Vasili and I
By George Hohlakis
Music influences people’s lives in many ways, some are subtle and some are most obvious. I fell in love with the clarinet at a young age. An uncle who played clarinet and my mother who gave me nothing but encouragement influenced me. She always danced along while I played to make sure I was playing in rhythm!
Having moved to America from Greece at age six with my family gave me strong ethnic roots that kept growing as I was growing. Greek music was always at the forefront of everything we did. Every week when my father got his paycheck, he would go to the Greek import store to buy some groceries and a new Greek 45-rpm record. We always rushed to see what title it had and who the singer was. It was a real treat to play it on the old phonograph about a dozen times before we sat down to eat dinner. Every month or so, there were Greek dances at the big downtown hotels. They always had live bands and the people always had a great time. It seems like people had a bigger thirst for live music back then. The latest technological marvel was the 8-track tape player, which was replacing the phonograph at the time. Thinking back, some people even had phonographs in their cars. There were no CD players or videos to listen to or watch. The Internet wasn’t even an idea at the time and neither was cable TV. You were lucky if you even had a TV and if you did, it was a black and white because the color TV’s were two or three times the money!
My uncle Jim played clarinet and had his own band called the “Evzonakia” which means Evzone. The Evzones were the king’s guard back when Greece still had a king. This is the branch of service he was in before he came to the States and also the name he called his band. He played the Albert system clarinet, (Albert system preceded the Boehm system that is popular today) which is still very common in Greece and throughout much of Eastern Europe. This band seemed to be the standard for all the bands in the area. They were very good and very authentic.
At age thirteen, and influenced by my uncle, I decided to try to learn clarinet. Private lessons were expensive and the cost of buying a clarinet was prohibitive for us. That was the time I started baby-sitting my little sister during the summers so both my parents could work. Somehow my parents fit it in their budget so that I could rent a clarinet and take one lesson per week. It wasn’t long before I was playing Greek songs by ear. Strangely enough, the first song I learned by ear was an American song called “Downtown”. I guess it was the hit of the day back then. My heart though, was yearning to learn Greek music. Unfortunately, my uncle died of leukemia that year so I was not able to learn from him. My aunt was kind enough to let me use one of his clarinets to learn with. The more I progressed, the longer the practice times became. The clarinet never left my side. I played as I watched TV, I played the first thing in the morning, the last thing at night, and I even took it in the bathroom with me where I got the best acoustics! I remember we were asked to move from one apartment because the landlord that lived downstairs couldn’t take the playing anymore. When I was in school away from my clarinet, I would pretend to play by moving my fingers as if they were on the instrument. This became somewhat of a habit that I still have today.
The years went by and I joined some Greek bands. Many of my friends played various instruments and there was a natural competition among us. I loved every minute of it. It always seemed to me though, that no matter how hard I tried, the songs I played never quite sounded the same or as good as the originals. There was always something lacking. I could not get the right bending on the notes to make it sound authentic. It was close, but not the same. The other musicians felt the same about their playing and we always figured it was because we grew up here and not in Greece. Perhaps we were missing something because we didn’t have enough exposure to authentic Greek music, or because we only played out once or twice a week. Nevertheless, I kept trying to copy the masters that I heard on records and tapes.
The Viet-Nam war came along and I was ready to get drafted. Wanting to have a choice as to which branch of the service I would be in, I enlisted in the Marines. After eighteen months in the service I was sent home because of injuries incurred from a hand grenade that blew up right next to me. Although I was happy to be alive, I was devastated because among other injuries, the shrapnel had blown out the second joint in my right index finger. I didn’t know if I would ever be able to play again! Doctor Grassinger gave me the choice of either amputating it or setting it in a curved position and not having any mobility in the joint. He thought it might get in the way and suggested amputation. I thought maybe I could play again so the finger stayed. After a year or so I did get used to it and by adjusting the lower tenon of the instrument more to the left to compensate, I was playing again.
After about a year or so of convalescence, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a great clarinetist. I felt that I had enough natural talent and was blessed with a very good ear. The best way to do that was to go to Greece and study with the best clarinet player ever. The choice was obvious. His name was Vasili Saleas. He was one of those great musicians that come around maybe once in a lifetime. He was a legend by the time he was thirty. Anytime someone wanted to pay a compliment to a clarinet player, he called him Saleas. It was the ultimate compliment. If you bought a record with his name on it, you could be sure that it would be good. All of the top singers wanted him to play on their records not only because he was the best, but also because he was so famous they would sell more records. Having seen a picture of him on an album, I could tell he was a Gypsy, a sort of King of Gypsies because of his talent.
