

Helping raise money for the less fortunate, contributing to the arts, science and technology, The Kalymnian Association of NSW is led by a group of volunteers who are simply trying to make a difference to the Hellenic people who need it most.

“It is something we should all consider doing – getting involved with your local association, your local parish, or with your local charity and give back.” George said.

“It’s a huge commitment which no one takes lightly, but we all find very rewarding, especially when we know our hard work is making a difference… even if it’s just a small difference.”

So, while George Karantonis may not be a new name to the Greek scene here in Australia and abroad, it is due to his unwavering commitment to the Greek Australian culture through his contribution to Greek music that we today are acknowledging him.

A true appreciation of his Hellenic roots

Greek was the language spoken in the family home and attending Greek school was a must for George and his older brothers, Peter and Frank.  It was important to his mother Eftihia and his late father Yianni, that the Greek language, religion, traditions, history and culture remained alive in their children and that their children had a true appreciation of their Hellenic roots.

“I was a blonde haired, blue eyed, fair skinned, Aussie looking kid, but was never allowed to feel Australian back then, with the whole ‘wog’ thing going on.” George said., “and the odd thing about being born and raised here, despite my Greek heritage, is that when I would speak to the relatives in Greece, they would refer to me as the ‘Aussie’ cousin.”

George explained, “Due to this lack of sense of belonging, I turned to poetry and music, mainly to vent and to express my emotions, clear my mind and try to make sense of who I was and where I belonged.”

Self-taught musician and songwriter from age 7

George turned to the guitar aged 7, and began to write music, lyrics and poetry, all completely self-taught.

He wrote a song called “Pantou Xenos”, meaning “A stranger everywhere”.  George was just 14 years old when he wrote this song.  It talks about George’s discovery of a certain perceived hypocrisy of ethnicity versus nationality.

George sings “Pantou Xenos” in the first person and explains how he didn’t feel as though he belonged entirely to his motherland, Greece, nor to his homeland, Australia, and therefore settled on becoming a bridge between the two.

A line from this song reads, “Xenos ekei, xenos kai edo, patrida nisi, to yiofiri ego.”  A truly remarkable piece of music and lyrics to match, especially for a child so young at the time, and we hope one day you will all be able to hear it at one of George’s future performances.

George formed his first band at 14 years of age and managed to play a few gigs as well as perform at school gala nights and concerts.

Wanting to pursue a career in music, George’s music teacher at Endeavour High School, the high school he attended, encouraged George to apply for a scholarship in years 11 and 12, at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

George, led by his music teacher Ms Davies, was accepted, however George’s parents did not agree to allow George to attend this prestigious school, as they felt this would take away his focus from what they considered to be more important subjects like Maths, English, Science etc.

Much to George’s disappointment, George then made a promise to himself that he would spend his every spare waking moment learning more about music and becoming the most accomplished musician he could be, even if it was never going to eventuate into being anything more than just a hobby.

Of Moda Blue fame

In his early twenties, George took advantage of his passion for the Greek language as well as Greek music and formed his first Greek band with two brother’s and musical prodigies, George and Nick Voulgaris.  The band was called Moda Blue.  By this stage, George had over 100 original compositions in Greek and English.

Moda Blue were a concert band.  The permanent band members grew with Ross Savvas on drums, George Velenik on percussion, Dale Lochley on bass, George Kulevski on clarinet and saxophone, Harley Economou on keys and back-up vocals, and later the band developed further with Sam Kalos on bass guitar and James Spy on percussion.

The band released two CD’s where the latter self-titled release went gold in Cyprus.

The music was considered a little bit laiko, a little bit entehno, a little bit hitzaz, a little bit flamenco, a little bit rock and a little bit blues – one thing’s for sure, the music was ahead of its time.  Playing at venues like Enmore Theatre, Tom Mann Theatre, Science Theatre at UNSW, City Recital Hall, Sydney Town Hall, Sydney Entertainment Centre and even at the Sydney Opera House, among many other venues, Moda Blue was fast becoming a household name among the Greek Australian youth and parents alike.

Moda Blue had a great fan base all over Australia and beyond, in the 90’s until 2005 when they played their last gig at Paddington Town Hall to what were sell-out crowds at every performance, and all at a time where social media hadn’t even been thought of yet.

It was through George’s expertise in marketing, advertising and promotion that the band gathered momentum and became a huge success, but George puts it mainly down to the music and the musicianship.

“We were also managed by VGM Music and Event Management’s Vivienne Gemenis.  She was an integral member of the band as she worked tirelessly in finding us gigs and sponsors.  A musician herself, she was our biggest advocate.”  George said.

“We did TV appearances, performed live on Harry Michael’s variety show back then, a lot of radio interviews and live radio performances and our songs were being played in restaurants, cafes and even in clubs,” George told GCT.

“And as far as the band goes, we all still remain great friends.  We didn’t split, in case you’re wondering.  There were no fallouts… it was just life at that time.”

