Bringing a piece of wood to life

The door to his old workshop is always closed. The only sound that can be heard is of an old adze. “My rules are the law under this roof. No television, no news. Even smoking is prohibited. The mental state of an instrument manufacturer is the secret to his success. This art needs dedication. Nobody bothering you. Good will and patience. You need to talk to the instrument while you are working on it, sing to it.”

It all started by chance while he was working as a truck driver in Germany. “I found myself holding a piece of wood. I knocked on it, saw it was solid and thought to make a Cretan lyre out of it since I didn’t have one in my home in Munich. I used only a swiss knife and a small adze. Two days later, with the help of a carpenter, I had made my very first lyre. Of course at that time I had no knowledge on the subject and so had used wood from a pear and maple tree. The sound it made was barely audible”.

The second attempt came a few days later. “The carpenter who had helped me with the first attempt gave me some wood from an old torn down staircase in his house. That’s how it started!” The next step was taken by the musician Sigi Schwab, who introduced him to an instrument manufacturer. Mr. Stefanakis was put to the test for four weeks. “All my expenses were paid for, my absence from work was taken care of and my daily progress was closely watched. During the fourth week they announced that I the gift”.

He stayed in Munich to study. “At school I learned to distinguish wood. What sound it makes, how it can best perform, how you should carve it. Without theoretical knowledge, you cannot move forward. Unfortunately, most young individuals do not comprehend this. Even my son, a professional lyre player as well as an exceptional singer and musician, did not inherit the manufacturing gene”.

When he returned to his village, Kardamiana, through aquaintances and friends, he ensured wood of excellent quality. “I always had a bond with Germany. Even now I visit at least once a year. They have a different mentality there. They are professionals”. For 35 years, he was the only Greek who attended a musical instrument exhibition in Frankfurt. “I would sell 25-30 lyres and mandolins every time. I made quite a profit”.

His recognition came very quickly. He opened a workshop in Zaros, became renowned on the island and in only a few short years travelled throughout all of Greece with the Greek Female Lyceum and Dora Stratou’s assembly. “I travelled abroad as well. I will never forget a specific performance in Korea. The women of the assembly were dancing and I was playing music with a thiampoli”. A long stick, 10 centimetres long, which looks like a small pipe. “To the Koreans, it seemed impossible that such a small piece of wood could produce that kind of sound. They were impressed. I made approximately 300 in two days and sent them to Korea”.

Mr. Stefanakis takes out a thiampoli from his pocket and begins ‘whistling’ a Cretan tune. He closes his eyes and while tapping his right foot on the floor, keeps the rhythm. Next to him, on an old counter, lies a small blue notepad in which he keeps the names of all his customers from abroad. “I send them Christmas cards.” The walls in the workshop are adourned with awards and commemoratives from Cretan as well as foreign culutral associations in addition to the first two lyres he ever made. The second of the two lyres is ‘decorated’ with signatures of the top Cretan lyre players.

Among his old tools is a logbook with pictures of himself, taken by a photographer in Munich, with a phrase that seems to perfectly capture the essence of Mr. Stefanaki: “An artist. A profession in scarcity”.