Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mini Dobrofest -- Dobro still means good in any language

Last night was a homecoming of sorts, in Trnava, Slovakia -- an hours-long concert in honor of John Dopyera, who with his brothers invented the dobro, or resonator guitar.

Last night's concert was also billed as a "mini-Dobrofest" -- a much smaller, but still fun successor to the Dobrofest festival that for years took place in Trnava to celebrate the instrument and its creators.

Dobrofest was founded in 1992, just when Slovakia was gaining independence through its "velvet divorce" from the Czech Republic. The country was, subconsciously perhaps, looking for national heroes, and Dopyera became one -- the archetypical local boy who made good, even though he left the country to do so.... Dopyera was born in the village of Dolna Krupa, near Trnava, in 1893 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1908. They ended up in California...

Year after year, Dobrofest brought top international musicians to Trnava, including the Americans Peter Rowan, Bob Brozman and Jerry Douglas -- as well as local bands.

Here's a video of Peter Rowan performing with the Czech band Druha Trava at Dobrofest in 2005:

But Dobrofest sort of ended for lack of funds in 2008 and then sputtered into mini-fests after that.

I attended it several times, the first time in 2003, when main events were held in the town's main square as well as in other venues, including one of the synagogues.

Last night's concert took place in a music cafe that is part of a huge new stadium and shopping mall complex. I met up with some of my oldest friends in Europe's Imaginary Wild West and country music scene.

The headliner was Willie Jones and his band. A big bear of a man with a full beard, Willie (and bandmember Roman Ac) were two of the very first people I met in the scene -- back in 2003, when he was working as the "singing cowboy" of the Pullman City wild west theme park in Bavaria.

I was working on an article for the New York Times back then, and I followed Willie and Roman on an adventure into the Czech country world.

Willie Jones and Roman Ac in Trnava March 11, 2016

One of my first experiences in the Imaginary Wild West was, in fact, a cowboy-style party in a country-western roadhouse in a remote village in southern Bohemia....I was led there by Willie Jones, an American who at the time was working as a singing cowboy at the Pullman City wild west theme park in Bavaria. Along with a Slovak bluegrass group, we traveled in a three-car convoy from Pullman City into CZ.
The road house was in a village too small to appear on my map. From the outside it looked like an anonymous village restaurant, but inside it was decorated with Wild West paraphernalia including horseshoes, sepia photographs of Native Americans and Billy the Kid, and a framed arrangement of pistols and playing cards. 
The occasion for the party was the 50th birthday of Franz Zetihammel, a figure well known on the Czech and German western show circuit for his portrayals “Fuzzy,” an “old coot” persona harking back to characters played by comic western actors such as Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. Fuzzy has long straggly grey hair and beard and never appears in public without his cowboy hat, cowboy boots and turquoise bolo tie and other jewelry. 
A Czech country duo got the guests up and dancing with locally written Czech country songs and Czech covers of American hits such as John Denver’s “Country Roads” and even “I’m and Okie from Muskokee.” 
One of the party guests, a man in his forties, was dressed head to toe in full cowboy attire, including sheriff’s star and a six-shooter – which Fuzzy at one point pulled from its holster, brandished at the dancers and then fired at the ceiling – fortunately, it was loaded with blanks....

Other artists on the line-up last night were the award-winning Czech guitarist Jakub Racek, the English singer Dave Peabody (who duetted with a Bratislava-born fiddler, the only woman onstage...), and the Slovak dobro player Peter Sabados.

The show last night was MC'd by Peter "Bonzo" Radvanyi -- the bluesy local performer who had been the driving force behind Dobrofest.  He ended the show by getting everyone to sing a sort of "Dobro chant" that had ended the festival events in its heyday.

And then he got everyone one stage to do this -- at the very end of the show

I sat with a table of friends in the front row -- they were people who really helped me in my quest to follow the scene over the years and explain the fascination with American country style, country music, bluegrass, and all that goes with it. Thanks guys!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Equiblues 2015!

This was the third time I have been to the Equiblues rodeo and country music festival in St. Agreve, France -- an annual event that draws upwards of 25,000 people and that this year was celebrating its 20th edition.

It was one of the first big country-western festivals I attended (back in 2004) when I first started following the "scene". Last time I was there was 3 years ago -- read what I wrote back then HERE and HERE.

Equiblues lasts the better part of a week, but this year, I only was able to make it there for Friday evening and Saturday, and -- alas -- I missed all of the rodeo -- though I saw some of the cowboy mounted shooting competition.

One of my reasons for going was to meet with Georges Carrier, an expert on country music in France who had been the director of the Country Rendez-vous festival in Craponne for 18 years.

