DEMANDICE - A sleepy town in southern Slovakia, Demandice is about 30 minutes by car from the Hungarian border. But if potential visitors drive too fast, or are even momentarily distracted, the town could easily be missed. Its 1,000 inhabitants have a church, a pub, a bus stop, a grocery store and a mortician - and not much else.
But once a year, Demandice styles itself as a Mecca of Culture and hosts a unique Slovak jazz festival. Staged annually on the last weekend in June, the event is as diminutive as the town, yet it derives charm from the proximity of the musicians to the crowd. The stage is behind the town's pub on a lawn not big enough to house a proper game of croquet; patrons include as many musicians as spectators.
Now in its sixth year, the Demandice jazz festival is organised by Dr. Fero Horváth, a 29 year-old gastro-entologist who speaks seven languages. The performers - some of Slovakia's most famous jazz musicians - all seem to know Dr. Horváth intimately and are drawn to the festival by his charisma. "This festival is not about money," said Horváth, stealing a moment from his responsibilities to field a question about how much the players get paid. "It's about music and friendships."
Horváth is not just an avid jazz follower, he also plays the bass. His band, Exfonia, a rhythm and blues sextet, closed this year's festival with a set starting at 23:00 Saturday night and yielding early Sunday morning to an open jam session. With two guitarists, a drummer and a percussionist, the group's easy, upbeat music borders on pop but maintains a richer, more creative sound.
Earlier in the evening, popular Slovak figure Jaro Filip, a lounge-act cowboy with precision wit, took the crowd through 45 minutes of blues, jazz, cabaret, boogie-woogie and sarcasm. When an electrical problem disabled his keyboard, he didn't seem to mind, improvising a vocal melody to the words 'technical break'.
"I come here because its interesting, and because I like to discover new things," said Filip, who hosts a weekly radio programme on Rádio Twist entitled Nočný vták (Night Bird). "I just wish I had been the first to discover it."
While Filip was the weekend's most famous musician, the best performance came on Friday night via the quick, quirky fingers of guitarist Daniel Salontay. With his new band, Rychle šlpy (Fast Arrows), a quartet that evokes the atmosphere of an intensely odd Sunday afternoon, Salontay played with stunning virtuosity and personality. It's not easy to incorporate irony in music, far less to maintain it while shifting through different styles. Salontay even whipped out a violin bow to lash his guitar a la Jimmy Page, a gesture that would have fallen flat if it hadn't sounded so good.
The Demandice festival, while a fabulous experience, offered only a foretaste of Slovakia's biggest jazz festival, which will be held in Trenčín on July 22 and 23. Salontay and several other musicians from Demandice will be there. The stages will be bigger. So will the crowds. So will the price tag.