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.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Exhibitions -- Indigenous Peoples of North America, Rosenheim, Germany

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

This looks like a terrific exhibition -- and I'll try to go there next month. The curator, Christian Feest, is tops in the field, and the authors of the essays in the catalogue are excellent. Bravo to all involved!


Lokschuppen Rosenheim
8 April - 6 November 2011
Mo-Fr 9 am - 6 pm, Sa, Su, legal holidays 10 am – 6 pm

Until 6 November, the Lokschuppen in Rosenheim, a large exhibition center southeast of Munich, is showing “Indianer - Ureinwohner Nordamerikas” (Indians - Indigenous Peoples of North America).

Curated by Christian Feest, the exhibition uses 550 objects dating from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century from sixteen museums in Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, and the Vatican and nearly 200 images to convey a sense of the cultural diversity, historical complexity and ongoing vitality of indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, and Greenland.

The exhibition is arranged in twelve chapters, which tell very specific stories, but which together are embedded in a framework of the effects of globalization processes of the last 250 years for indigenous peoples. After discussing the European concept of “Indians” as an artifact of the colonial encounter, it looks at the first-contact situation on Vancouver Island, when the ancestors of the present-day Nuuchahnulth were visited by Captain James Cook in 1778. The issue of indigenous lands is examined in a section dealing with the American Revolution, in which the future of Indian lands was to be decided, and when the German mercenaries fighting for King George could see the effects of land loss and cultural adaptation among the peoples living along the St. Lawrence River. Greenland provides an example, in which colonization ultimately led to autonomy, whereas under similar circumstances the peoples of Russian America (Alaska) fared very differently. The western Great Lakes region in the mid-nineteenth century provides a case study for the encounter with Christian missionaries and for the emergence of Indian Christianity. The Sioux and the Apache are shown as contrasting examples for the origins and effects of the “Indian Wars” of the late nineteenth century (with the Comanche looking over the shoulders of the Apache not only as their eternal enemies in Karl May’s novels, but also as the only group of Native Americans who signed a treaty of peace and friendship with German colonists). Hopi katsina religion stands as an example for the complexity indigenous worldviews and ritual practice. A chapter on glass beads illustrates that Western trade goods (and ideas) did not necessarily lead to a leveling of cultural differences and serves as a introduction to the section on indigenous arts and their encounter with the Western art world. The final segment of the exhibition looks at aspects of the contemporary Native American experience.

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated 270-page book with essays by the curator and Cora Bender, Peter Bolz, Matthias Dietz-Lenssen, Henry Kammler, Sylvia Kasprycki, Christer Lindberg, Sonja Lührmann, Gawan Maringer, Hans-Ulrich Sanner, Tom Svensson, Marthe Thorshaug, and Christine Zackel.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bluegrass Festivals -- Reiterating this great resource for Bluegrass (and some country/Americana) festivals in Europe

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I just want to underscore the valuable calendar of festivals and other gigs across Europe on the European Blugrass Music Association Web site.

The founding members of the EBMA festival network are the biggies:
But there are dozens of other smaller and lesser known festival all over the continent, Ireland and Britain.

Bluegrass -- Walter Fuchs on Hazel Dickens in Germany
Photo: Walter Fuchs, from European Bluegrass Blog

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There was an outpouring of tributes following the death on April 22 of Hazel Dickens, the pioneering bluegrass singer.

I am reposting here from the European Bluegrass Blog the recollections -- and photo -- of her from Walter Fuchs, the great country music historian and DJ in Bühl, Germany and founder of  the Bühl International Bluegrass Festival.

Walter reminisces about Dickens' trip to Germany in fall of 1973 on tour with the Strange Creek Singers making a stop in Bühl.

All the gang stayed over night for one or two days, when we lived in a rented apartment in those years. From left to right: Tracy Schwarz, Lamar Grier, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, Marianne Fuchs, Alice Gerrard (Mike Seeger's wife) and our two boys Patrick and Boris. In June of 1973 Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard were already in Bühl for a couple of days when I had them for a live concert on SWF 3 radio in my show.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Cowboy Prince

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In honor of the upcoming Royal Wedding between Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton, here's a recollection of when William, aged 10, spent a vacation on a ranch in Montana -- incognito.

The article in the Great Falls Tribune recalls the young prince's "stint as a cowboy."
When details of the young prince's trip to Montana surfaced a week after his departure, the ranch was hounded by tabloids. British tabloids even flew reporters to the state. One headline read, "Willy the Kid: Cowboy prince is king of the wild frontier," according to an Associated Press story at the time

The book "Diana's Boys: William and Harry and the Mother They Loved" by Christopher Andersen recounted Prince William's week in Montana, saying "even the most grizzled ranch hands" were impressed with the boy, who could lasso a steer by the end of his stay and was a hero to the other children for his riding and shooting skills.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Celebrations and Events for big Karl May anniversaries coming up!

