Sunday, October 30, 2016

Spaghetti Cowboys: Country fest in Bologna.


The arrow points the way


Last Sunday I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.



This one, called "Festival Country," took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of "October Fest" beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called "Irish Festival."



The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings.....



Once there, what did I find?

The scene -- at least on the day I was there -- was a sort of distillation of all the most common stereotypes associated with "the west," "the frontier," "country-western," and, in a certain way, "America."  It was almost "paint-by-numbers"-- but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.



I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered -- from a band (whose name I didn't get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.



The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, "pioneers and westerns", Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.

At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.



Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral -- which is where, I believe, shows were staged.





All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, "western attire" and the usual type of wild west tschotsches -- most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I've been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.



There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.




And beyond this were  lots of tables where people could eat -- the "western" fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta -- but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen "spaghetti and meatballs" in Italy.





One thing that was different from some of the festivals I've gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on "western" topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them -- where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.


 

I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours....I'm sad to say that was it all so empty,  stereotyped, and  superficial that it wasn't really fun.












Spaghetti (& Meatballs) Cowboys: Country fest in Bologna.


The arrow points the way


In late October I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.



This one, called "Festival Country," took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of "October Fest" beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called "Irish Festival:" vaguely Celtic music, and stalls that mainly seemed to sell "Lord of the Rings" type clothing.....



The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings.....



Once there, what did I find?

The scene -- at least on the day I was there -- was a sort of distillation of all the most common cliches and stereotypes associated with "the west," "the frontier," "country-western," and, in a certain way, "America."  It was almost "paint-by-numbers"-- but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.





I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered -- from a band (whose name I didn't get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.



The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, "pioneers and westerns", Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.

At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.



Or, of course, post for pictures.



Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral -- which is where, I believe, shows were staged.





All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, "western attire" and the usual type of wild west tschotsches -- most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I've been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.





There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.




And beyond this were  lots of tables where people could eat -- the "western" fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta -- but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen "spaghetti and meatballs" in Italy.





One thing that was different from some of the festivals I've gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on "western" topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them -- where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.


 

I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours....I'm sad to say that was it all so empty,  stereotyped, and  superficial -- and that, despite the razzle dazzle and noise, there was such a lack of energy -- that it wasn't really fun.












Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mini Dobrofest -- Dobro still means good in any language




Last night was a homecoming of sorts, in Trnava, Slovakia -- an hours-long concert in honor of John Dopyera, who with his brothers invented the dobro, or resonator guitar.

Last night's concert was also billed as a "mini-Dobrofest" -- a much smaller, but still fun successor to the Dobrofest festival that for years took place in Trnava to celebrate the instrument and its creators.

Dobrofest was founded in 1992, just when Slovakia was gaining independence through its "velvet divorce" from the Czech Republic. The country was, subconsciously perhaps, looking for national heroes, and Dopyera became one -- the archetypical local boy who made good, even though he left the country to do so.... Dopyera was born in the village of Dolna Krupa, near Trnava, in 1893 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1908. They ended up in California...

Year after year, Dobrofest brought top international musicians to Trnava, including the Americans Peter Rowan, Bob Brozman and Jerry Douglas -- as well as local bands.

Here's a video of Peter Rowan performing with the Czech band Druha Trava at Dobrofest in 2005:





But Dobrofest sort of ended for lack of funds in 2008 and then sputtered into mini-fests after that.

I attended it several times, the first time in 2003, when main events were held in the town's main square as well as in other venues, including one of the synagogues.

Last night's concert took place in a music cafe that is part of a huge new stadium and shopping mall complex. I met up with some of my oldest friends in Europe's Imaginary Wild West and country music scene.

The headliner was Willie Jones and his band. A big bear of a man with a full beard, Willie (and bandmember Roman Ac) were two of the very first people I met in the scene -- back in 2003, when he was working as the "singing cowboy" of the Pullman City wild west theme park in Bavaria.

I was working on an article for the New York Times back then, and I followed Willie and Roman on an adventure into the Czech country world.

Willie Jones and Roman Ac in Trnava March 11, 2016




One of my first experiences in the Imaginary Wild West was, in fact, a cowboy-style party in a country-western roadhouse in a remote village in southern Bohemia....I was led there by Willie Jones, an American who at the time was working as a singing cowboy at the Pullman City wild west theme park in Bavaria. Along with a Slovak bluegrass group, we traveled in a three-car convoy from Pullman City into CZ.
 
