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The shepherds' trail of Carpathian music

The frontier of southern Lesser Poland and the Prešov region is a real treasury of shepherd culture, and is not only the border of the state, but also of the Carpathian region. Here, the musical influences from the Eastern Carpathians mix with the culture of the Western Carpathians. Furthermore, the rich traditions of such micro regions as that of Sącz, Spiš and Saris join together. The musical culture of this area is among the most characteristic ones in the world. read more

The Carpathians have many faces, one of which is the shepherd culture. Besides the essence of shepherding, which is to travel with herds of animals, this form of husbandry and the associated style of life have produced numerous interesting forms of music. Some of them are rooted in household activities (vocal and instrumental signals, bells, calls, music intended to calm the sheep), while others depict the specific shepherd culture, which was once founded on long periods out of home and strict adaptation to the seasons of the year, weather and circadian changes, as well as numerous cultural archaisms left behind by former traditions, customs, and rituals.

            The frontier of southern Lesser Poland and the Prešov region is a real treasury of shepherd culture, and is not only the border of the state, but also of the Carpathian region. Here, the musical influences from the Eastern Carpathians mix with the culture of the Western Carpathians. Furthermore, the rich traditions of such micro regions as that of Sącz, Spiš and Saris join together.


The traditional Carpathian instrumentarium.

The Carpathians did not serve only to enable the travels of merchants, armies, and successive landowners. It was also a world of sheepherders and farmers, wandering herbalists, artists, and free men finding shelter in the unexplored forests and mountains. One of the ways to survive was the cultivation of ceremonies closely associated with the cycles of the seasons of the year and natural phenomena. The instruments created in the Carpathians are very specific, a few examples are such on a global scale.

            The free shepherd clusters spread in the massive of the old volcano named Pol’ana, in central Slovakia. It is to here that people not agreeing with being within the living hell of serfdom and humiliation escaped, giving birth to one of the most original flutes in the world – the detvian fujara – which was an instrument of over 2 metres of height used for individual musical practice similar to sound meditation. The fujara was entered into the UNESCO World Culture Heritage list, and its accompanying musical magic is unique and can be compared to the shakuhachi flutes from Japan or the bansuri flutes from India. These areas, as well as those in eastern Slovakia, host the construction of an intriguing type of flute without holes, referred to as the koncovki. The most valuable instruments of the Carpathians include the gajdica - from the mountains between Lewocza and Sabinów. The signal horns and tubes of the Carpathians also deserve some attention: horns, alphorns, ligawkas and the pipe-ended Romanian shepherd tubes called bucum, which do not play second fiddle to the popular Alpine alphorns. Some of these horns, e.g. hucul alphorns, significantly exceed 3 metres of length! What is more, the Carpathian bagpipes and gaidas are only a few of the region's folk instruments that are richly decorated and greatly valued. Among them, the Silesian gaidas and Żywiec bagpipes, as well as their modified forms, have a unique nature.

            The Carpathians are also an area of the inflow of instruments which have found their home here and have been included in the traditional instrumentarium. They include grand dulcimers with dozens of metal strings (which came to Europe from Persia) and the small, but exceptionally resonant Jews’ harp – a very characteristic instrument from the Deccan peninsula, brought here by the Romani. When you complement this with the shepherd singing techniques, Slovak travnice songs and numerous characteristic musical tools such as the Slovak wooden rattlesrapkače, whips and techniques of playing leaves and wheat blades, you will get a truly original, sonic area with cultural and artistic values, placed in line with other unique regions of Europe.   


Vocal paths on the shepherd trail of Carpathian music:


  • Ja som baca – 3.41 (performed by Michal Smetanka)

  • Pomaly ovecky – 7.34 (performed by Michal Smetanka)

  • Zelena jabloň červeni jablka zrodyla (Group performance of an archaic song)


    The original of this song was recorded in 1935, in the village of Volosjanka and is an example of old Ruthenia influences in the traditional music of the region. It is also an excellent example of sound hunting and cultivation of tradition in present times: the recording was made during the Polish-Slovak workshops held in the scope of the Tajone pistialy Karpat project in Mały Lipnik, on the Poprad on 18-20. XI. 2011.


    Instrumental paths on the shepherd trail of Carpathian music.


    The most valuable Carpathian instruments include the Slovak koncovki and pištialy, as well as the relict instrument referred to as the gajdica. Dr. Michal Smetanka has gathered a great collection of these and many other instruments in his Museum of Carpathian Instruments in the village of Brutovce near Levočy.


