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61. MFF Strážnice


Over two weeks ago (my, what a procrastinator!), I visited the largest folk festival in the Czech Republic: 61. Mezinárodní folklorní festival v Strážnici or the 61st Annual Folklore Festival in Strážnice. A few Prague friends braved the wilds of Moravia, and we all met at the beautiful Autokemping Strážnice (car and tent camping), where we pitched our tents outside the town. (Read Karla's account and see tent pictures, among others, here.)

Strážnice is a small town on the Czech-Slovak border just an hour or so south of Brno. The annual festival takes place on the third weekend in June and is held on the grounds of the local zámek (a sort of chateau). The zámek is home to the Národní ústav lidové kultury (NÚLK or National Institute of Folk Culture), which directs, sponsors, and hosts the festival. The festival is one of the most venerable in the Czech Republic: it was held for the first time in 1946 and existed through the Communist era up to the present. Given the changing political situations, particularly the ideological use of "folk" or "people's" culture, this is no small achievement. Only the festival in Detva, Slovakia, might rival the present-day Strážnice as a presenter of local and regional Central European "folk" performances from Czech and Slovak areas. There were certainly thousands of people in the audience, and the amphitheaters that host officially programmed events were usually full.

There are really "two" festivals that take place in Strážnice simultaneously. The "official" program is a series of pre-rehearsed and scripted performances that are assembled, directed, conceived, or overseen by degreed officials who serve on NÚLK boards. The "second" program is freer, being comprised of many spontaneous (and some planned) pick-up groups of musicians, singers, and dancers. This second program lasts until the not-so-wee hours of the morning, and during both nights we were awaken in our tent around three or four in the morning by loud (usually male) singing that would erupt spontaneously in the vicinity of our camp, or even trailed from the confines of the festival grounds on the late night wind. South Moravia is a wine region (many of the most favorite songs here are all about wine), and throughout the festival, the wine flowed freely.

Singers, fiddle bands, and cimbalom bands — none of which were in short supply — are the most typical musical performers and ensembles from this region. Cimbalom bands are basically a fiddle band — multiple violins with viola and bass — with the addition of a cimbalom (and often a clarinet). Both types of ensemble are well known in south Moravia, although the fiddle band is regarded as an older type of ensemble since the cimbalom was "introduced" here in the 1920s and 1930s. The ensembles play similar repertories of Moravian songs and dances, including a few polkas and waltzes for good measure. Aside from the "official" bands, on Saturday night the grounds were dotted with informal cimbalom groups that seemed to have just come together on the spur of the moment. Many performers also showed off fancy kroj (regional "folk" costumes) and other cultural finery (the wine-tasting glass hung around the neck on a string, assuring that you never have to refuse a drop, is a common accessory).

Most of the performances are by local Czech groups, but the festival also features an international component. All of the non-Czech ensembles were grouped in a single two-hour performance. These "groups from outside the borders" (everything about these groups was determined by political nationality) nicely diversify the program. This year's festival featured groups from Cyprus, Serbia, Venezuela, and Slovakia. The Venezuelans presented some nice, colorful scarf dances and offered up a giant serving of move-your-body music that added a touch of spicy (and appreciated) Caribbean rhythms. The Serbians also gave a wonderful performance, with particularly beautiful costumes, and they added more rhythmic variety with some mixed-meter dances. Oddly, the group that received the greatest audience response was a Slovak ensemble from Žilina; visually, they were quite similar to the Czech groups and they were musically distinguished only by a few different harmonies and modes. Certainly the Slovak group offered a familiar option for the mostly-Czech audience: Slovakia and the Czech Republic were the same country from 1918 to 1993, and culturally much of Slovakia is similar to the Czech Republic, particularly southern Moravia and Slovácko (the region where Strážnice is located) straddles the border between the two countries. The Slovak group was excellent, but it seemed odd that it was grouped with the "outsider" groups and that the audience warmed to it more than the others.

It is somehow affirming to see the adaptable ways in which local expressive culture, particularly music and song, has been updated in the present. Much of the culture that this sort of festival celebrates is retrospective, or even nostalgic, in that it looks back toward earlier time periods. But the backward glances that this sort of culture may suggest, it still appeals to many and there are some people with fresh approaches and styles that are rooted in the tradition. One of the festival's most successful and enjoyable performances was a Sunday-morning presentation that featured an overview of these contemporary tensions. The program was opened by Javory, a group led by Petr and Hana Ulrych, that is famous for its "modern" acoustic interpretation of Moravian songs. The group imitates the instrumentation of a cimbalom band — singer, violin, and cimbalom — with the addition of guitar, and their performances have remained highly popular since the 1960s. More traditional interpretations were offered by venerable folk singers and cimbalomists, including Jaromír Nečas, Jan Rokyta, Jura Petrů, and the cimbalom band led by Martin Hrbáč. Popular writer and newspaper columnist Ludvík Vaculík ("of Moravian origin" or a "native son of the region," as is sometimes pointed out, as if this cemented his authoritative and interpretative position vis-à-vis folk music) even made a guest-singer appearance.

As a cultural celebration, the Strážnice festival viably celebrates local cultural distinctiveness and diversity at the same time, even though the sort of culture it enshrines seems often susceptible to ideological implication and distraction.

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Comments:

Anonymous Asha said . . .

Hi there- my name is Asha, from London, UK. I'm almost certainly going to the Straznice festival this year and stumbled accross your (rather useful!) page during my research.

I hope you don't mind me asking a few questions: did you buy your festival tickets in advance, or just buy them on the day? I don't imagine they would sell out, but I wouldn't want to find out the hard way! If you have any tips for the festival, they would be much appreciated.

Best wishes,
Asha Mangul

chimaera27 @ hotmail.com    

12:17 AM, February 06, 2009


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