So off I went with all my savings and a big lump in my throat to find the master and hopefully if he was kind enough, if he had the time, if he thought I was worthy, and if he was even in Greece at the time, he might help me. It felt sort of like when Dorothy went looking for the Wizard of Oz except Saleas was not a hoax. The tension started to build as I was flying over the Atlantic. What if I wasn’t good enough for him? What if I couldn’t afford but a few lessons because of the cost? I had heard that top classical musicians charged two and three hundred dollars per hour. My savings totaled four thousand dollars, and I didn’t think it would get me far after buying the plane ticket. What if he just snubbed me because he didn’t want to bother or just didn’t have the time? These questions haunted me, as I looked over the Atlantic, still not believing I was on my way there. After waking up from a nap, I looked out of the window and saw the beautiful country that was the birthplace of modern civilization. The way the ocean meets the mountains is a sight to behold. The deep blue water seemingly becoming one with the sky on the horizon held me in amazement as the plane was approaching the airport.
The city of Athens in nineteen seventy-one was not the modern city we know today. The streets had many horse drawn carts, strange little three wheeled trucks and a zillion little mopeds and motorcycles driving and parking anywhere they chose. On a bad day, the pollution would make your eyes water. There were only two channels to watch on television. One was government owned and the other was private. At that time, Greece was definitely lagging behind developed countries such as the United States. There were street vendors on every corner selling everything from corn on the cob and chestnuts cooked over charcoal to belts, socks, and even ties! Like New York City, this was a city that didn’t sleep. There were always people out walking the streets and the nightclubs didn’t close until five or six in the morning.
I hurried to see all my relatives in Athens and Crete so that I could get down to the business at hand. I had gone to Athens one other time with my mother when I was sixteen, so it was not totally strange to me. I also had good command of the language because besides speaking Greek at home, I went to night school for eight years studying it. Nevertheless, it was somewhat frightening to be in a strange land by myself.
I got a room in an inexpensive part of the city because I knew I would need as much money as possible to pay for lessons if my plans were to come true. As it turns out, this was exactly the area that I needed to be in. Most of the night clubs that had folk music (which is predominately played by clarinet) were in this part of town. I started my quest by going to a nearby club that was in the basement of a building located on the street behind the hotel. As I approached the entrance, I could hear the beautiful music from the band. Being very familiar with Saleas’s playing, I could tell that it wasn’t him although this man was very good as well. I walked down the few steps to enter the club as it was partially below ground level. The band consisted of a clarinet, guitar, keyboard, drums, two female singers and two male singers. These were true professionals. You could tell this was their full time job and they had played every night for most of their lives because their music showed it. The singers all sat in chairs on stage whether it was their turn to sing or not. I was overwhelmed with the most beautiful music I had ever heard in my life. It was as if this music was coming down from the heavens! As the waiter approached me, he could tell I was dumbstruck. “Sir, would you like to sit down”? He guided me to a table and I sat in one of those chairs that are covered with straw and the leg posts stick out and dig into the back of your thighs. It seemed that the female singers all wore mini skirts and always had their legs crossed in the same direction. When one would switch to the other leg, the other would do the same. You could tell the club had made a feeble attempt at having a Caribbean décor. This of course has nothing to do with Greeks or Greek music but I believe it was the owner’s way of trying to cater to the tourist trade. In a way, this reminded me of the Greek clubs in America. They all had belly dancers to attract the non-Greeks, but belly dancing has absolutely nothing to do with Greece. It seemed like every eye in the place was on me. In those days it was easy to tell a foreigner. The clothes, the hairstyles, even the way they walk were all signs. None of this bothered me in the least because my focus was on this wonderful band that was playing music the way I always wanted to. I asked the waiter what the clarinet player’s name was, but I had not heard of him. I suppose I was only exposed to the very top names that did most of the recordings. I then asked him if he knew which club Saleas was playing at. To my surprise, he didn’t know who he was! I guess you don’t need to be a fan of the music to be a waiter at a club. I left in the wee hours of the morning having a sense of fulfillment and wondering if the other clubs were as good as this one. I couldn’t imagine a band playing any better than what I had heard that night.
