in SlovakSK

Interview with Slovak Ethnomusicologist Ondrej Demo - Song Maintains the Language

Ondrej Demo

PhDr. Ondrej Demo, CSc., (Jan 14, 1927 - Dec 19, 2020) was an important Slovak ethnomusicologist. He worked for 4 decades as the editor in the folk music section of Czech-Slovak radio, and later on Slovak state radio in Bratislava. He was preparing the series of shows called the Treasury of Folk Music for almost 30 years, where he introduced hundreds of ensembles and soloists, dedicated to spreading Slovak folk music in its genuine shape inside Slovakia as well as and abroad. His recordings of authentic folklore belong to a golden documentary found of Slovak state radio. In 1970, he caused an impulse to create the international competition in folk radio recordings called Prix de musique folklorique de Radio Bratislava, where during its 16 years of existence participated more than 50 European radio stations. Except the many scientific ethno-musicological studies and articles, he is also the author or co-author of many publications and books about Slovak folklore. Interview with him for / Slovakia Document Store was executed by the Slovak state radio editor Vlado Franc.

Vlado Franc

Sound 1st part of the interview in the sound version

8:27 min. – 1,73 MB

Question: Mr Demo, this is the sound of a fujara, typical slovak folk instrument that is also included in the world cultural heritage of UNESCO. However, it is not the instrument typical for the whole area of Slovakia, but only for a particular part of it.

FujaraAnswer: Yes, it is a region under the Polana town in central Slovakia close to the town of Detva. And I will dare to say that it has received the name 'the queen' of Slovak folk musical instruments for its unique, beautiful, majestic sound, which is in harmony with nature, because it has been used by the shepherds who have also been making it and exactly because it is the most beautiful and biggest, but also because it has the most unique color of sound, majestic, but also because it has distinctive and special design, different from for example other types of shepherd’s blows. Fujara is approximately 2 meters long, it has three holes and is made from elderflower wood and has to be very well dried. The three holes has caused that even now, when we have various new designs, it is impossible to play song in major nor in the gramaton. It has its own tonality – so called mixolydic, what means major scale with a smaller spectum.

Question: Into how many areas is it possible to divide Slovakia according to the specific features of folklore?

Answer: Roughly speaking into Eastern, Central and Western Slovakia. However Eastern contains regions of Spis, Saris, Zemplin and Abov. In Central we have for example Orava, Liptov, Kysuce, Horehronie, Podpolanie, Gemer and other regions. But each region has its own sub-regions. Western Slovakia contains for example Zahorie, Trencin, Myjava, Pozitavie, Ponitrie etc. So these are the three basic regions out of which each has sub-regions with individual folklore differences. As they say, everytime you cross the hill, there is a different habit, different song, different dance and different step.

Question: Were you born in a distinctive folklore region?

Answer: Recently I have published one publication from my home village Branovo – located in the Pozitavska region – where I state that for example every neighboring village has differences in dialect, songs, moves, costumes and dances. Branovo is such a distinctive village that has been able to conserve its traditions until these days because it has been isolated for such a long time. There was no railway, no big road, no electricity, not even bus connection until the second half of the 20th century. And exactly because of these reasons the traditions were maintained in an unique way. I have grown up there and I have also took part in weddings, parties, carnival celebrations, setting up of May trees etc. Therefore these traditions became part of my life.

Question: Is the folklore from your home town your favourite one?

Answer: Of course it is. For example as student in Bratislava, when I was in Eugen Suchon’s opera Krutnava which included the wedding scene, it took me back to my feelings of Branov, when I attended a wedding for the first time only as a 5 year old child, when my father’s youngest sister was getting married, when I experienced all those extraordinary ceremonies: wishing of the groom’s man, speeches of the elderly, the act of removing the wreath etc. and it was spectacular. I had a flashback here and I came back home in my memories.

Question: And is it possible that in todays over-technicized world folklore will become only a tourist attraction in skanzems?

Answer: Thank God that this tradition is strong and it stays inside people. I have visited a number of folklore ceremonies this summer and I have also visited individual villages. For example in Terchova. This village has granted me an honorary citizenship, because I have paid great attention to it over 30 years by bringing recordings from there to State radio. And in the context of the international radio music competition Prix de musique folklorique de Radio Bratislava, that has regularly taken place from 1970 untill 1993, Terchova has won four gold medals.

