Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Poland -- Silesia Folk and Country Festival coming up

Indian hobbyist dancers at the Silesia festival 2007. photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Just a quick note to post a link to the web site of the Silesia Folk and Country Festival, in Ustron, Poland, which I'm looking forward to attending next month. An interesting mix of Polish, Czech, American and other musicians of various genres...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thailand -- More on Cowboys There

I've written on this blog about cowboy theme parks and how the Imaginary Wild West is alive and well in Thailand -- but it turns out that there is much more there than I had known about (or imagined)!

There was even an article last year in The Atlantic by Joshua Kurlantzick-- called (what else) "Thai Noon"....
It’s 7:30 on a humid April evening, and the line dancing has begun. Women in cowgirl dresses sway to the music, mouthing the words as they step backward and forward in unison on the stage. After a while they sit down, and I hear whinnying in the distance. A group of horsemen in chaps and buckskin coats thunders up atop black-and-white steeds. Surrounded by guests in bolo ties, I watch, transfixed. It’s my first evening at the Pensuk Great Western Resort—a 40-acre spread in the heart of Southeast Asia. The “cowgirls” are graceful Thai women, the “cowboys” slight, lithe Thai men.

Read full article
This article reads remarkably like the piece I wrote for the New York Times some years ago about Wild West theme parks in Germany and the Czech Republic, called "Deep in the Heart of Bavaria":

IT'S nowhere near high noon, but a tough-looking hombre in a black leather vest, black stovepipe pants and a black cowboy hat is sauntering down the dusty length of a frontier Main Street, a gun belt slung low on his hips. He strolls past the sheriff's office, the Palace Hotel and a saddled horse hitched loosely to a wooden railing, then pauses for a moment at the broad covered porch of the Black Bison Saloon. Entering, he strides up to the bar and places his order. ''Ein bier, bitte.''

This is Pullman City, a theme park in southern Germany where more than a million visitors a year step out of 21st-century Europe into an American Wild West fantasyland of stagecoaches, gunfighters, mountain men and Indians.

Read full story

I've just been contacted by Erik Cohen, an emeritus professor of anthropology (and expert on tourism studies) at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who lives in Thailand and has included a lengthy -- and fascinating -- description and analysis of "Thai Cowboys" in his book Explorations in Thai Tourism, published in 2008 by Emerald, Bingley.

Friday, June 12, 2009

France -- Mirande Festival Coming Up

Line dancing at Equiblues, 2004. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

A posting I saw on the web reminds me that the Mirande Country Music Festival in southwest France is coming up July 9-14. It attracts more than 160,000 people to a mix of country, rock, Celtic and other music and crowdwise, it is probably the biggest country festival in Europe. In addition to the music, there are stands, games, line-dancing and you name it.

Among the line up is Roch Voisine, Cock Robin, Michelle Wright, Ricky Norton, Mike Sanchez and Hillbilly Boggiemen

The festival takes place over France's 14th July National Holiday - Bastille Day. This is the biggest festival of the French year, so you'll be treated to a massive fireworks display and
a big party atmosphere.

The town of Mirande hosts the festival each year. Mirande is a beautiful medieval town in the Gascony region of France. A region famed for its food and scenery. This is an unspoilt area of rural France with a timeless quality of life, there is little traffic so driving is a joy amidst the beautiful ever-changing scenery.

Read full article

There are dozens of country festivals in France throughout the summer (see my article on them on the NYTimes web site) -- the most prestigious is the Country Rendez-vous in Craponne, which takes place just two weeks after Mirande. One week after Craponne is the International Bluegrass Festival at La Roche sur Foron -- and one week after that is the great Equiblues rodeo and country music festival in St. Agreve....

And then, there are all those festivals in Germany, Poland, Austria, Lithuania, Switzerland, Sweden, Czech Republic.....impossible to keep track of them all....

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Waldemar Matuska RIP....

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm sad to report that the legendary Czech singer and actor Waldemar Matuska has died at his home in Florida, at the age of 76.

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.