    The origin of gajdica.

    The area symbolically bordered by Levoča, Krivany and Sabinov is the home of the land of shepherds and their culture, the origins of which date back to the times of the arrival of the first waves of nomadic shepherds from the southern edges of the Carpathian arc. The naively peaceful image of life in the pastures tightly wraps the true history of the ancient, natural calendar, old ritual dances, magical procedures, individual musical practices, and inherent closeness to Nature. Here, the head shepherd was never the jovial elderly gentleman in a crooked hat and did not reflect the image currently provided by the Krupówki in Zakopane. The head shepherd was a much more important person and was responsible for the herds entrusted to him, the lives of people and maintenance of the harmony with Nature. What is more, he was the organiser, judge, songster, wizard and doctor, but also the one responsible for the preservation of the continuity of tradition. In times when people lived in true symbiosis with Nature, its models and inspirations formed the culture and kept the people alive. A globally unique shepherd instrument – the gajdica – appeared in the region between the Minčola range and the tops of Levockie vrchy, in the basin of Torysa.

                The currently known history of this exceptional instrument is closely associated with the person of the legendary master of the gajdica – Andrej Mizerák (1899 – 1979). Master Andrej Mizerák lived in the small village of Lučka Potoki near Sabinov. The discovery of the gajdica for the world of musicology did not take place until the 1960s and no other instrument has stayed in the shadows of the research and interests of ethnographers for so long. Andrej (Ondov) Mizerák has said that the first time he saw and heard the gajdica was from his uncle (the brother of his mother) and from the wandering shepherd, head shepherd and wizard named Seman. When he was still a child, he was told that the gajdicas are used by shepherds to play to the ceremonious dances during shepherd holidays, the most important of which is the holiday named Gala, jak iśli ovečki s košara… Nothing more is known about the history of the appearance of the gajdice in the Carpathians.

                The gajdica was made popular by the students of Andriej Mizerák, including Alexander Gernat and his sons, who built the double gajdica. The inclusion of the gajdica into the repertoire of the folk band created the need to adapt the scale of the instrument to band playing with manufactured instruments with predetermined and fixed musical parameters. The old way of playing the gajdica was slowly disappearing and soon it was no more than lore that the initial scale was similar to the Lydian scales! The music of Andrej Mizerák was filled with crying, longing tones realised through a manner full of glissandi and with masterful operation of the blowing strength. The gajdica had and continues to have enthusiasts among scientists and researchers of traditional culture, which include Dr. Milan Kondrač, Dr. František Matúš, or the representative of the youngest clan of the gajdicarov, Dr. Michal Smetanka.

                The gajdica is composed of three elements: a reed from the young sprout of elder (it can also be reed or goose feather), a wooden reject with approximate length of 23 cm that is equipped with six finger holes on the top and an additional hole on the bottom. The most characteristic element of the gajdica is its third part, the horn tube. In early times, the horn came from grey ox, the current practice applies smaller cow horns with length of about 25 cm. Master Mizerak used the wood of cranberry, maple, but also elder to make the recorder-like reject. In musicological categories, the gajdica is a straight clarinet with a high strength of sound, the nature and power of which is similar to bagpipes and gajdas.

    MS on the basis of Slovak publications: Andrej Mizerák a jeho gajdica, R.S. media Prešov, 2008, and: Naše tradične BAČOVSTVO, Ján Lazorik, MVO L’udia a voda, Košice 1997


    The museum of folk instruments in Brutovce and the dielnia near Levoca.

    It is worthwhile to take a trip from Levoča into the Levočske Planiny and to the very interesting museum of folk instruments in the village of Brutovce. You should take the road east from the town in the direction of Spišské Podhradie, but right after passing the steep climb on the mountain over Levoca and the curve, you should exit onto an asphalt road leading to the village of Uloža and continue through Vyšné and Nižne Repaše and the area of the village of Ol’šavica to the village of Brutovce. Brutovce appeared on maps and written reports around the year 1319. The route is of great landscape value, and in good weather, many places provide a fantastic view. In Brutovce, you should turn off the main road in the direction of the white, gothic church (dated back to the 14th century) and use the steep ramp to reach the cluster of wooden and brick traditional houses built on the southern slope of the hill reaching 919 metres. Now, you are only a few steps away from the museum, the address of which is Brutovce 104 (mobile: 0907 931 192, e-mail:,

