Sturm, Twang and the Imaginary Wild West in Europe
Monday, October 13, 2008
Blah Bluegrass Fest in Bratislava....
So I went to the final day of the 2-day Bluegrass Festival in Bratislava, Slovakia, driving down from Vienna (it's only about 70 km) and driving back afterwards -- getting back to Vienna around 3:40 a.m.
The Festival line-up was great, including many of the best Czech bands (such as Monogram, Relief, Kreni, etc.) I particularly wanted to hear Garcia, the group fronted by the wonderful singer Katka Garcia, with Lubos Malina (it's more Irish music than bluegrass). I also wanted to hear the Slovak country singer Allen Mikusek, and the great Czech-Canadian guitarist Slavek Hanzlik.
Well, the music was all pretty good. But I have to say, alas, I found the whole affair pretty dreary.... Most bluegrass festivals are outdoor events that take place in the summer time -- in Czech Republic a favorite venue is the communist-era "summer cinema" built outside many towns. Even in bad weather, bluegrass fits the great (even not so great) outdoors; you huddle under umbrellas and ponchos or crowd together under concessions tents....but it's like, you know, in Nature; open to the elements. Etc.
The Bratislava festival took place in a venue that was just about as far as you can get from the bluegrass country or rolling hills of rural America (or rural Europe for that matter) -- the concrete "Culture House" of Bratislava's Petrzalka district, one of the communist era's biggest and most anonymous purpose-built suburbs. When i first visited Petrzalka nearly 20 years ago -- friends of mine lived there -- I had a terror of getting lost amid the sea of featureless "panel houses," that is, identical apartment blocks. I believe travel companies now lead "communist tours" through the district to show what it was once like....
As I noted, the festival took place in the culture house. There was a dimly lit lobby, with a lounge and pub attached, a small stand selling CDs, and a bar and snack set-up selling beer and other drinks, plus grilled sausage and chips. Etc. People milled about, downing beer and going out on the steps to smoke. Smoking was barred inside, but somehow it still felt smokey...with the atmosphere rather rather dim and dispiriting. And not too many people turned up --the concert sets took place in the complex's rather nice theater, with red plush rows of seats. It looked like it seated 300-400, but most of the seats remained empty. At its peak, I think only about half were filled, if that.
Still, as I said, the music was generally very good. Allan Mikusek in particular played a strong set, joining the Slovak bluegrass group Grasscountry. Mikusek is more from the country music scene than the bluegrass scene -- he wears a cowboy hat and has "the look" -- and the performance was something of a benefit for Peter Dula of the award-winning Slovak country group The Rowers (Veslari), who is undergoing chemotherapy.
Garcia played last, so I stayed til the bitter end to hear them -- the sound man was obviously wasted by that time, and the sound check took longer than the actual set!
Katka has a wonderful voice and is a remarkably accomplished person. Since I had seen her, she has completed her PhD -- in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) studies, namely Ladino how it was spoken in pre-Holocaust Salonika -- and teaches at Trinity College, Dublin. She said that the college understands about her parallel musical career: she gets Firdays off so she can fly to the Czech Republic (mainly) for weekend gigs! As part of the sound check warm-up she sang a Ladino song!
Note -- I did get some fairly decent video and will try to post some clips.
For several years I've been exploring the imaginary wild west in contemporary Europe -- observing and experiencing the many ways that Europeans embrace the mythology of the American Frontier to enhance, imbue or create their own identities. (Or, indeed, just have fun.) On this blog I will post pictures, stories and links relating to this multi-faceted subculture, from European country music to rodeos, theme parks, round-ups and saloons....
I'm an American writer, photographer, and public speaker long based in Europe. I've chronicled Jewish cultural developments and other contemporary European Jewish issues for more than 20 years and currently coordinate the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.eu. My latest books are "National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe," published in 2007, and "Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere)," published in 2008.
I also am working on "Sturm, Twang and Sauerkraut Cowboys: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe," an exploration of the American West in the European imagination for which I won a 2006 Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEH summer stipend grant. In 2015 I was the Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC.