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Slovak music to Charleston's ears

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston residents gathered Saturday under the sycamore trees on Capitol Street to listen to two artists from the West Virginia capital's sister city perform traditional Slovak folk songs.

The sister-city partnership began five years ago and, since then, government officials, professors and medical professionals have traveled back and forth between the two countries, sharing insights and forming friendships over discussions of medicine, politics and education.

The performance Saturday offered a different channel for communication -- music.

The musicians -- Jozef Mak and Veronika Bodnarikov -- come from that sister city, Banska Bystrica, Slovakia.

Saturday afternoon, Mak, belted out the folk songs while whistling and gesticulating, his face grew steadily redder. Bodnarikov sang along beside him.

Both wore traditional garb worn on celebratory occasions in Slovakia -- pale yellow britches and a voluminous white shirt trimmed with intricate red ribbon for men and a pleated shirt and intricately embroidered vest for the women.

Mak pranced lightly across the stage, a round black hat on his head. They both pounded thick black boots on the stage.

A lively audience sat before them, enjoying the songs.

One song chronicled how a wife goes about her work on Saturday mornings. Another tune talked about how a man considers a lady a "gift from God."

John Biros, who hosted Mak and Bodnarikov, likened the songs to American country music -- a genre that also chronicles hard times, enduring love and hard work. He noted, though, that the Slovak tunes often appear happier than American country songs. The Slovak melodies are generally upbeat and lively as musicians holler, whistle and clap energetically.

According to Biros, shepherds sang those tunes as they protected flocks of sheep on the northern Slovakia highlands.

The songs have become an integral part of Slovakia's history and tradition, Andrea Makoua, Mak's daughter, said.

And the songs remain popular today. Biros said everyone in Slovakia knows the words. In fact, the mayor of Banska Bystrica stood opposite the stage, singing along and clutching a Slovakia flag.

Slovakia was formed in 1992 after communist Czechoslovakia dissolved amid a nonviolent revolution.

Biros said Communist rulers attempted to suppress folk music, which all but disappeared from major cities under their control. Nevertheless, he said, villagers kept the old traditions alive.

Mak and Bodnarikov are from one such village, nestled among the hills outside Banska Bystrica. It celebrated its 400th anniversary earlier this year.

That longevity amazes Chuck Daugherty, chairman of the Charleston-Banska Bystrica Sister City Alliance. Daugherty pointed out that Slovaks have been mining around Banska Bystrica for more than four centuries.

In fact, Marjorie Cooke, general manager of the West Virginia Youth Symphony, had heard from the mayor of Banska Bystrica that Christopher Columbus brought copper, mined at Banska Bystrica, across the Atlantic with him. According to Cooke, the Banska Bystrica mines had furnished copper parts to outfit Columbus' ships.

Those historical ties between America and Slovakia have continued for centuries, and many Slovaks have immigrated to the United States, Mak said.

The sister-city program has continued that exchange of people and ideas. It opens up horizons for people to understand the world outside and to see similarities between cultures, Biros said.

There also are many similarities between West Virginia and Slovakia. Makoua said Charleston and Banska Bystrica -- both initially based on the mining industry and surrounded by mountains -- even resemble each other.

Those similarities have prompted some Slovaks to regard Charleston as a second home.

"Your city is like our city," Makoua said.

A group of West Virginians had a chance to experience the same sentiment last year when the West Virginia Youth Symphony traveled to Banska Bystrica to perform alongside Slovak student musicians.

Cooke said the experience was transformative for the 24 students who went. They returned with an appreciation for European music and friendships they cherish today.

On Sunday, those students will perform with Adam Stranavsky, a 20-year-old world-class Slovak pianist they met last year. Stranavsky and the West Virginia Youth Symphony will perform at 3 p.m. in the Clay Center lobby.

Reach Laura Reston at laura.reston@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5112.


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