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!