Interview with Vasileios Papadopoulos, Pontian Lyra player (En)

(06. 21. 2020, made by Ellen Moysan through Skype; transcribed and edited by Joel & Dana Boyer)


Interviewer: Ellen Moysan

Interviewee: Vasileios Papadopoulos, Pontian lyra teacher, luthier, and owner of Kokkimelon, a Pontian lyra workshop in Ptolemaida, Greece.


EM: My first question is always the same: What do you understand by the expression of inner song or of inner music?

VP: The feeling for all musicians is the same. It’s something that we have inside and it takes some time to explore as we grow up. In my position, I can say that I didn’t notice this in my childhood but only after some years. I started to play piano when I was ten years old. I started with piano and guitar, but even before that, I started with the Pontian lyra. I became aware of this just after I might be eighteen years old. In the last decade I noticed it completely, bringing it along the construction and performance of this instrument.

EM: I started this research because I began cello when I was nine years old and it took me until I was sixteen to eighteen years old to realize that I had something in me and that this was what I was supposed to play.

VP: Basically, neither my parents nor my teachers discovered I had talent. I am an engineer, and I did research in sound engineering, later on I got a masters’s degree and MBA. I had worked as an engineer before I founded Kokkimelon and started to construct the lyra. None of my teachers realized that I was able to do all these. I had wasted a lot of time (reinvent the wheel) because, if someone had noticed that in the very beginning, I would have covered a distance more quickly and done more successful, but I feel quite efficient because I realized it on my own and I continued with it.

EM: That’s exactly my experience. My second teacher who was from Russia told me “You can sing very well, you have a good ear, but when you play it lacks expression. Sing in your head and then play.” I started to do that and the change was so huge that I thought it’s very important to listen to what is inside because that’s what makes playing an instrument musical. I decided to interview musicians to see if it’s always the case that it’s the most important thing to listen to what you have here and to create this kind of identity where I play what I hear here. And when I practice and rehearse I’m trying to catch this and express it with my instrument. It’s amazing because if I think the note before playing it, it’s more attuned and rhythmic. So how did you become aware of that? You said you have practiced the Pontian lyra since you were a kid, so, first, how did you learn Pontian lyra, and then how did you become aware that you had this music inside?

VP:  We have Pontian lyra tradition, in other saying in Turkish kemence originated from Pontian roots in our family.


(Here is where the community is originally from)

Basically, Pontian lyra is based on the ancient lyra which is the father of other stringed instruments like the violin. My grandfather came from Pontos, a village of Sarikamis from the area of Kars. He was born there. In 1923, they came to Greece as refugees because of the Population Exchange between Greece and Turkey. When I was eight years old, my grandfather went to a monastery of Panagia Soumela bought and gifted me a miniature which is about 15cm and I still keep it.


(Monastery Panagia Soumela)

I told him I wanted a bigger one so I could learn. Afterwards he gifted me a real one and I started to learn it as a piece of our tradition. That’s why I started, not because I heard some sounds and liked them but because of my environment.

For the first three years I went to an old man who was teaching the lyra. There were around twenty or twenty five children all in a big room and we were all playing together. It was a mess of sounds. I think this experience did one good thing for me. We were all together in a room making sounds, but my ear was activated because of that because I was trying to hear my instrument while I was hearing all the other sounds. This was a good thing for me. That’s why I started to learn. But my level, when I left that situation after three years, was not good. After that, I was on my own. No one taught me. I have been self taught as the same in instrument construction. I had no one to show me or teach me how to construct a lyra, how to glue or cut the wood or use the tools. I did all on my own.

EM: So you learned by ear? You never learned to read music? What do you think it creates in your imagination to learn without a score? I come from a classical background and in classical music we learn with a score. After a while, I started to search for a connection with my instrument so I started to play along with YouTube. I put on some jazz music and started to develop my ear. With classical musicians, we are very often stuck with the score and we don’t have this connection with the insides because we are busy with reading the score. So what do you think happens when you learn by ear? Do you learn by copying how people play? How do you learn when there is nothing to look at? You don’t hear the name of the notes, right?

VP: When I was ten years old I went to learn the electric keyboard, I went to a school for two years when I was nine and ten at the same time the lyra. I became aware that I liked the songs but I didn’t like to read musical notes. Everyone in class could read except me. I had it in my mind, and I even recorded on tapes. When our teacher said “Vasileios, show me what you’ve done this week.” I said okay and I started to play. I played well, like the others, but I didn’t read from what was in front of me. Thus, I realized that I don’t like reading music but I had it in my mind. After that I stopped with the electronic piano and I attended to a piano school. But the two or three times I joined the class, I realized that reading is essential and I realized that music is not just reading and performing for me but it’s somewhere in the middle. That was reading and playing without unique expression. Soloists put something from their own, their own expression, inside the partitur. Of course they read and they know the partitur but at the same time they put feeling into every single note. If your ear is experienced, you can hear that they put expression in every note. And I would like to close my answer with that, I was able to hear something more and to try to play it. The Pontian lyra has no partiturs but it is based on exploration and improvisation. There are things from your mind. With Pontian lyra, we can write music in the pentagram, but it may take many years to write down the techniques needed for developing and improving the instruments as deserved.