The road house was in a village too small to appear on my map. From the outside it looked like an anonymous village restaurant, but inside it was decorated with Wild West paraphernalia including horseshoes, sepia photographs of Native Americans and Billy the Kid, and a framed arrangement of pistols and playing cards. 
The occasion for the party was the 50th birthday of Franz Zetihammel, a figure well known on the Czech and German western show circuit for his portrayals “Fuzzy,” an “old coot” persona harking back to characters played by comic western actors such as Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. Fuzzy has long straggly grey hair and beard and never appears in public without his cowboy hat, cowboy boots and turquoise bolo tie and other jewelry. 
A Czech country duo got the guests up and dancing with locally written Czech country songs and Czech covers of American hits such as John Denver’s “Country Roads” and even “I’m and Okie from Muskokee.” 
One of the party guests, a man in his forties, was dressed head to toe in full cowboy attire, including sheriff’s star and a six-shooter – which Fuzzy at one point pulled from its holster, brandished at the dancers and then fired at the ceiling – fortunately, it was loaded with blanks....

Other artists on the line-up last night were the award-winning Czech guitarist Jakub Racek, the English singer Dave Peabody (who duetted with a Bratislava-born fiddler, the only woman onstage...), and the Slovak dobro player Peter Sabados.





The show last night was MC'd by Peter "Bonzo" Radvanyi -- the bluesy local performer who had been the driving force behind Dobrofest.  He ended the show by getting everyone to sing a sort of "Dobro chant" that had ended the festival events in its heyday.




And then he got everyone one stage to do this -- at the very end of the show





I sat with a table of friends in the front row -- they were people who really helped me in my quest to follow the scene over the years and explain the fascination with American country style, country music, bluegrass, and all that goes with it. Thanks guys!












Saturday, August 22, 2015

Equiblues 2015!



This was the third time I have been to the Equiblues rodeo and country music festival in St. Agreve, France -- an annual event that draws upwards of 25,000 people and that this year was celebrating its 20th edition.

It was one of the first big country-western festivals I attended (back in 2004) when I first started following the "scene". Last time I was there was 3 years ago -- read what I wrote back then HERE and HERE.

Equiblues lasts the better part of a week, but this year, I only was able to make it there for Friday evening and Saturday, and -- alas -- I missed all of the rodeo -- though I saw some of the cowboy mounted shooting competition.



One of my reasons for going was to meet with Georges Carrier, an expert on country music in France who had been the director of the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne for 18 years.

I parked in front of the scene in the photo at the top of this page -- a fitting welcome image.

But the photo below encapsulates the atmosphere event better: "Authentic Dreams". Festivals like Equiblues are signal embodiments of what I call "real imaginary" spaces -- a re-created; no -- a created -- "America" where everyone wears cowboy hats and boots and hustles and bustles amid the trappings of the frontier; but where little has much really to do with the United States. As usual, except for some of the artists and rodeo performers, I was one of the only -- if not the only -- American there. I did hear English in the crowd from one couple strolling through, but UK English.








Actually, I found this year's Equiblues just about identical with what I found three years ago. Even the same food (sausage and frites; steak and frites; wine; beer...) and physical set-up. For festival-run merch, tickets, food, and events -- you have to pay in Equiblues dollars that you have to buy with Euros: one dollar = one Euro.

As usual, I was fascinated by the use of flag imagery -- American flags, Confederate flags and various other flags and banners. They are used basically without much meaning, as decoration mean to provide an "American" or "Rebel" spin, as backdrops, clothing, ornamentation.

In the photo below, fly in a row, over a souvenir and clothing stand,  an American flag, a Confederate flag with the words "Heritage Not Hate", a  Confederate flag and, I think, an Iowa state flag. I doubt of many people understood the significance of the slogan......


Check out the flag-inspired clothing, too.












The music, of course, with crowded concerts every night -- by American, Canadian and French artists -- under a circus-like big top, is one of the highlights. And there is a big space for line-dancers. I am still fascinated by the hypnotic geometric movements of these masses of people.




 There was even a Miss Equiblues contest.



But most visitors looked more like this: