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Small Feathers

Haworth Hodgkinson

 

I had heard of a country where the indigenous culture was under threat from the imposition of a Western-style capitalist regime, so I decided that for my final year ethnomusicology project I would smuggle a tape recorder to make recordings of the endangered traditional music. I discussed my idea with my Director of Studies, and he suggested a village in the rural north-western province where he thought the influence of the new regime might not yet have permeated.

Travel arrangements were made, and, after spending the winter evenings in the language lab taking a crash course in the basics of the north-western dialect, I arrived in early spring to stay with the Petricko family on their traditional small holding. They grew mostly small barley and various small vegetables. They also kept a few small chickens, not just for their eggs, but for their feathers, considered locally to be a great delicacy.

Mr and Mrs Petricko had an eighteen-year-old daughter called Janka, who had learned English at school, which was just as well because nobody seemed to understand my attempts at the north-western dialect. Janka became my interpreter.

In the weeks that followed, I attended various song contests, made recordings at all-night music festivals, and joined in the dancing at a village wedding. Janka knew many epic ballads her grandmother had taught her, and her singing captivated me. Sometimes I was so enthralled that I forgot to turn the tape recorder on.

One night as we sat around the kitchen table and Mrs Petricko served up her speciality small vegetable stew, garnished with a single chicken feather, I chose the moment to ask them about the cultural threat of the new regime. Mr Petricko looked nervous and he made sure the back door was locked whilst his wife hid the telephone. They explained that it was now government policy to replace the traditional village dance band with synthesizers and drum machines or electric guitar and bass outfits. And it wasn't just music that was under threat. In some villages, traditional dress was already being replaced by jeans and T-shirts bearing the logo of the Freedom Through Profit Corporation. Janka told me that only the week before I arrived they had been visited by a gentleman from the English-Speaking Fast Food Franchise, who wanted to buy up all the local small holdings to make way for a hamburger ranch.

“Tell him they want to grow big vegetables,” said Mrs Petricko.

It was that night that I realised the true enormity of the situation, and that it was my responsibility to record every song that Janka knew before it was too late. She reminded me that there were other singers and musicians to record as well. So Janka and I spent the summer going to every dance, every festival and every wedding that we could. No-one could question my dedication to my work.

By September I had filled all my tapes and the time came for me to leave for home. Mr and Mrs Petricko threw a party for my final night in the north-western province and it seemed that everyone in the village came to wish me farewell. According to custom, the guests brought gifts of feathers, which they placed in front of the TV set to ward off corrupting spirits. They all stayed until sunrise, at which point those sober enough sang a toast to the Petricko family in magnificent twenty-four-part harmony. But by this time Janka and I were outside in the yard. As we watched the sun rising over the roof of the small chicken shed, Janka made me promise that I would return soon.

“Just as soon as my degree is finished,” I assured her.

My tapes passed through airport security checks unharmed, and I excitedly played them to my Director of Studies. He was impressed by my work and arranged to have some of my recordings transferred to CD. He told me he was organising an international conference on Music of Threatened Cultures, and asked if I would like to speak to the delegates about my findings.

My talk generated much interest and debate. Afterwards at the conference bar I was introduced to a Mr Torpicek, who came from the area where I had made the recordings. He wanted to know all about my trip and insisted on buying me drinks for the rest of the night. He said he remembered most of the songs from back home, and it turned out that he knew some of the singers and musicians I had recorded too.

The next day I wrote to Janka, telling her that thanks to my work her culture was no longer under threat because hundreds of people from around the world had heard my recordings. I thought how proud she would be to hear that my Director of Studies planned to make the CD available commercially.

I waited eagerly for her reply. It was not until the following spring that it came.

In her letter, Janka told me that the local branch of the Ministry for the Enforcement of Progress had found out about my mission, and had somehow discovered the names of most of the people I had recorded. Many of them had been imprisoned and tortured for anti-progressive collaboration. Janka's parents had both been killed when a mysterious intruder had broken into their house in the middle of the night, and Janka herself had been badly beaten as she came to her parents' aid. She also wrote that she had been pregnant, but had lost the baby as a result of this attack, adding that she wasn't sure if the father of the child was me. It could have been the gentleman from the English-Speaking Fast Food Franchise.

She ended her letter: “Please, do not return to my country.”

I poured out some coffee, and listened to the CD.

 


Written 1999
Revised 2000
Edited 2005

Published in Pushing Out the Boat Issue 4, 2005
(Aberdeenshire Council)

Pushing Out the Boat 4


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