I left my village, Menetes in Karpathos, for the United States in 1969. Money in Greece at the time was scarce, and whoever could leave the country was considered lucky.
I guess I was one of the lucky ones. My family was sponsored by my uncle Michael Katogiritis to immigrate to the US. It was easier to go there since I had a relative. At that time, anywhere would have been a better choice than to stay back in Greece. There was an air of immigration then! The dictatorship and the problematic financial situation did not leave much in question.
There is so much I miss when I am not home: the culture, the Karpathian air, the view of the Aegean Sea, the Greek sun, and definitely my friends and family
I moved to the US out of necessity to create a better future, but I had to start from zero, and it was not easy at all. I was in a country where everything was foreign-the language, the culture, everything, and we were poor. To be honest, my first impression was not what I had expected. In our minds, the US was like a fantasy land! We did not expect to see poor, homeless people and buildings falling apart. It was disillusionment. We first stayed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, settled in the poorest neighbourhoods and had the lowest-paying jobs. We were not under the best of circumstances and were at the bottom of the US economic ladder.
This was disturbing, but we were ambitious. We never thought we would remain at that level. We had aspirations. Although we were at the bottom of the US social ladder, we did not mind, as we drew our social position from our village back home.
We mostly did not know how other Americans saw us. Coming from a very conservative background, we did not care to follow our surrounding customs. We considered them unacceptable and liberal for our accepted standards. Having the support of our compatriots was of utmost importance because it gave courage to everyone to continue and not feel inferior.
Unfortunately, the Greek community at the time was not flourishing. The new Greek immigrants had limited knowledge of English. My close friends and relatives that were there were very supportive. There was no financial support from anyone, but psychologically we felt well since none of our compatriots made us feel bad or unaccepted. We all knew each other and thought we were temporarily in our low financial station until we found our way to the new country and, most importantly, learned the English language!
With extremely few exceptions, people would easily lend money to their friends and with old-world word-of-mouth promise, the money was returned in full with just a sincere “Thank you.” It was a gentlemen’s agreement with no lawyers involved. At that time, the person’s face was the guarantor! Each person knew that reneging on a promise would put them in the lowest social position with no chance of ascending from there! For the duration of his life and his children’s, he would be reminded of the transgression! Such is not the case nowadays, of course! We knew what everyone was going through- coming to a foreign country- so we supported each other to the best of our abilities.
The biggest challenge for me was understanding the different cultures and becoming a part of them. We were isolated in our little world, like in a capsule. I left Greece without knowing any English. Everything seemed too foreign to me. Not knowing the language was very difficult and that determined the kind of jobs that I could have. I tried working as a tile setter as soon as I arrived in the US, but being unable to communicate made it hard. Also, I missed my family and country every day. Learning how to cope with those emotions was very hard. Another challenge I experienced was borrowing money and starting my own business at 22 years old, when, after working as a dishwasher, I ended up owning a restaurant. It was a big step for me and required a lot of courage.
What I liked most about the US is that it gives anyone with the will to succeed the opportunity to do so. You can create a life and go ahead. Some rules are followed for the most part, which has always given me the feeling that there is justice.
For the last 29 years, I have spent half the year in the US (March-September) and half the year in Karpathos (September-March). Spending half the year in Karpathos allows me the time to dedicate myself to my beloved hobby of making traditional Karpathian lyras. I have always had an interest in traditional music. I particularly enjoyed the sound of Karpathian music and more specifically, that of the traditional Karpathian lyra. The sound of the instrument is unique. It was always in the back of my mind that I would like to learn more about this particular instrument.
In 1989, I finally had free time that I could use to dive into the world of traditional music by experimenting and learning how to make the lyra. I made my first ever lyra entirely on my own. It had many imperfections, for sure! The process was one of trial and error, initially. Following that, I read many books, took the advice of many dear friends and created more lyras that year. Over the following years, I had the opportunity of experimenting even more by trying different kinds of wood. I recorded the sound of each lyra, paying attention to the differences in sound that each wood produced.
I always say that every time I work on an instrument, I aim to make it sound better than the previous lyra. This is what keeps my interest alive. I am trying to find the perfect sound. However, I believe the perfect sound cannot be achieved if you think about it, as there is always something better we can do to perfect an instrument.
I found the wood for my lyras from old Karpathian abandoned homes, which had durable wood used as beams or roof supports. However, not much can be found anymore, as it has mostly rotted in the fallen debris. I also buy wood from excellent sources specifically for musical instruments, but I prefer the old wood I find on Karpathos. When I first started, I could not identify all the available wood types of the island, but now I understand what can be found here and what sort of sound each type of wood will produce. The main types of wood I use now are cypress, walnut, berry, olive, wild olive, wild pear, rosewood, curly maple and cedar trees.
For the top of the instrument, I use a particular wood called “Katrani” (κατράνι), which was imported to Karpathos from Asia Minor about 100 years ago. This wood allows the instrument to produce an exceptional sound.
The music sound does not have a formula. You cannot say, "I will create an instrument that will have the exact same sound as the previous one”. There are so many parameters that can change the type of sound that a musical instrument can create, such as the wood density, thickness of the instrument, how soft the wood is, how you carve it, the type and age of wood, where the tree was planted (was there humidity, wind etc.). With experience, I’ve learned to see in which direction to take each piece of wood. Whether, for example, it is high pitched, it has a lot of vibration, or it is melodic. I am in a constant process of experimentation.
After all these years, it takes me about one week to carve a single lyra, and after that, it takes some additional time to varnish it and let it dry and settle. I now make about 20 lyras every year during the time that I am in Karpathos.
I display my lyras in my cottage. Creating these instruments has been my passion for the last 30 years. I have gifted many of the instruments I have made to young people and kids who have a sincere interest in keeping the Karpathian music tradition alive and love the island. I estimate that I have gifted over 150 lyras. I have been asked many times if I sell the lyras, but money was never the driving force behind my hobby! I have sold very few lyras to people who care about the instrument and can appreciate its sound. I do not gift lyras if someone asks for a free lyra.
While on the island, I have many friends who visit me daily. Most of them are remarkable traditional lyra players. We have a good time testing my instruments with the accompaniment of the lute, recording the sounds and the music and just spending time together. It is almost as if we have small daily music feasts!
I would like to see more young people becoming involved in learning and creating this instrument so that the special sound of the lyra and the Karpathian melodies are not lost.
I love Karpathos. My family and friends are there and all the traditions that I love. I miss so much when I am not home: the culture, the Karpathian air, the view of the Aegean Sea, the Greek sun, and my friends and family.
I also love the US. I have a great love and admiration for this country where I spent most of my life, which has given me all the opportunities to make a better life for myself and my family. I was supposed to initially stay in the US for five years to become rich and return to Karpathos. I have reached 50 years in the US and am still here.
To learn more about George’s lyras and Karpathian music, visit his website his Facebook page facebook.com/karpathianlyras