I parked in front of the scene in the photo at the top of this page -- a fitting welcome image.

But the photo below encapsulates the atmosphere event better: "Authentic Dreams". Festivals like Equiblues are signal embodiments of what I call "real imaginary" spaces -- a re-created; no -- a created -- "America" where everyone wears cowboy hats and boots and hustles and bustles amid the trappings of the frontier; but where little has much really to do with the United States. As usual, except for some of the artists and rodeo performers, I was one of the only -- if not the only -- American there. I did hear English in the crowd from one couple strolling through, but UK English.

Actually, I found this year's Equiblues just about identical with what I found three years ago. Even the same food (sausage and frites; steak and frites; wine; beer...) and physical set-up. For festival-run merch, tickets, food, and events -- you have to pay in Equiblues dollars that you have to buy with Euros: one dollar = one Euro.

As usual, I was fascinated by the use of flag imagery -- American flags, Confederate flags and various other flags and banners. They are used basically without much meaning, as decoration mean to provide an "American" or "Rebel" spin, as backdrops, clothing, ornamentation.

In the photo below, fly in a row, over a souvenir and clothing stand,  an American flag, a Confederate flag with the words "Heritage Not Hate", a  Confederate flag and, I think, an Iowa state flag. I doubt of many people understood the significance of the slogan......

Check out the flag-inspired clothing, too.

The music, of course, with crowded concerts every night -- by American, Canadian and French artists -- under a circus-like big top, is one of the highlights. And there is a big space for line-dancers. I am still fascinated by the hypnotic geometric movements of these masses of people.

 There was even a Miss Equiblues contest.

But most visitors looked more like this:

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Jen Osborne's portraits of Indian hobbyists

"Indians" and others in Hungary, 2013. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mother Jones magazine has published a series of stunning portraits of Indian hobbyists in various European countries by the Berlin-based photographer Jen Osborne. I don't have copyright permission to repost the pictures -- but do follow the link!

In them, Jen shows the seriousness of the approach taken by people in the scene.

On her web site, Jen discusses her experiences.

From 2011 until 2015, I photographed the elusive "Indian Hobbyists" situated in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as film sets and stills from the popular Winnetou series and other Eastern European Native American films. The subjects in my series are not "ethnically" First Nations, but Europeans who use cultural mirroring, as practiced heavily in the sixties and seventies, to claim "Indianess", as well as present themselves as sympathetic to Native Americans. This hobby was once used as a form of psychological escape from gruelling dictatorships embraced behind the iron curtain.
She also photographed some of the  locations in Croatia where the Winnetou films of the 1960s were shot.

I of course have also been photographing people and places in the wild west scene -- including Indian hobbyists -- for more than a decade, and the photos on this page are mine, not Jen's.

Karl May Festival, Radebeul, Germany, 2008. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Tepees at a Tramp Potlach in Czech Republic

And my interest, too, goes well beyond Indian hobbyists and reenactors to include the wide range (pun intended) of people included in the Imaginary Wild West scene -- the fantasies, the yearnings, the music, the wild west theme parks, the saloons and all those elements that see-saw between the commercial and the sublime (or sublimated).

"Jim Bowie" and his wife, and "Indian maiden" at the Pullman City wild west theme park.

Czech Indian hobbyists at the German wild west theme park Pullman City

Czech frontier hobbyists at the private wild west town "Beaver City"

 Click here to see a photo gallery of some of my other Imaginary Wild West pictures


Saturday, June 6, 2015

RIP Pierre Brice, the Eternal Winnetou

The French actor Pierre Brice has died. Much of Europe is in mourning; few Americans have ever heard his name.

Brice, who was 86, starred as Winnetou, the Apache chief who was the hero of a series of movies shot in the 1960s based on the wild west stories of Karl May, the German hack writer who died in 1912 and never set foot in the American west but who thrilled the Old Continent with his tales.

I fell in love with Brice, like (almost) every other girl in central Europe, when as a teenager I spent the summer of 1966 in Prague and saw my first Winnetou movie. It was called “Old Shatterhand” and also starred the American actor Lex Barker as Winnetou’s blood brother, the German adventurer Charlie, AKA Old Shatterhand.

My then-10-year-old little brother and I went to see a 10 a.m. showing at the Sevastopol movie theatre in downtown Prague. After that I was obsessed. I bought a postcard of Brice in his Winnetou costume — darkened skin and long black locks held by a head band — and I cut out photos of him from Czech magazines.

As I wrote in an article about Karl May festivals more than a decade ago:

With his long hair and good looks, Brice set the mold for how a stage Winnetou should look and act, just as the late American actor Lex Barker, the original Old Shatterhand in the movies, set the standard for that role with his rugged features and trademark fringed buckskins.

