He greets even strangers with a double-handed shake, then kisses the tip of his left hand and throws the "kiss" lightly up in the air. It's all a question of feel for this Greek-born American clarinet player. You see it in the way he twists the tubes of his instrument into just the right position. And as he plays what sounds like a shimmering peal of sea-gull cries -- his lips, his jaw, his hands and the clarinet itself all vibrating -- you hear 76 years of listening insightfully to the sounds of the world.
Periklis Halkias speaks little English. "Three days, no sleep," he complains -- the result of sitting in a plane practically nonstop from Greece. It's true: The eyes are bloodshot, the glasses misty. As he sits in a Senate caucus room yesterday morning with the 11 other winners of the National Endowment for the Arts' 1985 National Heritage Fellowship awards, he gazes into space with what looks like benign contentment but is probably just plain fatigue.
The award is in recognition of his playing -- a phonetic wonder of twisting, spiraling notes that would make Acker Bilk give up the reed. But ironically, it may also help signal the end of an era. For the regional purity of music from the different villages of Greece -- and particularly of the clarinetist's native Epirot province, in the northernmost part of the country, bordering Albania -- may not survive Halkias long.
With him at the morning ceremony are two of his three sons, the only hope of continuing their father's tradition -- Petros (also a clarinetist) and Achileas (a violinist); as well as Halkias' brother-in-law and fellow ensemble laouto (a form of guitar) player Lazaros Harisiades.
Quipping among each other in Greek, like so many wayward schoolboys, these gray-haired family members (one with a veritable gold mine of teeth) oblige a video news team by sitting down to play. When they have tuned up -- against the din of other award winners performing in various corners of the room -- they play: It's like waking up for the first time in a taverna perched on an Aegean hillside. The rippling, the crosscurrents and the sun are all there. A representative from Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' office whistles and stamps his foot; other people gather around. It's pure intoxication -- and in the middle of it all is Halkias, with his vibrating tones, and a tight mouth that clamps around the reed like a mussel closing its shell.
"He says it is practical music he is playing," says Halkias' translator, Alex Malamis. American ears. "Not just one kind of music. There are different kinds of dances in Epirot. And besides that lots of villages play differently. You're supposed to know each village. If you go to one village to play for a festival, you should know the different meter."
"The new musicians," Halkias continues, "play one system instead of following the traditions. They play without even seeing the tradition of that particular town. You'll hear songs now they weren't playing before."
Halkias taught himself to play ("By myself," he emphasizes in English). His grandfather, who played flute and clarinet, made him a wooden clarinet. There were no music lessons; Halkias listened to his grandfather and his surroundings.
While explaining this to his translator, Halkias makes curious whimpers. He's talking, Malamis explains, about "miroloi. These are sad songs. When the Turks occupied Greece and when someone was killed, there was a lament. He was listening one day to relatives crying over someone killed and he wanted to represent it with the clarinet . . . There are different laments all over Greece, different reactions to death. He's been trying to get all those styles in his playing . . . "
Since the age of 10, the troubadour has spent his life playing mainly in Greece and in New York City, where he now lives. He walked, barefoot at first, to festivals, weddings, and dances. He still returns home every summer to play in Epirot and at other festivals. He has many memories: Playing for the women in Greek villages while the men ate inside, then -- while the women went in to eat -- playing for the sated men who would come out to dance. In Athens in the 1930s, he would play nightly from 9 o'clock until 2 in the morning and then close the club doors and play softly for friends until just before breakfast.
In the mid-1960s, Halkias emigrated to the United States, to join the strong Greek community in New York, which including many old friends and his son Petros. He played at the Port Said Club in New York, playing music for a belly dancer for two years, while living rent-free upstairs. He also played at the Istanbul club and then "from one club to another," gradually building a reputation. It was a golden time.
"I was young then, I enjoyed being alone. I had a lot of friends from Epirot. They helped me feel comfortable. They were real patriots. They respected me . . .
"But now, they're dead. I'm the only one alive. It's not the same as it used to be."
Halkias himself took sick 10 years ago with prostate trouble, while playing in Massachusetts. "They had to operate," he says. "The priest came to the hospital. He said, 'You're going to play your clarinet again. You're not going to die.' I'm in love with Greek-Americans because they all came for me when I was sick and said, 'No, you're not going to die.' "
He still plays all the time, he says. "I will play until the moment I die. And I want to die with my clarinet in my sight. And a drink with it."
The other 11 recipients of the 1985 National Heritage Fellowship awards are: Eppie Archuleta, Alice New Holy Blue Legs, Jimmy Jausoro, Mealii Kalama, Lily May Ledford, Leif Melgaard, Bua Sua Mua, Julio Negron, Glenn Ohrlin, Henry Townsend and Horace "Spoons" Williams.