EM: I come from Brittany which is the western part of France where there is Celtic music. It’s a Celtic culture with a lot of folk music. And in this area, in order not to lose the tradition, they started to record the songs and collect them. So we have collections of songs that are from the different areas and villages of Brittany. Nobody did that for the Pontian lyra?

VP: When was the first recording?

EM: I think they started to collect them in the nineteenth century. So pretty late. They have done this more in recent years.

VP: We have these songs from the past. Of course.

EM: Are there books?

VP: No, no, it’s not books. It’s old tapes. I listened to them on the tapes and then I practiced and learned them.

EM: So the Pontian lyra went from this little place in Turkey to Greece and many other places because the Pontian Greeks when to Russia, Greece, and many other places, right?

VP: In 1923, the people, two million or more, came to Greece. So they brought the sounds here to Greece—in specific areas. This area, and the villages around, this is the center.


(Ptolemaida, Greece)

EM: So would you say that the Pontian lyra is for the Pontian Greeks as the duduk is for the Armenians for example? Is it a symbol for this specific culture or is it just a random instrument?

VP: For our tradition, the Pontian lyra is a symbol. Everyone wants a Pontian lyra on the wall of their house to remind them of their roots.


(Vassileios in his shop with his beautiful artwork in the background)

EM: Would you say it is an instrument related more to the popular culture or to the religious culture? Are there religious songs related to Church activities?

VP: It’s a difficult question. Many of my students, seventy or eighty percent are very religious. And they always speak of religion. I connect the Pontian lyra with religion. Yes. It is popular with non-religious or semi-religious people, but with religious people it is more highly important. They have the trio of God, family, and tradition. They connect these three things.

EM: But it’s not a liturgical instrument, an instrument made for Church?

VP: No, it’s not. Definitely not. It is not connected so much with religion. I am just saying that the religious people value it usually very highly.

EM: So the songs that you learn are from the culture, they are not religious songs? They are not liturgical songs?

VP: No. Some lyrics are religious, but not many.

EM: So is it related to dance?

VP: The Pontian lyra is connected with dance. In between dances we have some songs that are not for dance. But for all the other songs, you can dance. We have many kinds of dances that are completely different.

(Sera dance)

EM: What changes in between different dances? The rhythm mostly?

VP: Yes, it is the tempo. But many things change—how you perform on the instrument.

(Kotsari dance)

EM: When you play, do you think about the dancer?

VP: Of course. I have to feel the rhythm of the dance while I perform.

(Seranitsa, then tik dance)

EM: So you try to feel the dance yourself, right?

VP: Exactly. When you play and they dance, you have this feedback with the dancers. It’s a system that  works because it is all connected. We also have a singer.

(dipat dance)

EM: Always?

VP: Not for all dances, but for fifty percent. And when I play and they dance, I can feel their beat. And sometimes I can increase my tempo to interact with them.

(Omal dance)

EM: So you adjust to the dancer.

VP: Exactly. Of course I give my tempo, but I adjust. If I see that the dancers are not good dancers, for example, I will take it slowly. If I see they are good dancers, I will increase and they will be happier.

EM: So you impact the mood of the dancer by the way you play?

VP: Exactly. And when I perform I look to the dancers. The first dancers give the rhythm, the tempo, to the others. And I look at what they do to see if they are getting bored or are happy.

EM: So is it usually you, a singer, and the dancers? Or are there other instruments with you?

VP: We have a davul. It’s a percussion instrument. And many times we have an electronic device which also plays some things.


EM: So it’s like a trio?

VP: Four. The ideal is four.

EM: Okay, four: the piano, the singer, the davul, and the Pontian lyra?

VP: Yes, but of course it is okay with three: singer, Pontian lyra, and davul.

EM: So is the leading instrument the singer or the pontian lyra?

VP: That’s a good question. I think it’s the singer, but it’s very close to the Pontian lyra. If the Pontian lyra player is not very good, the singer cannot perform very well because they are very connected.

EM: So when you play a song, is it the case that you first play the tune and then each of you improvises? Like in jazz for example, they play together and then each musician does a solo. Do you pass on the role like this or is it always all together?

