As that learned non-Greek Yogi Berra once stated, “It’s déjà vu all over again!”
That’s exactly the feeling I experienced when I visited, or maybe I should say revisited Epidaurus, because I had been there before. I walked in as if it was yesterday. I recognized every rock, every stone seat, every tier and tree, the columns, the gates and the assembly area. I had once performed at this famous Greek theater….there was no doubt it!
The sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus is a spiritual place worth traveling around the world to visit. In fact the ancient Greeks did just that in order to pay tribute to their spiritual entities in the face of Asclepius, and to ask the gods for remedies for their physical ailments. It was a healing and cultural center in ancient times where the mental, spiritual, and physical self were treated as one.
Epidaurus was built round the 3d Century BC and it is adorned with a multitude of buildings most famous of which is the ancient Theater of Epidaurus.
This is one of the very few theaters that retain its original circular “Orchestra” and it is a rare aesthetic sight. During the Roman occupation of Greece, most theater “Orchestras” were changed from a circle to a semicircle but luckily The Theater at Epidaurus escaped intact.
I was a young man then, in my early twenties, and I played tenor pipe, a musical instrument I had invented. Together with my girlfriend Penelope and her dancing companions, we were the warm-up act for one of Homer’s Greek tragedies. If you had seen one of his plays you would understand why they were referred to as tragedies. They were both pitiful and tragic.
Several of my old school chums were seated in the best ‘Gold’ seats adjacent to the stage. There was no stage in actual fact, just a sandy area at the center of the auditorium. I spotted Tot (his real name was Aristotle but we nick-named him Tot), and next to him was Uke (short for Euclid), he was a real obnoxious nerd always geometrically opposed to every new idea. Icke (Sophocles) was late as usual; his mind was off in the clouds somewhere so much so that he lost all track of time.
The theater was packed with close to 2500 patrons. For many it was mandatory for them to attend. Very few could comprehend the message delivered within the words of Homer, and nobody really cared, but if you wanted to keep your farm or your job, you daren’t miss the performance. Fortunately for Homer booing had not been invented yet, that came later during Roman times.
Musical entertainment was not a big box-office draw. Ordinary folk did not whistles or sing as they worked. There were no songs to sing, and humming was not permitted in the better circles of Greek society. I was an oddity; a musician, a wastrel and an artist with no future. Parents pointed me out to the kids with a dire warning that they should not grow up like me. “Get a real job,” still rings in my ears.
The tenor pipe was to become the forerunner of all woodwind instruments, but I didn’t know that at the time. We lived in BC but we had no idea who or what C was, how could we? We were desperate for Hallmark to invent the calendar, so we would all know what year it was.
But I digress, back to my music and the tenor pipe. It was made from a four foot long length of bamboo. I stole the bamboo from a marble quarry in nearby Athena where it was used to roll large blocks of marble onto wagons to be hauled to the new cities that were being built close to the Aegean Sea. They had so many pieces of bamboo that I knew they wouldn’t miss just one short piece. I fabricated a mouthpiece from a piece of wood and glued it to the top of the pipe, it may sound simple but it took a hundred attempts before it was leak-proof. If only somebody would have invented Duct Tape! Now the problem with a four foot long pipe is that a normal person’s finger span cannot cover all the holes that form the notes, in my case I could only cover the top eight holes, and I had made sixteen holes in the bamboo pipe. That’s where Penelope (Penny for short) came in. She would cover the bottom eight holes as we played; it was kind of like four hands on a piano but of course that came much later. Another problem that became very evident when we practiced together was my inability to keep the pipe full of air, I found it needed more volume of air than my lungs could provide. I made a bag out of goatskin, attached a small reed tube to it so Penny could augment my air with hers. She gripped the bag between her knees and pumped additional air into the pipe by squeezing her legs together. Now use your imagination for a moment. Picture us together playing this unwieldy instrument. Penny is sitting in my lap, or what a man describes as his lap, while she is rhythmically squeezing her muscles to pump the air into the pipe. You get the picture? Need I say more?
Friends often asked me where Penny came from, and my standard reply was, “Penny’s from Heaven.” Later a whistle was named for her and a Lane in London.
The music we played was dreadful, but in a non-musical society we were top of the charts. It’s interesting to note that as smart as the Greeks were they have remained a musically bereft nation. I’d give a gold star to anyone who can name five Greek composers, or two, how about just one? We played a selection of folk songs written by either Penny of me and orchestrated for tenor pipe and two goat-skin drums. Penny’s two girl friends gyrated in their own time frame with no regard to the music with as about as much dancing talent as Elaine on the Seinfeld Show.
Epidaurus was a good gig. Where else in ancient Greece could we have played to so many people? It was like Woodstock and Carnegie Hall all rolled into one. It bothers me that I was not recognized for my musical experimentation and just knowing that Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and all the other great saxophone players who came later would never have risen to such great heights had it not been for my invention, still grates on me. I really deserved better.
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