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Horňácké slavnosti 2006


Last weekend saw the annual celebration of local music and folklore in the town of Velká nad Veličkou in South Moravia. This year's Horňácké slavnosti (Horňácko celebrations) marked the forty-ninth annual occasion, although similar summer celebrations most likely preceded the official festival. The festival became an official annual event early on in the Communist era, but like the festival in Strážnice, continues as a folklore institution.

The Landscape. One person told me that Moravian songs are about three things: love, wine, and the land (though not necessarily in that order). Given the importance of the surroundings, then, I'll try to give you an idea of what the place was like. Velká, the short name of the town, lies within a few kilometers of the Slovak border and in the heart of the region called horňácko. The name of the region means something roughly like "highland" and is geographically defined by the foothills of the White Carpathians (Bílé karpaty), which form the far western end of the Carpathians that run in a long, crescent-shaped arc from northern Romania all the way to Moravia. The region is quite small and, as officially defined by ethnographers, contains only ten villages. Culturally, the region is said to contain some of the "best preserved" traditional culture in the Czech Republic. Although it's not clear why this material has been preserved, presumably the mountains have contributed to this relative isolation.

As with any festival here, it couldn't happen without alcohol. Being a Czech festival, the beer flows liberally. Despite the higher elevation, the region can still sustain some grape cultivation and there is a culture of wine making, though it is not as strong as in other areas of south Moravia. There is no shortage, as well, of liquors distilled from plums (slivovice), apricots, peaches, pears, walnuts, and herbs.

Despite this festival's importance and growing profile, it has not become too much for Velká to handle. Unlike festivals where there are multiple stages and overlapping events, it is possible to see and hear everything at this festival. Most performances took place in the Horňácký stadion, an outdoor amphitheater perched on the side of the strážná hůrka ("guard hill") overlooking the valley and village. (The foothills have been a border region for a long time, and this hill was supposedly a strategic vantage point from which the reigning powers patrolled and guarded the border. Today, it seems, the hill guards national culture rather than security.)

"Hey, the band was playing for us." There were many performances, including a requisite showcase of the verbuňk dance in horňácko, but the highlight was the concert of the cimbalom band led by Martin Hrbáč on Saturday night. This attracted the largest audience of any of the performances I saw at the festival. Hrbáč's band was founded in 1966 and this year marked its fortieth anniversary. To acknowledge this anniversary, the performance featured many famous guest singers, such as František Okénka, Anna Kománková, Dušan Holý, the male chorus from the neighboring village Hrubá Vrbka, and a chorus of Hrbáč's various siblings and cousins (music runs in the family).

What distinguishes this music from other places in south Moravia? This question bears more serious analysis than I will bore you with, but I have a few general observations. (South) Moravian traditional music is generally of two types: slow, expressive songs (often described as táhlá píseň or "drawn-out song") and dance songs. Also, though most of the music is instrumental, the place of honor is usually occupied by the singer, who is usually presented as the most knowledgeable. It seems that instrumental traditions are slightly more important in horňácko music than elsewhere in Moravia. It has long been an area that has produced celebrated violinist band leaders, such as Jožka Kubík, Jan Ňorek, and of course, maestro Hrbáč. Larger instrumental ensembles seem to be favored here. The instrumental music also often features multiple melodic lines that follow the same outlines but are realized slightly differently, almost improvised, by lead instrumentalists (that is, a heterophonic musical texture). These, however, are only quick observations.

I had been told in advance to expect the most heartfelt, unadulterated fiddle music to be heard in Moravia—this was intimated by a rather well-known Moravian folk musician. However, while fiddle bands may be the most common ensemble that is played at home, all of the bands I saw in performance featured cimbaloms. This is somewhat curious since the instrument is considered to be a newcomer (the current type of instruments were not widely known here until the 1930s).

Expectations are high for the music at this festival, and not just from me. The horňácko festival, being held in the center of what's perceived as the most vibrant folklore region of the country, has the status of featuring the best performers, the purest traditions, and the most authentic folk music. This puts quite a high demand on the festival performances, and it also indicates their ideological importance. They are selected, approved, and often even written out by experts and overseen by a 30-member council of volunteers from the communities of horňácko. It seems that, for the time being, the local culture is in no danger from invasion by whatever outside influence may besiege this guard post of south Moravian folklore.



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