The Slovenia Times

The Trbovlje Nightingales - from superstardom to oblivion

A scene from Hungry, Barefoot and Famous.
Photo: Solsticij

They were superstars between the world wars. They performed to audiences around Europe. They were better that the world's best known singers at the time despite coming from a poor mining town and having no formal musical education - and their story has been largely forgotten for the better part of a century.

The story has now been plucked from oblivion by Benjamin Kreže, whose film Hungry, Barefoot and Famous (Lačni, bosi in slavni) retraces the steps of a choir known as the Trbovlje Nightingale and was screened at the Kamerat festival of working class film in early July.

The film features archival footage and testimonies by the few choir members who are still alive, reminiscing about the extraordinary years in the choir that existed between the two world wars.

During that time, the children, who lived in abject poverty at home, were stars all across Europe, performing 255 concerts and logging 20,000 kilometres in their travels.

On tour, the children of miners, who grew up on flour soup, essentially a roux diluted with water, and an egg beaten into it, dined like royalty and performed in front of euphoric audiences.

Knowing the background of the children who sang in the choir, it is hard to imagine that the nightingales reached global fame, Kreže told the Slovenian Press Agency.

But in fact, he feels that their poverty was what made them so successful. "The children had nothing else in their lives and the choir meant everything to them," he says.

Escape from destitution

"It seems that the children formed a very special relationship to the choir. It was a ticket to the great wide world for them. An escape, even if temporary, from the harsh environment of the dusty and murky valley," according to Kreže.

"Those were different times and choir singing was viewed completely differently than today. It was modern and fresh, closer to the phenomena of pop culture, stardom and fan culture," said Kreže.

"This is made evident by the fact that fans followed the Trbovlje Nightingale from one concert to the next all across Europe. The phenomenon of stardom developed fully only much later, with the Beatles."

The choir performed very demanding songs. The Trbovlje Nightingale was even declared the best choir in the world at the 1st International Congress of Contemporary Music in Prague in 1936. "They even beat the Vienna Boys' Choir."

"Examining the music scores, the music experts shared the view that such demanding pieces were beyond the abilities of a typical choir, let alone poor children without any musical training. But they proved that not only they could do it, they did it with ease, exuberance and perfection."

Choirmaster extraordinaire

Avgust Šuligoj, the choirmaster, was a father figure to the children. He took care of them, and guided them, was even buying shoes, clothes and school supplies for them with his modest teacher salary.

Kreže praised Šuligoj as being an exceptional teacher. He travelled across Europe to see the methods of the best choirs so that he could develop his own method, "one that worked with 'his' children in their specific environment".

"He enforced strict discipline, but not by force. He did it through jokes, so the children relaxed and became naturally disciplined, listened. We can say that Šuligoj was an extraordinary child psychologist."

The best Slovenian and foreign composers were keen to write music for the Trbovlje Nightingale. "That was totally new at the time, it was a breakthrough. Before that, children's choirs performed only simple songs."

Painful oblivion

After World War II, the choir not only stopped performing but was largely forgotten. "Likely, there is more than one reason. A third of the singers died during the war. The political situation changed, there was intrigue and covert campaigns against the choir and Šuligoj, above all.

"For reasons that are not completely clear to me, they wanted to drive him out of town, to be replaced by a local. They tried to lure him to Ljubljana with promises of a well-paid job and great work conditions."

Šuligoj remained in Trbovlje and put the choir back together after the war. However, they only performed one concert. "Somebody really didn't want to preserve the memory of the choir. During my research, I only found a few old locals who still remembered this phenomenon."

A story fit for Hollywood

Kreže finds the Trbovlje Nightingale one of the most aspiring stories in the world and deserves a feature film. In fact, this was his plan at first, but he had to give up the idea due to extraordinary demands of such a project.

The story has "tremendous potential", he said. "I want to do it, but I guess it needs to mature a while longer. For me, The Nightingales are one of the biggest and most inspiring stories I've ever heard, on a global scale."


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