The Greek island of Karpathos lies in the Aegean Sea, approximately midway between Crete and Rhodes. The island attracts far fewer sun worshippers than its larger neighbours do, but for those interested in authentic musical traditions, Karpathos is a mecca. Karpathos' 6,000 inhabitants and their numerous migrant family members still prefer to celebrate to the tones of the tsambouna (bagpipes), laouto (lute) and lyre.

The lyre is a three-stringed viol with a curved, pear-shaped soundbox, cut along with the neck and the head from a single block of wood. The belly has two soundholes (the 'eyes') shaped like half-moons. The lyre is played upright, usually resting on the seated player's thigh, but sometimes the player stands or walks while he plays, holding the neck between thumb and forefinger. The strings are not pressed onto the fingerboard, as with the violin, but from the side with the fingernails.

The origin of the lyre is still a matter of discussion. It may have evolved from the ancient lyre, when Europe first encountered the bow of the Eastern viols around 1000 AD. Be that as it may, the lyres of Karpathos and its neighbours in the Aegean Sea are best likened to the viols of areas in the Byzantine Empire influenced by Greek culture. Its surviving brothers and sisters include the Bulgarian gadulka, the Dalmatian lijerica, the Calabrian lira and the kemençe of traditional Turkish classical music.

In the last century the viol was replaced by the violin in many places in Greece, as had been the case in Western Europe hundreds of years earlier. But not in Karpathos. Here the lyre still rules supreme. When a small group of men get together and sit for hours round a table replete with mezes and drink improvising mantinades - rhyming couplets with which the singers share their many and varied emotions -, they invariably have the company of a lyre and a laouto: a lyre for the melody, a laouto for the chords and both instruments for the rhythm. Typical of Karpathos are the little bells attached to the bow to provide a rhythmic jingling accompaniment to the melody.

And when it's time for the dancing, the musicians take their place at a table in the middle of the square and a long open circle forms around it for the pano choros (high choral dance), which will continue without interruption until the next morning. In the north of Karpathos, in particular, the dancing is often accompanied by a tsambouna, which then takes over the lead from the lyre.

An extract from the musical diary of Wim Bosmans, Curator of traditional European instruments at the mim, written while on holiday in Karpathos in July 1998, tells us how the museum acquired its lyre:

"As we were walking through the village of Othos, the sounds of a lyre drifted out to us from a taverna. In front of the bar in an empty area which served as the restaurant sat a sturdy man playing alone. He was a builder loosening up his fingers during his lunch break and stamping the rhythm with his work shoes which were white with dust. He didn't so much as glance in our direction. But talking to him on the terrace later, we learned that his name is Achilleas Vassilarakis, the son of the famous lyre player Kostas Vassilarakis. An alert septuagenarian (°1925) wearing a hat and boasting an impressive white moustache, below which protruded a pipe filled with aromatic amphora tobacco, Kostas was the archetypal grandfather and amiability personified. He wanted to sell us an old lyre and persuaded us to walk with him to his traditional house further up the village. We could barely keep up with his youthful pace. He had made the instrument he wanted to relinquish to the mim around 1965-1970. It was a beautiful example, cut from a single Lebanon cedar, with a soundboard made of conifer wood and strung with three strings of catgut. For a 100,000 drachmas the lyre was ours."

The instrument has both original and more recent characteristics. Catguts are far less frequently used these days. In recent decades most musicians have gone over to metal strings because they are so much easier to use. Another typical feature of the lyres of the last century is the embellishment - perhaps the maker wanted to make his instrument more respectable - which borrows elements from the violin, such as a volute above the traditional, pear-shaped head and a black, plastic fingerboard, which now serves no purpose whatsoever.

Kostas Vassilarakis playing the lyra; photo Ritteke Demeulenaere
lyra inv. 1998.014