Saturday, October 21, 2017

Wearing cowboy on his skin (in Bavaria)







I've been visiting Willie Jones, the American-born singer whose been based in Germany for more than 30 years and is one of the standouts on the European country scene. He has a new compilation CD coming out this fall, and I wrote the liner notes.

Willie is one of the first people I met in Europe's Imaginary Wild West -- back in 2003, when he was the strolling singer at the Pullman City wild west theme park (I was writing an article for the New York Times on European wild west theme parks). We went on a memorable road trip to a country roadhouse in southern Bohemia ... the first time I heard "The Okie From Muskogee" sung in Czech.... I last saw his about a year and a half ago, at the "mini Dobrofest" festival in Trnava, Slovakia (which I wrote about HERE).

Last night I went with Willie to a club gig in a village in Bavaria, near Regensburg: he played bass backup for a German duo called Bud 'n' Cellar, and also sang....country-infused rock and pop.

The club was packed -- and the fans demanded -- DEMANDED -- DEMANDED -- that they play "Country Roads" -- two times! I have posted about the significance of this song in the European country scene.

I was particularly fascinated by the tattoos sported by one of the group's friends. He wore his enthusiasm on his skin.




Here's another couple of pics from the gig:






Sunday, September 3, 2017

Jews, Americana, Bluegrass, Jewgrass...


This is slightly off topic, but here's an article I wrote for Hadassah Magazine about the involvement of American Jews in bluegrass and Americana music, focusing on the current crop of musicians but also providing some background on what is a decades-long involvement.

Jews Plus Bluegrass Equals Toe-Stompin' Jewgrass



Banjo picker Eric Lindberg loves with a passion the distinctive harmonies of the acoustic country music known as bluegrass. However, he says, as a Jew, he long felt “a bit out of the loop.
“Much of the work from the inception and early days of bluegrass is deeply spiritual and Christian based,” says the dark-haired, darkbearded 30-something Lindberg, who also plays guitar. “Musically, I could connect with the songs on every level, but my identity as a Jew from Brooklyn always kept me from truly identifying with them.”
The solution? He and his wife, singer Doni Zasloff, formed a bluegrass band called Nefesh Mountain whose original songs meld bluegrass and old-time licks with lyrics reflecting Jewish traditions. “Nefesh is a Hebrew word which loosely translates as the soul or animating spirit of all living things,” they explain on the band’s website. “The mountain is a cross-cultural symbol used widely in Jewish text as well as in bluegrass and old-time musical forms.”
Bluegrass and old-time are two different approaches to traditional 20th-century American roots music, performed by ensembles made up mainly of stringed instruments such as fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar.
Nefesh Mountain’s 2016 debut album featured bluegrass greats Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes and Gary Oleyar, and it included songs called “Singin’ Jewish Girl” and “Adonai Loves Me.” Lindberg and Zasloff are among the current crop of musicians who blend their deep-seated Jewish identities with an equally deep connection to traditional roots music—a fusion that some performers and critics dub “Jewgrass.”

[...]

New Orleans-based Mark Rubin, 51, a veteran of both the American roots and klezmer scenes, takes a different tack on his new album, Songs for the Hangman’s Daughter. In songs such as “Southern Jews Is Good News” and “Teshuvah,” Rubin, who was born in Stillwater, Okla., bluntly attempts to reconcile his experience as a culturally Jewish musician in the American South.

“It is not religious music in the usual sense,” says music critic Ari Davidow. Rubin “is in-your-face about who he is and how he doesn’t fit stereotypes. He is not just making a statement to anti-Semites who see Jews as aliens, but also to Jews of the coasts who find it alien to imagine that there are Jews who live in redneck territory, proudly embracing redneck values.”

The involvement of Jews with American roots music goes back decades, to the folk and old-time music revival that kicked off in the late 1950s and in which Jewish musician, musicologist and filmmaker John Cohen was a key figure. (Today, one of the top bluegrass artists is Jewish musician Noam Pikelny, recipient of the first annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2010, though he does not address his Jewish identity in his music.)

Mandolin and clarinet virtuoso Andy Statman and award-winning scholar and performer Henry Sapoznik, now director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture at the University of Wisconsin, were both pioneers of the klezmer revival movement. They had been steeped in old-time and bluegrass before turning to Yiddish sources in the 1970s.


.... Read full article

Friday, July 14, 2017

Country Music... from Iran



I've just learned about and Iranian-born country artist -- Erfan "Elf"  Rezayatbakhsh -- who a founded a country band -- The Dream Rovers -- a few years ago and has tried to bring country music to his home country.


The web site "Saving Country Music" wrote in an article and interview in January:

He’s a singer and songwriter from Tehran, and along with guitar player Ahmad Motevassel, they are the Dream Rovers.
This is not some weird-sounding Iranian techno music with a banjo slid in there to certify it as “country.” The first album of the Dream Rovers was a covers record that included old country music classics like Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” and Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes.” The band first formed as the Persian Rovers in January of 2007, and shorty after were forced to go on a hiatus after Elf was conscripted into the Iranian military service. After a few personnel changes, the band re-formed as the Dream Rovers—Iran’s first country music band.

Here's "Superstar," their first official video, released in 2011. The song was insired by Taylor Swift:




The Saving Country Music article tates:

Though most of Western music in Iran can only exist in forbidden, underground channels, Elf and the Dream Rovers were able to present their music publicly at the Sharif University of Technology (SUT) in Tehran on multiple occasions, and for audiences of more than 500 people.
“I was born and raised in a country that has absolutely zero background in country music,” Elf tells Saving Country Music. “Yet I am very passionate about preserving the true country music, which is the most important and authentic part of the American heritage and culture and introduce it to the people of Iran through workshops, concerts, and the release of albums and singles.”

Here's a video of the band performing at the university:




Elf went on to study country music in the East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass, old time, and country music program in Johnson City, Tennessee and graduated Summa cum Laude in 2014. He now lives in Canada.

He and his music were brought to my attention by ETSU Prof. Lee Bidgood, who teaches in the old time and bluegrass program -- and who has been a friend, advisor and sounding board on issues of "the imaginary west" and country music outisde the US ever since we met more than a dozen years ago. Lee's book on Czech bluegrass is coming out this fall, and it is he who was the driving force behind the documentary on Czech Bluegrass, Banjo Romantika, in which I am an onscreen commentator.

The Saving Country Music article concludes -- echoing the words and attitudes of many European country artists:

Erfan “Elf” Rezayatbakhsh and the Dream Rovers may not be your next favorite honky tonk band, but you may also be surprised by their knowledge of country music and proficiency. Like many country music artists and bands from non English-speaking countries, some of the subtleties of the art form can get lost in the translation. But that says nothing about the heart and dedication Elf has brought to the music, recording country songs in both English and his native tongue, and illustrating how even country music, which seems so characteristic of a specific place, can defy borders, and perforate insular environments and the inherent differences between the American and Iranian mindset.
“When there is music, nobody thinks of fighting,” says Elf. “That’s why I came to the United States—not only to study country music in its homeland, but also to travel to the country which had been introduced to me by the media in Iran as ‘the enemy’ and ‘the great Satan’ and see the people, talk to them, and learn about their culture through them.”





Click to read the full article


Thursday, July 6, 2017

I'm writing about Winnetou....!




I’m delighted and excited to have been asked to write the Foreword to “Reiten Wir!” —  an anthology of new short stories based on Karl May characters to be published in October as part of events and initiatives this year marking May’s 175th birthday.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou

Proceeds and royalties will go to support the Karl May Museum in Radebeul, Germany.

Karl May theme beer at the Karl May festival in Radebeul, some years back

My first exposure to the Imaginary Wild West in Europe (and Karl May) dates back to 1966, when my family spent the summer in Prague -- my father was leading an archaeological dig in the village of Bylany, near Kutna Hora, east of Prague.

In preparation for writing my Foreword, I dug out the diary I kept that summer -- and where I noted the Czech fascination with Winnetou and the Wild West.

"Cowboys 7 Indians are BIG. Esp. the W. German (I think) movies Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. In almost every store window you see color postcards &/or slides with scenes from the films being sold [;] I have seen Winnetou candy bars, books, a poster in a record store for the Winnetou music etc. W. is apparently the solemn-faced 'Indian' (typically clthed) who looks like either Sal Mineo or Paul Newman (or both). Shirts, brown with fake buckskin fringe & laced neck are advertised as ARIZONA, & next to them re TEXAS blue jeans....[...] More Winnetou junk: iron on patches, special blue jeans, new cards, packs of cards of the actor who plays Winnetou. Magazine cover..."

Karl May and Indian stuff, on display in Germany



Later in the summer, I watched Winnetou, the movie, on television.

"It was a pretty bad movie but interesting for a couple things. The cast was international. Herbert Lom was the baddie & Lex Barker Old Shatterhand. These two are US I think. Pierre Brice (French) was Winnetou. Then there were British & others. I think it was filmed in Yugoslavia. I don't know in what language -- it was dubbed in Czech. This was the first time [in a movie] I ever hear an Indian (Winnetou) who didn't have a deep voice. He was high & thin & nasal. Also, the Indians were goodies."

Our family went to a live performance of the operetta "Rose Marie" (of "Indian Love Call" fame), set in the Canadian west. It starred the pop singer Waldemar Matuska who, I wrote "is a big star here. His pictures are in the shop windows and magazines & record stores almost as much as Winnetou."

I decided that Matuska would be my favorite singer and bought a picture postcard of him (which I still have) to go with the ones I bought of the French actor, Pierre Brice, who played Winnetou in the movies.

Many years later, when I first started seriously researching the Imaginary Wild West and the European country music scene, I met Matuska, who was headlining of the first Czech country festivals I attended (in around 2004).



Matuska, who had moved to the United States in the 1980s, died in 2009.

I wrote at the time on this blog:

Matuska was a towering figure in Czech popular music and culture and was instrumental in popularizing American folk and country music to the Czech audience. (Singing, as was required under communism, Czech lyrics to American songs.) He also appeared in the seminal 1964 movie "Limonady Joe" -- a wonderful send-up of the singing cowboy genre of movies and a classic of Czech cinema.

Matuska was important to me in my connection with Eastern Europe, and in my feel for the music and popular culture of the Czech Republic in particular. He became my idol when, as a kid, I spent the summer in Prague with my family in the 1960s. I bought picture postcards of him -- he was lean, bearded and extremely handsome. And I convinced my entire family to go hear him at a rather weird performance of "Rosemarie" at a sort of indoor sports arena...Matuska played the role of the mountie that was taken by Nelson Eddy in the classic movie. I remember that it was a rather static performance, as they all seemed to sing to the microphones that were hanging prominently above the stage...

When I actually met Matuska decades later, at the Strakonice Jamboree folk and bluegrass festival in the Czech Republic in 2004, it was a remarkably emotional experience. I had just begun following the European country scene, and Strakonice was my first Czech festival. And there he was -- the idol of my youth!

Matuska -- who had "defected" to the United States in 1986 but, after the fall of communism, returned frequently to CZ to tour -- was the headline act. Heavier, even bloated-looking, with clearly dyed hair, he didn't look much like the slim, handsome singer/actor of the 1960s, but he had the audience in the palm of his hand.

I went backstage and spent 20 minutes or so talking with him. I felt shy and fluttery! What I remember are his hands -- very small and delicate, with polished nails and an almost dainty ring.



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!