15 December 2006
Some people may still remember what this blog is supposed to be about: Brno. Well, I've been saving up this piece for a while because I wanted to make some changes, but I think you will enjoy it even in this draft version. It's a minute-and-a-half soundart piece inspired by the city. The text is respectfully used from Four Bees.

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Because my internet may be disconnected at any time (I don't know when really), I wanted to post this while I had the chance. I may not have the time to post more before I leave. But if I can, I will; if I can't. . .

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Why You Should've Been in Brno Last Night

13 December 2006
Last night I saw a Czechgrass concert (i.e., Czech bluegrass). The concert was at the "Šelepova No. 1" club (address: Šelepova 1; if you were wondering). It's good stuff, and it was great to go to a different sort of concert for change. I did, though, miss the wine usually in abundance at folklore gatherings. The first group was called Sakra, Pes! (which, if you translate it means something like "Damn, Dog!" or maybe "Damn dog"). They were joined by Robert Křesťan (of Druhá tráva [website])for one number.

And I was there, too, taking self-portraits in the back.

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Havel Does NYC

Ex-president (some still call him "President") Havel has had a busy fall during a residency at Columbia University in NYC. Despite considering himself not a "household name," he's had a warm reception in the city. Julie Bosman writes in the NYTimes Online:
He has taken in the buzzy social life of New York, attending Broadway shows and cocktail parties, reluctantly declining invitations once his calendar was stretched to the limit. "I discovered that Americans don’t take it personally," he said, sipping white wine during a recent interview on the Columbia campus. (Czechs do.)

Three cheers for American pragmatism. I can't say that, back home, I'll miss those hidebound social relations either.

Bosman's article brought up other interesting points, too.

Though he initially supported the US invasion of Iraq, it seems that Havel has (like so many) become a sceptic. In his most recent book, published this year in Czech ("Briefly, please"), he called the Iraq situation a "fiasco." He was thought to be in good graces with the Bush administration (Havel received a Medal of Freedom in 2003), but he is evasive about his current opinion of Bush. "I will just say that you have the president that you elected," he said, though it doesn't take much to figure out what he means by that.

"I myself am not a naïve utopian or a dreamer," said Havel. As far as European politics are concerned, he sees growing eastern European nationalisms as a concern and thinks that Turkey should be admitted to the EU. And he rightly discourages Christian fearmongering about Islam: "It [Christianity] has its own tradition of fundamentalism and a certain kind of terrorism," he said. "It has its rather great, terrible historical examples of liquidating other civilizations."

Radio Prague also featured Havel's New York visit, which is scheduled to end this week with a celebration of Havel's 70th birthday. And Luboš previously commented on Havel's visit and Columbia.

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What's Brno Need? Unsilent Night

Brian organized a cool piece in Baltimore. It's worth watching the video. Now that is the kind of thing Brno needs for the holidays.* I would love to organize it, but there are reasons why I won't be able to:

a) I'm leaving in a week.

b) I would probably gather a group of English speakers and people would think we were just a hoarde of Americans trying to take the city by storm.

But perhaps someday Brno will be ready.

*I was at a "Czechgrass" concert (Czech bluegrass) this evening, and they started by saying that they had thought about playing Christmas carols. But, well [bronx cheer here], they didn't. Whew!

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Pardon Me, Do You Have Three Little Ducks?

12 December 2006
I was in line at the checkout. When my groceries had been rung up, they came to 33 crowns. I searched my pocket for three crowns in change, but there wasn't enough. Uh oh! Only 2 crowns and 50 hellers. So I had to give the lady at the register 50 crowns.

I handed over the 50 crowns. She looked at them suspisciously.

"Nemáte tři kačky?" (Don't you have three little ducks?) Did she just ask me if I had three little ducks? No question about it, but she could only be asking about change. (I didn't see any ducks anywhere in the shop).

"Nemám. Mám jenom dvě pade." (No. I only have two and a half [fifty hellers].) This answer was the right one, though she wasn't very pleased. If you haven't shopped in the Czech Republic before, then you might not know that shops often ask you for exact change. It's usually not that they don't have change for you, but they just don't want to make the effort of counting it out. (Sometimes they don't have enough change, but this store wasn't that small.) My idea is that it's all money, right? And if you're the shopkeeper then you make change for the money that the customer pays you. But here, the idea is that it's the customer's job to make exact change. And when you don't, sometimes you get dirty looks. Sometimes, unless you're in a really big store (like at malls), they even make a big show about how difficult it is to find change. Talk about guilt trips!