And when I visit Terchova these days and I compare it to my first visit, I was surprised. However it was a positive surprise. There was no decrease of folklore, but a development never seen before. For example modern summer and winter tourism that has developed there, cableway to the Chopok mountain, etc. People from Terchova present themselves by their own folklore in front of not only home but also international audience. Every year they organize in their village a three day folklore festival called Janosik days, where they present themselves in various forms and appearances. Terchova is already not only a traditional shepherd culture with blows and chalets, but it is a culture through blows, drumbles, accordions, stringed instruments, from the youngest people to the oldest. It is four generations. If I tell you that there are four unique children music ensembles and their members do not have to attend music schools, but they learn everything from the older ones, then I can only take my hat off to them. There are youth groups, university students have the Nebeska muzika (Heavenly music) ensemble, in which they enrich the traditional Terchova music with their own features, because this is what the folklore is, the instrumentalist is also a creator. And there is also modern rock band called Arzen, that utilizes rock and jazz motives, but their music is based on the traditional Terchova songs and lyrics. So it is etno music. Therefore the pluralist shape of the Terchova village is very interesting today. However international audiences tend to admire the traditional Terchova music performed by the Mucha sibs. Vrcharsky orchester Juraja Pecnika a Ludová hudba bratov Muchovcov They follow the music interpretation of their ancestors, using multi-voice playing and singing, their instruments are adjusted in the following way: small bass has two strings, contrabass has four strings, violins adjusted for their own special technique of playing – they have the violin on their right shoulder, with bend fiddlesticks, they use the strings made from the bowels, allowing them to create a richer sound and they are tuning their violins simultaneously with their voices. It’s not the cabinet "a", it is something lower. Their singing and playing is a specific and unique style of manifestation in Slovakia. Just like the fujara playing is typical for the Podpolana region, this four member bow play is typical for Terchova. This Terchova style is unique in Slovakia, but today it is also a European representative. Mucha sibs were playing not only in Europe, they have been playing in Africa, Australia, they have recently been to Georgia, etc. Slovak ambassadors are often inviting them for the foreign representation of our culture.

This representative music group of Mucha sibs from the village Terchova will play now.

Yes, here it is.

(Short music demonstration – the Mucha brothers band. The song called We are brothers, brothers my brothers, why don’t we sing.)

Sound2nd part of the interview in the sound version

12:16 min. – 2,51 MB

Question: You, Mr Demo, are not only a passionate, but also a professional collector and recorder of Slovak folk songs, so you basically archive the folklore jewels, which you enter into sound and score. How many folk songs have you already collected?

Answer: It has approximately 360 villages of folklore recordings, music and singing expressions in Slovakia and even Slovaks living abroad that I have the opportunity to meet. But I have also been to the former Yugoslavia, Hungary and even to some of the Slovak enclaves in Canada. Altogether there is around 16 thousand titles stored in our archive. I have transcripted, that means re-wrote folk songs that I have published in song-books, some of them were given to Matica Slovenska, some of them I have at home, approximately 3 thousand, maybe even more, because I have not finished, I’m still working on it.

Question: You have used many of these songs during the creation of the series The Treasury of folk music that you broadcasted for several decades.

Answer: For more than thirty years I have archived this cycle called the Treasury of folk music, into which I used to bring recordings from individual regions every month, but also from individual locations of Slovakia. And this is unique material has been my source ever since. It due to the recordings, but also due to the Orchestra of folk instruments (OLUN), that has arised from the need for Prix de musique folklorique de Radio Bratislava, where we needed high quality recordings and the orchestra should have ensured such a quality. I have been the first director of this body, Miroslav Dudik has been the concert master and the executive artist. I have used this material there as a demonstration, but the orchestra needed everything to be written into a score. Musicians have heard the demonstration and then they had been able to deal with all the interpretational specifics from the score. Therefore I have composed some of the songs especially adjusted for them. I can tell you one example. I have recorded John‘s beautiful songs from the village of Cicmany, sung by the girls on John’s day. They setup John’s fires where they come singing with the village hails like: „A Vojano, Vojano, better George than John...„ what is basically the call for the village youngsters, but there is also something scary in it, so I have transcripted this for the orchestra and for the girl band Vajana and it has acquired a new shape, but it is almost just as genuine, because it is based on genuine article. Although we have used the radio technique and instruments which were not tradional, for example we have used percussion instruments. So this kind of demonstration came back to our listeners, it had a new shape involving the specific interpretational, but also radio input. Another similar story is from the Saris region village called Hanusce nad Toplou, where I have recorded old men telling me the story from the Italian front during the First World War. They have been talking about bullets whistling around their ears, or how they experienced recruiting at home and while they were talking, they have started to sing. I was so impressed by this display, by their narration and by the fact that I had the chance to hear about their lives, that I decided those songs along with the recruitment stories for the male vocal group Rodokmen from Bratislava and for the orchestra too, that it lead to a formation of a new musical picture Alla: „ Let’s recruit us fellows, because the emperor brings us the swords..„ And this is an example of another new musical display which has emerged in the radio environment, but it is identical with the genuine one, the one presented by them, the one that was used at those times.