VP: The Pontian lyra is the basic instrument. All the others are accompanying. I do solos. But sometimes, as I will, I can give a solo to the percussion, and I can give a solo to the electronic keyboard player. I do this one or two times but not in every song. But as the Pontian lyra player, I can do as many solos as I want. I am the maestro. And sometimes we change rhythms. I can change the tempo. I do this when I want. That’s why I watch the dancers all the time. The percussion and the electronic keyboard must follow me.

EM: You don’t just play the tune, you say you invent things: you play around the tune. So how did you learn to improvise? You learned songs, but improvising is inventing something new? You need a certain degree of technique, you cannot do that from the very beginning. Some classical musicians who are excellent musicians don’t know how to improvise. Those are two different skills. So how did you learn to improvise? Did you learn by repeating things over and over again, and then changing them a little bit? Or did you learn solos from other people?

VP: Of course I studied other people’s solos—many, many of them. But improvising is not so easy because improvising is having many sounds. You must listen to many kinds of music in your mind. You must be efficient and clever and do something new. Of course, I know many solos, but if I want to improvise, I must put other sounds in the song from other instruments.

EM: Yes, it comes from your imagination. I mean, you need to have a lot in your imagination. So do you think that the older you are, the better you can improvise?

VP: I think it’s about experience, and musical apprehension.

EM: So, it depends on how you catch things and on the technique as well?

VP: If you have technique and you cannot improvise, it’s a waste of time. If you have musical apprehension inside you and you can understand what’s happening, you can work on technique. It comes from what’s inside you and from your musical awareness, and years of experience, and how you catch music inside your mind.

EM: From your creativity, and freedom, maybe.

VP: It’s many things. You can work on technique. If I stop playing Pontian lyra, I can pick up another instrument and work on technique. But if I cannot catch the music inside, I will never be a good musician.

EM: So you need a good receptivity?

VP: Exactly.

EM: So did you travel to where your family is from, just to see how it is and what the natural environment and the villages look like? Or have you never been to this area of the Black Sea?

VP: This is my next thing. I was ready to do it this year but things with COVID took place and I cannot. I think next year I will. But things change there. Things are changing very much because of Turkey’s politics. And Turkey was always like that, but the last twenty years things have become worse. Turkey takes religious things more seriously. I am not the most religious person, I must confess, but we accept others. They don’t accept us and don’t like us. If I go, I don’t know what I will see.

EM: This instrument is related to this culture but it’s also related to a specific area, so I imagine that with this in your mind and your imagination, you have a different connection with your instrument maybe.

VP: This is the main reason why I want to go. This is the area where my grandfathers and grandmothers were born. I want to perform in the area where they were born.

EM: Was your family a musical family?

VP: No, no one was interested in music so much. My grandfather’s brother played. And I have old tapes. Next year, I will take them to the studio and record them. He was very good. I have his instrument which is eighty or ninety years old.

EM: My grandfather played the cello. So, for me, playing the cello is related to him because I liked hearing the sound of his cello and I kind of fell in love with the cello through him. So were you attracted by the sound of the lyra and it caught you this way? Do you have an affection for this instrument because you love the sound, or because it speaks to you? I think that when we pick up an instrument it is because we are attracted to it with our hearts. So I’m asking you if the Pontian lyra speaks to your heart.

VP: Pontian lyra has all this history behind it. It is connected with the millions of people who were refugees, whose houses were burned and whose women were raped. I am not playing because my grandfather sang or his brother performed. I perform because it is a family thing and because it is beyond only us hearing notes. Do you understand what I mean?

EM: It’s because you want to be part of the culture?

VP: Exactly. I want to continue this culture. I want to improve it. Not because I want to make money from constructing instruments or teaching. It’s about a family thing. It’s thousands of families.

EM: Yes, you make it alive.

VP: So the answer is complicated, there are many things that I feel when I play. I remember sitting in my chair, I remember my grandfather’s words, my father’s words, when I was young and I was learning the Pontian lyra, I remember the stories of my grandfather, and many things related with.

EM: Why did you start making the instrument?

VP: When I was at university in my last year, I spent six months with a sound engineer as a project. I was glad to deal with sound. And I started to research instruments. I was dealing with microphones, studios, and everything. I started to learn about the acoustics of stringed instruments. When I finished university I was working as an engineer and one evening I said “I will construct an instrument.” That’s how it started. I constructed my instrument. I was very delighted. I said “Wow, I constructed an instrument. Whether it works, we will see, but if I can perform on it I will see if it is good or if it is scrap.” I was able to perform on it. The third instrument I created was very okay. I said to myself “Something is happening here. Construct more.” I built a very small work shop of two meters by two meters. Then I sold my first instrument, and my second, then I sold my third, so I said I want to have a workshop that will be the best in the world in order to prove how much a unique instrument the lyra is. There were many luthiers but I thought those did not carry the Pontian lyra to the point it deserves and I wanted to be the one.


