Music is the strongest Diplomatic 'Weapon'

Interview by Preity Athwal

Michal Smetanka

A powerful medium to express oneself, music continues to capture the essence of culture and foster exchange of ideas, people-to-people linkages and bilateral relations between countries.

Mr Michal Smetanka, the talented Slovak performer, educator, multi-instrumentalist and a producer of Slovak musical folk instruments, brings the lively music from the Northeast of Slovakia. The winner of prestigious award for folk manufacturers – the King of European Folk Crafts – Mr Smetanka specialises in culture from Carpathian mountains, shepherd music in particular, and is also an author of 5 CDs including solo recordings and different ensembles under his leadership. He performed at number of festivals in Europe and Asia (including private performances for the British Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Charles, Japanese Prince Akishino& Princess Kiko, as well as several statesmen and other significant personalities).

The versatile musician, Michal Smetanka talks to Diplomatist Associate Editor Preity Athwal about music as a bridge bringing people together, music as intangible cultural heritage and his experiences in India. Take a look.

Please share the musical journey of your life with us.

I come from a family of musicians, so the music was a natural part of my childhood. My father played pipe organ in the church. I started playing when I was five; piano was my first musical instrument.

In modern times, music is seen as an effective instrument for cultural exchange. Please share your views as an international artist.

I consider music as a strongest medium that connects cultures across the globe. In fact, it is the strongest diplomatic ‘weapon’. Music is emotive and sensitive; it has an impact on our inner sphere, which is typical for all people and cultures all over the world. Even if the sound is different, the vibrations are there, and the positive impact is very much the same.

As a traditional flautist specialising in Carpathian shepherd music, how do you distinguish yourself on the world music stage?

I think that the extraordinary diversity of the Slovak musical instruments makes it very striking on the world music stage. Even within the realm of the Carpathian music, no neighbouring regions are exactly the same. So, the music stands out and the sound retains its originality. My music comes from the mountains and as a person rooted to the culture coming from shepherd traditions, I believe that the Carpathian flute music is a breath of fresh air.

You have performed extensively in Indian cities. What did you find unique about India and the people you’ve come across here? What do you think of Indian flautists?

I like the amount of musical instruments that Indians have – the variety. I also feel that Indian people are very open-hearted and kind. I love those colourful rickshaws on Indian roads; I’d take one home if I could (laughs). In terms of cuisine, the food is excellent. Indian cuisine is just marvellous. Most of all, I find Indian classical music to be very positive and appreciate how different states have preserved their musical heritage, which is very similar to what we have in Slovakia.

You have performed in front of the likes of British and Japanese Royalty. How is it different from performing at, say, the Raasrang Festival in Delhi?

When I perform for the members of the Royal family such as British Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Japanese Prince Akishino and Princess Kiko, the concerts have a very intimate setting; very strict on security, protocol and such, which is understandable. The responses are reserved but very polite. So, I could not distinguish whether they liked it or not. However, in Port Blair or say the Raasrang Festival in Delhi, the auditorium was packed and the audiences were very responsive. So, I could discern whether they liked it or not.

Allow me to ask this – every musician has his/her pre-performance rituals, do you have any?

No, no special rituals as such. But, I often perform barefoot and find it very comfortable when I do so. It is very similar to how Indian artists play.

Do you keep the audience in mind when you write music?

I don’t because when I perform, I give in to my inspiration. Like I said, music has an impact on our inner sphere, which is universal for different cultures, although, I make it a point to play folk music, when I perform for members of the Royal families.

Do you find any similarities between Indian and Slovak cultures?

Indian classical music and Slovak music have very similar patterns. Oh yes, the cuisine as well, bread in particular. The flat bread in Slovakia is made in a similar fashion as the Indian chapatti. Also, Slovakia has fewer religious groups, but I find the religious devotion in India to be very similar to Slovakia. It preserves traditions in essence. One more thing, Indian women, much like the Slovak women, are very good looking!

You actively participate in regional development and run a unique museum displaying musical instruments. Share your perspective on music as intangible cultural heritage.

The museum that I run has all sorts of musical instruments, from Slovakia and all over the world. I have several pieces from India; Sitar, Harmonium, Bansuri (Indian flute), drums. During this trip to India, I bought traditional instruments such as Tanpura, Swarmandal and Sarangi from Chandigarh and Gurgaon.

Also, I feel that museums should not be primarily for adults. They should attract young people, children in particular, so that they experience the musical heritage and how real it is and not distant. They should be able to connect to the music, maybe start learning it, or even create their own music!

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