                The founder and host of the museum is Dr. Michal Smetanka, researcher, maker of traditional instruments, collector of, and expert in traditional music. He designated a traditional wooden house for the needs of the unique exhibit, preserving its interior decoration: its high beds and other furniture, pictures of saints, the tiled stove and the kitchen, as well as many trinkets and objects of everyday use. The museum is composed of two traditional rooms: the kitchen, which is partially transformed into a workshop and serves to repair and make musical instruments, and a large room with the proper collection. The collection, which is initially hard to comprehend, has hundreds of small, medium, and big musical instruments and accessories hanging, standing and lying around. Besides the very old instruments (which include objects from archaeological excavations), there are also those from recent years. Aside from the main collection of Carpathian instruments, there are many wonderful constructions from Asia and the Caucasus, the favourite region of the host (other than the Carpathians of course)! This is the kind of collection which comes alive in the hands of the guide. Michal Smetanka plays every one of them, discusses many in a colourful and funny manner, and concludes with a wonderful presentation of shepherd songs. The museum was created from the rapidly growing collection of the musicologist-researcher, who is also an active musician and maker of musical instruments. This is the work of a man who can be encountered at folk craft fairs, dressed in a shepherd suit, presenting welcoming songs and playing his favourite koncovki and gajdice, but also the work of a man who can be found in the lecture halls of universities and in offices during training courses for the Romani.

                The collection of instruments and idea for the live museum received recognition from the Slovak Ministry of Culture and holds official status that is certified with an special document. People who are interested, can visit the website of Michal Smetanka and his museum:

                Another interesting location associated with the activities of Dr. Michal Smetanka and his friend, Engineer Pavol Urda, is the dielnia w Spisskim Hrhovie, which is already famous in many circles, located just a few kilometres outside of Levoca, near the road to Spišské Podhradie. The dielnia means workshop in Slovak, and it is an interesting initiative of the creation of a place where young people would be able to learn traditional crafts. It should be noted that the idea, which has been realised for many years, aims not only at restoring a dying craft, but also at providing young people with  the opportunity to obtain specific skills and self-employment, which is socially significant in the situation of eastern Slovakia. Thanks to the dielnia of Smetanka, Urda, and their partners from the local authority, Spišský Hrhov offers something besides the ruins of the Roman stone bridge: the biggest flute in the world, made and installed by the team of Smetanka and Urda in front of the Communal Office, as well as the aforementioned traditional dielnia.


                Dr. Michal Smetanka is a regular partner of the Kraków musical project entitled Karpaty Magiczne (which has been known and valued for years in the USA and Western Europe as the 'Magic Carpathians'). The collective concerts and workshops conducted in private centres, as well as the halls of the Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, the recordings, the regular exchange of instruments and publications comprise the contemporary realisation of the old trails connecting the region of Levoča with Stary Sącz and southern Poland.


    The diverse music from the multicultural tradition of the Sącz region.

    Until the year 1939, the Sącz region was characteristic by its multinationality and multiculturalism. The following ethnic groups lived here side by side: Poles (clearly differentiated regionally), Lemkos, Germans, Jews and Romani. Moreover, Stary and Nowy Sącz were also inhabited by Slovaks, Czechs and Austrians, with Hungarians frequently encountered as well. Furthermore, there were fixed and diverse bonds (trade, education, and schools) between the Sącz region and Slovakia. In addition, settlers from Bulgaria were also imported into nearby Kraków, which also was the place of work for Italian artists, who could also be found in Stary Sącz. The approximately six thousand resident community of Stary Sącz included several hundred Jews, but there were over eight thousand of them in Nowy Sącz in 1931, while the local villages and suburbs of Stary and Nowy Sącz were inhabited by approximately a thousand Galician Germans. There were many more Lemkos (about 70 thousand went to the USSR after World War II, while the others were removed under Operation “Vistula” in 1947), who occupied the villages in the so-called Lemkivshchyna, which spread from the east and south to Łabowa, in the valley of Kamienica and Wierchomla, in the Poprad valley. However, the start of World War II, the Nazi occupation and the events of the war on Polish land cut the mutual relations and coexistence of these nationalities, forcing them out of the Sącz region, which they had inhabited for centuries. Therefore, it is impossible to understand the true colour of the everyday life and wealth of the great fairs without the recollection of this diversity characteristic of the Carpathians.

    (quote from the text written by Jan Rzońca, published in the materials from the symposium entitled 'Multiculturalism in the Sącz region', which took place between 25th and 27th November 2010, under the initiative of the Regional Museum in Nowy Sącz)

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