The Devil's Violin always has the best folk tunes

THE MUSICIAN'S hammer strikes the dulcimer strings slowly at first. Soon they beat with such rapid ferocity that onlookers are unable to follow the action.
Other string instruments join in, followed by a vigorous violin solo. The audience jumps to their feet and erupts with a standing ovation. The music, meant to stir the heart, is played by the aptly named band The Devil's Violin.
"The title captures our temperament," says Ján Berky-Mrenica Jr, the band's 39-year-old violinist. The seven-member Devil's Violin is indeed a feverish lot, treating live audiences to its trademark line-up of Slovak and Gypsy folk tunes, plus classical and modern compositions.


The Devil's Violin musicians keep folk traditions alive.
photo: Courtesy of The Devil's Violin

THE MUSICIAN'S hammer strikes the dulcimer strings slowly at first. Soon they beat with such rapid ferocity that onlookers are unable to follow the action.

Other string instruments join in, followed by a vigorous violin solo. The audience jumps to their feet and erupts with a standing ovation. The music, meant to stir the heart, is played by the aptly named band The Devil's Violin.

"The title captures our temperament," says Ján Berky-Mrenica Jr, the band's 39-year-old violinist. The seven-member Devil's Violin is indeed a feverish lot, treating live audiences to its trademark line-up of Slovak and Gypsy folk tunes, plus classical and modern compositions.

Berky-Mrenica Jr is the son of Ján Berky-Mrenica Sr, the Slovak folk legend who once took his act to America. There he met jazz great Louis Armstrong and was invited to his jazz club on Broadway. Armstrong offered the Slovak the chance to stay in New York and earn the kind of money he could only dream of backhome.

But Berky-Mrenica Sr turned down the offer, saying that he could never leave "the grass of Očová", not even for potential musical fame and fortune in America.

"At first, he thought I was talking about marihuana," the elder Berky-Mrenica recalled. "But when he found out I was talking about the grass that rabbits eat, he burst into laughter and nodded his head."


Ján Berky-Mrenica Jr has played violin since he was fouryears-old.
photo: Courtesy of The Devil's Violin

His son, born in Zvolen and now a resident of Bratislava, started playing the violin at the age of four.

He grew up in a family of musicians as his mother sang in the Brno Folk Instrument Orchestra while his father, apart from his famous band, played violin at Sľuk for over 30 years.

Carrying on the family tradition, Berky-Mrenica Jr will lead his band on January 23 in the northern Slovak city Žilina. Special guest will include be Ján Babjak, the brother of Slovak opera singer Martin Babjak, who will sing several operettas as well as a few folk songs.

All The Devil's Violin musicians have devoted themselves to music since childhood. With more than 100 concerts a year around the world, they perform folk and classic works as well as original arrangements written specifically for the band's three violins, dulcimer, viola, double bass and violoncello.

While they perform every style from Baroque to Romantic, their folk works are mainly drawn from Slovak, Gypsy, Jewish, Russian, Romanian, and Hungarian sources.

"We really like folk music, but we couldn't survive on that alone," says Berky-Mrenica Jr. "It's impossible to gain any kind of international notoriety for bands that play only folk music. Successful bands must have a show that is professional, which is why we perform several different genres."

One factor forcing the band to vary styles is money. Slovakia is home to countless folk groups in the country, all of which struggle with the same problem. Slovak Radio has its own musical ensemble, but the orchestra members cannot remember the last time the station ran a folk programme.

"Folk music has faded away from radio and public TV. If anything is played it's always the same thing. As a result, the listener has no chance to choose," said Berky-Mrenica Jr.

Berky-Mrenica Jr is carrying on the family tradition in more than one way: he also took his father's curious nickname Mrenica, which he was dubbed by locals because of his fondness for being near water. 'Mrenica' is Slovak for a certain kind of fish.

"There are many Berkys, but the only Berky-Mrenica is my father. I took his name with his approval because it's a stamp with a significant meaning and because I have decided to walk in his footsteps. Slovak folklore is a huge well of melodies that we want to preserve."

What: Diabolské husle (The Devil's Violin) of Berky Mrenica Jr.
Where: Mestské divadlo (Town's Theatre), Horný val 3, Žilina.
When: January 23 at 19:00
Price: Sk200
Tel: 041/5623-703, 5623-802.

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