Anna Kománková, a respected singer of ballads from the Horňácko district, has passed away

15 June 2020, 3:00
Anna Kománková, a respected singer of ballads from the Horňácko district, has passed away

On the twenty-fourth of May of this year, five days before her ninety-second birthday, Mrs. Anna Kománková passed away – and with her departed her particularly extensive songbook of ballads (not only) from the Javornicko and Horňácko districts, which she had always carried in her head. She was able to perform all the songs conserved in her memory in a distinctive and inimitable style. All her life she safeguarded the rare legacy of her ancestral heritage – all the more interestingly because she did not write down the hundreds of often complicated tunes and many dozens of verses and variants of ballads, but she knew them all by heart. Even after she reached the age of ninety, when she no longer enjoyed good health and did not perform in public, she remained in contact with the Javornický ženský sbor [Javorník Women's Choir], which she had revived and eventually led for many years. She never pushed herself forward anywhere, while at the same time she learned a lot from the skills of her ancestors: apart from singing (dozens of songs from the hymn-book  and hundreds of folklore songs) she was an excellent embroiderer: She sewed and embroidered with her own hands every part of the folk costume she wore.

A native and patriot of "her" Javorník, a small mountain village in the foothills of the White Carpathians on the border of Moravia and Slovakia, she was a legend during her lifetime. She was born Anna Majtánová on 29 May 1928 in a part of the village called Suchý Rádek, in a house that her father Jan had converted for living in from a former pub. She learned to sing during her childhood – in fact, she always had an excellent memory. Hence, she stored in it tunes and melodies overheard during "táčky", "přástky" and "šijačky" (various gatherings of village neighbours for the purposes of debating, weaving or sewing) but also from her grandmother's sister, who sang a lot and loved it. "I used to sing everywhere I went," "tetička Kománková [Auntie Kománková] recalled of her childhood. She married her husband Pavel Kománek (1926–1999), two years older than her, on the day of her twentieth birthday and, according to her own words, she never regretted her choice. She joined a farm, where there was endless work, and yet barely enough to make a living. During the sugar beet season, her husband Pavel helped out in the sugar factory, and both of them used to go "po formankách" (field work contracted out to external workers) at the time of harvest. Gradually, three children were born to the family: Pavel (1948), Jan (1951) and Anička (1957). She worked in farming all her life, including sheep grazing and breeding. She also found additional singing support and a source of expansion for her repertoire in her husband's family: her husband's mother and her mother-in-law Kateřina Kománková, née Turečková (1893–1970), was a renowned singer with a rich songbook (both of them were captured on a radio tape in 1961 by the Brno bandleader and collector Antonín Jančík, who had only words of appreciation for their singing expression). "Auntie's" husband Pavel was also an acclaimed groomsman and a good singer, and he added a number of wedding songs and rituals to his wife's repertoire. Anna Kománková was involved in the creation of the Horňácké slavnosti [Horňácko District Festivities] programme more or less since its foundation in 1957, but it took some time for her to gather the courage to perform in public. In the Horňácko district, singing, and solo singing in particular, was an exclusively male affair; any public appearance of women, especially married one, was not tolerated in those times. (At the same time, a lot of excellent singers from the Horňácko district, such as the brothers Luboš and Dušan Holý, point to their mothers and grandmothers in their search for the roots of their singing style and repertoire.)

The turning point came around the end of the 1950s, when the first women's choirs were formed, and the first solo appearances of female singers were staged, for example on the occasion of various shows and festivals. In the case of the Horňácko District singers, the occasions were mainly their home festivities held every year during the feast of St. Mary Magdalene in July ("Auntie" Kománková gradually established herself here as the permanent soloist of Horňácká cimbálová muzika Martina Hrbáče [Martin Hrbáč Dulcimer Music Band of the Horňácko District]), as well as the festivities in neighbouring Slovak village of Myjava (she sang there with the band of the legendary bandleader Samko Dudík) and the festival in the nearby town of Strážnice (where she appeared as a guest of the ensemble Hradišťan with the bandleader Jaroslav Staněk). As an already highly acclaimed performer of ballads from her native region, she made several recordings, the so-called "trvalky" ["perennials"], for Czech Radio in Brno (with Horňácká muzika Martina Hrbáče and BROLN [which stands for the Brno Radio Orchestra of Folk Music Instruments). As the bandleader Martin Hrbáč (in: Dědictví Anny Kománkové [The Heritage of Anna Kománková], 2008, directed by Radka Lokajová) remembers in one of the episodes of the TV show entitled Folklorika, from the beginning  of their cooperation (approximately from 1964) she never missed a single recording session of the numerous albums of his band (last time on the eponymous album entitled HCM Martina Hrbáče, dating from 2008, with the song Co sem sa dočula [What News Have I Heard]). She was at the birth of the pleasantly domestic festival of men's and women's choirs Javornické zpívání [Javorník Singing] (established in 2003), where she also last performed in public in July 2016, at the age of eighty-eight.

