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Ethnic City: songs of the Slavs

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The men are going to plow, and the women go to the tavern.

The men are coming back from plowing, and the women stay here.

"Dear wife, nice wife, what are you going to make for me for dinner?"

"Kill me a chicken and we'll bake it . . .

Bring me a liter of old wine."

"For some reason, Slavic folk songs are primarily women's music," says Peter Gronwold, the male third of Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble. "They're almost always written from the woman's point of view." But with their tunefulness, intricate harmonies, and sense of humor, they've got a broad appeal.

In the beginning there was Mazurka Wojciechowska, a student of Polish folk songs who spent a year in Polish vilages with her tape recorder doing fieldwork, learning the music of different regions. In 1979, when she joined the Lira Singers, a Chicago-based Polish women's choral group, she met Elizabeth Steponavicius. "This is primitive, modal music, and Mazurka could sing it in the correct village style," says Steponavicius. "So I grabbed her and told her, 'You've got to teach me how to do this!'"

Their a cappella duets started out as fun and developed into an occasional paying gig, with Steponavicius on guitar, for customers who wanted the Lira Singers but lacked the budget for the entire ensemble. In 1983 Gronwold called the Old Town School of Folk Music to inquire about voice lessons, got Steponavicius, who teaches there, and mentioned that he was interested in singing Slavic music. Before long, the Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble was a trio.

The group is now working for what Steponavicius calls "an authentic Eastern European string-band sound," in which they're assisted by bassist Steve Reinfranck and violinist Julie Macarus. To approximate the sound of the cimbalom, an integral part of Slovak music, Wojciechowska learned to play the hammered dulcimer. "I developed my own style, based on the Slovak music I listened to," she says.

Wojciechowska, who speaks fluent Polish and is studying Slovak, is a stickler for accurate pronunciation of all the languages they sing. Steponavicius says she has a hard time memorizing Bulgarian; Gronwold's bete noire is Polish. But once you're familiar with one Slavic language, says Steponavicius, the others become easier: "Once you learn some cognates, they're easy to pick up. Polish can be hard to sing; it's got a lot of explosive consonant sounds that can get in the way. Czech and Slovak are easier.

"We had to work really hard developing the right vocal style," says Wojciechowska. "Polish mountain songs, and some Yugoslavian, are belty. You use head voice for some Polish, most Slovak, and some Yugoslavian songs. And Bulgarian is totally weird--it's very nasal, very, very forward. It sounds like there's a lot of tension there."

Although in the past their audiences have been ethnic, Gronwold notes that a new range of people is now coming to hear them sing. "World music is getting more popular, and we're getting more varied audiences. People who liked Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares are finding out that we do the same music, but less stylized." Steponavicius adds, "If you're interested in some ethnic stuff, you're apt to enjoy all ethnic music." Her own interest in folk music stemmed from the old Episcopal hymnal, which is stocked with a surprising array of folk melodies.

"We try to make things as authentic-sounding as we can, given the instruments we have," Steponavicius observes. "Vocally, we're pretty authentic. Instrumentally, we approximate the sound. We can't help being Western [sounding] in a way--but I think that's good. It gives a Western audience that has no clue about this kind of music an idea--that it's different, but not really that different from bluegrass, from Irish music, from old-time music. It ends up being our own form."

Clad in what Wojciechowska calls "generic ethnic" costumes, the Slavic Projection Folk Ensemble will offer songs from Slovakia, Moravia, Dalmatia, Croatia, and Bulgaria tonight at Mr. Coffeehouse at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 909 W. Armitage, at 8:30. Tickets are $4; call 525-7793 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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