I regret that I never got to interview Brice for my ongoing Imaginary Wild West project.

But Dana Weber and I did interview another Winnetou — Gojko Mitic, a Yugoslav-born actor who won fame during the Communist era playing Native Americans in East German-made Westerns, Mitic played Winnetou at the oldest and biggest summer Karl May festival, that in Bad Segeberg, Germany, where Brice himself had long been associated.

Gojko Mitic as Winnetou at Bad Segeberg, 2003

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"Country Roads" again -- in transliteration

Received from Roman Ac

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

A Slovak bluegrass friend, Roman Ac, posted this picture on Facebook -- it's wonderful, and I just have to post it here.  It's the lyrics of John Denver's 1971 mega-hit "Take Me Home, Country Roads" spelled out in Czech (or Slovak) phonetic transliteration.

I've posted here in the past about how in Europe "Country Roads" is probably the most popular (and most covered) country-style song by local singers.

Denver, born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in 1943, died in a plane crash in 1997. "Country Roads" lives on; it's omnipresent, everywhere.

Here it is in Slovenian:

"My first country song which I heard was 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'" a German truck driver told me in 2004, at the Geiselwind Trucker and Country Festival. "… Henry John Deutschendorf... it was fantastic, yeah? And so I fell in love with country music. [...] He gives us beautiful songs. John Denver. His grandfather was German, and he was one of the best. But he died too early."

Fans at Geiselwind, 2007, serenade me with "Country Roads"

I've heard the song (which is NOT one of my favorites) sung in a variety of languages -- and a variety of accented English. Here's an English cover by a young Italian trio:

In then-Czechoslovakia, the definitive Czech version was recorded in 1975 by the late, great Pavel Bobek as "Veď mě dál, cesto má" -- it became one of his signature songs. (Bobek, a pioneer rocker and Czech country star, passed away just one year ago.)

The Czech translation Bobek sang was quite a bit far, geographically, from West Virginia, but rather moving nonetheless -- this YouTube video is of Bobek singing in Czech, with a re-translation of the Czech lyrics back into English.

I find "Take Me Home Country Roads" almost unbearable sappy; sugary sweet and bland at the same time.

But audiences in Europe love the song -- they invariably sing along, swaying and smiling. The idea of "home" translates into a sense that we (they) are all at home in America -- or the America of dreams, where is here. Other songs popular in the European country scene also play on this sense of the universal "home" somewhere in the mythical West (or South) -- "Sweet Home Alabama," for example.

And here's another video I posted before -- of John Denver himself, singing "It's Good to Be Back Home Again" -- at a concert in Germany, land of his ancestors. It's about a truck driver coming home.

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Wild West" slack-lining in southern Poland.....

A group of European slack-liners recently held a gathering in southern Poland -- and the theme was the "wild west" -- bows and arrows, painted body art, feathers, whispery flute melodies.....

The resulting video is a mash-up of a wide range of Imaginary Wild West tropes, some of them just abstract sketches,  set to a rapping hip-hop sound track and breath-taking scenery.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Homeless US singer become country/Americana star in Sweden

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

American media including NPR (National Public Radio) and the Wall Street Journal ran stories recently about a homeless American singer in Nashville, Doug Seegers, who was filmed by a Swedish singer and her team for a documentary segment on down-and-out musicians for her TV show -- and ended up a star in Sweden.

From NPR:
People started sending money to help Seegers. A Swedish label offered him a record deal. A prominent record producer back in Nashville — along with a lot of big-deal session guys — signed on to make the record, and they finished it in three days.
For one track, someone called in a favor with one of Seegers' longtime heroes, Emmylou Harris. Harris recorded her tracks separately — but she was so moved by Seegers' voice that she called him to let him know.
"I pick up the phone and she says, 'Doug, this is Emmylou Harris,' " Seegers says. "And I immediately start crying. I couldn't even talk, I was crying so hard. It was a dream come true for me."
When it was released in Sweden, Seegers' album went to No. 1 and stayed in the top five for 10 weeks. Seegers toured the country, selling out 60 shows. Everywhere he went, he says, people would ask him how he was doing in the United States.

It's a heart-warming story.

NPR got it wrong, however, when it said that Sweden "lacks for country music fans."

Sweden has a country/bluegrass/linedeance scene and a history of home-grown country and Americana music. There is a country music radio/internet station, and also various local country and bluegrass artists, such as the award-winning bluegrass group Dunderhead, and  the Willy Clay Band -- (whose web site seems out of date, but the band has a Facebook page and seems still to be around. 

Here's a 2010 blog post about a Swedish country concert.