Hurdy-gurdy, the automatic vioin

We were walking up Nerudova to the Prague Castle last week, when I heard around a corner a strange droning music, a little like bagpipes, but not at all reedy. We turned the corner and an old street musician was there, sitting in a chair, with an unfamilar stringed instrument in his lap . It had one or two strings, and was played by turning a crank at its base, which turned a little wheel at the bridge; the wheel scraped against the strings, serving as an erzatz bow. It produced a haunting, warbling sound, all his tunes in a mournful minor key, ghost songs struggling to this side.

I stopped to listen, and clapped for him when he was done, throwing some change into his hat. We walked away for a minute, and he put away his instrument, got on his cell phone, and started yelling at someone. I threw a little more money at him, and took a CD, and he looked at me, startled, apologetically. Aimee laughed, and told me he’d been swearing obscenely at the person on the other end. When he was done, he caught up to us and handed me his card, and thanked me again in broken english. Jiří Wehle was his name; profession: Bard.

A little research: The instrument was a hurdy-gurdy, something I’ve long heard of but had thought was some kind of organ. According to Wikipedia there’s a bit of a renaissance going on. I’m listening to Wehle’s CD now. It hearkens back more to the middle ages than anything happening today, but the sound would fit right into any freak- or psychedelic folk scene.