So Much Is Missed, or Duša Počkaj’s Greatest Hits

In the film Plesu v dežju (Dance in the Rain), 1961

In the film Ples v dežju (Dance in the Rain), 1961

During my years in Slovenia (1996-2001) I became quite fond of the local version of cabaret theatre, not necessarily the kind that was current in that era but also from decades earlier. In particular, I grew to love the songs of Duša Počkaj (1924-1982), a theatre and film actress who occasionally recorded in the chanson tradition, or, as they say in Slovenia, šansoni. A CD compilation of Počkaj’s songs was produced by Slovenia’s Ministry of Culture in 1998; since I was living in Ljubljana then, I snapped up a copy on sale at an Old Town kiosk during the holiday season.  I treasure it still. (If you were wondering, her name is pronounced DOO-sha POACH-kye. The word duša also means “soul” in Slovene.) The songs on the compilation, titled simply Šansoni, were collected from various radio and TV broadcasts, films and stage performances of Počkaj’s during the 1960s and ’70s. Although she never performed specifically as a singer and never released an actual record during her lifetime, her expressive, world-weary alto was perfect for the chanson genre. Počkaj had tons of innate style, her natural snap and wit rendering even the darkest lyrics palatable for eager consumption by her fellow Slovene sophisticates in the audience. Thirty years after her death, she still has a place in Slovenia’s artistic canon, if an understated one. Last October, during the annual Mesto žensk/City of Women arts festival in Ljubljana, a performance inspired by Počkaj’s life and art, Draga Duša (Dear Duša) was presented in, appropriately enough, Duša Počkaj Hall, an intimate 60-seat performance space in the Cankarjev dom, Ljubljana’s answer to Lincoln Center. (Here’s an English-language link to a short description of the piece.)

Počkaj was born in November 1924 in Lendava, a smallish town near the Hungarian border in Slovenia’s remote northeastern corner.  Lendava is part of the Prekmurje region, which I think of as Slovenia’s answer to northern New England in its isolation, spareness and relative poverty, and one of the country’s primary incubators of folk traditions.  (The balladeer Vlado Kreslin, who has been called Slovenia’s answer to Bruce Springsteen, also hails from Prekmurje.)

Počkaj studied architecture in college for a time but then enrolled as one of the first female students in the new Academy of Dramatic Arts in Ljubljana, which was founded in 1945. She soon found work onstage in the National Theatre and made her first film in 1953. Počkaj was a busy trouper to the end, performing nearly constantly in TV shows and movies for domestic consumption along with stage productions. I don’t know if she ever appeared in any foreign productions, or performed in any other language besides Slovene, which made her a star at home and utterly obscure beyond Slovenia’s borders. According to her Slovene Wikipedia entry, she actually died of a heart attack during a stage performance in Ljubljana, at the young age of 57, on June 24th, 1982, while appearing in ‘The Forest’ by the Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky.

Here is a link to Šansoni (I haven’t downloaded it myself since I have the CD, so all I can say is good luck and be careful). Here is another one with which to try your luck, which includes the CD cover and liner notes.

So much is missed for lack of translation; so much great art never gets heard by people who would appreciate it.  Here are the lyrics to one of my favorite songs on that album, Življenje (Life), first in the original Slovene, then in translation — I couldn’t find an English translation so I translated it myself, and it’s probably spotty and inaccurate at points — I don’t get to practice my Slovene much these days — but I at least tried to improve on Google Translate.  (You experts in slovenščina should feel free to suggest alternate wordings. If you suspect I’m trying to sneakily crowd-source a better translation, you’d be correct.)

The thing is, if Duša Počkaj thought it was important enough to expose her fellow Slovenes to translated versions of song poems by the likes of Dylan Thomas, Brecht/Weill (“Pirate Jenny” and “Barbara Song”) and Robert Burns, along with poems by her fellow countrymen (who have a grand poetic tradition dating back to the ubiquitous 19th century national hero, France Prešeren), shouldn’t I at least try to return the favor and translate a lyric by the Slovene poet Kajetan Kovič, as best as I can, for whoever is intrigued enough to read this far?

So, here’s a link to Duša’s recording, on YouTube (titled for the occasion Čudno Življenje, or Strange Life).

ŽIVLJENJE 


(Kajetan Kovič)
Tak čudno je naše življenje,
srečno in hkrati nesrečno.
In kratko je naše življenje
in eno samo za večno.

Dokler smo tu sta nebo
in zemlja v naši oblasti,
vendar mora drevo
o sojenem času pasti.

Tak čudno je naše življenje
s svojo mračno zavestjo,
da se pesem konča
v plitkem jarku za cesto,

da se včasih konča,
preden se je začela,
brez zemlje in brez neba
kot roža nedozorela.

Tak čudno je naše življenje,
srečno in hkrati nesrečno,
o pesem nedokončana
in ena sama za večno.

My translation:

LIFE

Such a strange thing is our life,
Happy and at the same time unhappy.
And brief is our life,

And we only have one, forever.

As long as we are here, the sky
And the earth are under our power,
Yet still, the tree
Is judged during its fall.

Such a strange thing is our life
With its dim consciousness
And the song ends
In a shallow ditch on the road

That sometimes ends
Before it began,
Without earth and without sky
Like a flower yet to bloom.

Such a strange thing is our life,
Happy and sad at the same time,
An unfinished song
And one alone, forever.

#####

Happy belated 88th birthday, Duša.

The CD cover

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