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Various Artists
Orava - Panorama Of Folk Song And Music Culture

Feeling, under license from Opus (
Review by Andrew Cronshaw

Listen "Sihelne"

Orava comes as a very nicely put together package: two CDs, in a 74 page hard-back book in a protective sleeve containing lots of color photos and details of the performers, texts about the project, song lyrics, and a map of the region. And it's just the first of six editions covering six regions of Slovakia.

This one is of music by performers from 19 villages in the Orava region, which is at Slovakia's northern tip, bordering on Poland; indeed a small area of Orava, which is a historical and cultural rather than administrative region, is in Poland, but none of the recordings here are from the Polish part.

It features male and female singers solo and ensemble, in unison and harmony, unaccompanied or joined by diatonic accordions, fiddles, string bands, bagpipes, or whistles including píšťalka and koncovka. It's strong, loud singing, characteristically often pushing to the very top of the singers' registers, as is much Slovak singing particularly in the mountainous areas, and the melodies are in the distinctive modes that are typical of much old Slovak tradition, returning frequently to the root note but nevertheless having a feeling of suspension.

The project was first released on vinyl LPs by the Opus label, beginning in 1978 with this Orava set. This well re-mastered re-release in good-to-own physical packaging is a demonstration of how much this music is esteemed and valued as a cultural treasure by those responsible for putting it out. It was initiated by Viliam Ján Gruska (left in the photo above), based on the shows he directed at the Pod Poľanou Folklore Festival in Detva. Staged shows, at the biggest festivals such as Detva or Vychodná, might appear showy and artificial, but they involve people from the villages, not some kind of fixed-smile state troupe, and their costumes and material are their own. They practice all year for, and look forward to, their appearance at folklore festivals.

Gruska brought in composer Svetozár Stračina (right in the photo) to work with him in the selection and recordings, which were made in Czechoslovak Radio's studio in Banská Bystrica, and with the written transcriptions of the material.

Listen "Zazriva"

(It was Stračina's evocative compositions using traditional music and musicians, in some respects akin to the works of Ireland's Seán Ó Riada, that first opened my ears to Slovak music when I came across a second-hand copy of the Radio Bratislava Folklore Music Prize on the 1974 prizewinners LP. Later the Prize was renamed in his honor.)

Introducing the Orava set, Gruska wrote:
"A widespread opinion was that there is nothing interesting and valuable that can be found in Orava, except from certain areas of North Orava (Beskydy and Tatras). The lack of interest from outside led to attenuation inside. Original, domestic manifestations of folk culture were pushed out by external ones. It was necessary to listen to perhaps half a hundred songs that local people thought were their original ones in order to find three or four that really corresponded to that classification. Only later, after identifying songs and melodies for the final stage of preparation of the stage show, the elders in particular started uncovering other songs. Suddenly a sort of instinct appeared among them that helped them categorise without outside help. The process of awakening took the whole year until the recording."

He continues, "It is possible to assume that the demand for folk art values will spread from 19 villages in Orava also to others". Whether or not that sort of spread happened, four decades later even though, as in most countries, there are many people who see their traditional music as just a quaint genre to ignore, there's certainly still living traditional music and dance in many regions of Slovakia, and skilled musicians in the cities who've taken it up and maintain links with the villages. This album, and the rest of the series to come, have to be seen as a landmark in Slovak music.

The book is all in Slovak, but an abbreviated translation, with some of the photos, is available from the English version of the website, and the written musical transcriptions are available on request.

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