Shepherd Flutes Of Slovakia

In centuries recently past, but not before men’s memory, deeply haunting and evocative calls echoed over valleys between adjacent hills, under the wing of night in the rural countryside of central Slovakia. The shepherds who loosed these sounds, it is told, communicated observations about wolves numbers and directions to others of their trade. Sometimes five kilometers their informative melodies would traverse. And an art form grew from this, the shepherd musicians soothing one another and flocks alike in the loneliness of the dark central European nights. Whether this legend was ‘true’ no long mattered to me when first I came across it; I knew I had to go there.

[ 3 fujarists under a crystal sky ; Details of traditional fujara decorative carvings ; Young musician integrating an alto fujara into her performance art ; Dushan Holik, selling his musical wares ]

During the spring of 2005 I had pretty much felt I’d gotten a handle upon all the ethnic flutes of the world. Not as a musician, mind you. But as an enthusiast, serious student, and collector. And with a few, to some extent, as an amateur player who knew enough about a few traditions and techniques to be able to mess around and amuse myself. The web had become a valuable tool in these explorations, as I could easily locate not only quality authentic instruments and makers from far off places, but also numerous recordings and live audio performances, and even tutorials. I had a collection of maybe one hundred in those days: Japanese bamboo shakuhachis, assiduously made from choice roots gathered in the autumn, Persian and Arab cane reed neys without mouthpieces, mere minimalist hollow tubes which, as Rumi proclaimed, sounded like fire in the hands of an artist. Tons of native American flutes with their direct evocative sound made of exotic woods, Celtic whistles, Indian bansuris, eerie Bulgarian kavals of beautiful plum and cherry wood with deer antler mouthpieces, otherwoldly-sounding Armenian duduks of apricot wood with their oversized double reeds, South American quenyas from the Incans, and Chinese egg ocarinas thought to be 2500 years old in concept. I had a regular orchestral silver ‘C’ flute too, and even a coveted alto. Others too, but I tire of enumerating them (though I would not have in 2005!).

But there was a hole in this magnificent worldview; something significant was missing, and undiscovered.

“If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive.” — Jaron Lanier

Fujaras , Harmonic Flutes , and Overtones

Somewhere around March or April that year, I took to browsing one night. I wanted to look into the peculiar traditional overtone whistles made of willow bark which surface every spring up in Norway. Called seljefløytes, they’re very ephemeral as willow bark is not the most substantial of substances. What distinguishes these instruments is that they have no fingerholes — zero — and very simple mouthpieces. Instead of fingering sound holes to alter the effective vibrational length of the flute cylinder to vary the pitch, one alters the force of the breath for each note. The repertoire of available pitches are constrained by the harmonic series, a thing in Physics, and known to Pythagoras. Musicians can also open and close the end of the cylinder to alter the harmonic or sound. Due to all of this, these instruments are called harmonic or overtone flutes by musicologists. The sound is eerie but pleasing, and characterized by many bending and crescendo-ing notes.

My quick read turned into a two hour study when I learned that variants of these overtone flutes exist within all the Scandinavian cultures as well as many east European traditions, and across into Russia and Mongolia. This got my attention, as these were some of my favorite locations for ethnic music. I had no harmonic flutes and began craving one. But what really pushed me over the edge into obsessiveness was stumbling upon a website from humble Slovakia talking about a variant of overtone flute fully two meters in length, played originally by shepherds, and held vertically. The sound samples were spectacularly unusual, unlike anything I’d previously heard, featuring impossible whooshes and soaring staccato lightning strikes set off by lulling hypnotic and wavering long tones. (Surprisingly, many portions of this website still exists, and I urge you to go hear some sound snippets yourself rather than relying upon my inadequate second hand descriptions.)

[ Traditional Slovak couples dance ; Shepherds with fujaras in Podpolaniye ; Old black and white photo from a traditional Slovak festival ; Slovak men’s leaping dance ]

Stalking The Wild Fujara

By September I was on a flight to Vienna, having surprised colleagues by accepting a blanket six-month severance package offered one dreary day during an emergency budgetary meeting at my database job. Vienna’s a great place to spend a few days acclimating to the mood of eastern Europe. After some time spent listening to music, wandering classic coffee houses in search of the perfect plum dumpling (Zwetschgenknödel) and re-acquainting myself with malzbeers and sauerbraten in the evenings, I rented a car and headed east. The clerk warned me not to drive into Romania or all insurance bets were off, and made an ominous remark about the extreme eastern part of Slovakia, the border regions with Ukraine, where many gypsies, tzigane, dwelt along with their amazing musical habits and seedy reputations.

