A Guide to Traditional Arts in Queens ,1991 Edited By Queen Council of the Arts, written by Amanda Dargan
GREEK INSTRUMENT MAKER
“After my father died, I came back to finish some instruments. I had to finish them. For one thing, I needed the money. So I finished them and all of a sudden I way in love. I guess the thing I was missing was the responsibility of doing it all myself. I wish I had known this all along.»
The N subway train, which runs along the elevated tracks above 31st Street in Queens, will bring you to Greek Astoria, where a proliferation of Greek-language signs-TAVERNA, KAFFENION («coffee shop»), and ZAXAROPLASTEION («pastry shop»), advertise neighborhood eateries. Local residents enjoy such delicacies as avgolemona (egg-lemon soup), a variety of roasted lamb dishes, the crescent-shaped kourabiedes cookies, and thick black coffee.
If you get off the train at the 30th Avenue station and walk a few short blocks east towards Steinway, you will arrive at the workshop of instrument maker Karolos Tsakirian.The small workshop is filled with Greek instruments in various stages of construction. Bouzoukis, ouds, and two smaller instruments in the oud family, tzouras and baglamas, hang from the walls along with templates designed by Karolos’s father Nick for the decorative inlays used on the face of the instruments.
Photographs of famous Greek musicians holding Nick Tsakirian’s instruments line the walls. Karolos is the third generation of instrument makers in his family. His grand-father, Agop, moved to Greece from Turkey when he was fourteen and eventually opened an instrument shop in Piraeus, near Athens. He taught his son Nick who joined him in the business, and who eventually, opened his own shop in Athens. At the of fourteen, Karolos began working full time in his father’s shop while attending high school at night.
Nick immigrated the United States in 1974, and Karolos followed in 1977, helping in the workshop father had opened in Astoria and studying accounting at night. He had mixed feelings about the often lonely occupation of instrument making. He got impatient “waiting for the glue to dry» and dreamed of opening a musical accessories store.Nick Tsakirian died in 1984.Not long afterwards, Karolos returned to the shop to complete a few outstanding orders and to begin the process of closing down the shop. «After my father died,» he said, «I came back to finish some instruments. I had to finish them. For one thing, I needed the money. So I finished them and all of a sudden I was in love. I guess the thing I was missing was the responsibility of doing it all myself. I wish I had known this all along.
The shop did not close. Karolos perfected his skills, and began selling his own instruments not only to Greek and Middle Eastern musicians, his biggest clients, but also to Irish musicians who have begun to incorporate bouzoukis into their music. He still owns his father’s shop in Athens, which his mother manages, and continues to fill orders there as well. Asked how he viewed the future of the business, Karolos replied: «If you are good at something, you can always make a living. I’ll never make millions doing this, but that was never my goal. It’s a very fulfilling kind of work. I can’t think of myself doing anything else.
30-08 34th STREET ASTORIA, QUEENS
Athens News Friday 4 November 1994 By Angelika Timms
«Karolos Tsakirian continues family tradition of making Greek musical instruments»
IN THE HEART of what used to be the red-light district – but is now rapidly becoming part of Athens” bustling commercial center – one can find Karolos Tsakirian. hard at work in his late father’s business, crafting traditional Creek stringed instruments.
Born in Greece of Armenian parents. Karolos is the third generation of instrument makers in his family. His grandfather Agop , moved to Greece from Turkey when he was fourteen and later opened an instrument store in Piraeus. He handed down the fine art to his son Nick, who eventually opened his own business near Vathis Square – its present location – in 1960.
Naturally, he wanted his son to carry on the family tradition, so when Karolos turned 15, he urged him to work in the store by day and continue his schooling at evening classes.
In 1974, Nick emigrated to the United States, with the aim of setting up business there, leaving his wife to manage the store, where Karolos assisted an elderly, but skilled employee.