I spent the next few days walking around the area looking at the marquis of the clubs hoping to find Saleas’s name but to no avail. I made a few more visits to some of the clubs and while the music was just as good at all of them, my search for Saleas brought me negative results. Discouragement and disappointment were starting to set in. Everyone’s response was that they didn’t know where he was, or maybe he had left the country for a playing job. No one was sure. One famous singer by the name of Kitsakis told me to just go home and stop looking. I had asked him about Saleas, and he told me not to bother. A big name like Saleas would not take the time or even bother to give lessons to a young kid even if I had come from America specifically for that reason. He wouldn’t care. His words were like a one hundred pound weight hitting me on my head. At this point I became convinced that I would never find him in this city of 4 million people, or he just wasn’t in the country at the time, or he would just brush me off like Kitsakis had said. I was distraught! I went back to my hotel room and played a tape of Saleas until I fell asleep. The next day I explained my dilemma to my cousin hoping he could help me in some way. Close to a month had gone by and still no success. Not being a fan of this type of music, he had not heard of him. What he said was that he knew of a clarinet player that could hold a note for a half hour and if I wanted to go hear him, he would take me there. Holding a note for a half hour of course is impossible. This man obviously had mastered the art of circular breathing. This is when you exhale into the instrument while you inhale through your nose at the same time. I agreed, thinking that maybe I could at least get lessons from someone else so the trip would not go to waste.
This club was situated within walking distance from my hotel but on a side street where you would have to know it’s there in order to find it. We walked right in and had a seat. The band had two clarinet players, a violin, a guitar, a keyboard, a drummer, three female singers (all with their legs crossed in the same direction again) and two male singers. The place was about half full already with more people coming in. As I looked at the clarinet players I noticed that the one not playing looked somewhat like Saleas. His hair was slicked back, he had very dark features, and a pencil thin mustache. His pinstriped suit looked tailor made and the creases were razor sharp. Although the place was dark and I had only seen a couple pictures of him on album covers, I could tell that this man at least had a resemblance to Saleas and my heart started pounding. At this point, he started to play a request from one of the patrons and I heard that sweet music that only one person in the world could play that way. I signaled the waiter over and asked him the clarinet player’s name. In what appeared to be a deafening voice he said “Saleas!” I asked him, “Vasili Saleas?” He said, “is there any other”?
There must be a God in Heaven, because only he could have stopped me from passing out. My cousin saw the joy on my face and told me to calm down because we had only found him. He hadn’t agreed to give me lessons yet. This was true but after having lost all hope of finding him, I couldn’t hold back my emotions. At the very least, I could spend every night listening to him until my money ran out and I had to go home. That would be a learning experience in itself!
I thought that I would return to the club the next night to talk to him. That way I could build up my courage and if I got the brush off, my cousin would not see the discouragement on my face. My cousin wouldn’t hear of it. He said that after spending all that time and money looking for him, I should talk to him tonight. With that, he called the waiter over again. He asked him if Saleas could spare a few minutes to talk with us on his break. My knees were knocking by this time. The waiter said “of course” and went to the stage and asked him. Saleas looked over at us, put his instrument down and walked right over to our table. I cannot describe the excitement and nervousness I felt as I saw him approaching. Should I stand up to shake his hand or kneel down to kiss his feet? The butterflies were wreaking havoc in my stomach and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. “Good evening” he said in a low raspy voice as he stood by the table. My cousin politely asked him to sit down and ordered a drink for him from the waiter that was standing nearby. Even though I was dumbstruck, I mustered up the courage to introduce myself. “My name is George Hohlakis and I’m a big fan of yours.” “Thank you,” he said in his gravelly voice. “Where are you from?” “I’m from America. I’m learning to play eh, clarinet and came here ah, hoping that you might eh, help me.” What do you know, I thought, I said it without stumbling too much. “You came all the way from America to find me to teach you? How did you know I would be here?” I said I didn’t, I took a chance. “How long have you been playing?” he asked. When I told him eight years he gave me a once over and said that I should know something by now. After a few minutes passed, he looked me in the eye and said that he really wasn’t taking on any students, but because I had came all the way from America specifically to find him, he would at least give me an audition. With that he gave me a warning. He said that if he didn’t think that I had the capacity to learn, he wouldn’t waste his time or mine.
He told me a story about a student he had in Detroit, Michigan when he was there playing at a nightclub for about a year. Although this student was an adult in his forties, he begged and begged Saleas to teach him one song that he loved. He regretfully agreed and spent the entire year trying to teach this man one song which he never really learned because although he loved music, he just wasn’t born with enough God-given talent to be a musician.
