Musical and Political Notes From Eastern Europe

By Dick Van Kleeck

(Dick Van Kleeck, Director and Producer of the Lonesome Pine Specials, recently returned from a concert of Eastern Europe and Turkey. These are his notes and comments.)

It was two weeks of wonderful music indoors and social drama on the streets. A recent concert tour of Eastern Europe and Turkey presented by the United States Information Agency and the Kentucky Center for the Arts, landed us in Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia during one of the most exciting and profound points in their history: free election campaigns in full bloom.

The concerts were always more than musical events. Four outstanding American musicians, Kentuckian Sam Bush, adopted Kentuckian John Cowan, Berkeley, California's Laurie Lewis and Nick Forster of Denver, Colorado, reveled nightly through an exciting repertoire of bluegrass, country, Cajun. and blues music that symbolized many of the aspirations that people were campaigning for on the streets: freedom of expression, individuality and diversity. The majority of the concerts were held at venues controlled, somewhat nervously, by Communist functionaries.

Our first concert in Sofia, Bulgaria was before an audience that included both Communist party dignitaries and members of the United Democratic Forces, who are favored to defeat the Communists in the June elections. At the conclusion of a brilliant concert, flowers were showered on the stage and several UDF member took the stage to distribute political paraphernalia and shout slogans thorough the microphones while staring directly at the protocol seating. So ended the first "free" concert in Sofia since 1945.

Despite the political outburst at the end of the concert, the Director of the mammoth Palace of Culture: (fourteen halls under one roof) graciously topped off a sumptuous reception by providing a sixteen-member string ensemble performing Mozart divertimenti. Laurie Lewis immediately won at least sixteen new friends as she borrowed a violin and played the traditional fiddle tune "Leather Breeches." We liked their music as well.

While we enjoyed a lavish feast in the Palace of Culture, people lined up in me street for bread and cabbages. Gypsies roamed the streets with bears that dance to the sounds of a rebec-like multi-string instrument. We took note that it was the less good musicians who had the better looking animals. It was discouraging to learn that concerts were the only events held in the entire Palace of Culture during our four day visit Food shortages hold no monopoly in Bulgaria.

The resort city of Varna, on the Black Sea, boasted yet another large "Palace of Culture." At the behest of the Communist Party, long lines of elderly people queued up on the street for issues of the UDF newspaper in order to buy as many as they could and throw them away. Inside the lobby of the Palace of Culture, a much younger group thronged to watch multiple televisions continuously playing MTV via the only satellite dish in town. Our concert was a long way from &stem Kentucky and West Virginia, but the audience had no trouble identifying with John Cowan's performance of Merle Travis' "Dark As A Dungeon," about the travails of coal mining. Sam Bush wowed the audience with a breakneck version of "Molly and Ten Broeck," a song about two Kentucky racehorses. We heard after the concert that a longshot won the Kentucky Derby back in Louisville.

Travel advisory: we discovered that our pink-and-black Turbo Nerf Football was a fail-safe way to establish rapport with sullen security guards, soldiers, hotel clerks, cab drivers, diplomats and even waiters. One toss in their direction and there is instant bonding. Don't leave home without one.

Our arrival in Prague, Czechoslovakia, was highlighted by a reception hosted by the U. S. Embassy staff. Ambassador Shirley Temple Black beckoned us into a small circle and sang "Oh, it's pig calling time in the country, hui! Hui!" We liked her anyway and recalled that the person before us once perfumed with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.

Also in attendance were our Czech "security" guards. These guards were supplied by the local tour sponsor and did not leave our side for an entire week. They were out-fitted in full American West garb, including cowboy hats, boots, spurs, leather chaps. and holsters holding real Colt 45 pistols and live ammunition. (We wondered about the security plan for this event.) One of them looked exactly like Ringo Starr.

The beauty of Prague was enhanced by the incredible Political activity on the street, with artists being very much in the forefront of the action. Wenceslas Square, scene of last October's historic demonstrations, was teeming with thousands of people crowding around small ensembles performing politically inspired marionette shows, campy dramas and concerts, all to fervent applause. It is hard to imagine how anyplace could feel more alive or that the energy and inertia of this democratic crescendo could ever he reversed. It was a delight to experience some indigenous performances because, invariably, the Czech musicians we met at "planned" events played our music, not their own.

We left Czechoslovakia, heading for Ankara, Turkey, on the tide of many successful concerts, warm receptions and the feeling that we had just been accorded the rare privilege of witnessing a small part of history. To see music and drama at the front lines of democratic change was especially inspiring and we all look forward to the time when Czechoslovakian and Bulgarian artists can freely visit the United States and share their art with us. As for the American musicians on this particular tour, we can only hope that our diplomatic corps represent us with as much talent, panache. and warmth as they displayed. I am sure all of us will think twice before passing up the chance to vote in the next election or to play any tune we choose.