I had to wait a few seconds for the lady to decide how she was going to give me change. She slowly got out a 10-crown piece, then counted out seven one-crown coins. "I have to give it to you this way," she said with an expressionless look while dumping the coins into my hand.

Then I went home and had breakfast. I also looked up kačka and found out that it is a diminutive form of the word for duck, but it also colloquially refers to crowns. Well, Americans call their dollars "bucks." Czechs who have traveled in the US have even asked me why this is. Next time I get that question, I'll ask them why they call theirs "ducks."

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Today at Twilight

11 December 2006

I got a last minute invitation to a special pre-Christmas concert this evening. The Brno group Javory (Maples) was performing at the Svratka kino in Jundrov this evening. (You can enjoy their vintage velvet curtains in the picture at left, as well as the sponsor's sign.) Their December concerts very popular and usually sell out in advance, but I have connections, you know, and was able to get in. The group is basically centered around the siblings Hana and Petr Ulrych, who were joined by a cimbalom player, violinist, and bassist. Their music doesn't appeal to everyone, but it's very popular in Brno and around the Czech Republic. It's a rather eclectic mix of acoustic folk, Moravian folk, chansons, opera, and a bit of choral singing thrown in. They have also been featured recently as the basis for the orchestra in two musicals at the Brno City Theater, so there is even a bit of musical theater.

Most of the pieces were Christmas-related. Most Moravian traditional Christmas music is about virgins giving birth (not always explicitly to Jesus either, it seems), and somehow the songs also seem to usually work in well-trodden paths, though it is presumably not the virgins who are walking them as the virgins are always white and clean. Other popular songs were the group's famous pieces, which are mostly songs that the Ulrychs have made famous over the course of their careers. Many of these songs are about nature (trees, water) and folk customs, some are based on traditional texts, and others (e.g., "Sumaři, Sumaři") use texts by Czech poets.

The Ulrychs are, as the cliché goes, living legends. What's more, they are Brno legends.* They have been singing together since recording one of their first songs together in 1964 at Czech (then Czechoslovak) Radio Brno. Petr also composes songs, and his pieces have been some of their biggest hits.

Their Brno roots go somewhat deep. Their father, Jaroslav Ulrych, was a tenor in the Brno opera. And they are also known for combining traditional Moravian songs with early-Beatles rock and roll (or "bigbeat" as it was called in Czech) and, later on, with other styles influenced by American folk and country music.

Their album Nikolas Šuhaj loupežník (Nikola Šuhaj the Outlaw, released 1974 on Panton) is known as their first "exploration" into Moravian folklore. The songs on the album loosely follow the events of the title character of Ivan Olbracht's novel of the same name, which was, it is claimed, based on a real-life robber in Transcarpathia (today a province in western Ukraine but when Olbracht was writing it was the Romanticized frontier at the far eastern end of interwar Czechoslovakia). The songs also formed a musical about Šuhaj; this has recently been produced at Brno's Městské divadlo (City Theater) in collaboration with Stanislav Moša. (The Šuhaj story was also the inspiration for another famous 1970s musical in Brno with music by Miloš Štědroň.)

In Ulrych's version of the Šuhaj story, Nikola's ballad Až jednou červánky (When someday at twilight) is the emotional centerpiece. Nikola has been magically immune to the bullets of the police who are hunting him, but after offending a forest spirit, he loses this immunity and is vulnerable to their bullets. He knows this and, sensing that he will soon be shot, sings a message for the birds to deliver to his mother. In 1974, this song was recorded with a chamber group from Brno Radio's folk instrument ensemble led by Jindřich Hovorka. It was a nicely done slow piece that had a lot of simple harmonies, violins, and a few cimbalom sections.

But the version for Javory, which was probably done for the City Theater's musical, is by far my favorite, and they sang this version tonight. The instrumentation is much simpler, just cimbalom, guitar, and voice. It begins very quietly with voice and guitar, moves into a more flowing section for both voice and cimbalom, and closes with a sung verse accompanied only by plucked cimbalom (a very soft timbre). The arrangement is cheesy but affecting, and I've cried before while listening to it. Petr Ulrych's voice is dry, but has just enough color to really make the song work. Tonight's performance was memorable.
Až jednou červánky
potkáte mamičku
vzkažte že nepříjdu
po lesním chodníčku;

Vzkažte ať zajde si
zvečera do hory
že ju tam žežulka
ode mě pozdraví;

Vzkažte ať nepláče
že jenom chvílenka
a život uplyne
jak bystrá voděnka.