He explained that if he refused to help, he didn’t want me to take it too hard. It wouldn’t be fair to either of us to go further, if my talent didn’t warrant it. I explained that I wouldn’t want it any other way. Our first meeting was set for the following evening, eight o’ clock at the club. He explained that this was fine because the club didn’t open until ten or ten-thirty and no one really came in before eleven. He stood up and shook hands with us and said that he had to go back on stage. We only stayed another hour or so because my cousin had to get up for work in the morning. During that hour, I came to understand why this man was a legend. It’s one thing to be a great player but this man had an imagination that was almost beyond comprehension. His solos went way beyond what other people could even imagine. A mixture of constantly changing creativity, a rhythm that most drummers would envy, and a technique that set the precedence for others to follow, all seemed to come quite naturally to him. Every once in a while he would look over at us to see a reaction after something special that he played, almost rewarding us for being there. It was time for us to leave and after waving goodbye to Saleas, I thanked my cousin for his help before he got in a cab to go home. It was only a fifteen-minute walk for me, but I think my feet never touched the ground. I floated back to the room in disbelief of what had transpired.
Sleep can be a difficult thing when one is so excited but after a couple hours of thinking, I finally fell asleep. I spent most of the next day practicing, going over songs that he might ask me to play, and did exercises to limber up. I even shined up my instrument so he wouldn’t think I was a slob. I knew that none of these things mattered much. He would be looking at how far I had progressed and how easily I could learn from him. The tension kept mounting as the hours passed. All the doubts I had about my ability were growing and I questioned, who was I to ask Saleas for help. I left the hotel about an hour and a half early and had some coffee at a nearby coffee shop to settle my nerves, waiting for eight o clock to come. As I entered the club Saleas greeted me and took me to a table in the corner. After some small talk, he asked me to take out my clarinet. As I was putting the pieces together my hands were shaking and I started to sweat. “George, please don’t be nervous,” he said. “Just play me a song that you know best.” I thought I was prepared, but not for this. How could I pick a song that I knew best? I thought that any song I picked wouldn’t be good enough. What if he didn’t like it? I asked him if he wouldn’t mind picking one for me because I didn’t feel that I played any song exceptionally well. “OK then, play Aetos.” Aetos means eagle in English. It’s an old traditional song with some difficult passages that every clarinet player should have in his repertoire. As I started playing it, his eyes were glued to my fingers. As I flew right through the first difficult passage he started smiling and sucking air through his teeth saying “talento, talento” a couple of times. Talento means talent. My God, I thought, he likes it! Could this mean he really likes it, or is he making me feel good before he tells me he can’t do it? I finished the song and put down the instrument waiting for his next instruction. “Who taught you Greek music?” he said with a curious look. I answered that I had learned mostly by myself except for a little help from a Greek violin player. “Well, you’re playing it wrong but I can see you have some talent.” He proceeded to play a part on his clarinet and asked me to play it the same way. I asked him to repeat it once and then I played it. “Bravo! You have a good ear!” he said. At this point I realized that he liked what he heard and there was no doubt that he would help me. He proceeded to give me my first lesson that night which I taped on my trusty little tape recorder I had brought from America. It lasted about 1-½ hours. At the conclusion, he asked me how often I would like to see him for a lesson. I told him that it would depend on how much he charged me. I explained that my funds were limited and that when they ran out, I would have to go back home. “Do you think 200 drachmas is too much? Can you afford that?” That equated to about seven U.S. dollars at the time. I figured this was a real bargain considering that was about what half hour lessons were going for back home at the local music store. I was also a little baffled at why he didn’t ask for more. I told him that was fine and if it was all right with him, I would like to get as many lessons in as possible in the shortest time. I figured that the longer I stayed, the more my money would be spent on hotel rooms and restaurants rather than on lessons. He explained to me that money was not the important issue here. What was important was for me to learn something from him since I came all the way from America for that purpose. It seemed that we took a liking to each other right away. We agreed that the speed at which I learned the lessons would dictate how fast we could go.
