SPECTATOR COLLEGE

Due to poor assistance, Slovak folk music might vanish from North America

The number of folk groups has declined, and the existing ones are struggling.

The Šarišan group shot. The Šarišan group shot. (Source: Courtesy of Megan Wolf)

A glossary of words is also published online.

While Slovakia boasts of its rich folklore traditions, music in particular, some feel the country falls behind when it comes to keeping Slovak folk music alive across North America.

“Slovakia is still expecting somebody else to do the job,” ethnology expert Ondrej Miháľ, a Serbia-born Slovak who emigrated to Canada in 1967, said.

Until the early nineties, and despite communism, folk music exchange between Slovaks living overseas and their homeland flourished. Folk ensembles in North America have been on the decline since. Since the first but already declined Slovak folk ensemble was founded in Canada in 1923, only a handful of ensembles have held out in the country.

It is very hard to learn to sing a Slovak song!

Šarišan dancer Megan Wolf

Slovakia’s poor financial assistance, among other things, is to blame, people approached by The Slovak Spectator said. With 850,000 Slovaks estimated to live in Canada and the US, Slovakia approved about €7,000 for cultural projects overseas in 2015, increasing the support to over €30,000 annually in the years before the pandemic.

But even if more money and guidance were provided, Slovak folk music overseas has long been facing another problem: assimilation.

“Not only Slovak folklore, but folklore from every country is dying in the US because each generation has less interest,” Joseph Senko, a Slovak honorary consul from Pittsburgh, said.

Against the odds, Slovak folk music continues to spark interest among English-speaking people, although the Slovak government cannot take much credit.

Americans love Slovak folklore

“What made me fall in love with Slovak folklore was getting to know Slovaks who wanted to proudly share their heritage through an experience rather than conversation,” American Megan Wolf said.

She and her sisters joined the Šarišan folk dance group, based in Detroit since 1971, soon after they saw it perform at the Slovak Festival 11 years ago.

Over the years, Slovak folk dances from the Šariš, Myjava and Detva regions have become her favourite, and so have songs like “Pod horou, pod horou” and “Oči, oči, čierne oči.” The American thinks, and she is not the only one, that the best way to bring Slovak folklore to English speakers is through cultural festivals and celebrations.

“Direct contact is the strongest,” Miriam Normore, president of the Toronto-based Východná Slovak Dancers, said. “People join in and sing, even if it is just one line.”

Slovak folklore is popular abroad, according to ethnologist Zuzana Drugová, and groups from Slovakia could also take part in these events more often and pass on the know-how to their overseas counterparts. But it comes down to too little financial help from Slovakia.

“It is necessary to create conditions to ‘export’ Slovak folklore as a commodity much more than it is today,” Drugová said.

Slovak songs are hard to learn

But how can an English speaker sing a Slovak folk song? An English version is out of the question for many reasons; some efforts were made in the past but failed.

It would be great to have some money to invest in hiring a professional choreographer and teacher to work with our children.

Karen Groholová

Miháľ admits Canadians of Slovak origin who do not speak Slovak mostly dance: “They cannot read in Slovak well, let alone sing.” If there is somebody singing, it is a person with singing experience who came from Slovakia, he added.

In the US, Šarišan created its own system of how to help non-Slovak speaking members learn folk songs.

The lyrics are typed up and translated, and the singers then sit together while those who speak Slovak lead them in the phonetic pronunciation and the melody. They take care to learn the appropriate pronunciation, since several of them do not know the meaning of what they are singing.

“It is very hard to learn to sing a Slovak song!” Wolf admitted.

Online library

Last December, the Bratislava-based choir Technik STU stepped up to help non-Slovak speaking choir singers by launching an online library of several folk songs, compiling lyrics, translations, and recordings in one place.

American Cassie Glinkowski, who runs the hiladelphia Women’s Slavic Ensemble, picked out the “Oddavac še budu” song to teach to the group.

“This song is very pretty and slower than most of our songs,” she said, noting they had never learnt Slovak songs in the past ten years. “I would definitely have taught more of them sooner if sheet music were easy to find on the internet.”

After stumbling on a Technik STU performance on YouTube, Glinkowski translated what she heard into sheet music to teach to the choir. Today, she is keen to add more Slovak songs to their repertoire.

“I think the reason we do not currently sing more of them is because Slovak music transcribed into a three- or four-part choir format is not as accessible for English speakers on the internet compared to other countries,” she said.

A complex online database with educational materials on folk songs and dances, both in English and Slovak, that could help overseas ensembles perform Slovak songs does not exist. Drugová published some materials for children’s folk groups though.

Prior to 1993, Matica slovenská, a Slovak cultural heritage institution, helped Slovak folk groups abroad.

“They sent out choreographers and musicians who taught us new dances,” Milan Straka, the founder of Šarišan, said. “They also sent us books and other materials, according to which we could learn new dance steps.”

Read alsoAs they age, Americans’ desire to reconnect with Slovakia grows Read more 

Although cooperation with skilled professionals would definitely help folk ensembles overseas, Drugová noted that since most music schools focus on teaching classical rather than folk music, “ensembles in Slovakia themselves suffer from a lack of good musicians.”

Money is a problem

With the creation of the Office for Slovaks Living Abroad (ÚSŽZ), which manages grant schemes, Matica slovenská saw cuts in its funding, and its activities for Slovaks abroad, today managed by one person, shrank.

“We consider this to be a big mistake of the state in the area of relations with Slovaks residing abroad,” Veronika Grznárová, Matica slovenská’s spokesperson, said.

Despite improvements, Miháľ keeps pointing to a discriminatory allocation of resources by the Office. Slovakia allocated €175,000 to cultural projects in Poland, where as many as 12,000 Slovaks are estimated to live, in 2018. Initiatives in North America received €34,200 for their cultural activities in the same year.

“A former ÚSŽZ head told me Slovaks in Canada were rich and would need no support,” Miháľ recalled. “Slovakia has no interest in the survival of Slovaks and the Slovak spirit.”

The Office has said it does not create any priority groups of Slovaks living abroad, noting the government pledged to increase funding for Slovaks abroad to €2 million a year.

Heritage preservation

Unlike other folk groups, Šarišan has been fortunate to cooperate with its Prešov-based counterpart for years. Moreover, thanks to a local church that offers its premises to Šarišan for free, the folk group does not have to pay rent.

However, the group’s financial situation, depending on fundraising, is far from perfect.

“It would be great to have some money to invest in hiring a professional choreographer and teacher to work with our children,” said Karen Groholová, whose daughters enjoy dancing in the group. “Our director is amazing, but she cannot do it all by herself.”

Šarišan even made it to Slovakia in 2019 thanks to a grant from the Slovak government. Still, families had to save up money for years to make the trip happen. More funding, according to Groholová, could indeed make things easier for the group in many aspects.

“Everyone involved in making this possible does it because they truly care about Slovakia, Slovak culture and also the children,” Groholová, whose husband was raised in former Czechoslovakia, noted.

She travels two hours each Tuesday to and from Detroit so that her daughters could participate in the group. There are other Slovaks in her area who would love to have their kids participate, but they cannot travel that far.

“I do this because for me preserving my children’s heritage is very important. I want my children to be proud of their roots and pass it down to their kids one day.”

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