Saturday, January 14, 2017


The diminutive old man with the care-worn, drawn cheeks and the aquiline nose kneels rhythmically as he lovingly lowers his ear over the mouth of the clarinet. Then, slowly, his eyes half closed in ecstasy, he takes an inordinately deep puff of his cigarette, the type that only the Greeks can describe as σέρτικο, sensuously drawing the smoke deep into his lungs at the same time that he draws the sonorous notes of the clarinet from its mouth, deep into his soul. With a flourish, this sprightly octogenarian allows a great sigh to escape from the abyss within him, and immediately leaps up, beating the dust from his τσαρούχι, as if banishing his cares and woes forever, twirls around and, without losing time to the inexorable beat emanating from his chest, loses himself in the epic masculine majesty of a tsamiko that is as much from the heart as from the clarinet itself. Indeed, it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. 
If a single man could personify the region of Epirus, then undoubtedly that man is the late Giorgos Konstantinidis, whose loss, just before Christmas left the Greek community of Melbourne so much the poorer. Small and lean, with a physique toughened and forged in the bleak, minimalist mountain landscapes of Konitsa in Epirus, there was no pleonasm of flesh or feature about him, save for his luxurious, upturned moustache, the likes of which would turn Stalin green with envy. Here indeed was a man, who, though cast in the mould of privation, was possessed of an inexorable zest for life.
A founding member of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, I knew him from my childhood days, marching with him at the annual Independence Day march to the Shrine. Back then, he would march proudly at the helm of a group of youths that included his daughter, nieces and nephews. He continued to do so throughout his life, showing no sign of slacking, as he marched proudly in step, turning his head sharply to the right, in order to greet the officials, one year resplendent in his foustanella, the next, in the μπουραζάνες that comprise the daily traditional costume of the Epirotes, the one constant in an ever-changing world. When we wanted to obtain an impression of what a traditional Epirot looked like or gain a few tips as to how the traditional Epirot comported himself, Giorgos Konstantinidis was our constant point of reference. After the death of my great-grandmother, when the pain of loss became too great to bear, I would seek refuge in his conversation, for he, like her was one of the last authentic repositories of the riches of the Epirotic dialect, the words falling of his tongue as mellifluously as the notes of the clarinet which he so adored. Giorgos Konstantinidis’ speech was chthonic. Having its origin in the land that according to legend was held to lead to the underworld, his speech emerged from the infinite chasm of the primieval Epirotic tradition, careful, considered and unconsciously idiomatic. It was the kind of speech that compelled silence and introspection, tying our generation, imperceptibly but inexorably, to the generation that came before. As such he was and even beyond the grave, still remains, a stalwart of the past, persisting in the present, in order to propel us forward to the future.

Ensconced every year since 2004 within the cultural tent of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia at the Antipodes Festival, surrounded by the various accoutrements comprising the re-enactment of a traditional Epirotic home, Giorgos Konstantinidis looked and felt at home, every part the image of an Epirot shepherd. Cheerfully treating passersby to some home made tsipouro, every so often he would grabs his klitsa and ring the cattle bells hanging from the tent emitting shepherd’s whistles and cries as he did so. Those who passed by, especially tourists, would view this wonderful phenomenon in natural habitat, that was, by virtue of his capacity to transcend time, in no way anachronistic, with awe and delight. Most were sufficiently moved so as to request to be photographed with him, or to drag their most often reluctant progeny, kicking and screaming, also to be immortalised with him in digital clarity. Within a few seconds of having his arms around them, they became calm and happy for this doting grandfather had a remarkable way with children.
A few minutes later, the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis would once more be on the move. The traditional Epirot musicians would arrive and he, naturally, would be called upon to lead the dance, doing so with remarkable gracefulness of poise and noteworthy agility. Artfully placing a cigarette in him mouth, he would throw his skoufo down onto the ground disdainfully, as if expressing his complete and utter unattachment to the accoutrements of this world and dance around it, a titanic, elemental Kazantzakian figure, if there ever was one. Moments later, he would cast a side glance at me, a bespectacled ersatz anachronism masquerading as an Epirot, that glance conveying a mute command for me to follow his lead. 
Satisfied that everything was then in order, his roving eye would scan the enthralled crowd of onlookers. Ultimately, he would zoom in on one Asian lady with a bemused and nervous expression on her face. Before she had time to realise the fact, the tsamiko predator had already pounced and instantaneously lured her into the labyrinthine circle of the dance, a potent symbol of life itself, there to be instructed by a true master of the art.
As a beloved and instantly recognisable figure at the Antipodes Festival, the unassuming and completely unselfconscious Giorgos Konstantinidis well deserved the appellation of Festival Mascot. If one was to put words in his mouth, then it is quite possible that he would rationalise his motivation for spending forty-eight hours straight in a plastic tent on Lonsdale Street every year, as a desire to exemplify and thus pass on tradition. Yet this would only be partially correct. He is did not set out to re-enacting a dead tradition. Instead he constantly endeavoured to find a way to articulate harmoniously, a way of life that he believed, forms the basis of our identity, which lived within him. As one of the few living links with that authenticity, he was a Festival highlight and was cherished as such, especially by those who half in horror, half in glee, sought to evade his roving klitsa, as well as his bespectacled sidekick.
This year, the spirit of the indefatigable Giorgos Konstantinidis, who was accompanied to his grave by the laments of the Epirotic clarinet he so loved, will imbue everything that will transpire at the Epirus Cultural Tent at the Festival and in all endeavours of the Epirot community in Melbourne, for we cannot understand our communal life without him. Though without his corporeal presence we are much diminished, it is in the keeping of his values, his love of tradition and family which he understood to embrace the entire community, that we must seek to ensure his, along with so many irreplaceable others like him, place in posterity and so retain our sense of self, generations into the future.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 14 January 2017