Saleas turned out to be one of the most caring, thoughtful, generous and compassionate persons that I would ever meet. I grew to respect and love the person even more than the musician. He was the best-dressed man I had ever met as well. All his suits were tailor made and always looked fresh from the cleaners with razor sharp creases. His two-tone shoes came from New York because he couldn’t find a store in Athens that sold them. He was also considered somewhat of a leader among the Gypsies since he was so famous and goodhearted Every time one of them needed help, they would seek out Saleas. They knew he would not let them down. I was never invited to his house, but I found out that he lived in a very poor home. His wife was an old-fashioned traditional gypsy woman with the long skirts that one would envision. I knew that gypsies had a lot of children but was still surprised when I found out Saleas had eleven! I learned that many times he would do without or even borrow money from people to help out a friend. Everyone that knew him loved and respected him.
We proceeded to have a lesson every day except on Sundays. This is an amazing pace for someone to learn, but I was determined. I would practice the lesson from the previous evening all day. By the time evening came again, I was ready for the next one. Practicing all day and with the help of my trusty tape player, which I had brought from America, I was able to continue this pace for the duration of the trip. We took an occasional day off because Saleas had to play at some special occasion other than the club.
During the lessons that lasted an average of 1 1/2 hours, he would always tell me a story about his life so that we could take a break. These stories have stayed with me forever. The one that stands out the most is how when he was fifteen years old he went looking for his first playing job. He was a goat herder while growing up because Gypsies never went to school. I took it for granted that they were somehow exempted from certain laws because of their race. When he took the sheep to where they could graze, he would play the wood flute he had made himself from cane for hours until it was time to take the sheep back. Many times he would fall asleep leaning against a tree trunk while he played. He said that one time he woke up and saw a snake coiled up right next to him. Being afraid to move for fear of the snake biting him, he started to play very softly again. He said that as he played, the snake started to lower his head down to the ground. Eventually, the snake fell asleep and Saleas was able to escape! How could he imagine that this piece of cane he had made into a flute would one day save his life!
After years of playing this wood flute, he finally saved enough money to buy his first clarinet. Now, at fifteen, he thought he would try to get a job as a second clarinetist in one of the two clubs that were in the town he lived in. He went to the club that had the most business assuming that they could afford to pay for a second clarinet player. When he asked the owner if he would audition him for the job, the owner told him to get lost and come back when he was older. Having nothing to lose and being quite determined, he went across the street to the club that didn’t have as much business and asked the owner the same question. The owner was quite pleased to see the young man with his clarinet case in hand. It turned out that the clarinet player that was supposed to start soon was going to be delayed for a few days so he was without a clarinetist until he arrived. Saleas was told to put his clarinet together, go up on stage and start playing. At least he would be there until the other clarinetist came. Although Saleas was only fifteen, he was a very good player already. The customers started asking where this young man came from that played so well at such a young age. When the other clarinet player arrived the owner kept Saleas as a second because he could see how popular this young man was becoming. Everyone wanted to see the young kid that played so well. Saleas had his start. Before long, the club across the street started to suffer. Everyone wanted to hear the cute Gypsy kid that played so well. The owner that earlier had told Saleas to get lost, sent someone to offer more money if Saleas would play for him. He flat out refused. He could not abandon the man that had given him his first chance. Six months later, that club closed from lack of business. This is how the greatest Greek clarinet player of all time got his start and I was fortunate enough to hear the story directly from him.
One day Saleas saw that I was a little depressed and asked me what was wrong. I told him that I was asked to move from the hotel because even though I tried to be quiet, some of the guests were complaining that they couldn’t sleep in the afternoon because of my playing. Greeks, like most Southern Europeans, like to take a nap in the afternoon. Omonia Hotel was situated right on Omonia Square and had a lot of business guests staying there. I guess the patrons didn’t share in my love for music. He said he would meet me at eleven the following morning at the hotel to help me move to another hotel where I wouldn’t have these problems. When he arrived, I was in the lobby with my suitcases already packed. When he saw me, he immediately went to the clerk and started arguing with him. “How do you expect him to learn anything if he doesn’t practice?” The clerk responded, “My customers don’t need to hear him playing all day, he never stops”! They argued back and forth for a little while, and then Saleas picked up one of the suitcases and said, “Follow me.” I was surprised that he was genuinely upset over this. We walked for about twenty minutes to Hotel Roosevelt in Platea Vathis where he knew the desk clerk. When we arrived he introduced me as his student. “I want you to give him a room away from the rest of the guests so they can’t hear him play. He is taking lessons and needs to practice.” The desk clerk assured him everything would be fine, and this is where I spent the remainder of my trip. This hotel was not as nice as the other and an entire floor shared the same bathroom. This wasn’t so bad since I was the only guest on the third floor. The fact that it was less expensive made me happy because it would free up more money for lessons. The cleaning lady seemed to pay extra attention to my room and always called me Mr. George, even though I asked her not to because she was twice my age! When it was time for me to leave, I gave her one of those perfume and bath gift packages made in America that I bought at the U.S. Military Exchange. She was so sweet, her eyes filled with tears and she told me it was the nicest present she ever got.