(Vasileios’s signature on the instrument)

After university I began to read very much about the construction of fine instruments, especially violins passionately. For example, I can construct a violin very easily. I asked myself why we respect the Pontian lyra only in words and not in the instrument itself. Why do we just glue 5 pieces of wood together and say “this is the Pontian lyra.” We must respect it and rebuild it and construct it as a very fine instrument with this technique. This is about what Kokkimelon is. It is about improving the construction of the Pontian lyra. I started Kokkimelon to make fine instruments like the cello, like the viola, like the violin, and not just to glue cheap materials together with cheap strings because we must respect this instrument. This instrument is not just ten years old, it is an ancient instrument.

EM: Valuing an instrument starts from the very beginning with building a very fine instrument. If you value the instrument, then you want to build it well from the very beginning. The fact that it is a folk instrument doesn’t mean that it is a second class instrument.

VP: Exactly. I want to give it value as respect.

EM: Do you have a sound in mind that you want to hear? Or do you project the song you want to hear while you build the instrument?

VP: Yes. Let me explain what I do with this instrument. Pontian lyra has not only one tuning. Some of them are wider, others are slimmer and smaller in terms of dimensions. Just as every voice cannot sing in the same way, Pontian lyras are made with different voices. This one has its tuning. [Playing a Pontian lyra.] This one has a different voice. [Playing a second Pontian lyra.] This one has a different voice and different tuning. [Playing another]. This one has a different voice. [Playing a fourth lyra]

EM: This one is nice as well.

VP: Do you understand how difficult it is to construct each instrument with a different voice every time?

EM: Yes. It’s beautiful. I like the last one.

VP: Let me tell you why it is very very difficult. On this instrument, the top plate and the back plate are completely different thicknesses every time. Why do we have to undervalue this procedure that is very difficult? Why can a good violin cost, at minimum, one thousand euros.

EM: Yes, way more than that.

VP: Yes, and a Kemençe can cost two hundred euros. Why? The materials are the same. I use ebony pegs, an ebony tailpiece, an ebony fingerboard. I use the same wood. Something is happening.

EM: Yes, maybe we think that folk music is not as refined as classical music.

VP: Exactly. So I created Kokkimelon to fill that gap. I have some instruments here that are constructed like a fine instrument.

EM: I understand. So you also build another type of instrument, right? It’s like the Kemençe but it’s played differently. You build this as well, right?

VP: You’re talking about the Turkish lyra. It has only one tuning. We were from there so we brought our instruments together. But the shape of the Pontian lyra is not like the Turkish style. This has more European sounds, sweeter and more stable sounds, and it has more harmonic sounds. It has many more advantages than the Turkish version. I don’t construct the Turkish version.

EM: I have one last topic. We spoke about playing it, we spoke about building it, but you also teach it. When you teach, what is the most important thing you want to pass on to your students?

VP: Technique. I give very much attention to technique at the beginning. This is the most important to me. The position of the fingers is important, because if the student stops studying with me, I want him or her to have this technique so that he or she can improve. I want to lay the basis so that one day they can be the best.

EM: So you want to make your student independent from you as well.

VP: Of course. I want my students to be better than me. I am not the kind of teacher who keeps secret things for himself. I give all my knowledge to my students. If a student becomes better than me, this is my happiness.

EM: Are your students are mostly Greeks, or from Pontian Greek origins, or do you have students like me who are absolutely not related to the culture but just discovered the instrument?

VP: I have many students worldwide who are not Pontian.

EM: Even students who don’t have Pontian origins one or two generations away?

VP: Yes. I have students who have Pontian Greek origins. They live in America, Australia, France and Germany. But sometimes there are students who don’t have any Pontian origins. For example, I have a student in the Czech Republic because her boyfriend was from Greece and was Pontian. She was already playing an instrument and she wanted to learn the Pontian lyra for him.

EM: So, for people like me who are not related to the culture, do you teach a little bit of your culture as well because it is related to the instrument so that we know who the Pontian Greeks are and their story and what the culture is like so that we can play better?

VP: Yes, you can be more passionate for the instrument and then you play better. Yes, of course. But for me it is difficult to talk about the culture and everything because the student must want to learn as well.

EM: I hope to travel one day and see the places. I don’t have any more questions. Do you have anything else to say?

VP: It was a long and very good discussion. If you think of anything else, you can send me a message.

EM: Well, thank you so much. I’m very glad we connected ! See you at the next lyra lesson !