Folk songs from Eastern Europe were a strong inspiration for the great composers Leos Janacek and Bela Bartok. Both of them travelled through the countryside - Janacek in the Slovak-Moravian borderland, Bartok in Transylvania - and recorded village singers using wax cylinders - the only equipment available at the time. The material they collected is still much sought after.
Some of Janacek's recordings were released by the Czech company Gnosis (The Oldest Recordings, 1998), accompanied by extensive notes and transcriptions, while examples of Bartok's work were included on the Bartók album, along with fresh adaptations by the Hungarian band Muzsikas and singer Marta Sebestyen (Hannibal 1999).
Yet this fieldwork is far from finished, and more musical gems still remain to be discovered - at least in the Roma settlements of Slovakia. These poor and muddy villages are probably the closest place to Western Europe, where Roma have managed to maintain their lifestyle untouched by urban life. No wonder many Roma, who have settled in Czech towns have warm feelings for these villages - it's where their relatives come from. Also, many songs now made famous by the Roma divas Vera Bila or Ida Kelarova come from these desolate regions.
The Slovak ethnographer Jana Belisova has spent the last 14 years travelling to these places, recording old Roma singers and musicians in their homes. But it was not until last year that she managed to launch her first CD Phurikane Gila and a beautiful book with some stunning pictures. At 38 years old, she is one of the leading experts on Roma music in Slovakia:
"When I was a child, I spent my vacation with my grandmother, in a village close to the Eastern Slovak town of Presov, There were not many "white" children around, and besides that, I found them so boring. In spite of my mother's and grandmother's warnings, I played with the messy, dirty but cheerful Gypsy children. Usually, they also had good advice where to find wild cherries or raspberries. By night, they disappeared onto their "territory", which at that time was forbidden for me. When the "white" village went asleep, you could hear music and songs from the Gypsy settlement. I noticed they were singing in a different manner from us. I couldn't solve this mystery at that time, and I do not claim I can solve it now. But I felt they were singing with full heart."
When Jana studied ethnology at the University in Bratislava, first she started to collect Slovak folk songs. "Soon I discovered that I'm doing something that generations of my predecessors had already done - but never with Gypsy songs. In Slovakia nobody had cared about that area before."
Unlike Janacek and Bartok, Jana Belisova uses advanced technology. But even if her recordings are made in digital era, for most of us they sound like an echo from ancient times. In Central Europe, people don't sing like that any more in their homes. If you listen carefully to these Romani voices, you can hear a separate story and melody in every syllable. Naturally there are some parallels to other folk traditions. Many of the songs are free-form laments, and there is even a 'train blues' called 'E masina maj piskinel' - the train whistles to leave. The sad truth is that this train train transported Roma to Nazi concentration camps.
Jana Belisova plans further recordings. With the current growing interest in Gypsy music, it is very likely she will attract international attetion. But for Belisova and her colleagues, it is the Roma themselves, living in the villages of Slovakia that remain their main target:
"One of our aims is to resist fashion, which is driving Roma away from their traditional music, and to prove to them that their traditional music is beautiful and appreciated. We are beginning to get some response, at least in the villages we have already visited."
You can buy the Phurikane Gila CD and the book that goes with it at the Romen shop in Prague.
Magic Carpet is Radio Prague's monthly music magazine that looks at music from Czech, Moravian and Silesian towns and villages. The programme covers a wide selection of genres, from traditional folk to the exotic and experimental.
It is presented by Petr Doruzka, one of the Czech Republic's foremost music journalists.
29.2.2004: The gypsy settlements in Slovakia are probably the nearest place to the Czech Republic where Roma are still able to maintain their lifestyle untouched by urban life. In past years, the Slovak song collector Jana Belisova from Bratislava made several field recording trips to these villages, produced two CDs, and two books (in Prague you'll find them in the Romen Shop, Nerudova Street 32). In the programme: a Gypsy Christmas song from Slovakia, plus Zuzana Navarova with Mario Bihari, the blind Gypsy accordion player, and The Devil Fiddlers from Bratislava meet Andalusian flamenco.
For copyright reasons we are unable to archive the programmes in audio, but here at least are a few words about some of the recordings featured recently in the programme.
1.2.2004: Up in north-eastern part of the Czech Republic, close to the Polish border, lies the city of Ostrava, formerly a heavy industry centre, now developing a new identity. One of the most important artists of this region is Jaromir Nohavica - a singer, songwriter and poet. His latest CD, titled Babylon, was one of the most successful and also most interesting albums of past year. Also in the programme: Salute Zappa, a homage to the American composer Frank Zappa by Czech bands.
4.1.2004: Petr looks at some new releases by Czech independent labels. Well be hearing the Czech guitarist Pavel Richter as well as the amazing Romany musician Iva Bittova, with the re-release of a fantastic recording from 15 years ago with her half-sister, Ida Kellarova. Listen out as well for the new album of the band Gothart, entitled "Rakija 'n' Roll". Gothart are a group of Czech musicians who've become enamoured of the Balkans and draw from Serbian, Greek, Macedonian, Bulgarian, and Armenian tradition.
7.12.2003: Petr Doruzka introduces us to Tarafuki a very unusual band, made up of two young women cellists who sing their own songs ranging from quiet intimacy to load ecstasy. Dorota Barova and Andrea Konstankiewicz are of mixed Czech-Polish ancestry and sing in both languages. They have just released their second CD Kapka meaning a drop - and are rapidly becoming well known, throughout Europe and especially in France. At the end of the programme, listen out from the most unusual song on the CD Quiet Weeping.
09.11.2003: To this day in Moravia you still come across traditional cimbalom-and-fiddle village wedding bands. In the last ten years this music has enjoyed a revival. Established artists like Iva Bittova now compete with a new generation of young, fresh and creative musicians. In Magic Carpet we hear music from the CD sampler "Magic Playing Moravian Roots", introducing new discoveries and featuring a rare recording of Iva Bittova and her sister Ida Kellarova.
12.10.2003: Katka Sarkozi, singer, songwriter and guitarist started her career almost ten years ago, but her latest CD seems to be a breakthrough. It is titled "Magorie", translated as Insanity, Rage or Ferocity, and its impact is like that of a hushed scream that keeps haunting you for the rest of the day.
See also The History of Music.