Question: We could play one of those demonstrations. Which one would you go for?

Answer: I would recommend small piece from both. From the Cicmany one and from the Saris recruitment one too.

(Short music demonstration – John’s songs from Čičmian - Girl band Vajana, CD From my treasury)

Answer:That was from Cicmany with the OLUN orchestra and know we will play the recruitment one with the OLUN orchestra and male vocal band

(Short music demonstration – Let’s recruit ourselves fellows, vocal assembly Rodokmen)

Question: Mr Demo you have been often visiting the Slovaks living abroad. Where do the Slovaks living abroad maintain their folk traditions?

Answer: The most impressive display of this is in former Yugoslavia in Vojvodina. There are around 70 thousand Slovaks living, but the individual locations where purely slovak. Some of them have been mixed with the Serbs. They speak perfect Slovak even now, they have Slovak costumes, they do performances, have their own songs, they sing, dance and they have Slovak ensembles, so there is a really rich and unique enclave which is our ideal in many ways. They have a really sweet pronounciation of "ľ", boľi, videľi, išľli, etc., this is what they have brought from Slovakia 200 hundred years ago, when their ancestors left and they still maintain it in the same form. But this is in traditions, this is in languages. For example when I have been to Romania I was really surprised by the language: In localities like Bojovske, Bodonos etc...they spoke beautifully pure Slovak. They also sing types of archaic songs, for example they have been singing extraordinary examples of these so called structural archaic types, this is what has been conserved there. It is hard to find it in Slovakia.

Question: And isn’t their Slovak folklore influenced by the environment they live in?

Answer: To some extent, yes. For example I have noticed in Romania that they have played Bethlehem alot faster, with more temperament so you could notice the Romanian dancing element there. In Hungary, there is a language assimilation. They have assimilated many sounds from the Hungarian language. Even though the lyrics are nice and Slovak, it is affected by the Hungarian vocalization, and that is really a shame, because it is very obvious in the spoken language, the singing and songs.

Question: I think that festivals organized in Slovakia also have the purpose of preservation, maintenance and spreading of Slovak folk music. The biggest ones are organized in the villages of Detva and in Vychodna and then there is a number of others in different Slovak localities. They are often visited by the Slovak folklore assemblies from abroad, plus of course they offer the best home folklore groups. I think that we can be proud in front of the whole world because of the way we preserve our traditions.

Answer: We refer to Slovakia as a small country on a small area, but the segmentation, the mountain land of Slovakia, the regional segmentation, the fact that every region has different dialect, different habits, different costumes, different songs, gives Slovakia rich diversity of musical, singing and dancing expressions. This is exactly what makes others jealous. Hungarians, Poles and Germans don't have it. Even in the Czech republic it is not as rich as it is here. This is what makes Slovak folklore so unique and distinctive and I will dare to say that the richest in central Europe. And this is not the case only in vocal song creation, but also in instrumental creation. None of the neighboring countries can boast such a big number of musical instruments. For example the etnomusicologists from the Slovak Academy of Sciencies state that we have around 120 different types of sheperds blows, recently there has been an exhibition of Slovak sheperd’s folk instruments in Paris in UNESCO, professor Eschek was there, and we have been exhibiting all musical instruments we have in Slovakia. And this is what makes Slovakia so unique and special in the European environment. If every nation should present itself by its cultural identity, then we really have something we can be proud of, something we can live from and we can develop. This has affected our culture in the professional artistic variations. Through the creation of composers like Eugen Suchon, Alexander Moyzes, Jan Cikker and many others.

Question: I think that we could document this richness by some music.

Answer: For example the goral’s songs. The most archaic type of Slovak folk expressions from the upper Orava region. Bagpipes, violins and vocals, it still survives in this form, but, of course, it is evolving to many other artistic forms.