It wasn’t until after Karolos followed his father to New York in 1977 that he finally began to take a real interest in making the instruments – but not before he had explored the possibility of other professions. His architecture studies at the New York City Community College were abandoned in favor of marketing at Baruch College, but this course was also left unfinished when his father died in 1983.
«During that period I was working in my father’s business during the day and studying at night, » he says. «I had begun to learn to actually in make the instruments, but I really didn’t like the work until after my father died. Then, quite suddenly, I fell in love with it. I guess I enjoyed the responsibility of being in , charge; of doing it all myself.»
His customers in New York were not only Greek and Middle Eastern, but also included Irish musicians, who were incorporating the bouzouki sound into their own music.
The bouzouki, he explains, is usually made of dyed or natural walnut, but ebony, rosewood or maple are also occasionally used, according to client preference. Customers should also specify what particular sound they want: sharp, bass or medium – the latter being the most difficult. This in turn effects the thickness of the face and the neck angle.
The back is bent on a hot iron in small strips, which are then Joined with veneer, and the she]] is lined. After the neck is made and joined to the back, the face is added.
Simple or highly elaborate designs on the face can be produced from either plastic or mother-of- earl, according to taste – and pocket. Mother-of-pearl is around 50,000-100,000 drachmas more expensive. Most of the designs were created by Nick, but Karolos has since added some of his own.
Following placement of the frets, the instrument is sanded and polished approximately 50 times. The addition of a bridge and strings complete the handwork.
Fine tuning and adjusting is now of prime importance. «You don’t have to be a musician to make a musical instrument» points out Karolos, «but it helps a lot, because you can really understand musicians concerns. Personally, I never studied music formally, but I learnt to play the guitar and bouzouki by ear. In fact, I used to play professionally in New York. I enjoyed it, but not as much as actually making a musical instrument.»
The very simplest hand-made bouzouki costs about 300,000 drachmas, in comparison to 40,000 drachmas for the cheapest factory-made version. A instrument takes him a minimum working days to complete – which a two-month wait for the client. fancier instrument, customers should be prepared to receive the finished product least three months after ordering.
Working entirely alone, Karolos in between 12 and 20 instruments every year. «My clientele is fairly regular, explains, «because musicians like changing their instruments and enjoy trying something new. Some even buy a one every 2-3 years and keep a personal ,collection.»
In March last year. they returned to Athens, where his mother had been taking care of the family business – dealing at that time mainly with repairs. He rented the adjoining space, which had once been a prostitute’s quarters. and expanded the business, relying on advertising by word of mouth.
«I’m very happy here,» he says now. «Business is getting better every year. In Greece we have the largest “group of people who like traditional music. Even rock musicians are usually involved in some way with Greek music, or enjoy listening to it.
«There are other similar businesses here in Athens but I believe that if you’re good at something, there’s always room for you. Also, out of the approximately 100 instrument makers. I’m the only one that works as a dealer, apart from making and repairing.»
His store stocks all kinds of accessories for string instruments plus amplifiers, record players, tuning machines and other assorted musical items. He also deals in selected small and second-hand instruments.
Of the instruments he crafts – bolizouki, tzouras, classical guitar, oud and baglamas – Karolos prefers the bouzouki and guitar, «because it is more challenging and difficult to make them have a very good sound.»
«It’s definitely an art to be able to bring the maximum out of every instrument. This is why most of my creative work is done after 2pm, so I can concentrate. It’s a very precise art: for example, if you make a mistake of more than 3mm, it’s extremely hard to correct.»
«It is the greatest pleasure for me to create a musical instrument out of an inanimate object; I would never want to do any other kind of work. Each instrument is quite unique, with its own character and own sound.»
Karolos Tsakirian, Instrument Maker, 3-5 Aristotelous Street, Vathis Square. Telephone 524-0017 or 522-0407. Opening hours: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays 9.30am – 9pm; Mondays, Wednesdays 9.30am- 6pm; Saturdays 9.30am-4.30pm.