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Ritsona, Euboea - The heart aches when you play the ney


George Apostolakis makes a reed musical instrument, called the ney, in his workshop in Ritsona, close to Halkida. The ney produces a warm and hoarse sound. It has its roots in the Near East and gives Greek traditional music a special quality. 



The first steps

“On a trip to Nepal I bought a simple cane flute in order to experiment. When I returned to Greece, I went to Socratis Malamas (a well known Greek singer and musician) concert where I heard a musician called Kostas Theodorou playing a ney flute. I was so mesmerized by the deep and warm sound, that the very next day went out and bought a small Arabic ney, a Bolahenk flute. I then began lessons at the Athens Conservatoire under the instruction of Christos Tsiamoulis” he said.

Because of this great teacher, George Apostolakis began exploring the mysteries of traditional music. In time, he started crafting his own neys, using reeds he collected in the southern Athenian suburb Kalamaki (Kalamaki means small reed in Greek. The suburb was named after a large reed bed that was in the region. It’s now more commonly known as Alimos).

The first musical instruments he made weren’t very good, so he gave them away as presents here and there.


2Wandering around in reed beds

In order to search for quality reeds, George Apostolakis then went to the village of Thespies, in Thebes –the birthplace of the ancient flute players. He assumed that given the poor means of transport back then, the craftsmen wouldn’t have been able to travel far in order to find suitable reeds.

If the craft of flute making evolved in Thebes, then it was probably safe to deduct that there were suitable reed beds in the region.

“Not all reeds are suitable for crafting neys. From a reed bed spread across 500 square meters, you may find around 20 suitable reeds. Once, though, in an amazing reed bed in Pyrgos, Elis (also known as Ilia), I found 48 perfect reeds in a space no larger than 10 m². In general, I believe that the best reeds are to be found in Orhomenos and Tinos Island” he told us.

Apostolakis looks for reeds with the knots close to one another. Dry reeds, which grow on rocks, have a thick body and thick knots. These reeds make a steady sound that can penetrate anything.

Water reeds, with their thin body, produce a more elastic sound. If the player blows harder on a specific note, it can go up to a semitone.

Meanwhile, reeds grown on rocks are more rigid. They can play up to half a semitone higher when blown harder on a specific note, making them a good fit for orchestras.

Water reed flutes are best played solo, because they deliver a sensitive sound that stands out. In dance ceremonies of the Whirling Dervishes, ney players choose to use water reed instruments.


3Concentration and restraint

George Apostolakis is the son of a priest but also a martial arts devotee. He was born on Tinos Island but grew up on Samos Island, where his father was transferred. Since he was a boy, he heard and chanted religious hymns, growing up in a pious and modest environment.

Meanwhile, because he liked juvenile heroics, he felt a pull towards martial arts. However, he got over the childish heroics stage and quickly understood the true meaning of martial arts - restraint. From then on, this concept has been a part of his everyday life.  

When asked how a person, who knows how to fight, isn’t swept up in the violence he answered: “Through martial arts I learned what a catastrophe is and how I can avoid it. People are not rocks. You can’t set them on the floor and crush them. My goal is to avoid violence and protect people. Martial arts are gentle, you consciously refuse to kill and you are taught how to keep your cool and how to be patient. You are initiated in concepts such as concentration and restraint, which are very useful ‘tools’ in my work as a musical instrument craftsman”.


4Devoted to the Arts  

George Apostolakis studied at the Tinos School of Fine Arts. He draws and sculpts and he has also studied photography. He is entirely devoted to the Arts, not just music. 

It is truly amazing that such a huge man, with a body of steel and stature that many Special Forces soldiers would envy, is so artistically sensitive and spends countless hours creating magnificent and dreamlike sounds from a simple reed. 

It is not a coincidence that he is such an important music instrument craftsman. Most ney players in Greece buy their instruments from him but his reputation has also spread to other countries in Europe and Asia. He gives his neys to many players from Persia, even Turks from Konya - the Mecca of this musical instrument. 


5An instrument with thousand years of history 

The ney is usually heard in the Arab world, Turkey but also other places in central Asia. In Ancient Persian, the word ney means reed. Illustrations and written reports both prove that it was used by the ancient Egyptians during the third millennium B.C. 

A palette depicting a fox playing the ney and dated 2,900 B.C is exhibited in the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford and is of particular interest. A silver ney from 2,400 B.C. was also unearthed in the royal cemetery Ur in southern Mesopotamia. 

The ney has a short history in Greece and most players are quite young at age. The Greeks living in Turkey have known it for many years because it was an instrument closely tied with their musical culture. In Greece, it was promoted and established by enlightened teachers of traditional music. 


6Ritualistic art 

Many ney players go to George Apostolakis’ workshop in Ritsona in order to buy new instruments or restore their old ones. Youngsters full of passion for traditional music watch the ritualistic restoration in awe. 

He first cleans the instrument from fungi with “protorako” - the first distillation of the traditional Greek spirit raki - with over 90% of alcohol by volume. He doesn’t use pure alcohol because it is volatile and ruins the glue. 

“Protorako” is so strong that it can blind people who drink it. However, it is also very aromatic and leaves traces of its scent on the ney, which is one of the reasons why he uses it. 

Apostolakis pours the “protorako” into the reed and shakes the instrument so it goes into every nook and cranny. He then lights it up, sending a small “explosion” of fire from one end towards the other. 

Ney players’ hearts always skip a beat at this point but the craftsman reassures them. He has made thousands on neys and he knows what he is doing. Besides, as a Dervish song says, the sound of the ney is not air but the fire of love inside a reed. 


7A “fundamental” instrument 

George Apostolakis believes that the ney contains within it the whole world - metaphorically speaking of course. “According to the Ancient Greek philosophers, the world is composed by four elements - earth, fire, water and air. Plato added one more, aether. The ney is all five put together. It needs the earth to be born, water to grow, fire so I can straighten it and open its holes and air for blowing inside it. The aether is, in my opinion, concentration. The essence of art”. 

“The true ney is not the one played just by the hands. It’s our spinal cord. You play with your lungs and your hands but in truth you put your whole body into it. The stance the body takes when playing the ney makes it point towards the heart. The heart aches when you play the ney” he says.


Amongst thousands of reeds

We took a small break from our interview and George Apostolakis offered us Greek coffee, with traces of mastic and nutmeg. While we were enjoying the coffee, he picked up a ney and started playing a tune. It felt as our senses were being bombarded. On one hand the delicate scents and fine flavors of the coffee and on the other, hoarse melodies.

When the interview was concluded, he graciously bid us farewell and returned to his workshop to resume his work amongst thousands of reeds. A simple earthly plant, which makes magical sounds when blown into.

He’s going to give most of the neys away as gifts but he’s going to make many more in the future. There is no end to the “tunnel” of art he has entered…




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