My friend Lilly Pavlak -- who was also there at Strakonice (I think that may be where we met) wrote the following memoir of him:

On Saturday 30 May the country & western music world lost one of its most famous Czech sons. The singer and actor Waldemar Matuška died at his home in St Petersburg, Florida, from pneumonia and heart failure, aged 76. Waldemar Matuška, a charismatic personality known by the whole loving nation as 'our Walda', was one of the most memorable voices of the twentieth century. His career lasted over four decades. He recorded about thirty albums and starred in more than twenty movies, including the award-winning 1968 film All my countrymen by Vojtech Jasny. He was the opposite of his show-business friend Karel Gott, as a rebel, hothead, and tramp. His beautiful baritone and black full beard earned him enormous popularity, and he played several instruments – most people remember him as a banjo man. He had his first hit in 1960, and two years later he won the first Golden Nightingale ever awarded for the best Czechoslovak singer. The second time for him was again in 1967. He toured the world, Paris, London, Nashville – where he performed several times with his band K.T.O. in the 1970s. Bill Monroe told me once he liked Matuška very much – even though, as he said, his music was more 'Czech grass' than real bluegrass. In 1986 Matuška decided to leave communist Czechoslovakia and settled with his family in St Petersburg, Florida. He was already ill with severe asthma, and the climate there was much better for him than in Prague. After the fall of the communist regime in 1989, he visited frequently his old homeland. His last public appearance there took place in 2007. I saw him for the last time at the Jamboree Festival Strakonice in 2004. This year, at the same festival, we learned of his passing. We held a minute of silence and his friends sang his song for him. His last wish was to lay him to rest in the Czech Republic. The last farewell ceremony is supposed to be held in Prague on 21 June. You will live forever in your music in our hearts, dear Walda! Lilly Pavlak Bülach, Switzerland, 8 June 2009

Nashville considers overseas country music

Dierks Bentley, Country Rendez-vous, Craponne, France, 2008. Photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

As the Country Music Association's annual festival and fan fair kicks off in Nashville, the AP runs a story about American country music artists touring and trying to reach an international audience. Readers of this blog will have seen reports and pictures of mine on several American country and western (and bluegrass) acts on the road here in Europe. Some big name acts tour, but most of the acts on the European circuit are independent, lesser known or niche performers. They play at some of the dozens of country music and bluegrass festivals held around the continent from spring into the fall, and also at clubs, saloons and even concert halls. (Kris Kristofferson performed a couple years ago in one of Vienna's top classical music venues -- a wild scene with the audience in cowboy hats and boots, amid the rococo decor.)

Writer John Gerome starts his AP article with an interview with Dierks Bentley about a recent tour of Australia with Brooks and Dunn and then looks at other acts who tour, mentioning the size of the market.
Few contemporary country hitmakers tour outside North America with regularity. The international market for country isn't anywhere near what it is in the U.S., and the cost of hauling a crew, band and equipment across continents is brutal.

"Most country acts are reluctant to go overseas because they can't make the same money," remarked Joe Galante, chairman of Sony Music Nashville. "But you have to go there and spend some time and build a marketplace."

A few are making a go of it. Besides Bentley, Keith Urban regularly tours abroad. Brooks & Dunn, Sugarland and Taylor Swift are also making inroads. Alan Jackson and Martina McBride are both preparing to play shows in Europe.

Read full article

I saw Dierks Bentley himself, in fact (along with Asleep at the Wheel and others) at the Country Rendez-vous festival last July in Craponne France.

The Country Rendez-vous, one of the premiere country music festivals in Europe, always books American artists as the vast majority of its acts. Its roster over its more than 20 years of history is impressive -- everyone from the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe to Marty Stuart, Joe Ely, the Derailers, to Billy Joe Shaver, Mark Chesnutt, Guy Clark, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Rhonda Vincent, Whiskey Falls, and many, many more -- see a more complete list by clicking HERE.

Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Country Rendez-vous, Craponne, France 2008. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Country Night in Gstaad, Switzerland each September also features mainly U.S. acts. This year's headliner will be Kenny Rogers.

Other acts that have toured recently include Ricky Skaggs, banjo great Tony Trischka, Kris Kirstofferson, Lynne Anderson, Roseanne Cash, Dale Watson, and on and on.

For more about country music in Europe -- see earlier blog posts here, or take a look at the lengthy paper I wrote (you can access it from a link in the sidebar).