Interview: Varkocs – Rye Island’s Musical Alchemy (April 2023)

Amid the lively conversations and vibrant musical ambiance that characterized the late mornings and afternoons at the Atlantic Music Expoo at Palácio da Cultura in Praia, we found ourselves in a quiet moment on the sought-after roof terrace of the building, overlooking and enjoying the view of the Cape Verdean capital. There, we had the opportunity to spend some time with Varkocs, a Slovakian trio that utilises and revitalises old Slavic and Hungarian acoustic folk instruments. Their goal is to collect jaw harp songs from diverse Slovakian ethnic groups, enriching them with original and contemporary arrangements. As they prepared for their evening performance, we explored the intricate details of their captivating blend of contemporary and traditional elements, revealing the subtleties of their sound and the journey defining their artistic identity.

It all started about five years ago,Erik Túrtev, the band’s founder, began. “I wanted to create music that combined modern sounds with traditional instruments in a way that hadn’t been explored before. It was a bit challenging at first because our country was unfamiliar with this fusion, but we persevered, and now we’re seeing the fruits of our labour.”

The band’s evolution was evident as Erik recounted the early days. “We started with a diverse lineup, but now we’ve streamlined to a core trio consisting of Julia Viktória Váculka, Roman Túrtev, and myself. This configuration feels like the most stable version of the band.”

Varkocs’ music is centred around the jaw harp, drums, and vocals, delivering a raw and primal musical experience. “We play the most primitive way of music,” Erik explained. “It’s a blend of traditional and contemporary elements, and we infuse it with rhythmic complexities to keep it engaging.”

The band’s music is deeply rooted in Slovakian traditions, drawing from diverse ethnic groups and languages. “Slovakia is home to various ethnic groups, each with their unique approach to the jaw harp,” Erik elaborated. “We sing in four languages—Slovak, Hungarian, Ruthenian, and Czech—reflecting the rich cultural tapestry of our homeland.”

As the conversation shifted to their live performances, the band members shared their experiences. “People’s reactions are always fascinating,” Julia Viktória remarked. “At first, they’re intrigued by the jaw harp’s unexpected sound, but as the music unfolds, they can’t resist moving to the infectious rhythms.”

Reflecting on their international experiences, the band expressed their excitement about performing outside of Central Europe. “We’ve had the opportunity to play in Germany, but being here in Praia is a whole new experience for us,” Roman shared. “The atmosphere is different, and we’re eager to see how our music resonates with the audience here.”

Erik added, “This is a significant milestone for us. It’s not just about the distance; it’s about sharing our music and culture with a global audience. The warm reception we’ve received here in Praia has been truly heartwarming. It’s an incredible feeling to be here at the Atlantic Music Expo. The energy, the people, and the overall vibe have been nothing short of amazing.”

As the conversation unfolded, each band member’s voice painted a vivid picture of their eclectic musical journey.

Eric, the first to share his musical preferences, grinned, “I listen to every kind of music, but now I’d rather listen to 80s pop music.” His fondness for the nostalgia of the ’80s set the tone for the band’s diverse influences.

Roman, the band’s jazz and rock enthusiast, spoke of his evolving musical taste since joining Varkocs. “I’m listening to mostly jazz, rock, and lately, because I’m in the band for more than one year, I started to listen more to this kind of world and traditional stuff as well.” His words echoed the band’s commitment to weaving traditional sounds into their fabric.

Eric added a touch of mystique to the conversation. “Yes, I listen to a lot of strange music, he confessed.What I really love is that I haven’t heard anything like that before, he mused.

As Eric delved into his own creations, sharing, “But what I listen to mostly is my improvisations, what I recorded,” the band’s dedication to pushing sonic boundaries became apparent. The use of small instruments to create new sounds exemplified their commitment to exploration.

The discussion naturally turned to the band’s album title, Rye Island, named after the place they call home. “We really like this place because Rye Island is like a small country in the country,” they explained, highlighting the unique geography that inspired their music. “It’s got a vibe, definitely,” they affirmed, emphasising the island’s distinctive identity.

With a twinkle in their eyes, the band shared insights into their lyrics, often drawn from everyday life and seasoned with a dash of humour. “A lot about sex,” they chuckled, acknowledging the whimsical themes that find their way into their songs. “You know, old people didn’t have movies. They played music and enjoyed their life,” they remarked, offering a glimpse into the inspiration behind their lyrical narratives.

Transitioning to performance spaces and reflecting on the Slovakian music scene, the band expressed both appreciation and a desire for more suitable venues for their unique sound. “I think the music scene in Slovakia is generally okay; there are quite a few festivals happening, and there are places where we can play. The World Music Festival in Bratislava is one of them because they provide a space for this kind of music. It’s not everywhere that this music can be played because it’s just not suitable for every place, but festivals are usually accommodating, so we have options. Usually, these concerts take place in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Germany. However, now we are here in Cape Verde, and hopefully, we’re going to expand to Latin America.” Roman commented.

When asked about musicians they’d recommend, the trio acknowledged the rarity of their genre but mentioned a collaboration with the Hungarian band Stone Sober, known for their psychedelic rock. “They are young guys, they play psychedelic rock, and it’s working, so no problem,” Eric shared.

However, reflecting on the challenges of finding like-minded musicians, Eric also expressed a desire to discover bands using primitive instruments with modern arrangements. “It will be really good when we find… I don’t say similar band, but in this way, using primitive old instruments with modern rhythms. There are a few in the Czech Republic, but their approach it slightly differently. Perhaps it’s more traditional, they try to stick to traditions, basically. But that works too. You know, it’s always difficult because some people want it to be traditional, while others start to mess around with it… So there are essentially two camps: one that is really strict about tradition, and the others who like to experiment with it.

The conversation shifted to the band’s creative process, with a focus on Eric’s role. Usually, I create the songs… I don’t aim to replicate the original; instead, I make a genuine cover. The rhythm I compose is completely different, and the melody… We avoid creating copied music. In our country, there’s a small issue; those playing folk instruments are expected to play folk music. However, we believe that folk music shouldn’t be confined to the past; we want to propel it into the future with new forms, much like what happened with the fiddle. The fiddle, originating from the West centuries ago, has now become a beautiful instrument in Slovak folk music. So, when you incorporate modern rhythms, I don’t see any problem. In my mind, there are no styles or music genres—only music. It’s like borders; they don’t exist. People made them, but they don’t truly exist. I think the same applies to music; there are no genres, only music, which can be either good or bad.

I delve into old archives for inspiration. I also explore the history of the jaw harp, finding compelling texts to learn from. Additionally, we seek out old songs from village elders. Our most famous song, ‘Unknown Fellow,’ hails from the village of Blažovce, where the elderly men graciously shared the song with us.

We record these ideas because you won’t find these songs in standard collections or books, even though we have those as well. These are the kinds of songs that guys might sing in a pub or similar settings. It’s invaluable when they sing it to you, allowing you to grasp the melody and capture the essence of the song”.

When asked about introducing their sound to someone unfamiliar, Erik provided a vivid description: “This is primitive, dirty, folk, punk and a lot of energy. It might not be everyone’s idea of music, but for us, it’s a blend of acoustic intensity and the raw power of a metal band. It’s a unique sonic experience, to say the least. My dream was to create an acoustic band that could channel as much energy and brutality as a metal band, and I think we’ve achieved that“.

Adding a unique dimension to their artistic expression, they revealed the creation of a Varkoč comic book, a dark horror fantasy set in medieval times. Each band member has a character; Julia is a witch, Roman is a hangman, and Eric teased, “You need to wait for the book to find out…

As the interview concluded, the band reflected on the challenges of translating their live show’s magic to a CD and emphasised the visual aspect of their performances. Finally, they shed light on the band’s name, Varkoč, meaning braids, as confirmed by Roman. “Yes, the meaning is braids, traditional braids. But we didn’t pick the word because of the hairstyle, but as a symbol,”.

Eric added, “I wanted something to unite the nations as we sing in four languages, and each nation (Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary, and Bulgaria) has its traditional male braids, not just for women. So, Varkoč is the Hungarian word, Vrkoč in Slovak – they are very similar, as we’ve lived together for a thousand years, sharing many similarities. While Slovaks are Slavic and Hungarians are Ugro-Finnic people, we’ve coexisted through good and bad times, and I think it’s good now. For example, I am Hungarian from Slovakia, but also in my blood, I have Bulgarian, Slovak blood, so Europe is mixed. Mixed is the best, man!

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