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Richmond Folk Festival Artist Profile: Vasilis Kostas

Petrolucas Halkias & Vasilis Kostas (Photo Courtesy of Vasilis Kostas)

Conversations between instruments is nothing new in music. In fact, everyone can probably hum along to the tune of “Dueling Banjos” from the movie “Deliverance.” 

But when it comes to a dialogue between the clarinet and a string instrument called the Laouto, one of these usually takes a back seat. 

“The role--the main role of the laouto in the Greek music, we’ll say 90% is accompanying either the violin, the clarinet or the singers.”

That’s Vasilis Kostas. He’s one part of the conversation--the laouto part. But before we eavesdrop and learn how the laouto joined a clarinet on center stage, here’s what you need to know about his instrument. 

It’s got a long wooden neck and a pear-shaped body that’s usually made of maple or walnut. It has eight strings and it’s part of the lute family. But don’t think it plays like a guitar, says Kostas. That was his first instrument until he switched to the laouto five years ago. 

“So, ya, it was easy--it was a stringed instrument. But it was a completely different instrument--in terms of scales, arpegios, chords, improvisation--composition even.”

Vasilis

Vasilis Kostas grew up in the Northwestern part of Greece called Epirus. His family sang traditional folk songs. This led to him picking up the guitar at the age of 4. When he was older, he studied jazz guitar and was able to get into the famed Berklee College of Music. But then his interests took a turn.

“So I picked an instrument that really speaks my heart.”

The laouto guided him back to the traditions of his country and of his family. 

“Whenever I play the laouto, the memories of my village in Epirus, of my family, my friends, are very, very strong. And this is because of the sound as well of the instrument itself.”

Some of the memories, says Kostas, are of the laments. These mournful songs are a tradition in Greek culture. 

"In Epirus we have many themes, in our compositions, in our repertoire, many of those called ‘Mira loai,’ laments, which either celebrate life and nature or pay tribute to someone who is not alive.”

When Kostas began a deeper dive into the traditions of his home, he decided to study a master of the clarinet--Petroloukas Halkias. Kostas wanted to transfer the language he was hearing, the language of his home, from Halkias’s clarinet onto his laouto. 

The now 85-year-old clarinetist is a musical hero in Greece and of Kostas’. He’s part two of the conversation. Kostas grew up listening to Halkias’ music.

“I remember myself 12-years old, dancing my village and he was playing music there--but we didn’t meet.”

They would meet later, when Kostas was at Berklee, trying to learn the lines of the clarinet that Halkias was famous for, a year after picking up the laouto. Kostas was asked to accompany Halkias who was touring the U.S. 

It was at an event just outside of Boston that a nervous Kostas played some of Halkias’ lines. 

“And he heard me playing. And he said, ‘Wait a minute. I recognize some of these lines which are mine.’” 

The two eventually started playing together, with Kostas as an apprentice. After awhile, Halkias said it’s time to record. He told Kostas:

“Now is the time to document this collaboration and this music. This dialogue between the clarinet and the laouto.”

It’s the first time, says Kostas, that these two instruments talk to each other as equals. And he says people at the Richmond Folk Festival will get to hear that conversation. 

Ian Stewart/VPM Music