Looney Tunes in Slovakia’s High Tatras
The kids noticed them first, in a souvenir shop in Strbske Pleso, up in the Slovakian High Tatras. They weren’t easy to find, amongst thousands of items of folksy themed tourist tat. But there they were; alongside Vyoke Tatry sheep, above Tatry goat bells, below heart shaped leather ‘I love Tatry’ leather key fobs, and behind little Tatry wooden whistles: wooden Tatry recorders.
“And they’re only 2 euros each,” said Cameron. “Can we buy one?”
Have we lost the musical thread?
I felt guilty, not because I wouldn’t let them, but because it was a while since we’d used the five recorders we were already carrying. In fact we seemed to lose the musical thread of our journey sometime after passing through Esztergom the second time around, the best way we could find back out of Budapest. I don’t know whether it was something about finally leaving the Danube or something about Slovakia but once we crossed the border recorder practice seemed to stop.
We expected the musical influences to be different in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland, countries better known for their folk traditions than the great classical composers we’d been visiting the homes of in Germany and Austria. And having left the Danube to travel across Slovakian pastures, hills and mountains, it’s easy to appreciate how and why folk traditions would dominate; somehow classical music feels like it has less place here without the renaissance cities, palaces, kings, courts, counts and parlours in which it flourished.
A waltz without a river?
And our Blue Danube theme tune felt like it lost its relevance too without the river for inspiration and practice venues. While in Hungary we tried to learn a Hungarian folk dance instead but our fingers couldn’t move fast enough and it sounded more like a funeral march than anything anyone would ever dance to.
A nose recorder?
Then again it may have been the incident at Esztergom that put us all off; when we encountered a mediaeval busker who could play three recorders at once. Admittedly one of them seemed to be a nose recorder which only played one note, but even so the fact that one man could play three instruments and a three part harmony on his own only served to illustrate how far we had to go in our musical journey. This mediaeval maestro wasn’t just hacking us off though. A passing American tourist with a harmonica seemingly took a dislike to him and took it upon himself to have a busking duel with him, drawing a harmonica from his pocket at first to accompany the recorders and then, when the nose recorder was being withdrawn, stealing the pitch to play a number of his own, leaving recorder man snorting in disgust.
More euro pop than trad folk
Across the border in Slovakia we’ve heard less folk music than in Hungary. Perhaps old music traditions are under greater pressure here from new ones. In bars and restaurants from Banska Stivianica to Banska Bystrica we’ve mostly had euro pop served with our drinks and meals, on campsites we’ve been pumped up in the morning with zhumba fuelled exercise classes, and up in the mountains in Zdiar we’ve been treated to far too many karaoke choruses of the Macarena. It’s strange to think that in years to come people keen to learn about folk musical traditions of the early 21st century may hear stories of times when mountain folk would sit around a plasma screen, drinking beer, sharing a microphone, singing traditional songs like the Macarena and Chi Chi Wa (trad arr).
A new soundtrack for our journey
On our journey up and down the beautiful Tatras the kids found a new soundtrack for our journey somewhere on my iPod. They use it to lighten the mood when tempers get frayed on hot and difficult climbs, plugging the iPod to a little speaker for our own roadside karaoke. Sitting by the road in what’s left of forests devastated by storms in 2004 this loony tune never fails to raise a smile, especially when tired limbs and sweaty brows have brought us near breaking point. Although it probably annoys solitude seeking late night Macarena singers, but then fairs fair eh? Anyway, I say the Woody Woodpecker song is relevant in a forest environment, but what justification is there for the Macarena? We seem to be picking up the words to Woody quicker than we did our recorder parts so perhaps we should try being a barber shop quintet. Another year maybe.
We’re not quitters though
But we’ve not given up on recorders or the Blue Danube. Listening back to a recording we made before leaving the Danube it’s clear it is coming together. We each know our roles, have studied our notes, are learning our parts and slowly putting the thing together. And while individually at least, it’s unlikely we’ll ever be able to play three recorders at once, at least not in any kind of harmony, it does seem like working as an ensemble we might be able to pull off a decent sounding performance before we finish this summer’s cycling journey.