Avissinos, The Violin Charmer of Crete
George Sfakianakis or Avissinos was born in 1931 in Skalani, a small village less than ten kilometres from Heraklion town centre. The name of Avissinos was soon linked to Cretan music. At the age of fourteen he played the violin in his father’s cafe. Ten years later, Avissinos had already opened his own cafe in Skalani, where he entertained crowds of people with his violin over many years.
His real name is George Sfakianakis, but don’t make the mistake of looking for him under that surname, as there are thousands of Sfakianakis on Crete and the great artist will be lost among them. It’s better to use the name George Avissinos [the Abyssinian], as a piece of childhood mischief, combined with his swarthy features, bestowed on him a nickname as distinctive as his music:
“I was still in the third year of primary school when I did something in gym class, I don’t even remember what, that displeased the teacher. So he came up to me unbelievably annoyed, glared at me and, probably inspired by my dark complexion, said: ‘Abyssinian, leave the line immediately...’ That was it. My classmates heard the gibe, retained it and passed it on, and that’s the only name I’ve been known by ever since.”
Of course, the naughty dark-skinned child didn’t know then that his star was to rise, making him one of the greatest Cretan musicians under his new name: Avissinos!
Avissinos left school early, as did most of his generation. But the great love of Cretan music that had already been instilled in him did its work, preparing the ground in difficult times for Crete:
“I wanted to learn music, but how ... Luckily a violin fell into my hands one day. Well, I say a violin, but it was more an empty shell... To make it into a violin I tried to pull a few hairs out of our mare’s tail, thinking I could make strings out of them, it’s a wonder I didn’t kill the poor beast...”
Undaunted, George Avissinos continued his efforts, perhaps to prove that, in his case, man is born not made:
“I am completely self-taught, on an instrument that takes at least fifteen years of music school to learn... but again, you’ll only learn to play if your soul’s in it ... if your soul isn’t in it, you won’t learn to play even in fifty-five years, that’s why the violin is called the king of instruments!
Personally, I don’t even know what notes are. Notes... what’s that, I’ve never played with notes. The music I play always wells from my soul, moves to my mind and then goes straight to my hands. I don’t know how, how should I know? Very often I wake up in the night because I’ve dreamed a tune, and so as not to forget it I get up at once, play it on the violin and that’s it...”
Somewhere round this point you have to raise your hands up in defeat and ask yourself, “But how can some people work like that, can they charm invisible forces of nature?” Surely the case of the great violinist George Avissinos has perplexed many people.
Avissinos and Manos Hadzidakis
“Once Hadzidakis came to the cafe along with Fabas, then the greatest guitarist in Greece, and as soon as I saw them I panicked at the mere thought that they might make me play for them, as indeed they did, and I couldn’t avoid what I feared. Hadzidakis asked to hear me play and I, trying to calm down, played ‘Kastrines kondylies’, ‘Kondylies tis nyhtas’, ‘Kondylies Kalogeridi’ [‘music verses from Heraklion’, ‘music verses of the night’, ‘Kalogeridis music verses’] and other tunes.
When I stopped, Fabas turned to Hadzidakis and said, ‘Can you explain this to me, when we’ve wasted years of our youth in music school?’ Hadjidakis replied, ‘If I knew myself, I’d tell you...’”
But it wasn’t only these two great musicians who were enchanted by the music of the great violin charmer George Avissinos. Almost all the greatest musicians, Greek and foreign, came to his cafe when he was at his peak, met him and, through him, were introduced to Cretan music.
Avissinos, Joan Baez and other artists
Almost thirty years have passed since the days George Avissinos held violin in hand and Joan Baez danced before him, barefoot and ecstatic, to the wonderful sounds he drew from it; or when Aliki Vougiouklaki, Dimitris Papamichael, Jenny Karezi, Manos Katrakis, Yannis Markopoulos and even Avissinos himself no longer remembers who else, danced till dawn in his kafeneio. But the passage of time cannot erase the fact that George Avissinos is one of the few artists whose life has left a permanent mark on Cretan musical history.
Article by Riki Matalliotaki
Listen to Avissinos music
Samples from the CD of Avissinos: "Classic Crete" (all samples are lower quality than the original cd).
The CD "Classic Crete " by Avissinos
was offered by Aerakis Seistron Music