Right now, Družina is one of the biggest bands in Slovakia. They have been around for a few years, but they have only released a couple of albums. Tragare, their latest, came out in late June, and by September it was #12 on the European Music Charts. This is a pretty big deal for a band from Slovakia, as you might imagine; it’s also a pretty big deal for the band’s label, Indies Records, which is based in Brno, Czech Republic. (Indies does a lot of great music. You should check out the website sometime.)
But the most interesting thing about this album is not how commercially successful it has been, but how artistically successful it is. What Družina has done here is to take Slovak folk songs (including murder ballads, sarcastic pub anthems, and heartrending songs of love and loss) and update them for our times using modern instruments and approaches, while still respecting their roots. This is something that can only be pulled off by deep people, smart people, people who give a damn. Fortunately, Družina is full of people like that.
For example, take “Na Rimave Saty Prala”. It’s a mysterious song about a woman seeing her man go off to war—she offers to buy him back from the military for “100 goldens”, but he tells her he’s already tried, and it will take 300, because he’s a captain. It is sung beautifully by Dana Ferencíková, and Marek Koncek’s haunting violin plays lightly over the tune, just the way it might have decades ago. But I’m pretty sure that any original version would not have had a funky backbeat, a chicken-scratching guitar, and sassy background interplay between Ferencíková and second vocalist Mita Almásiová.
The opener, “Nám, Nám”, is even stranger. The lyrics are pretty sexy for an old folksong, all about how girls want to be women and how they can’t hide what is underneath their skirts… but the point of view is that of a group of men, and it is sung here by two women. (Whoa.) The tune is, like much of modern Czech and Slovak music, heavily influenced by Celtic music. (This was confusing to me until my father, a history buff, reminded me that our Slovak ancestors were probably originally Celts who migrated there in the first place.) But it also includes a massively slinky bass groove courtesy of Aty Beres to go with Janko Simiak’s work on the Celtic pipes. So it doesn’t sound old, really, or especially “modern”; instead, it is both, and neither, and fascinating.
Some might give all the credit for this to Družina’s producer, the American jazz/R&B artist VINX, who has worked with Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson, Sting, and Branford Marsalis. And it is true that the production sounds just a little deeper and US-friendlier than most of the Czech and Slovak discs I’ve heard. But not by much—some of Indies Records’ discs are stunning in their sound design—and VINX seems less interested in dominating the proceedings than in helping the band achieve their own vision. (Well, okay: he gets a writing credit on two tracks called “Groovie Fujara” and “Funky Borovicka”. So maybe his footprint isn’t the lightest in the world.)
Družina saves its most conservative arrangements for its most out-there tracks. “Od Ocovej Do Mlyna” is a sweet lilting renaissance-sounding thing, all strings and acoustic guitars and pipes; it is not until you see the translation of the lyrics that you realize that Dana is singing about a woman seeing her boyfriend’s head floating in the river, courtesy of her husband. And the creepy chord progression of “Povievaj, Povievaj” goes nicely with the song’s complete lack of sentiment: “My darling, have pity on me, they beat me up for you” is met with the reply “Why should I have pity on you, it’s not like they killed you”. Harsh!
But most of the record gets that elusive blend of tradition and ambition. “Takí Sä Mi Fréjar Pasi” uses a killer rawk wah-wah riff to underpin the story of a woman who wishes her alcoholic boyfriend would die so she could celebrate by going on a three-day bender. And “Kukuricka” manages to sound like the Who, the Pogues, and Chic all getting together—if that doesn’t sound awesome to you, then there is no hope for you at all.