I spent the final 45 minutes in Austria cruising an autobahn past rolling hills and wind farms, and musing about how things must have been 150 years ago… Schubert holding court in Vienna while peasants played fujaras 200 kilometers to the wild east. I had settled upon a guy called Dushan Holik to be my official guide to Slovakian music. Not only did he seem the most approachable, but he was a triple threat: musician, teacher, and instrument-maker. His fujaras were reputed to have the best intonation because he was sensitive to the prospects of integrating this instrument he loved into the mainstream of European and world musics. In order to blend an overtone flute with other kinds of instruments the tuning must be good. Dushan also played accordion often for local village dance parties, and he knew a wealth of traditional tunes and songs and had a great singing voice. When he heard I wanted to come, he hastily organized a three day weekend orientation course with two of his other students, who were Slovak.

I arrived in Podpolaniye, the rural district under the watch of Mt. Polana in central Slovakia, around dinner time. Dushan’s village was called Ocova. I had no address — plans were a bit hastily sketched out for this expedition — and so began exploring, driving about the small town. When at last I found him, he was working upon a new koncovka flute, coating it with a reddish varnish he’d cooked up himself. The instrument was of alder wood, slender, about two feet long and it retained the branch’s natural curve. He had carved his logo onto the surface near the bottom. It had no fingerholes. Turns out he would gift this to me the following morning after it dried to his satisfaction. We got along quickly and easily, though we realized we’d need a translator for more detailed conversations.

[ Romany girl near Snina in eastern Slovakia ; This hilltop castle near Poprad is said to date back to Knights Templar ownership ; A traditional cimbalom — this one is of Hungarian manufacture ; Gypsies heading off to summer festival ]

The next days were exceedingly pleasant. I was lodged in a rustic cabin beside the Ocova town’s church, awakened each morning by its clear simple bells. Dushan and one of his students, Stefan, showed me how to hold and play several of his fujaras. There was one amazing moment, about the second day after I had absorbed enough to be able to elicit sounds and gauge how an instrument felt, when we walked into a garage where Dushan had about a dozen fujara on display there, most of his own construction. All were two meters long and decorated in various wonderful ways. After half an hour of discussions and trying them out, we settled upon one which seemed to feel right, and it became mine. After the weekend I gave Dushan $300 for it, which was a bargain compared to what it would cost to order one sight unseen and have it shipped.

Fujaras are normally tuned to a root note of G, one octave below an alto flute in a western orchestra. In other words, about the same pitch as a cello. By manipulating the three fingerholes, one of which is played with a thumb, and playing the overtones one and two octaves above the non-overblown range of the instrument, you can get a G mixolydian scale: G A B C D E F G. One can sharpen the F by messing with the embouchure and half-covering a fingerhole to produce a G-major scale, but the instrument sounds more at home in the mixolydian mode. You need to be careful to remain aware of ceiling heights when trying to play the thing indoors because it is held vertically and extends a couple of feet above your head. Doesn’t work in my basement, for example. Definitely an outdoors instrument.

Does This Thing Fit On An Airplane?

Night before I was leaving, Dushan set up an invitation to a local dance party at the town pavilion which seemed to exist for such things. We had sausages and a very special Slovak soup cooked in a campfire before heading over, along with beers. I will never comprehend how Russians and Czechs and so on can consume prolific amounts of alcohol in preparation for performing their wildly athletic indigenous dance moves. Even less can I grasp how they would expect a foreign novice to do so. Suffice it to say they all deliciously enjoyed my attempts to whirl in dizzying circles, guided by fetching and traditionally clad Slovak girls like twenty years younger than me. Their lessons were ardent and earnest, though brief. But though my spirit was game to follow, the physiology was not. As compensation, the music was really great however. Wonderful coordinated dances, catlike leaps in the air, and full-throated singing. There was also an amazingly skilled Gypsy band, one of whose members played a grand piano sized hammered dulcimer instrument which looked more like parlor furniture, called a cimbalom. You cannot believe the speed and dexterity with which a gypsy musician’s hands move across this instrument without witnessing it first hand, so I will leave it at that.

Next day after breakfast Dushan played me some of his favorite Slovak gypsy CDs, which had the effect of making me want to immediately get in the car and drive east. Then, before lunch, just to give you an idea how obsessed this guy was, he conducted me down into a basement recording room where a friend Ben was waiting. There was an old Apple Mac on a table running garage band recording and mixing software, along with several flutes that Dushan had built. Dushan spent a hasty fifteen minutes teaching me a folk melody he wanted to record in three voices, overdubbed. I was on a bass flute which required some slow but sturdy huffing, Dushan on a high pitched melodic lead whistle, and Ben held up the middle on an alto koncovka. For the breaks, Dushan belted out lyrics in uninhibited Slovakian. It was great, if ad-hoc on my part. One take. Wish I still had that MP3 around; it had a truly unusual quality.

