An instrument for a travelling man

Radim Zenkl grew up listening to smuggled records. American music was forbidden in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. But Zenkl was lucky. His parents were musicians - a rarity - and he followed in their footsteps.

Radim Zenkl grew up listening to smuggled records.

American music was forbidden in what was then communist Czechoslovakia.

But Zenkl was lucky.

His parents were musicians – a rarity – and he followed in their footsteps.

By seven, Zenkl was playing the piano. At 12, he switched to guitar and a year after that, he picked up the mandolin.

SDLqThere were too many guitar players, so many of us switched to other instruments,” he said. “For some reason I was attracted to the mandolin – it’s sort of similar to the guitar in a way because you can still play chords and melodies. And it is small enough so that you can travel with it.”

The instrument’s portability would become essential for Zenkl, who has since performed on every continent, excluding Antarctica.

Zenkl started dreaming of escaping to the West at 13, with those smuggled LPs and the mandolin.

Ten years later, he made that dream reality.

“When I was 23, I was ready to leave my home, my parents – leave everything behind and go out into the world,” he said. “It was incredible. It was like one of the most special things one could experience at the time. It was everything I had hoped for. I wasn’t expecting any golden castles, but just a free world, and that’s what it was.”

He immigrated to San Francisco.

Once in the United States, Zenkl’s obsession with western music, especially country and bluegrass, was satisfied and then his sights began to turn back to his roots.

He had never really studied traditional, eastern European music on the mandolin when he was younger, simply because of his obsession with the West. But now in the West, he started to do some research and eventually the sounds of age-old tunes from the Valachia mountains, near where he grew up in Czechoslovakia, began to feel the most natural.

“It came later but it stayed forever,” he said.

Today, the tune that comes most instinctively when the mandolin is placed in his hands is a traditional Czech song called Shepherd’s Flute. It has a similar sound to that of Celtic music, he said.

It’s Zenkl’s ability to play across many different genres, which really grabbed the attention of Whitehorse mandolin player Kim Winnicky.

“He almost makes new genres by drawing on several at a time,” she said. “He really has cross-influences, and I really appreciate that in music because then it’s not what you expect all the time. It’s surprising and exciting.”

The mandolin tends to be typecast as either a bluegrass or old-time instrument, but it can do so much more, said Winnicky.

Winnicky has not only seen Zenkl perform, she studied under him at the 2009 Kluane Bluegrass Music Camp in Haines Junction.

After nearly four days playing together, Winnicky learned a lot, she said.

“He’s a very cerebral person and a really effective teacher,” she said. “He can teach complicated things in an easy manner. He’s not just a great player.”

And for the mandolin, Zenkl is even more than that – he’s an inventor.

He has not only created new ways of playing the eight-stringed, small, guitar-like instrument, he has also designed completely new versions of the lute.

The mandolin already has varying forms, with different numbers of strings and traditionally round bases, called ball-backs. And there are different mandolin’s created to make different types of sound, like one that is like a bass-version of the instrument.

The US mandolin champion also created his own. The flamenco mandolin has four nylon strings and is built just like a flamenco guitar. He made a fretless mandolin, too.

And Zenkl is considered the creator of a growing style of playing the mandolin that sounds like two instruments are being played at once.

“He’s a great technical player,” said Winnicky. “But he also gets a lot of emotion and passion across when he plays and that’s really great to watch and listen to.”

It was that ability to express emotion with a mandolin that made Winnicky stick with it as well.

Originally, she only bought the mandolin to help her work up to the fiddle. That was 15 years ago.

“I can get out what I feel when I play the mandolin,” she said. “It just fits me. It’s a good way for me to communicate musically.”

While Zenkl admits the mandolin doesn’t have a huge following, it is “on the upswing,” he said.

And there are large mandolin communities, he added, noting Germany, Japan, Australia, Brazil and it’s country of origin – Italy, as main hotspots.

During his constant globe trotting, Zenkl does make it home to see his father at least twice a year, he said.

Zenkl’s parents never emigrated from what is now called the Czech Republic. “It’s not for everyone,” he said.

His parents weren’t to enthusiastic about Zenkl picking up the mandolin when he was a boy either, he said.

“My parents were both classical musicians so they were not too sure about the mandolin because it’s not a real classical instrument,” said Zenkl. “But they were glad that I was doing music.”

On his trips home, Zenkl plays mandolin for his father all the time.

His opinion of the instrument and his son playing it, has changed, said Zenkl.

Zenkl will be returning to the Yukon this weekend to perform and teach.

There will be a house concert of mostly folk, flamenco, bluegrass and traditional music tonight, and seminar workshops at Winniky’s home on Saturday.

More seminars, and a duo show with jazz pianist Bill Schuck will take place in Haines Junction on Saturday as well.

Zenkl and Schuck will both be back in Whitehorse for Jazz on the Wing at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, and the duo will finish off with another house concert in Dawson City on Wednesday night.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at