Poster for upcoming Karl May exhibit

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Next year, 2012, marks 100 years since the death -- and 170 years since the birth -- of Karl May, the German hack writer who created the most popular and enduring Wild West heroes in Europe: the Apache chief Winnetou and his German immigrant adventurer sidekick Charlie, AKA Old Shatterhand.

Plans are already afoot for a wide range of programs, exhibits, symposia, events and activities -- and a web site has been set up:

More details as they emerge.

Friday, April 8, 2011

On its 40th birthday -- NPR on "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

A couple sings "Country Roads" at the Geiselwind Trucker and Country Festival in Germany, 2007. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

In Europe, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" -- John Denver's 1971 mega-hit -- is probably the most popular (and most covered) country-style song by local singers.  To mark its 40th birthday, America's National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interview with the song's writers -- no, not John Denver (born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in 1943), who died in a plane crash in 1997, but songwriter Bill Danoff and his girlfriend and writing partner Taffy Nivert.
"Take Me Home, Country Roads" became the unofficial anthem of West Virginia and the official song of the West Virginia University Mountaineers. But here's the catch: Danoff had never even been to the Mountain State before writing it, though he'd heard the sounds of the state as a kid growing up in Massachusetts.
Danoff said he listened to "hillbilly music" on WWVA from Wheeling, W.V.
"I just thought the idea that I was hearing something so exotic to me from someplace as far away," he said. "West Virginia might as well have been in Europe, for all I know."

Danoff would go on to write 12 more songs for John Denver. And he would also form the Starland Vocal Band, famous for "Afternoon Delight." Still, 40 years later, Danoff said, "Take Me Home, Country Roads" is his biggest moneymaker — he says he splits 75 percent of royalties with Nivert and gives the remaining 25 percent to the Denver estate.
Here are the three of them:

 "Country Roads" touched a chord: it's omnipresent, everywhere.

"My first country song which I heard was  'Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'" a German truck driver told me in 2004. '… Henry John Deutschendorf... it was fantastic, yeah? And so I fell in love with country music. [...] He gives us beautiful songs. John Denver. His grandfather was German, and he was one of the best. But he died too early."

Here's Denver singing "It's Good to Be Back Home Again," -- in Germany. It's about a truck driver coming home.

I find "Take Me Home Country Roads" incredibly sappy; sugary sweet and bland at the same time.

But audiences in Europe love the song -- they invariably sing along, swaying and smiling. The idea of "home" translates into a sense that we (they) are all at home in America -- or the America of dreams, where is here. Other  songs popular in the European country scene also play on this sense of the universal "home" somewhere in the mythical West (or South) -- "Sweet Home Alabama," for example.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mondo a Little Bizarro -- Asleep at the Wheel Chinese Style

The iconic Texas Swing group Asleep at the Wheel featuring Ray Benson and He Wenxing with the Yunnan Performing Arts Group team up for a unique version of the band's trademark song -- Miles and Miles of Texas in the KLRU studio. The performance took place as a part of the Yunnan, China cultural exchange visit to Austin, Texas.

Movies -- What is a Western? Off geographic topic, but great film series on the Western

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

What is a Western? The Autry National Center in Los Angeles is hosting a great-looking film series on the Western that will explore the development of the movie genre, locating it in the broader social and cultural context and linking it to other pop culture genres.

What is a Western? Film Series

The Autry National Center announces the creation of a new film series that explores how movies have both mirrored and influenced larger social and cultural issues in the American West. It will challenge popular notions of what a Western is by showcasing various genres that can arguably be considered Western. All films will be tied to the Autry’s collection and current exhibitions, providing the audience a unique perspective on the objects and artifacts as they are viewed through an interpretive cinematic lens. Jeffrey Richardson, Associate Curator of Western History and Popular Culture, will offer key insights into each film before and after the screenings.
Other genres will include film noir, focusing on industrialization and urbanization in the mid-20th century; beach films from the 1950s and ‘60s, highlighting the youth revolution and social changes; urban police films from the 1970s and ‘80s, exploring the movement away from traditional Westerns in rural settings to urban locations; and space films, which incorporate the same conventions of traditional Westerns and launch them into outer space.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Czech Republic -- Druha Trava recording in Nashville

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friends, the Czech bluegrass/fusion/rock "Czechgrass" band Druha Trava are recording a new album in Nashville -- and are maintaining a very interesting and revealing blog that reflects on and describes the process of crafting songs (the Czech translates pretty well in google translate).

There are pictures and some fascinating video showing how the songs come together. (It's not as dramatic as Godard's film One Plus One, one of whose running themes was the Rolling Stones working on Sympathy for the Devil....)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Italy -- Upcoming Lakota Event in Florence

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm back from 3 very busy months in the United States -- on a fellowship, visiting family, giving a lecture tour -- and will be able to post more... To start off, here's information about Wolakota, a nine-day event and exposition on Lakota Sioux culture to be held in Florence April 11-20.

With sponsorship from the regional authorities in Florence, Wolakota will feature lectures, films and round-table discussions, with a main event on April 16.