(Short music demonstration – Oi, from the Baba Gura, performed by Anna Rusnakova and the vocal band from Oravska Podhora, bagpipes – Jozef Zboron, violin – Stefan Zboron CD from the Treasury of folk music)

Sound3rd part of the interview in the sound version
8:17 min. – 1,67 MB

Question: Mr. Demo, you as a listener, what kind of music is your favorite? Dynamic, lively?

Answer: I prefer choral, moody, melancholic music, where I can meditate, think and enjoy the beauty of colors of not only the musical instruments, but also harmonies, because Slovak folk songs and vocal expressions in general in our country are very rich. Especially multi-voice chorals in the region of Liptov, Horehronie, Sumiac, Telgart, Orava or Zemplin…And these harmonies in the song expressions are then transmitted also into instrumental structures, especially into folk music and orchestra. And the richness of harmonies in beautiful hauling songs usually catches my attention also in serious music. That is why I like the music of Eugen Suchon and Alexander Moyzes, because they based their creation exactly on tonal and modal features of Slovak folk music, and that is a sort of a message, that it is Slovak.

Question: Did you know what you are looking for when you have been traveling around the Slovak regions or you were often surprised by the local people, by something that you did not expect?

Answer: What surprised me many times was that these people were often connecting this art with their own lives. They have actually lived what they sung. For example Monika Kandracova in the Saris region singing the wedding song during the the act of removing the wreath. I have been at this traditional wedding with musicians and suddenly there was a silence and she went to remove the wreath of the young bride. She was singing like in a church. In an absolute silence and with such an extraordinary voice expression and feeling, that it was truly ceremonial for me. And that was something that really surprised me. I did not expect such singing during a wedding.

Question: Do we have the sample?

Anwer: Yes, we do.

(Short music demonstration – When I will have my wreath removed, performed by Monika Kandracova from Krasna Luka village, folk music from the Sarisske Dravce lead by Jan Laci - CD from the Treasury of folk music.)

Question: Mr Demo, as you have already said before, we can devide Slovak folklore into Eastern, Central and Western, however the Western part is known for the fact that there is not such a clear dominance of violins like in the other two regions, more often it is possible to observe the dominance of wind instruments.

Answer: Yes, absolutely. Once I was very surprised too, because our opera singer Janko Blaha, who has been performing folk songs, told me that he often listened to different types of music which is already impossible to find in Zahorie region, there is only brass-band. The same thing happened in the Trencin region, where the traditional stringed instruments have been replaced by the brass-band during the last two centuries. It has been brought by soldiers playing in the army bands and there was a garrison in Trencin with very good musicians who have taught people from neighboring villages to play on the wind instruments. Even though they usually did not even know the score, they have been playing by heart. And they are still playing this way. For example you should see the mood at the carnival in Kubra village. Musicians are walking down the streets followed by people wearing masks etc., they are dancing wildly, but the musicians are playing the same way that once had been played on stringed instruments, they have transmitted it to a brass band and thus created their own special interpretated style of brass band, that is so unique in Trencin, just like the music in the village Terchova or in the Podpolanie and Zemplin regions. The Trencin brass band is number one in Slovakia and many bands from the Morava region in the neighboring Czech Republic are playing their songs and style of playing.

What I like about Kubra is that for example singers sing the part of the song, musicians play it then in a fast tempo, then singers sing again, they dance, hold, musicians wait, then they play again etc. They are alternating singing with the dancing and that is a unique, beautiful form.

Question: You live in the Bratislava district of Vajnory which is also very well known for its brass band tradition.

Answer: Vajnory really does have a rich history because it was a purely Slovak commune in the former Pressburg inhabited by Germans, Hungarians and even by Croats in close vicinity. The brass band tradition has been living there since 1866, it is still alive and there has been seven generations of musicians. Once I introduced there a folk music festival, where we invited the best folk music bands from Slovakia, but also from the Czech region of Morava, in order to keep this tradition alive. This music is still alive, however the conditions are not as they used to be. Once it was an isolated village living its own individual way of life, today it is a part of the big city. People have various hobbies, but the cultural utilization is still rich there.

Question: Is it obvious from the first sight of your house that you are a folklore fanatic?

Answer: I think that if somebody walks by, he can notice it. I have a small garden connected with traditions. Flowers, lawn, decorative bushes and fruit trees, but anyone who crosses the threshold of my house immediately sees it: blows, a fujara, pictures, paintings of Sybila Greiner and also a „small exhibition“ of music instruments all of which I still use. I even have the goral violins – zlobcoke, it is such a small collection collected on my folklore journeys in Slovakia.

