Czech dances and Kroje galore: The first annual 'Compatriot Folklore Festival'

Photo: Martina Stejskalova

If you were to enter the Salesianske theatre in Kobylisy this week, this is the kind of sound that would greet you. The event is the first annual 'Krajanske Folklorni Festival', or 'Compatriot Folklore Festival' a unique gathering of Czechs and their descendants outside the Czech Republic who practice the traditions of their ancestors, and for whom the Czech lands continue to play a large role in determining their identity.

Photo: Martina Stejskalova
The festival is a unique opportunity for these various communities to meet and celebrate their shared traditions. Its name provides some difficulties in translation, as a 'krajan' does not necessarily have to be someone of Czech lineage living abroad. The term refers to anyone who has inherited Czech culture or is of Czech descent, and doesn't make any distinction between Czechs who are citizens of the country and those who are not.

Vera Dousova is the head of 'Sedm Paprsku' (Seven Rays), an organisation aimed at solving problems and bridging gaps in Czech Society, and bringing Czechs closer together.

Vera Dousova
"The idea for the festival actually came from our krajane. Some of them come once a year at the invitation of the foreign minister for an event which is called 'A week for Czechs living abroad.' I participate every time it takes place, and three years ago we asked the people taking part what they wanted most of all. They replied that they want to display their art - dances and songs - to actually show others the fruits of their efforts, the traditions which they'd been handing down for generations, on the one hand to us, people still living in the Czech Republic, and in part to other groups of krajane, to get to know them, to dance together, to sing. And so this thought arose, and of course they asked me if I would organise this festival. And so I tried to!"

The festival has the backing of the Czech Senate, at which it had its official inauguration on Monday, but the main body of the programme takes place at Salesianske Divadlo, and involves displays of singing and dance by participants from different countries. One display that was particularly popular was a show of dance by a Czechoslovak group from Timeshvar in Romania, called Slavicek. Albert Vlastimir is a student from Timeshvar and a member of the group.

Slavicek from Timeshvar
"Slavicek is the first Czech folk group in Romania. Slavicek has both Slovak and Czech youth in the group. Also from this year we have two Romanians. They like our dancing and they enjoy our culture. Slavicek is ten years old, at first it was just singing group, but in time we prefer to dance because we are not so good in vocals, we don't have so many young people to sing, so it's a little bit difficult to sing in my opinion, it's easier to dance, I think. We practice each week, two or three times per week, and we have headquarters in Timeshvar.

"Today we have in our programme some special dancing, this is special for Czechs, we dance Polka and Valcik. Also we have a Chardas from Slovak, but it's not especially just for Slovakia, this Chardas is special also to the Czech Republic. We have in our programme the story of how the Czech people came to Romania and worked there. Czech people came to Romania for the first time in 1870s and they established some villages in the South of Romania and these communities grew up, many people live there now in the South of Romania. Many worked many on woodcutting, and also many of them were working in mines, but now in Romania to work in mines is very dangerous, so the mine was closed and many of them went to the city or come here to the Czech Republic to work."

Czech Rhapsody from Odessa
Slavicek included, at less than a year old, the youngest participant in the festival. This desire to hand on inherited traditions to subsequent generations is something that is clear to see in many of the singing and dancing groups which have a wide age range of members. Here's one young member of Czech Rhapsody, a singing group from Ukraine.

"We are from Odessa, and we are singing Czech songs, folk songs. Our group is seven years old. We are young! With us are singing little small children, and we have some older people, so we have a wide circle in our singing group. I really like this festival, it's very good!"

On the whole, only groups form Eastern and Central Europe, particularly from the Ukraine, are taking part in the festival this year. This is not necessarily because Czech folk traditions are better preserved there, but simply down to logisitics, as Vera Dousova explains:

Stromovka from Dubno
"Sometime last winter we wrote invitations to the festival actually to all existing organisations of Czech Krajane throughout the world. And it's true that those from countries quite far away, from the U.S and Australia, from New Zealand and South America, wrote back saying that it's simply too great a distance to travel, that the journey is too expensive and that they can't take part. Some just sent documentary films about how they live or work, and we're showing these on Wednesday afternoon, and in fact only those people from countries relatively nearby are taking part."

One film that was sent to the festival is 'Call of Dudy', documenting the worldwide resurgence of the tradition of the Dudy, the Czech bagpipes. Once marginalised and close to extinction, the tradition has seen a resurgence in recent times, and as the film claims, it crosses national and linguistic borders. That certainly seems to be something the festival itself is accomplishing by bringing together so many people from different countries, united by their love for their old Czech traditions. And the organisers would like to see more groups from other countries next year. Petr Valata is the compere of the performances.

Illustrative photo: archive of Radio Prague
"This first festival is a little bit crazy I must say because we didn't get much money for that and invited groups from Rumania, from Ukraine, from Slovakia and from other countries, and they are so kind these people, and beautiful, but unfortunately we couldn't give them very good accommodation, we couldn't give them much food. But I think it's a good start, and maybe for next year we'll organise another festival and we'll have more experiences and I think it's a great idea, and we know that a lot of Czechs are in America as well, and we would like those people to come to Prague."

Photo: Martina Stejskalova