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Photo Credit: Giorgos Vitsaropoulos

Petroloukas Halkias & Vasilis Kostas

traditional music from Epirus Boston, Massachusetts, and Epirus, Greece
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Photo Credit: Giorgos Vitsaropoulos
Photo Credit: Giorgos Vitsaropoulos

Petroloukas Halkias is a living legend of the clarino (clarinet) and one of the foremost representatives of Greek demotic (folk) music. At 85 years old, he is a keeper of the musical traditions of Epirus, a region in northwest Greece. Vasilis Kostas, a groundbreaking performer on the laouto (a long-necked, fretted lute), represents the next generation in this tradition. The two met nearly five years ago, sparking a musical partnership that is redefining the relationship between clarinet and laouto.

The music of Epirus, known for its strong melodic lines, mournful lyrics, and slow rhythms, has unique idioms that vary significantly from other Greek musical traditions. The traditional melody instruments are clarinet and violin, with the laouto serving as strummed accompaniment. Epirotic music expresses feelings of joy and sorrow, paying tribute to those no longer alive or living in far-away lands. Central to Epirotic tradition are panegyria—multiday, music-filled religious festivals where communities mourn their losses and celebrate what remains.

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

Vasilis Kostas grew up in Epirus, hearing his grandfather sing at home each night, and learned the guitar to accompany him. A move to the United States to study jazz guitar, 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 the instrument’s place in the ensemble from that of accompanist to soloist. Vasilis delved into Halkias’s recordings, learning how to adapt the complex melodic lines of the clarinet to the laouto. A fateful performance with Petroloukas in November 2015 led to collaborations between the two, creating their own legacy. “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 released their debut album, The Soul of Epirus, in the fall of 2019 to rave reviews. In Richmond, they will be joined by Panagiotis Georgakopoulos (defi, or frame drum), Beth Bahia Cohen (violin), and Petroloukas’s grandson, Petros Halkias (clarinet).

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