Prague comes alive with barrel organ music festival

'The Barrel Organ Lives!', photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Barrel organ players from around Europe descended on Prague this week for their annual gathering in celebration of the historical instrument and street music. The event called “The Barrel Organ Lives!” brought a unique atmosphere to Prague’s Lesser Town which provided a perfect backdrop for the open-air public concerts that took place here.

'The Barrel Organ Lives!',  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
Barrel organs in all shapes and sizes and street musicians in period dress perfectly complemented the cobbled streets and historic buildings of Prague’s Lesser Town and the sound of Jaromír Vejvoda’s famous polka Roll out the Barrels attracted people from near and far.

Barrel organists from the Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Austria and Switzerland lined Prague’s Kampa, each different and unique, but bound by a love for an instrument that belongs to days-gone-by. The barrel organ would be long forgotten were in not for these enthusiasts who have made it their lives’ hobby to search for and restore historic pieces, put together a repertoire and perfect their grinding technique. Marko Lucina explains that his barrel organ originated in Holland some 50 years ago and he’s working hard to “personalize it”.

“The barrel organ usually plays cheerful tunes. But you can play almost anything, if you know how to go about it. My instrument here has a Dutch repertoire and some songs that are familiar to us Czechs as well. But I have already started pre-programming my own tunes – such as my beloved piece -Ragtime from the 1930s. I’d say it’s quite passable now.”

The fact that the Prague meeting of barrel organists includes a concert of classical music at St. Nicolas’ Church shows just how versatile the instrument is. But no matter what the organists play the audience is entranced. An elderly lady in the crowd is clearly moved by the experience.

'The Barrel Organ Lives!',  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“We come here every year to see this and it is absolutely marvelous. It is a glimpse of days gone by, a wonderful time with beautiful melodies and catchy tunes. But some people here don’t even know what this instrument is.”

People from the crowd are encouraged to come and try their hand at grinding the barrel organ as organists patiently explain how the barrel organ works and the tricks of getting the tune right. Some are eager to give it a try, others are just happy to stand and watch or snap pictures to send home. A visitor from Finland spared a few words for Radio Prague’s reporter.

Do you like the music?

“It’s OK. I like it.”

Where are you from?

“From Finland.”

Do they play the barrel organ in Finland as well?

'The Barrel Organ Lives!',  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“No, we don’t have such things in Finland. I have heard it before, but not in Finland.” (laughs)

And do you think it suits the atmosphere in Prague?

“It makes a good feeling.”

And it will continue making a good feeling, while there are people willing to keep it alive. So what are the outlooks for the good old barrel organ? Marko Lucina says he’s not worried.

“The barrel organ will live on. New pieces are being made all the time, not serial production of course, but by skilled craftsmen, primarily in Germany and Holland.”