Czech bagpiper was worth the wait

by Jason Wessendorf

It was 93 years ago when people in the Verdigre and surrounding area last enjoyed the music of an honest-to-goodness Czech bagpiper. They spent two days in Verdigre back in 1920, putting on shows for the general public. It was so long ago that a person would be hard-pressed to find anyone living that could attest to the unique sound and cultural originality of the music which eminates from the Czech “dudy” (bagpipes) in the hands of a gifted musician. Or, you could ask any number of students that were present at Verdigre Public School Thursday, April 25, 2013, or the group of people present at the United Methodist Church that night.

Arriving around 11:00 Thursday from their David City, Neb., presentation and performance, Czech-American Michael Cwach, a bagpiper and musician who works at the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota, and Praque-based producer and director Jefe Brown barely let the engine cool in Michael’s car before giving an unforgettable presentation at Verdigre Public School. Broken up into three periods, the duo’s music-room demonstration was all-inclusive, rolling geography, history, geneology, cultural and music lessons into one comprehensive learning opportunity.

Michael, Yankton, S.D., native and recent University of Canterbury PhD recipient, asked the students if they knew any Pavliks, Vondraceks, Placeks, Kuceras and so forth. He spoke the names with a Czech dialect – he and Jefe speaking fluent Czech – so it took a few moments for the students to “translate.” Michael showed these students (and faculty) what village their ancestors were from, what the villages looked like and what a typical day in the life of a villager would consist of. Weddings there might last three days, he said, because it was a time when music could really be enjoyed, as villagers had no radios, CDs, MP3s, or iTunes. Music Director Mr. Pete Pavlik learned that he and Mark Vondracek, 11th grade student at VPS, had ancestoral ties to the same village. Mark had a chance to try out the bagpipes, as did Jacob Pavlik. Both would agree that Michael made the task of pushing the right amount of air through the instrument look much easier than the reality.

Michael played several songs for each group, having brought with him three different sets of bagpipes. Many people were surprised that the Czech version of bagpipes were completely unlike the “shrill” Scottish bagpipe sound most would associate bagpipe music with. Two of the bagpipes were powered solely by squeezing a bellow under the arm. It was a great development in Czech bagpipes, he explained, because it allowed the bagpipe musician to sing, not reliant on supplying air by blowing as is the case with the traditional “dudy,” which he also brought, or Scottish bagpipes.

One of the ornate bagpipes used goat fur in addition to the cow horn bells that adorn the front and back of the instrument. Traditionally, the instrument would use most of the goat, including its head, but today’s Czech bagpipes feature a goat’s head carved out of wood instead. The other, he reluctantly relayed to the younger classmen in answer to a question, was dog fur. The traditional dudy was cowhide. The ornate wood throughout the instruments were traditionally plum wood but are now commonly made from maple.

Mr. Jefe (pronounced “Jeff,” at least in the U.S.) Brown added to the geography and cultural aspect of the lessons, also explaining how his documentary “Call of Dudy” came to fruition before showing it to the upperclassmen. Presently the Czech-Bohemian bagpipe tradition is primarily associated with two towns in the Czech Republic; Domažlice and Strakonice. “Call of Dudy” centers on the Strakonice Bagpipe Festival that occurs every two years and features Michael, who received a Fulbright scholarship to study the bagpipe tradition of the Czech lands, and who participates in numerous international folk festivals, traveling regularly between the United States and the Czech Republic. Mr. Brown also shared that he had recently been working on another documentary involving Somali pirates, making folk-festival documentaries seem very tame in comparison.
The two stopped at Alpine Village to play a few songs for the residents before taking a brief break prior to the 7:00 p.m. presentation at the United Methodist Church.

A good showing of people enjoyed potluck and fellowship from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., followed by a presentation and performance by Michael, now in traditional attire, and a 7:45 presentation of “Call of Dudy.” The audience enjoyed more soulful music and had their questions answered after the viewing of the show.

Mr. Micheal Cwach and Mr. Jefe Brown provided educational, musical and cultural enrichment to Verdigre students, Alpine Village residents and Verdigre area residents during the third stop of their midwest tour. Michael, who prefers to do most of the driving, drove to Milford, Neb., the following day for a noon presentation, to Cuba, Kan., for a 7 p.m. show that same Friday, then to Council Bluffs and Malvern, Iowa, at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m., respectively, on Saturday. How can they keep up such a fast-paced schedule and have the energy to put on a show?

“We enjoy bringing ‘something different’ where we go,” said Mr. Brown.

We’re glad they brought “something different” to our area. Let’s not wait another 93 years before welcoming them again.

Michael and Jefe’s visit was sponsored by the Verdigre Public School Foundation, Verdigre Inn-Tune and through DVD/CD sales and generous free-will offerings at their 7:00 show.

Related story –