“Some of us were getting married, others were having children, with the need to focus on careers etc.  It was time for a break after 10 years of what were arguably the best years of our lives,” George said.

Opening ceremony performance at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000

George, during that time was invited to join the Millennium Heritage Choir to perform at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 and mesmerised millions of viewers world-wide with his performance of “Tis Dikeosinis Ilie Noite” by Mikis Theodorakis at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Paralympics, backed by the 200 voices strong Millennium Heritage Choir, conducted by the highly acclaimed George Ellis.

Watch a snippet of that performance here:

“Work took up a lot of my time, as I was eagerly trying to establish myself in what is a very cut-throat profession.  I was studying, working, going to band practise, performing and it was very difficult to find a little ‘me’ time.” George explains.

“I was very hesitant to join the Millenium Heritage Choir for these reasons, but I am glad I did, as it was there where I formed some of the most beautiful friendships,”  said George.

“It was also there where I met the love of my life, my wife Irene, who was singing in the Soprano section of the choir.  We immediately hit it off and the rest, well, as they say, is history.”

George Karantonis composes ‘Australia’ at the request of late Archbishop Stylianos

George at that time was approached by the late Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia, His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos, to set music to a poem he had written in 1975 of his first impressions of Australia, aptly titled “Australia”.

“When I received the invitation to meet with the late Archbishop, His Eminence Stylianos, I was shocked to say the least.” George said. “I could not believe that he had singled me out of the plethora of much better musicians available to him at the time,” George said.

George remembers his meeting with the late Archbishop well and remembers how the conversation went, almost verbatim.

“His Eminence said he was looking for a great musician to put music to one his most beloved poems, and I stopped him right there.  I respectfully pulled him up on his choice of words, denoting “great” as the word I was grappling to accept.”

“I explained that I’m not great at all, and he in turn stopped me mid-sentence and said, – “This is exactly why you are the person for the job.  This poem requires humility, and your humble response is the reason you’re here.” – He then continued to share his thoughts about his take on the person he believed me to be.”

“I will hold his words dearly in my heart and will continue to use them as my inspiration in all my future endeavours.”  George said.

“I picked up the guitar and sat in front of my piano that very night and I wrote the song within an hour.  It all just flowed so naturally.  It did not feel forced and I can honestly say that although I was alone in my room, I felt I had a choir of angels all around me, helping me turn this beautifully written poem into a simple, melodic and beautifully written song,” George explains.

“I got back in touch with His Eminence the very next day and explained that I was ready to play it for him.”

“He came to St Spyridon Church hall in Kingsford, straight after one of the choir’s Monday night rehearsals to listen to it.  I stared at the finger board of my guitar the whole time, too nervous to look up, as I played and sang the song the best that I could.  When I finished, I finally looked up at His Eminence and I saw a big gleaming smile and tears welling in his eyes,”

“It was at that time that I knew I did an OK job for him,”  George recalls.

George went on to perform “Australia” at Concert 2000, with his band Moda Blue and were backed by the Millennium Heritage Choir at the Sydney Town Hall, with the late Archbishop present. You can watch this performance here:

George performs Greek Anthem as part of 200th Greek Independence Day celebrations

More recently, this year in fact, on 25 March 2021, George was invited to perform the longest version of the Greek National Anthem ever performed here in Australia, among other songs like “Saranta Palikaria” and “Mpikan Stin Poli oi Ohthroi”, as part of the 200 years commemorative celebrations of modern Greece’s freedom and independence from the Ottomans.

With fellow singer and long-time friend who also performed by George’s side at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Paralympics, Maria Yiakouli. and fresh new local talent Leon Vitogiannis backed by a perfectly appointed symphony orchestra conducted by George Ellis, the thousands in attendance were mesmerised and the Hellenic spirit shown was truly breathtaking.

“After not having performed properly in many years, the dynamic this time round was very different.  Yes, I had the usual fanbase with me, being my wife, my brothers, sister-in-laws, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, friends and other members of my extended family, but this time the most special part for me, apart from the selection of songs I sang, was having my two beautiful children there.

“My daughter Valantia and my son John, who after the concert hugged me tightly and told me that they were very proud of me.  It was the best feeling in the world,” George said.

Watch George’s powerful performances and listen to his smooth and theatrical voice here:

Video credit: The Greek Festival of Sydney

George Karantonis performs live on 14th May, 2021 at the City Recital Hall, Sydney

George will be performing again at the City Recital Hall in Sydney, sharing the stage with the famous and revered Greek singer Dimitris Basis, on the 14th of May, 2021.

You can also catch George as the Exhibition Director, printer, designer and copy writer of The Evzones Collection by Nick Bourdaniotis, a photographic exhibition that is touring all over Australia, showcasing the Greek Presidential Guard in a way that has never been seen before.

For more details on this please visit www.greece2021.com.au/evzones

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Greek CIty Times 2021
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Greek CIty Times 2021