Petroloukas Halkias & Vasilis Kostas

traditional music from Epirus
Boston, Massachusetts, and Epirus, Greece

Photo: GiorgosVitsaropoulos

Photo: GiorgosVitsaropoulos

One of the foremost representatives of Greek demotic (folk) music, Petroloukas Halkias is a living legend and master of the clarino (clarinet). At 85 years old, he is a keeper of the musical traditions of Epirus, a region in northwest Greece known for music with strong melodic lines, mournful lyrics, and slow rhythms. Vasilis Kostas, a groundbreaking performer on the laouto (a long-necked, fretted lute with four paired strings), represents the next generation brought up in this tradition. The two met four years ago, sparking a musical partnership that is redefining the typical relationship between clarinet and laouto.

The music of Epirus has an immense and rich repertoire, expressing feelings of joy and sorrow, paying tribute to people no longer alive or to those living in far-away lands, and celebrating life and nature. Its unique musical idioms vary significantly from the rest of Greece’s musical traditions, featuring instrumental and vocal pieces based mostly on pentatonic sounds and slow tempos. Central to Epirotic tradition are panegyria—multiday, music-filled religious festivals in which communities mourn their losses and celebrate what remains. The typical instrumentation is clarinet, violin, laouto, defi (frame drum), and vocals. Traditionally, clarinet and violin are melody instruments, and the laouto serves as an accompanying instrument and is strummed. Both clarinet and violin allow performers to execute the characteristic melodic slides and tonal inflections, giving the music its distinctive ability to powerfully evoke human emotion.

Born in the village of Delvinaki in Pogoni, Epirus, Petroloukas Halkias comes from a long line of Epirotic musicians. He began learning music as a small child from such notable musicians as Philippos Rountas and Kitsos Harisiadis; the latter is credited with establishing today’s playing style. Petroloukas’s father, Periklis Halkias, was well-regarded in Greece and in the United States, where he immigrated to before World War II. He was later awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, our nation’s highest honor for traditional artists. Petroloukas later followed in his father’s footsteps, immigrating to the United States in 1960, where he lived for 20 years. He performed with many groups, spreading the musical heritage of Epirus—including a concert at the White House. On returning to Greece in the 1980s, he began recording albums that gained great success in his country and abroad.

Vasilis Kostas grew up in Epirus listening to his grandfather sing at home each night, and started learning the guitar in order to accompany him. A move to the United States to pursue jazz guitar at Berklee School of Music, however, led him back to the music of his homeland—playing the laouto in a presentation of Greek music, his passion for Epirotic music was reignited. He sought out laouto master Christos Zotos, who was among the first to change laouto technique and the instrument’s place in the ensemble from that of accompanist to soloist. Vasilis continued this work, eventually delving into Halkias’s recordings, learning how to adapt the complex melodic lines of the clarinet to the fretted laouto. A fateful performance with Petroloukas in November 2015 opened the door to direct collaborations between the two, creating their own legacy of Epirotic repertoire to pass on to future generations. “As musicians, we know that learning music is a lifelong journey that never ends,” Halkias reflects. “However, each new generation can add its own small gem to whatever the previous generation has created, just as my generation did.”

Petroloukas and Vasilis are releasing their first album together, The Soul of Epirus, in the fall of 2019. In Richmond, they will be joined by Panagiotis Georgakopoulos (defi) and Beth Bahia Cohen (violin).