János Vrábel instrument maker

Master of Tree of Life Award

Master of Folk art

I come from a family of farmers, none of them being musicians or instrument makers.  This is how I came to befriend nature and tradition.  It was natural as a child to make toys out of materials given by our surrounding environment such as reed and willow branches (both very good for making wind instrument reeds and whistles).  As a teenager, I instinctively started working with old instruments; collecting them and documenting their measurements.  This interest helped me restore many folk instruments at that time.  One day I found a zither in the attic.  I restored it and began playing on it.  Once friends and neighbouring elderly got a glimpse of the restored zither, their interest grew and followed my example.  Soon zither orchestras where revived and a need for new instruments became a demand.  As conductor of the zither orchestra, I started to make new zithers.  In search of improvement, I traveled to Sándorfalva to seek help from an old zither maker,  Sándor Budai, who’s instruments were very well known in the area.  In a short time, he passed his knowledge on to me.  News of the Zither Orchestra in Csóka slowly spread in the Vajdaság (Vojvodina) and again, others took example.  In two years time, the 18 membered orchestra had become one of the best.

[It is said that the zither , played in the whole of the Carpathian basin by the people, dates back to the 17th century.  In time it was unfortunately seldom played and eventually forgotten.]

Meanwhile, another forgotten instrument had excited my curiosity.  This instrument was the hurdy-gurdy.  After much investigation into the matter, I had found an old original hurdy-gurdy exhibited at the museum in Szeged.  I immediately traveled there to examine the instrument with great detail and document every inch of it.  It took me over 6 months to make my first hurdy-gurdy.  I found great joy and satisfaction in playing my own hurdy-gurdy, even though it lacked finesse.  To pursue perfection, I visited Mihály Bársony in Tiszaalpár, who was a master hurdy-gurdy maker.  During my visits, I leaned a great deal from this maker.  He openly shared his secrets and expertise on the making of a hurdy-gurdies.  Since I had been the only hurdy-gurdy maker in the Vajdaság (Vojvodina), the information bestowed upon me was indeed a great blessing.

[The hurdy-gurdy originates from central Europe and used by most Europeans; first in monasteries and churches, then later played in royal courts around the 15th-16th century.  It was greatly favoured by pirates because of its ship-like body.  Soon it was played by the general public for it had become an ideal instrument in a one-man-band.  Weddings and other celebrations could be entertained with this one instrument.  The musician was also able to vocally accompany his playing.]

While working on perfecting the hurdy-gurdy, the bagpipe started to play a great role in my life.  Upon completion of my first bagpipe, I attended many folk music symposiums where I was able to consult with other musicians who helped in improving the instrument.  During the time of The Yugoslav Wars, József Kozák (Hungary’s finest piper) and I documented and researched many bagpipes and their pipers  in the Vajdaság (Vojvodina), Bánát (Banat), Baranya, Morova and surrounding Bosnian regions.  By the end of the last century, the need for Serbian bagpipes grew.  Again, I seized to opportunity and began making Levecska, Herzegovina and Vlach bagpipes.

[This demonic wind instrument was most commonly used in rituals to ward off evil spirits.  The chanter stock is usually decorated with a ram horned devil.  It has a double chanter and a single drone to accompany the melody.  It is usually blown yet regions around Szeged play the Bukusza pipes which are elbow pumped.

In the 90’s, the instrument factory in Szászrégen (RO) had closed its doors and Moldavian music was starting to have a great hold on folk musicians/dancers.  The demand for lutes was growing, so I took advantage of the situation and started making them.  It’s great seeing musicians still playing on my koboz, which where then nicknamed “fekete koboz” (black lute)

[The koboz is a stringed/plucked instrument similar to an Italian lute, but Asian in origin.  It was brought into Europe by once nomadic Magyars.  It somewhat resembles a Turkish oud and a Serbian sargija but with a much shorter neck.  Original koboz can only be found in Moldavia.

As mentioned in the beginning, my love for natural materials was and is still grand.  This is how I came to work with clay, making ocarinas of different shapes and sizes.  As a visual arts teacher, I was able to incorporate ocarina making into my curriculum.  My goal was to introduce these young minds to Hungarian folk music/instruments.  Through my years of teaching, 26 generations of students were familiarized with ocarina making, pottery making, traditional Hungarian egg painting, felting and weaving.  They where able to appreciate and respect folk art; never forgetting the importance of these crafts.  They where happiest when hearing the sound of their own hand-made instrument.

Achievements/Accomplishments and Success

For over 20 years I was a member of the “Batyu” Folk Music Ensemble in Becse, the first of its kind in the Vajdaság (Vojvodina).  In that time, I became an ambassador of folk music/dance to children of all ages.  Since the 70’s, I have received countless amount of recognition as a musician, zither orchestra conductor and master craftsman.  In 2002, I was awarded with a “special award” by the Duna-Kőrős-Maros-Tisza Collaborators in Szeged.  In 2004, the city of Csóka rewarded me for my contribution in conserving folk traditions.  In that same year, I received the Aranypacsirta (Golden Skylark) Award for best bagpiper.  In 2009, on Hungarian Culture Day, I was recognized for my many decades of work on documenting folklore.  I was granted the Eletfa (Tree of Life) Award by the government of Hungary, Ministry of Culture and Education.  In 2010 I received the Aranykéz (Golden Hand) Award and later in 2012 I became a “National Pensioner” in Serbia.

As founder of the “Móra Ferenc” Cultural Ensemble, I took part in 25 years of zither education and under my supervision, the folk dance ensemble was founded and became renowned in the Vajdaság (Vojvodina).  They grew to become semi-finalists in the famous “Ki mit tud” talent show in Budapest, Hungary.  In the 90’s, I was also the founder of the Hungarian Folklore Center in the Vajdaság (Vojvodina), folk dance camp in Kanizsamonostor and felting camp in Tiszaszentmiklós.  These camps exist to this day, offering children an unforgettable experience.  I find joy and importance in passing on my expertise and knowledge of folklore to others.