Slovenski etnografski muzej

Sounds of Slovenia: from folk musicians to the avseniks

Curator 
mag. Igor Cvetko

The exhibition Sounds of Slovenia - From folk musicians to the avseniks is the story of sound and musicianship in Slovene-speaking lands.

The story begins in prehistoric times, when a Stone Age man bored holes in the bone of a cave bear and perhaps for the first time in history intentionally blew into it. This is followed by evidence of some important milestones between us and the past, which show the almost unbroken development of music in Slovene areas:
- the Iron Age player on panpipes depicted on the Vace situla is incredibly similar to the image of today's trstenke player from Haloze;
- the instrument played by the angels in medieval frescoes in Slovene Gothic churches is an interesting local variant of the dulcimer, which is still used by folk musicians;
- a few years ago, a horn made on the basis of a description by Valvasor came to life as a musical instrument only a few kilometres away from Bogenšperk Castle, where it was immortalised by that great polymath;
- on a number of beehive panels – a distinctive Slovene ethnic product from the late 18th and the 19th centuries - there are numerous musical scenes, stories and instruments which, although the visual source is very stylised, are precise, recognisable and eloquent.

These scenes are surprisingly similar to the situation at the start of the 20th century, when permanent music groups were formed in Slovene areas, with a fixed line-up of instruments that could be referred to as distinctively Slovene. They were characterised by a lead instrument playing the main melody, while the other instruments provided the accompaniment and bass. At that time music was always for dancing to and musicians usually performed without a singer.

After 1848 it is possible to discern a flourishing of instrumental music in Slovene areas, shaped by turbulent political, cultural and social events. Photographic evidence from the next hundred years shows numerous occasions and opportunities for playing music.

In any description of our folk musical past the mid-19th century could be labelled as a 'break with tradition', for the invention of the accordion shook the foundations of local music making. The accordion became the most popular instrument in a range of different musical set-ups, with the diatonic accordion in particular being, for a number of decades, the leading folk musical instrument.

The first decades of the 20th century were characterised by the rapid development of a whole range of sound-related inventions, including the phonograph, the radio and the gramophone, which paved the way for a new, thriving world music industry. Slovenia and its people were, of course, not unaffected by these events, which shaped the future form of Slovene music both at home and among the emigrant community in North America.

After the Second World War in particular, radio had a massive impact on folk music. It offered listeners as wide a variety of types of music as possible and tried to bring them close to people. In so doing, it unified the previous heterogeneous cultural space and encouraged performers to write their own music, to develop their own recognisable style, to be entertaining and likable. Popular-national music was born.

Although the new ensembles tried to emulate the local (instrumental) musical tradition, they composed their own pieces and wrote lyrics for them. Radio 'stars' began to appear on the stage, where they donned national costume and did their best to entertain. The textbook example of this successful new musical movement was the Avsenik Ensemble, playing instrumental-vocal popular-national music.

The 'classical period' of Slovene popular-national music can be identified as the years between the first appearance of the Avsenik brothers in 1953 and the arrival of Lojze Slak on the stage in 1963. During this time, in terms of musical content, everything took place that was to successfully establish this kind of music both at home and abroad. Subsequent developments were mainly in terms of the growing number of performers, the professionalisation of their appearances and popularisation, so that the music's influence spread to a wide market.

All the while, the domestic popular-national musical scene influenced events in the United States and Canada. It was the inspiration for and the main driving force behind the development of the highly popular and celebrated musical variety known as the Cleveland polka, which among Slovene emigrants became one of the indisputable symbols of 'Sloveneness' and a common point around which different generations could unite.

Igor Cvetko, MA

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