Not so long ago,
, or shepherd's pipe, like many other folk traditions of
Slovakia, was headed for extinction. The six-foot hand-crafted wooden pipe was an anachronism. No one built them, no one played them and the few that remained were relegated to the wall above the mantel. Even the shepherds, who used the pipe for both entertainment and for sheep herding, no longer bothered. In a badly depressed post-Communist country, who needs a fujara (pronounced FOO-yar-ah) when every man, woman and child is scrambling for security and prosperity.
Michal Filo does, that's who. One of a handful of fujara champions across the country, Michal teaches craftsmen to build fujari (that's the plural!) and teaches musicians to play them. He performs all over Slovakia and occasionally beyond, makes recordings and has even produced a handsomely illustrated book about the instrument. You might call him Mr. Fujara or, if you prefer Slovak, Pan Fujara.
Michal lives and works in
, a bustling city near the foot of the
Low Tatra Mountains, about 200 km. north-east of the capital city,
. Here, just off the main square, a government-supported craft centre encourages artisans to share traditional skills. Potters, basket makers, lace makers, weavers and woodworkers learn and demonstrate their artistry and their best work is sold in a pleasant main floor shop. And in his third-floor studio, redolent with the scents of fresh wood, Michal teaches the creation - and the mystique - of the fujara.
"The perfect fujara comes from the highest mountains, from trees that grow straight up to the sun," he explains. "It is crafted with respect for our past and joy in nature. The wood should never hear water or the song of the rooster."
Using six-foot lengths of locust or maple which have been dried for up to two years, Michal straightens each piece in a jig, then reams out the core with a series of "gypsy drills" - long-handled dual-blade reamers now so rare that he must cobble them himself from other tools. With the smallest drill, he removes the pith, then graduates to two larger ones to ream out a perfect 2.5 cm. centre shaft. No power drills here - the craftsman must move carefully, sensing the grain and anomalies of the wood, deep within the shaft.
A wedge-shaped tone generator gives the instrument its unique voice and a second smaller pipe lashed to the main shaft carries the air from musician to main pipe. The finished product works on the same principle as most whistles or organ pipes, from Irish tin whistle to mightiest church organ.
Fujari are lavishly embellished with traditional designs, carved and etched with acid, plus ferrules and filigrees of brass, copper or silver. The sound of the fujara is wild and beautiful, an eerie but multi-tonal cadence that may be an acquired taste for some, but music to the ears of Slovaks. Its mellow tones and harmonics range through melodies and motifs that speak of love, loneliness, melancholy and joy, mumbling, gurgling, imitating nature, calling to other shepherds or the sheep. Evoking sounds of nature and peace, the pipe has in recent years found a new role in music therapy, treating people for mental illness, addictions and grief.
"The master borrows the wood from Mother Earth," Michal explains as he works. "When the instrument is finished, he plays it for the first time and breaths the soul into it - a new life that gives joy and pleasure to everyone who hears it."
Now UNESCO has joined the chorus, proclaiming the fujara a UNESCO masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity, in company with Japan's
Kabuki theatre, Turkey's whirling dervishes and the Garafuna music and dance of Belize. Intended to raise public awareness, the distinction recognizes "oral expression, music, dance, ritual and mythologies deemed essential to the identity of communities and peoples."
Even the Prince of Wales got into the act. During an official visit to Slovakia,
Prince Charles was given a fujara which he promptly tried to play, much to the delight of his hosts. Whether he continues to practise the instrument - the perfect accessory for sheep-herding in the Scottish Highlands - is not on public record.
"The fujara is no longer simply the musical instrument of shepherds," Michal comments. "Today the fujara has become the symbol of Slovakia."
Milan Chvostek (www.travelscribe.ca) and Isobel Warren (www.isobelwarren.com) are a husband and wife team of travel journalists based in Newmarket, just outside Toronto, Canada. Their collaborations have included travel articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers across North America, books including 'Florida, Eh? A Canadian Guide to the Sunshine State', Fodor Guides to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and television programs for On Top of the World TV. Milan was for two decades the award-winning producer/director of CBC's The Nature of Things. Isobel was founder, publisher and editor of Hands, the Canadian craft magazine, producer and on-air travel commentator for The Senior Report (TVO), and a producer of On Top of the World. Both are members of the Travel Media Association of Canada.
If you go
The fujara: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_type=search_playlists&search_query=Banska+Bystrica%2C+Slovakia+fujara&uni=1
Banska Bistrica - http://www.bbb.sk/en/
When to go:
The city's proximity to the Tatra Mountains, headquarters for winter skiing, summer hiking and renowned spas, makes it a year-round destination.
Excellent highways and bus services link Bratislava with Banska Bystrica, a distance of about 200 km.
The main square is ringed with affordable pubs, restaurants and beer halls.
This is a university town so accommodations range from dirt-cheap hostels to deluxe.
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