Question: Western Slovakia and the commune that is Vajnory are wine regions with big wine traditions. Do you also have a proof of this for our session?

Answer: You may be surprised, but I do. However it is not wine from Vajnory, but from the village of Horne Oresany, where they have the tradition of wine tasting. Fellows and lads meet in their cellars. They have the same tradition here in Vajnory, where they often sing. I have such a recording from Horne Oresany, including accordions, singing and of course wine tasting. They clink, cheer and sing. We can listen to it.

So lets clink.


(Short music demonstration – In the Oresany cellar, male band from Smolenice and Oresany, lead by the accordion player Pavol Novak.)

Sound4th part of the interview in the sound version
5:28 min. – 1,14 MB

Question: Mr. Demo they say the higher into mountains, the stronger the spirits. Wine in the Zahorie region and the more you go into the hills, the stronger...

Answer: Yes, for example the hill regions do not have the wine tradition or they have avoided it even til now. When I came to Detva festival, a man also called Ondrej invited me for a drink. I asked: Wine? Are you drinking wine? He said it takes too long to get drunk…They only drink strong home-made spirit. In Sumiac village they have „hriato“. It is a kind of home made spirit where they put a piece of bacon or scab to make it fat, then they add rum just like in the tea, but there was more rum than tea and this hot drink had „polished“ their throats. I enjoyed it as well, because my throat is sensitive and I easily catch cold. Just then I realized why those guys eat a piece of bacon big as my forehand, bread, onion and „hriato“ before they went to the mountains. They were real men and you could hear it in their voices when they were singing.

Question: Mr. Demo, You are now an active pensioner. Did you raised your three children to be in love with folklore?

Answer: Yes they love it. I have two daughters who used to dance in the folk assemblies. One in the Technik and the other in the Dimitrovec assembly. My son has been playing the piano as a student, but when he was considering his future career, he decided on engineering. However I have grandchildren who are carrying on the traditions, they dance and I believe that the generation will continue.

Question: What about your wife? Does she like folklore as well?

Answer: My wife was born in Vajnory where these traditions are still very active and lively, so she had a passion for it just like for me, and that is, thank God, my fortune too.

Question: And what about the traditional Slovak feasts like Christmas and Easter in your household?

Answer: Christmas and especially easter, before my daughters got married, were full of lads from ensembles, where they used to dance and sing. There has always been plenty of watering afternoons, indoors and outdoors, so they used to spend two or three hours untill the evening came and then they went home singing. We still maintain all these traditions. For example I have also learnt my grandchild to braid the whip and sing christmas carols. I also have photos with my grandchildren while we are playing and singing under the christmas tree, and they really liked to play and sing with their Grandfather. We celebrate other events like birthday or name’s day in this manner the children come and they sing or recite and the whole family enjoys it.

Question: Aren’t you worried that the folk music will die in future times?

Answer: I’m not worried about its death, because our language would have to die as well. Its just the contrary. Our people, Slovaks abroad, in America, they often do not know our language, but they know our songs. And they sing Slovak folk songs. Song maintains the language. And if we cannot exist without language as a nation, we cannot exist without songs too. It’s the part of our feelings and communication. Mind that when there is a gathering of people and they start to sing, what do they sing? Folk songs above all. Because it is the spice of our lives.

Question: Mr Demo, thank you for an interesting chat and for the beautiful music which has accompanied your speech, so what shall we play at the end?

Answer: I would play the Oresany village song related to wine, sentiments or even celebration of our home land.

And this is an invitation to Slovakia.

(Short music demonstration: Lets drink wine; it is good, Rodokmen choir, OLUN orchestra lead by Miroslav Dudik.)

Choose from Slovak Folk Music

Sound1. part of interview in Slovak
8:27 min. – 1,73 MB
Sound2. part of interview in Slovak
12:16 min. – 2,51 MB
Sound 3. part of interview in Slovak
8:17 min. – 1,67 MB
Sound4. part of interview in Slovak
5:28 min. – 1,14 MB

More information:

Tuto hudbu mam rad (Patnast znamych slovenskych a ceskych osobnosti z oblubenej relacie Slovenskeho rozhlasu) + CD

Vianocne ludove koledy, vinse a hry (Folk Christmas Carols, Blessings and Plays analyzed by Slovak Folklorist)

Published: 2006-11-07
Updated: 2006-11-07