Grigoris Kapsalis was born in 1929 in Elafotopos Zagori, where he still resides today, as an active musician. His grandfather, father, and uncle were all folk clarinet musicians, as was his cousin Stavros. At the encouragement of his uncle, Kostas, he began clarinet lessons in Ksiromero with Vassilis Saleas. Later, returning to his homeland, he was to succeed Filippos Rountas in “Takoutsia”, the most famous folk ensemble of Zagori. He remained a member of the band until its dissolution at the end of the 80s. Grigoris Kapsalis is considered the last representative of the old generation in the musical tradition of Zagori and Yiannena (capital of Epirus) songs. Some years ago, in the paved square of his village, Elafotopos, he told us about his great musical journey, focusing on the years that shaped his musical education…
I” started playing the clarinet when I was 13 years old. During the time of the German occupation. My uncle, Kostas Kapsalis from “Karvasara”, Amfilochia, had come because we were living a little better here in the villages. My uncle played the clarinet. I used to sit and watch him and learn. I’d wiggle my fingers like him and be happy. At one time, my father says, “I have an old clarinet. I’ll fix it up and we’ll give the boy lessons.” So I started learning some musical scales. Two years later I started playing the local tunes more on my own. I practiced at the panigiria that was going on in the houses at that time. I went with another tambourine player, Vangelis Matsoulas, a year older than me. We would go into the “krevates”, those big halls of the old houses, and play.
My uncle then left for Agrinio. When the Germans left and the country was liberated, in September-October ’44, I decided to go too. I went, but how did I go? We left Ioannina on foot at noon and arrived at Agrinio at 12 o’clock at night. The town didn’t even have lights then. Some houses ran on generators. From there I started slowly. There I started working with my uncle. He was playing in a shop with George Vassilopoulos, the father of Yannis Vassilopoulos. He said to me, “You’ll come there to the club and don’t pay so much attention to me. Watch Vassilopoulos.”
After a year, we went to Amphilochia, where my uncle had a house. There we met with the late Vassilis Saleas. He was then a year or two older than me. He was tending animals at that time. But he was a good musician of the klarino. He was showing where he was going. My uncle begged him to show me the clarinet and Saleas had a little obligation to my uncle, who was also known in Kseromero. So he accepted. Indeed, I sat with him for 15 days and we had many lessons. I started to learn the music scales (maqam). Then he got up and left, but he said to my uncle, “I’ll send George Sioutas to you.” He was a very good musician from Agrinio too. He also gave me some lessons for a couple of weeks.
My father adored me because I played the klarino. So when there was a great famine and we were “catching the porridge”- that is surviving only on porridge-gruel – he would always put a little extra food for me. The others would grumble. “He’s a little older and he plays a little klarino,” my father would iterate as an excuse, but I had a weakness too. My knees were hurting, I’d already been playing for a year when I was 15 or 16 years old. But at he same time we also had farming work here in the village. We’d go to the fields and harvest wheat and everything else.
When I was discharged from the army, I also went to work in Agrinio, but mostly I was in Zagori, in my village. Together with my father who sang well and played the tambourine. My grandfather was also very busy, and he was one of the best klarino players in the region, at his time. In fact, he gave many pieces to my father. We made a band, but to me, things seemed backward. Leaving a circuit of taxims and maqams, the challenge of (becoming acceptable in Zagori was difficult. But thanks to my father I played for 6-7 years in this band. I started to get into the Zagori climate. I liked it. I understood myself mainly later, after the ’60s when I joined Takoutsia.
I worked with Takoutsia for almost 25 years, until we stopped. The Takoutsia meant literally Takis’ children. Three brothers and a cousin. All hotheads. We’re distantly related, but I was included. That’s where I got my bearings as to how to behave during the execution. They wanted the tunes here in our part of the world in a different way, different from what I had been taught in Agrinio. The old people used to tell me back then “When we are on stage, we are the center of attention. In front of everyone’s eyes, all eyes are on us”. We were not allowed to make gestures. We had a clean handkerchief, on the pants, and t we kept the clarinet up high when we played. When I came to the village, it’s not that I didn’t play well, but I had a different mentality. “You don’t play the clarinet,” the locals would say to me!
But when I went with the Takoutsia, what did they say to me? That’s why I give them credit for being masters, in matters of behavior. Once as we were playing, at a wedding, the young couple was dancing in the middle of the village. Kostas with the violin says to me, “What kind of playing is that you’re doing?” Are you playing with the soles of your shoes? Pick up the clarinet and play it up here.” I was embarrassed. I didn’t know where to hold the clarinet. “And if anyone comes near, put the clarinet to their ear,” he continued. I didn’t know these attitudes, it seemed strange to me. But I learned. That was it. That’s where I proved myself. That’s how much culture those people had. “
The following text is an excerpt from an interview given by Grigoris Kapsalis to Sotiris Bekas, for the magazine “Oasis”.