As time went on, the friendship between Saleas and I kept growing. He always showed concern if I was feeling all right, if things were fine at the hotel, how my parents were back home, just asking if things were ok in general. Many times we would meet before the lesson at a nearby café. This café was where all the Gypsy musicians gathered to talk shop. I later learned that the white musicians had a different coffee shop where they met. I guess racism has no boundaries! No matter where we went, he seemed to know everyone and always introduced me as his student from America. This seemed to impress people as I could tell that I had their respect automatically. One day we were standing on the corner drinking some salepi we had bought from one of the street vendors. Salepi is sesame oil that is cooked in a big brass pot fueled with charcoal. They pour it out of one of the spigots into a paper cup and sprinkle a little cinnamon on it. I am sure it is another remnant from the Ottoman Empire along with the Turkish coffee and the coffee shops. It has a rich aromatic taste and warms you up in the winter. I looked at a couple of people crossing the street towards us and saw that one of them was Kitsakis, the singer who told me to go home and stop trying to find Saleas. When Kitsakis spotted us, he kept looking back and forth at Saleas and me. I’m sure he was thinking about what he had said about Saleas not wanting to give me lessons and basically, wouldn’t give me the time of day. Of course, I had not repeated any of this to Saleas. They greeted each other and when Saleas was about to introduce me, Kitsakis told him that he already knew me. “I see that you finally found him!” he said. “I’m very happy for you and I know you’ll do well with him.” I thanked him and we went on our way. It was a little humorous to see the nervousness in Kitsakis as he wondered if I had told Saleas what he said.
A couple of months had gone by since I first met Saleas and everything was going even better than I had expected. My funds however, were starting to run a little low. I figured that I had better let Saleas know that I only had a couple of weeks left before my money ran out and I would have to go back home. We had been going at a feverish pitch with a lesson every day. I was like a sponge soaking everything up as he taught it and had yet to repeat a lesson because I had not learned it from the night before. When I told Saleas the news, he was genuinely upset. He had poured his heart into teaching me and I could see that he didn’t really want me to leave although he knew I had to. After some small talk, he asked me if we could double up on the lessons. I asked him how. We were already having one every day. He explained that if I thought I could handle it, he would come to my room about twelve noon every day for a lesson. We could review it that evening and then he would give me another one as he had been doing. Since I only had a short time left, we should take advantage of it he said. “Mr. Vasili” as I always called him, “I would love to do that, but I’ll run out of money twice as fast.” “Relax Giorgo.” “I don’t want anything for the extra lesson. That will be on me. I want you to go back home having learned as much as possible from me.” I was overwhelmed with his generosity. I wanted to refuse but I knew it would have insulted him. I was uncomfortable with it but I agreed. As we shook hands on it, I wondered if I could keep up with it. Would I have time to even eat at such a pace? Nevertheless, this is why I came here and if he thought I could handle it and wanted to devote his time, who was I to question it?
The pace was frightening but somehow I was keeping up with it. He could tell that it was taking its toll on me. Many times he gave me words of encouragement. He always said things like we were here to work; when I got home I could relax. What a truly wonderful person this man was. One day he came in wearing a beautiful cream-colored tailor made coat that I hadn’t seen before. When I complimented him on it, he asked me to try it on so he could see what it looked like on someone else. Without thinking I put it on. After giving me a once over, he told me to keep it. He said it looked better on me than him. He thought it was a little too loose for him. I flat out refused but he kept insisting so I gave in and accepted it. His generosity had no end. He never let me pay when we went out together and now he had even given me his coat because I said I liked it.