When one day at twilight
You meet Mom
Tell her that I won't be coming
Along the little forest path;

Tell her to stop by
The mountain in early evening
And that the cuckoo
Will give her a greeting from me;

Tell her not to cry,
That only a short moment
And life will pass by
Like a quick stream.

It's been an emotional last few days and somehow this seems just the thing. You'll have to pardon the rough translation in English, which really does not truly convey the sentiment of the Czech version. The English here sounds a bit trite and infantile while I think the Czech does not sound that way, but you'll have to take my word for it.

*They are so famous, in fact, that Moravian Television (better known as MTV) was even there to interview them. Probably the biggest happening in Jundrov (a distant suburb) since last Christmas.
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Even in Folklore

An Instrument
Originally uploaded by youplayawhat.
Perhaps you know the viola joke?

What's the difference between a violin and a viola?
The viola burns longer.

But do you know the Czech version?

What's the difference?
The viola holds more beer.

Many musicians have senses of humor, but to be a viola player, one has to be, well, especially talented in this department. (Players of any under-unappreciated instrument, of course, are experts in self-effacement.) But I never realized that Moravian violists have viola jokes, too; and even less did I suspect that they might be the same as those in other viola-playing regions of the world! And like musicians the world over, Czechs like to go for a beer after concerts, which is the perfect opportunity to haul out the instrument jokes. It's just too bad I didn't catch any special Czech-only jokes.

I normally remember less than a few jokes at any time, but here are a few that stuck in my mind after the first beer:

How do you tell the difference between a viola and a coffin?
The coffin has the corpse inside.

You see an ad for a viola: Viola, good condition, recently tuned, never played except in first position.

And there was a banjo player there, too. (That wasn't the joke.)

What do you call one hundred banjos at the bottom of the ocean?
A good start.

And my favorite euphonium joke:
What's the difference between a baritone player and a euphonium player?
A euphonium player won't shut up about not playing the baritone.

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10 December 2006

Life Begins at 30, or, Folklore in Zlín

09 December 2006
If you had asked three weeks ago what I was doing at the weekend, then I would have said: "Going to the 30th anniversary frolic of the Kašava folklore group."

An unsuspecting companion and I set off from Brno on Friday afternoon. The train promised an earlier departure and not terrible connections. In the end, we ended up taking the milk train from Přerov in central Moravia—who knew that the train could stop in so many deserted fields along the way. (We took an osobní vlak, or "personal train," on this leg of the journey and these trains stop at every village along the way.) Since this was too slow to meet our connection in Otrokovice, we took a trolleybus from the train station into Zlín proper. We met Alex, proceeded to have some pizza, took pictures of the candles lit on Zlín's main square in honor of the 17 November holiday, and then went back to get rested up for the next day’s concert.

The resting did not turn out as restful as might have been hoped (you know how it is when friends get together on a Friday night). But by three the next afternoon, we did drag ourselves, rather slowly, to the dress rehearsal. With only slight help from a map, we found our way from Alex’s apartment to the rehearsal hall, which was where the performance would be later in the evening. The building was mercifully small and we could hear music coming from open windows on the second level. After trying a few locked doors, we finally found one that was open and ultimately into a large rehearsal room filled with performers in various stages of preparation for the concert. Some were wearing t-shirts and jeans, some were in formal clothes, some were partially dressed for the performance, and some were in their complete kroj (folkloric dress). Most people were playing instruments, dancing, or singing, and there were only a few of us observing from the sidelines.

It was my plan to interview a cimbalom player between the rehearsal and concert. I also wanted to film some footage at the rehearsal for possible usage in a later project. But rather than filming the entire rehearsal, Alex and I ended up looking more at the theater building, a Baťa-style arts school with a large theater (called Malá scéna) and studio space in the basement. After the rehearsal, we were a bit worried that there would not be any quiet place to conduct the interview, but fortunately the director of the ensemble found us a relatively quiet room backstage. The building had just been renovated so there was little furniture in the room. There were just enough chairs (and a ladder) for the interview, though. After it was over we were both pretty tired. However, we couldn’t really restrain ourselves (or at least I couldn't) from poking through a rack of costumes in one corner and finding a fruit-adorned hat that was quite amusing. (It wasn’t a Carmen Miranda sort, but rather more Jagermeister with fruit and a ribbon—I know it’s hard to imagine, but it really was like that.)

