Saturday, February 06, 2016


"Ainte," my late great-grandmother would encourage me from time to time. "Get married and I will bring Lalo Fako to play clarinet at your wedding." Yiayia, though present in this country since 1963, incidentally the same year that Haralambos Fakos arrived upon these shores, had no idea that the person that for her symbolized the ideal of a musician, was a member of her own community. For her, the Fakos clan, as represented by its latest illustrious scion, Haralambos, was a remnant of an omnipresent past without which all joys of village life could not be understood. The songs my great-grandmother heard the itinerant Fakos clan play in those pre-radio days, when music was not available 'on tap' and thus had to be imbibed, savoured and retained indefinitely, sustained her throughout her life, grating her and her descendants a sense of purpose.

            For there is great beauty in an inherited order that reaches back across the globe to places ancestral and observances ancient and eternal. Our own observances of joy, though transplanted in the Antipodes, always had as their touchstone, the legacy of the Fakaioi. For this reason, they were at least in our elders' estimation, much diminished.

Meanwhile, Haralambos Fakos, here in Melbourne, devoted his life to perpetuating his family's tradition of playing Epirotic music to the migrant masses, in the respectful, unpretentious manner that so characterizes his tribe, playing at weddings, impromptu gatherings and concerts, his pedigree and dedication making him the most significant exponent of the Epirotic clarinet in Australia. So important was his (largely unacknowledged and unsung) contribution to demotic music in Australia, that a few years ago, the members of Melbourne's Meyhane band resolved to record his stylings for posterity. The resulting CD, entitled «Ξενιτεμένο μου πουλί/My bird, so far away,» a homage to the great Haralambos Fakos, is a unique repository not only of his family history but also his singular technique, a distillation of centuries of a family tradition in music. The recording of the CD was timely, for on Christmas Eve last year, both Haralambos Fakos' voice and clarinet were stilled, he taking his leave of us at the venerable age of 85.

In the course of making the CD, Haralambos, or 'Lalos' Fakos as he was known to the Epirotes, related valuable information as to the manner in which demotic music and its ancillary techniques were passed down the generations. According to him, his great grandfather,  Lalos Fakos, born in the village of Veltista, was one of the greatest violinists of the Balkans. Fascinatingly, Lako-Fakos was the court musician of Mustafa Pasha of Ioannina. Legend has it that on one occasion, while Lalo-Fakos was musically accompanying the pashas's procession in Ioannina, a nightingale flew from a tree and perched upon his violin. The amused pasha exclaimed: "How can I not love you Lalo? Even the birds gather to hear you play violin."

Indicative of the way in which demotic songs were created and achieved so much popularity among the populace that their origins and composer were forgotten is Haralambos Fakos' account of the manner in which his ancestor Lalo composed revolutionary songs in secret, in order to inspire the local freedom fighters. "Kleftes Veltsistinoi" and the heart-rending funeral dirge "Mariola," are still sung and form an inseparable part of the Epirotic musical canon. The free spiritdness of the Fakos clan is exemplified in the following anecdote: The pasha once asked Lalo-Fakos whether he would like some agricultural land, hoping to provide him with a source of income so as to enable him to concentrate primarily on his music. "My pasha," Lalos replied, "I want nothing. My wife does not work. She loves music. Do you understand? If you give me land for sowing, what good is it to me?" As a result, the pasha granted him a house in Ioannina, which reputedly still stands. On another occasion, Lalo asked the pasha "I want some land in my village." The pasha obliged and Lalo donated this land to the village as a cemetery, which I still in use today. Further, on a visit to the village of Papingo with his ensemble, Lalo created a song named after the village extolling the beauty of its newly construction fountain. That song is still sung today.

It was into this venerable tradition that Haralambos Fakos was born in 1930, in Veltsista. His first independent performance as a musician, his first big break, was never forgotten, as it linked him to his great grandfather: "One day, everyone was gathered outside the church for the feast of the Saviour. It was there that we had our debut performance and the crowds clapped and encouraged us: "Lalo-Fakos is playing the clarinet!" they shouted. We played for many hours and from there people began to invite  me to ply at weddings."

Haralambos Fakos imbibed deeply of the culture of camaraderie among the village musicians, retaining the same collegiality among his peers upon his arrival in Australia: "In our village, all the musicians lived in the same neighbourhood. All you would hear was music! This quarter was nicknamed "the offices" as no one did any manual labour. There were no arguments. We all helped each other and if a musician fell ill, another would play in his stead."

With his fellow musicians, Haralambos Fakos traversed all the villages of Epirus and even venturing as far down as Patras where he played at the world-famous carnival. However, post-war, pre-migration rural Greece was a bleak place, punctuated as it was by bursts of vitality and happiness. Haralambos Fakos played at a pivotal moment in the villages of Epirus' history: "Life was pulsing in those villages where the inhabitants hadn't deserted them in preference for the cities or migration. The households were vibrant and alive! Seeing people get up and dance en masse would fill me with joy.I will never forget a young girl in one of those villages approach me as I played. I was 17 years old and she requested the song 'Kontoula Lemonia,' with such passion! I remember it to this day."

In 1963, Haralambos Fakos emigrated to Australia. Here, he reconstructed his Epirotic band of musicians, with the arrival of his violinist, the great Christos Karkanakis. Their music was balm and balsam to the troubled, apprehensive and lonely new migrants arriving in Australia from their villages and being compelled to adapt to city life. The music played by Fakos' band provided much needed consolation and security in the knowledge that through the medium of their traditional folksongs, enduring ties still bound them to their motherland and each other. The indefatigable Fakos, throughout his long life thus became synonymous not only with the migrant experience but also the weaving of their musical tradition into the broader fabric of the host society, creating a truly relevant, Australian Epirotic musical tradition.

The last song in Meyhane's poignant recording of Haralambos Fakos' work features his stirring, hearty voice signing the folk tune: "Lay me down by the base of a tree." It truly is arm-hair raising. There he awaits us, by the tree that gave his clarinet life, in well-earned repose, watching over us and inspiring the musicians that he has left behind, as custodians of a lineage of music so ancient, so awe inspiring, that it must not ever be broken.

"Lay me down by the base of the tree, Eleni,
So I may lay down and sleep,
Let me cover myself
With a golden kerchief."

First published in NKEE on Saturday 6 February 2016