NORGZDUK, Freedonia. Fans of Freedonian folk music were in mourning this morning as church bells rang out over the town square in this, ground zero of Freedonia’s “Bohemian” culture. “He was the hope of our generation,” says Marizj Nblot, a 68-year-old woman who came here from her rural village of Zliek to honor the memory of Durz Nikolaj, often referred to as the “Bob Dylan of Freedonia,” who died in his sleep last night. “He was our light,” she says, “when incandescent bulbs were not available in state-run hardware stores.”
Durz Nikolaj, singing “Passing Winds of Freedom.”
Nikolaj rode the wave of the Freedonian folk revival that began in the early sixties after the youth of his country were inspired to pick up their guitars by Dylan and other singers they heard on Radio Free Freedonia, a U.S. State Department front that used American culture to foment unrest. “We would sit around in the basements of our parents’ apartment building, tuning in to the broadcasts that opened our ears to what was happening in the world,” says Nblot, whose face is wrinkled with age but whose hair still falls to her waist, the style that was fashionable in her youth. “Our parents would appear at the top of the stairs and call down ‘Come to bed!'” she recalls with a smile, “but we would reply ‘Sorry, our unrest has been fomented, we’re not tired!'”
Like Dylan, Nikolaj rejected the commercial music that played on Freedonian radio at the time, and reached back to his country’s fertile folk culture for inspiration. “He stole all my material,” says Emil Llorki, a member of the Flotzi minority that suffered widespread discrimination until the sixties, at which time the Freedonian government opted for a narrower, more focused discrimination. “He would take my songs, change a few words, and boom, he’s got co-eds from Norgorad Polytechnic all over him like a cheap vzliski,” the open-necked peasant shirt that Nikolaj wore in concerts.
Nikolaj never had a hit in English-speaking markets due to his halting grasp of the nuances of American slang. His free translations of black patois dialect often left U.S. record executives, not known for high-level literary skills, puzzled. “When you say you want to ‘Change my baby’s rear tractor tires’–what exactly does that mean?” recalls Clive Hampton, who worked at Columbia Records before starting his own boutique label. “I had trouble getting Durz to understand that American teenagers have no experience with turnip dumplings.”
Nikolaj leaves several widows, including Miazlki Nialowa who nursed him back to health after a unicycle accident that left him scarred and caused him to withdraw from the folk scene for several years before returning with a new sound and a singing voice nearly an octave higher than before. “He had some sort of groin injury, he would never tell me what, exactly,” Nialowa said. “He said it was for the best, he didn’t really like children.”