Despite the respect she enjoyed in her field, she never accepted an offer for a permanent singing engagement and, unlike her peers Jarmila Šuláková and Věra Příkazská or Vlasta Grycová, who was one generation younger, she never became a renowned media star. She always remained a modest guardian of her ancestral song heritage. She received a lot of respect and recognition only as recently as this millennium: in 2000 (finally!), under the care of the producer Břetislav Rychlík and the Municipal Office in Javorník, she released her debut album Pres Javorník malovaná dlážka – K poctě zpěvačky Anny Kománkové [A Path Painted across Javorník – a tribute to the Singer Anna Kománková (Aton, 2000) together with her collaborator Dušan Holý, who completed the album with a dedicated explanatory text. Maybe it was a late debut, however – like the "headteacher" František Okénka a few years prior to her – it was strong, charismatic and convincing. Rychlík and Holý also incorporated recordings from 1961 made by Jančík in Javorník in the newly recorded material and completed the composition with the "perennial" of the voice of Anna Kománková and HCM Martina Hrbáče recorded at Czech Radio Brno in 1985, and furthermore with fresh recordings of Jura Petrů's dulcimer band from the Horňácko District, where first violin was played by her grandson Martin Kománek (1977). Both of her sons, Jan and Pavel, can be heard on the album as members of the Men's Choir from Javorník; she herself sang with pleasure, in addition to solo songs, in the Javorník Women's Choir, which has been meeting regularly since then and performs publicly to this day. There is an article dedicated to Anna Kománková in the multimedia almanac entitled Horňácké slavnosti 1957-2007 [Horňácko Festival 1957-2007], edited by Miroslav Minks. In April 2007, she received the FOSKAR Folklore Academy Award for 2006 for an individual singing performance (at the International Folklore Festival in Strážnice). In 2008, as part of the EUAV CR project entitled Nositelé tradic [Carriers of Tradition], a publication named Těžko temu kameni. Anna Kománková, zpěvačka z Javorníka na Horňácku [A Difficult Life for That Stone.  Anna Kománková, a Singer from Javorník in the Horňácko District] was published by the authors Dalibor Tureček and Lubomír Tyllner. A CD is attached to that book, on which Anna Kománková sings solo together with the Javornický Women's Choir accompanied by the Folk Music of the Soviš Brothers from Javorník – and above all she tells stories and recounts memories in an interesting way. Most recently, in 2019, she won the South Moravian Region Award for her work contributing to its fame and good reputation.

Just as Anna Kománková learned from her ancestors and older contemporaries, so did her successors in her family: both of her sons, Jan and Pavel, sang in the Men's Choir of Javorník; Jan, the younger one, married the daughter of the great singer and musician Emil Miškeřík. His three sons are excellent violinists and singers, as "grandfather Miškerík" trained them to be. The most significant follower of the tradition of the two families is the above-mentioned Martin Kománek, formerly the bandleader of HCM Jarka Miškeříka, and later a member of HCM Martina Hrbáče.

On the Facebook page Mizející Javorník [Disappearing Javorník], they bid farewell to "Auntie" Kománková with a few concise words: "Auntie Kománková passed away early this morning… She departed, a pure soul, an endless well of Javorník and Horňácko songs. We all loved her, we will not see her like again… Tears flow and your songs will live on inside us. Auntie, may you rest in peace."

Photo by Helena Bretfeldová

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