Our time together was quickly coming to an end. By now we only had a few days left before it was time for me to go. On the last couple of days, he spent the entire afternoon playing lessons for me to learn when I got back home, which I recorded on my trusty tape player that I brought from America. On the last day, he gave me a ring as a going away present. He explained that he didn’t know if it was real because he bought it on the street the last time he was in New York City. It was a gold ring with little diamonds on it. I told him that it didn’t matter if it was real, that I would treasure it forever because he gave it to me. I tried to give him my trusty tape player, which I had brought from America, but he would not take it. I kept insisting but to no avail. I had to lie and say that I had another one at home before he accepted. He was worried that I might not be able to listen to the lessons if he took it. He kissed me on both cheeks and said he wanted to see me again as soon as I could afford to come back, and that maybe next time, I could play second clarinet with him if I studied as hard as I have been. My heart was heavy and my eyes were moist as I walked away knowing that more than anything, I had made a real friend. He had treated me like a son. I guess what they say is true; when a gypsy loves someone, it’s with his whole heart. When I came to Greece I didn’t know what to expect. Now as I was leaving, I knew that what I had experienced, and the friend I had made, would change me for the rest of my life.
I came back to the States and started playing jobs with the same band I had been with when I left. I had a renewed vigor and knew that whatever I played was correct and had been taught to me by the master himself. My playing didn’t lack that missing ingredient anymore and now it was up to me as to how good I would become. I thought that if I was frugal, I could save enough money to visit my friend and mentor again in a couple of years.
In February of nineteen seventy-two, the violin player in the band told me he heard that Saleas had died but he wasn’t sure. I felt crushed but there were a lot of Saleas’s that were musicians and I hoped that maybe it was someone else. Soon afterwards, my father said he saw the obituary in one of the Greek newspapers. It was true; he was gone. Although I grieved for him and was quite depressed for a few weeks, it seemed like I didn’t really believe it. Somehow in my mind I thought that it wasn’t true. About six months later I bought a 45-rpm record that was made in his honor as a tribute to him. His son, Kostas, played clarinet on the record. I took it home and waited till my mother had left and I was alone. I played the record on the old phonograph and heard it for the first time. I didn’t get to the end of the song before I burst into tears. The verses described him to a tee. I played the song over and over for a couple of hours all the while crying for one of the nicest people I had ever met. I guess it had finally set in. All those months of being in denial were gone. I finally accepted that he was dead and that I would never see him again.
After awhile, it seemed like the whole trip was nothing but a dream. If I didn’t have the tapes with the lessons and the pictures of him standing on the sidewalk with his two-tone shoes and his tailor made suit, I could question the reality of it all. Death is such a final thing. He was gone forever.
I eventually married and had four children. I was living my life with the rich memory of a friend who had thought enough of me to take the time to help. It felt good that I had taken the initiative to seek him out at that young age and risk rejection. Looking back, it was a small price to pay for what I got; a priceless memory. As my children grew, they were influenced by me and each learned how to play an instrument. I kept hoping that they could somehow relive my experiences but times were very different. Although they all became good musicians, I could not expect them to go through the same learning experience I had. They learned in a different era. Those times are gone forever.
When the children were young, we took a trip to Bush Gardens in Florida. We had gone to Disney World before and thought we would try something different. We drove down in a Chevy Suburban with the family and all our gear in the back. After settling down in a hotel, we entered the park and started to stroll around. It was really interesting to see all the animals and the Northern African theme. I barely noticed in the background and through all the noise that there was some type of Middle Eastern music playing. As we strolled through the park, we were getting nearer to where the speakers were and now I was better able to make out what was playing. It was a nice instrumental “karsilama”. This is a 9/8ths rhythm very popular in Middle-Eastern music. The lead instrument was a clarinet so I started paying more attention to it. As the music got louder, I started to realize that this was a Greek clarinet player (you can tell from the style of playing). Not only that, it dawned on me that it was the one and only Saleas! It was like lightning had struck! How could it be that I would hear his music in an American theme park in Florida? I took the kids by the hand and rushed over to the speaker where the music was coming from. Now I was sure. I even remembered that I had heard this song before. I stood there in a stupor while all those beautiful memories rushed through my mind. Saleas had told me that he had played in a few Arabic and Turkish night clubs and had made quite a few recordings with musicians from those countries Close to tears, I started asking where the office was that controlled the music. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe I thought that if I could find the source of the music, I could find him again. Somehow, in a crazy moment of joy, anguish, and disbelief, I thought I could relive the time I spent in Greece with him. After asking a couple of people that didn’t know, reality set in. I realized it didn’t matter where the music was coming from; after all, it was just a recording. What did matter was that Saleas is being remembered for his music and still lives in the hearts of the people he touched. His memory will live eternal from the legacy he left behind and my heart will be forever filled with the kindness and love he gave me.
Thank you, Mr. Vasili.