When I took leave finally it was easy to picture the sentiments behind “Idyem, Idyem”, a beautiful little mournful melody Dushan had taught me for fujara on the second day. The tune depicts the mixture of melancholy and uncertain excitement of a young lad setting off to find work, leaving his home village for the first time. The sweet familiar evocative hills calling a warming farewell behind, as they slowly and gently enveloped his disappearing village, along with his childhood. The melody stayed in my head for days. Ocova was like that now still, a bit, here early in the 21st century. Imagine what it was like in the 19th!

I spent the last half of my week in Slovakia tramping around the eastern border region with Ukraine, searching for gypsy music to hear. But that is quite another story. Last hour, in the airport in Vienna, the mystique of central Podpolaniye was back with me again as I had to explain beseechingly to a stewardess what a fujara was in order to get it on board. Bless Air France for their relative lack of formality in those days. Charmed, she agreed to keep it safely with her personal items in a little cubby hole for me to collect in NYC.

[ Dushan in full performance regalia ; Two young girls getting their fuji on ; Traditional Slovak leaping contest ; Chapel in Ocova ]

In the summer of the following year, Dushan was able to travel to the hills of western Maryland as a kind of cultural ambassador, bringing in tow a number of handmade fujarii for sale along with freshly constructed alder wood overtone flutes of various design. I drove down from Quebec to spend a weekend with him and a dozen or so other fujara enthusiasts for what was thought to be the first ever North American workshop devoted to the instrument. The event was hosted at the home of a Czech expat who loved the instrument and had actually composed a CD of original songs for fujara and acoustic guitar, which had a surprising jauntiness to it. It was a great time for beginners and more experienced players alike, and I got to play some fun jaw harp improvs with Dushan at the evening campfire.

Truth to tell though, my musical interests had already shifted. I’d become obsessed with Indian tabla drumming once I relocated to Montreal and was taking weekly lessons with a talented local master. Percussion and rhythms had captured my heart. This phase lasted two plus years before gradually morphing into an unplanned love for and study of Irish fiddle playing, which was far more accessible than tabla. I mean — if you work your hiney off for three years on tabla, you get to call yourself a novice. Gorgeous as the various stroke combinations are, I had to admit to myself that at least with the violin I could fairly quickly play with other musicians. And there was no shortage of budding Irish (and Scottish) trad musicians in the Montreal area. I also took up the Irish bouzouki and whistle. Which closes off this chapter. That’s the way things go with musicians and musical exploration, even at my relatively amateur level. One thing morphs into another. Unexpected personalities come along which we seem to gel with for awhile, and their interests and styles and genres combine with our own in myriad novel patterns. It is fortunate for me that economics never entered into it too much on my end; I’ve never had to view music as a vocation, though I’ve played with many who have now.

[ Album cover for Andrew Cronshaw’s 2004 CD “Ochre”: This CD features some of the most exquisite arranging of Slovakian overtone flute playing I know about ; Quintessential Slovak town nestled in the foothills of the high Tatras ; Old-timer getting fervent with it ; Times have changed: nowadays you can buy a genuine Slovak koncovka whistle on ETSY. (link) ]

Still, there is a six foot tall wonderfully carved and gracefully curved fujara nestling in the corner of my music nook, replete with memories and lore. And my six year old son has begun asking questions about it from time to time. You never know. Besides, he already doodles around with the koncovki in his copious spare time.


Youtube Videos, Resources, and Sound Samples

Fujara and Overtone Resources:

Traditional and Contempo Sound samples:

Notes: Perhaps the most beautiful utilization of the Slovakian overtone whistle I’ve ever heard appears in this short imaginative rendition of a traditional Scottish tune called ‘Lucy Wan’. It is from Andrew Cronshaw’s 2004 CD entitled Ochre. Cronshaw is a great ethnomusicology researcher whose done a lot of work in the areas of traditional Scandinavian music and middle Eastern zithers. He also plays a traditional Bavarian zither on this recording. Lucy had adequate reason to be wan, incidentally. Her fate, typical of Scottish tragedy, can be read about here.

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  1. I would imagine the overtone flutes take a great deal of skill to master being controlled simply by one’s breath. I have always loved the haunting sound of flute music…one of my favorite Rock groups was ‘Jethro Tull, mainly because of the flute rather than song choices.


    1. Yeah, always dug Jethro Tull too. One of the few major rock acts, I thought, who sounded as good live as in the studio; plus they always played loooong sets.

      With the overtone flutes it’s a different kind of animal. The best examples of their music emphasize melody much less than dynamic changes and general moodiness. They consume alot of breath… I always tended to play them in bursts & then lay back. 🙂


  2. One thing takes us to another one, and our taste matures, and evolve with time, but every step we take shape our own life. nice to know a little bit about your experience with music. 🙂


  3. So much to say about this wonderful post! You take us with you on this exploration and educate us along the way. You have a gift at writing. Thanks for sharing your craft!


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