Saturday, April 30, 2011

Bluegrass -- recent passing of European bluegrass pioneers

Honza Macak at Bluegrass Jamboree, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In recent months, the European bluegrass scene has lost several of its pioneer figures, musicians who helped import bluegrass music from the USA and create and promote interest in it among thousands of fans across the continent.

They include:

-- Jan 'Honza' Macák, of the Czech Republic, who died today April 12, aged 67. A banjo player, he was the founder, in 1973, of Europe's oldest bluegrass festival, the annual Banjo Jamboree now held at Čáslav (CZ). At the Banjo Jamboree in June 2007, I conducted a joint interview with Macak and another Czech bluegrass pioneer, Milan Leppelt,  of the band CKWROT, who sadly died in August 2009. (I'll try to clean up the interview, which was rather disjointed, and post it.)

 -- Swiss-born businessman and banjo-player  Erio Meili died April 20, aged 63, in  Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he had lived for many years. He was the founder of the  São Paulo Bluegrass Music Association and the South American Bluegrass Network.

-- Robert 'Bob' Lauer, the first, and for many years probably the only, five-string banjo maker in Switzerland, died in November 2010. A Czech-born immigrant to Switzerland, he built his first five-string  in 1973 and played in Swiss bands. Czech-Swiss bluegrass fan and chronicler Lilly Pavlak recalls:
I met Bob by surprise in the Alusuisee Company in Zurich in 1973, where we both worked. I could not believe he was from my hometown (Brno) and we probably met as children, because we went frequently to the same violin shop close to my house. He just started to play banjo, after seeing the Deliverance movie and also went kayaking on whitewaters with his friends. So he soon was taking me with them over the weekends. I used to play the Czech 'tramp' songs on my guitar, and soon we started to play together. The first song I learned from him was the 'Foggy Mountain breakdown'. It was the beginning of a wonderful years-long friendship. We used to talk for hours about our biggest love – the bluegrass music and listening to its performers.

-- Peter Gisin, a multi-instrumentalist who in 1960 played in the first live country music show in Switzerland, died in September 2010. He played guitar, dobro, autoharp, musical saw, mouthharp, and vocals in a Swiss group called Country Pickers.

See the European Bluegrass Blog for lengthier obituaries.

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