The finale, of course, was the performance. Kašava was celebrating its 30th anniversary and many alumni and friends were there to participate in the concert. The concert was "moderated" (i.e., hosted) by Jan Rokyta, a well-known cimbalom player and also a producer at Czech Radio Ostrava. The finale was a nice bit of Moravian and Valachian celebration, including "Dyby byla Morava" ("If this was Moravia," which is a sort of classic song that compares Moravia to other places; Moravia, of course, is always preferable in the song). No one was allowed to forget that Kašava is not really a Czech group but a Moravian one, and specifically a Wallachian one (Wallachia, or Valašsko in Czech, is a region in the Beskydy mountains in north Moravia; the region takes its name from the Wallachia in southeast Romania).

The performance featured appearances by various alumni of the group over its thirty-year history. There was a particularly nice performance of "Na ten fojtův dub" ("To the Mayor's Oak Tree [flew a pigeon]"), a song that was transcribed in 1893 by Leoš Janáček. We were treated not only to a wonderful instrumental performance, but also a beautiful dance performance of an accompanying starodávna (a couple dance in 3/4 time that is common in northern Moravia).

It seemed that a fun time was had by just about everybody. The filmographers were, however, exhausted and we were quite happy to find our way back to the comfortable couches of Alex’s apartment and finish off our adventures.

Dyby byla Morava, tajak sú Čechy,
Dala bych ti huběnek ze štyry měchy,
Ale že je Morava malučká,
Ošidila cérečka synečka.

If Moravia was like Bohemia,
Then I’d give you a little kiss for four sacks [i.e., of money],
But since Moravia is tiny,
The girl shortchanged the boy.

Thanks, Joe, for the title.

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Oot and Aboot

08 December 2006
I'm rarely into these blog quizzes and other gags, but once in a while they capture my attention. And this one did so because I thought it really worked. Now you'll know a little bit more about the way I talk. Just imagine asking me this question, "Are you Canadian?" And I answer, "No. But I wish I had that accent."

What American accent do you have?
Your Result: North Central

"North Central" is what professional linguists call the Minnesota accent. If you saw "Fargo" you probably didn't think the characters sounded very out of the ordinary. Outsiders probably mistake you for a Canadian a lot.

The West
The Midland
The Inland North
The South
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz

However, I thought the Fargo accents were about the most ridiculous I've ever heard. In fact, I do use intonation, which goes a long way toward changing the accent (and also screws up my Czech). I very rarely say "oot and aboot" (the quiz didn't ask that directly), but occasionally I do. But all things considered, the quiz was pretty good.

Thankes to Geoffrey Chaucer fare the tippe.

Things Not to Miss

My trip to Budapest did involve a partially disassembled cimbalom (of the "Hungarian" type). But that's nothing compared to the museum that Dumneazu mentioned while I was gone:
There can be too much of a good thing, you know. Witness Pete Rushevsky's collection of tsimbls - small cimbaloms of east Europe, located in his rather tiny flat on Manhatten's upper west side. Magyar cimbaloms, Ukrainian and Belorussian tsymbalys, Romanian tambal mic, if it's stringed and you hammer it, and it fits in a Volkswagen, Pete has somehow acquired it and learned to play it. (More)

And speaking of good things, free pianos are also fun for those who like to tinker with more complicated instruments.

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Call Me the Coffee Shop Cowboy

07 December 2006
Or, if you like to call your friends Czech names, you might prefer kavárenský povaleč.* In either case, that's what you might call a layabout who can always be found in coffee houses and other dens of unrest and revolution. (Unlikely, you say, but these things can happen anywhere.) The povaleč, however, is usually the one sitting idly in a corner of the room and not the reading poetry from the tabletops to rally the citizenry. Off duty, you might spot them coming home from Interspar.

In some ways, this has been me for the past couple weeks—shirking my usual duty of loafing on the Internet and posting these little discursions. See, I was in Ostrava, Strážnice, Velká nad Veličkou, Brno, and Budapest. All of those visits provided opportunities to do a survey of varied and diverse central European coffee houses, but I may have to talk about other things first. In any case, my blogging of late has been about as interesting as a decaf, non-fat, single cappucino without the sugar (hold the foam), so I'll try to have something more interesting ordered up in the next few days before I'm off again to that den of coffee house leisure and debauchery, the capital city, golden and hundred-spired, tourist-infested but still chugging along, Praha.

*A coffee-shop loafer. The Czech for cowboy (kovboj) doesn't really appeal, though you might have a kavárenský kovboj, too.

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