Hidden away in the backyard of Europe is a treasure-house of soulful tunes and jiving rhythms. On a musical trail of Slovakia.
An old single-stringed fiddle is the best company to keep when wandering through a village festival brimming with music and dance. I was like Alice in Wonderland as I strolled past the kaleidoscope of quaint handicrafts, colourfully dressed musicians and their joyful melodies filling the air, the fragrance of fresh, home-baked bread and the earthy tang of local wines. I was reminded of a couplet by Indian poet Majboor, “Na koi Guru, na koi chela, mele mein akela, akele mein mela” (There is no guru, nor is there any disciple. I am alone in the celebration, and in my solitude I celebrate!). I was the only Indian walking the lanes of the quaint little Slovak town of Hrushov!
At the town's Hontianska Parada village folklore festival, I was charmed by the affable smiles from local lads dressed in the traditional linen croy rendering traditional folk tunes on their accordions with me spontaneously fiddling-in, flirtatious gypsy damsels inviting me for a dance and the rumble of hardy laughter and all-night merry making that ushered in the first rays of dawn!
After a night of non-stop jam sessions, I head to the historic Slovak town of Banska Bystrica for some musical mysticism. As I sip a dry red wine from the country's famous Tokaj region, soulful strains of a shepherd's flute from across the street captivate my senses! The words of the legendary Persian mystic poet Rumi resound in my mind: “Beshno az ney chon shekaayat mikonad/Vaz jodaayee'ha hekaayat mikonad/Kaz neyestaan ta maraa babride'and/Dar nafiram, mard o zan naalide'and.” (Listen to the reed as it complains/And tells tales of its separation and says/“ever since from my reed-bed was I severed/Mankind has cried out through the flute that I have become.)
Making my way past young cyclists and wayside cafes, I arrive at the workshop of celebrated Fujara maker Michal Filo. The burly gent demonstrated how the Fujara (pronounced Fuyara) - the traditional Slovak Shepherd flute – is made and the various tones and pitches followed by a soothing melody.
At Banska Stiavnica, a fairytale Slovak town, a soiree of scintillating classical masterpieces awaited me. A concert in a Protestant Church organised by the Cap a L'est international French music festival was a treat as veteran French violinist Patrick Chemla rendered masterpieces by greats like Bach, Bela Bartok and Fritz Kreisler with impeccable mastery.
Chemla's total command over the instrument and flawless control while rendering difficult and acrobatic passages that spanned several octaves was breathtaking! Retaining the composer's intent, Chemla retained the original essence of the compositions, yet soared high with his own spontaneous master touch.
Time to rock
From Patrick Chemla's exquisite classicism to Slovak alternative and rock was a welcomed transition. An energetic performance by the famous alternative group Oblastne Skutocnosti (Slovak for ‘a village reality') at the Art Café in Banska Stiavnica enlivened the weekend. Blending my tabla rhythms with bass, horns and strings was an adrenalin pump as was my jam with young guitarist Lubo Petruska of Chikilikitua, a celebrated alternative group in Preshov.
An unforgettable thematic and satirical performance by noted group Sto Much (100 flies) in Bratislava was a refreshing rib-tickler with humorous elements mixed with catchy rhythms and instrumentals.
After listening to heart-rendering Bach by organist Frantisek Beer on the old organ with 4000 pipes of different sizes and pitches at the grand St. Elizabeth's Cathedral in the dazzling city of Kosice, I head for ‘Romathan', the country's famous Gypsy theatre for a rendezvous with master musicians with fascinating tales to share. The Romani Gypsies of Slovakia are known to have Indian origins. Not only do they share common physical features with Indians, but even their Romani language still uses several Hindi words like ‘kaak' (nose), ‘kaan' (ear) among others.
After an intriguing account of their Punjabi and Kathiawadi Gujarati roots, and their journey to Europe from India, the Romanis played some exhilarating music on the Cimbalom (a traditional santoor-like instrument), the violin and the cello. The energy was volcanic, their affection, heart-warming as they greeted their ‘long lost countryman' with the old Gypsy saying ‘Aves Bachtalo the Sasto' (be happy and healthy)!