A message from the heart of Europe

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People are always telling me I need to relax more, and „live in the moment.“ A physical therapist once told me that my shoulder injury, my eternal headaches and the fact that I have trouble sleeping might be the result of the fact that my body contantly produces too much adrenalin, even at night, because my brain tells it that it needs to be watchful. The wisdom of bluegrass lyrics has taught us that it might be useful to sleep with one eye open in the instance of a honky-tonking partner, but a constant sense of alertness can also be counterproductive. Do you know that video where you are asked to watch a basketball  team and count how many times they pass the ball, and afterwards they ask you if you also happened to notice that a guy dressed in a polar bear suit crossed the set—which of course you didn’t, because you were totally focussed on the ball, and then when you watch the video a second time, you can’t believe how you could have missed something so obvious…? Well, that’s what I feel like on those rare occasions when I do notice that I am completely relaxed and in the here-and-now, and the feeling of peaceful bliss is suddenly violently interrupted by the shocking realization that I forgot something important. In this case, I was in a pub in Bratislava (the capital of the Slovak Republic), in one of the best jam sessions I can imagine there to be in Europe, reunited with dear friends I had not seen for a long time. Somebody mentioned the word „writing,“and then it hit me: Noooooo, the CBA columnn is due today!! Rick had even reminded me a few days earlier, I had written it on the blackboard in my house, I had marked it in my digital calendar and I had written it on my hand with a pen. Maybe I jinxed it by creating so many reminders, because writing „write CBA column“ so many times probably tricked my brain into thinking that I had already done it. Anyway, I hope I didn’t dissapoint you. The Dutch are not as „pünktlich“ as our German neighbors. And, after all, I’m still a musician, and the occasional haziness is part of the package.  

If you were not aware of the fact that there is a bluegrass community in the Slovak Republic—or maybe you were not even aware that there is such a thing as the Slovak Republic, not to be confused with the Czech Republic or Slovenia—I can tell you now that it will enrich your life if you get acquainted with this  „little big country in the heart of Europe.“  I accidentally stumbled into a Slovak bluegrass band 10 years ago when a band that was to play at the European World of Bluegrass Festival spontaneously asked me and another girl to replace their singer who couldn’t perform because of a throat infection, and the decision to say yes was the first step on an adventure that would last three years and a special bond with a different culture that, I’m sure, will last a lifetime.

For three years, I traveled to Slovakia by plane as much as I could—approximately six times a year—and once a year, the guys would all get into a van and take turns driving to the Netherlands. Because most of them are dependent on regular jobs and they can’t afford to take many days off work (especially if the gig money doesn’t even completely cover travel expenses and food and accommodation, let alone the loss of income), they would usually leave after work on Friday and drive throughout the night for 14 hours straight, and leave for home again on Sunday morning. There comes a time in your life when this just gets to be too much, and for most people this is the time when you settle down to have a family. So in recent years, hardly any Slovak bands make the trip to the EWOB festival in the Netherlands anymore. And me, ever since I left the band in 2008 I kept being drawn toward that special place with warm friendly people where I feel so much at home, even if back then we did not succeed in overcoming obstacles such as the high expenses, not seeing each other for months and then being sentenced to spend every waking hour on a few square meters, misunderstandings caused by culture (and gender) differences, etc. I have always looked for excuses to go to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, and even though this year I couldn’t think of any, I decided to just go for a weekend trip. And globalization be praised: with a plane from my own city of Rotterdam to Vienna and a super comfortable (and cheap!) bus trip from Vienna to Bratislava, it’s so easy and inexpensive to make this 800 mile trip that it’s almost creepy. In the future I don’t think I will need to look for excuses anymore.

When I first came to Slovakia, there were many festivals, and many enthusiastic supporters of the music who were always willing to come to any event. Today, some of them still play in bands. A band that has been around for a while and that mainly plays original material is Candy Floss. Some other bands that I know of are Blueland, Šidlo and Tien. There are also bands that consist of Slovak and Czech musicians, like East West. Sometimes, a new face appears on the scene, like in the new group Heartbeats, whose singer Sonia has a background in punk music. Very few can sustain a career as a professional musician or sound engineers; Peter Szabadoš is one of them. He is known as one of the best Dobro players in Slovakia and many Czech and Slovak bluegrass bands recorded their albums in „Studio Sabik,“ though he earns most of his income playing steel guitar in country groups and as the sound man at the live shows of bands in all kinds of genres. Banjo player Richard Ciferský, who has toured with Valerie Smith, Becky Buller, Jonathan Manness, and Dale Ann Bradley, and whose third solo album features The Chapmans and Rob Ickes, successfully held a crowdfunding campaign for a working VISA so that he can live and perform in the USA for 3 years. Some others quit playing music altogether, because they want to devote their free time on their children (and after spending some time with them at the mall today, I feel it’s safe to say there is a logical link between devoted parents and adorable children…), or building a house, or they hardly have any free time to spare at all. Unfortunately, a new generation of bluegrass musicians hasn’t presented itself in Slovakia, the way that it has in the Czech Republic. Of all the festivals there once were, only three survive: the musicians’s gathering in the High Tatra mountains in the winter (skiing during the day, bluegrass performances and jam sessions all through the night—how can it get any better?), and Bluegrass vecer in Horná Poruba and Fest Dobré Bohunice in the summer. This summary of Slovak bluegrass that I found online is very interesting for those who want to know the history of the Slovak scene and how it differs from the Czech and other European bluegrass scenes, but it is hopelessly outdated (the last update was on 2000…): http://www.bluegrass.sk/zvonky/english/clanky/bluegrass.html.

So is the Slovak bluegrass scene dying now, and would it make sense to only speak of a Czech bluegrass scene from now on? Of course not, even though the Czech scene is much bigger and much more active. First of all, because most of the Czech and Slovak people are very friendly towards each other and feel no rivalry. The CZ/SK band East West is a good example of this. Also, as long as veteran musicians with a lot of knowledge of the music and its history are still active in bands, like Michal Barok, Filip Bato and Vladimír Križan of the band Heartbeats, they will recruit and inspire musicians from different backgrounds, who can in turn use those backgrounds to refresh the scene and expand it with their own networks.

When I wrote my friends that I would come to Bratislava to visit them, Michal and Vladimír wrote some emails and made some phonecalls to invite our shared old bluegrass pals for a jam session, but they were a bit afraid that nobody would come. Instead, we had the perfect amount of people, a mellow atmosphere, and a nice venue with good acoustics where nobody minded us and the vodka kept on coming. The venue was discovered by Michals father-in-law Ludo (also a mandolin player) who is planning to organize a christmas jam there. And one of my old friends who is there, Kamila Travnickova, recently re-activated her agency for music management. She organized many successful bluegrass events in the past, so it would be great to have her back on board. And even though the new generation of Slovaks does not (yet!) do a lot of banjo-picking, they do something most of their parents did not: speak English. Once the youngsters discover bluegrass or newgrass or soulgrass or gangstagrass whatever version of it might appeal to them, the singing will be much easier for them than it was for all those bands that had to learn every word phonetically. And if they combine half-decent singing with the instrumental skills of their parents, well… Europe, beware!

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