John Holenko initially arrived in the Lowcountry to teach at the College of Charleston, but soon pivoted to start his own school in West Ashley, Hungry Monk Music, where he and a handful of other like-minded musicians have provided instruction to students of all ages and abilities for nearly 30 years.
Outside of the classroom, he’s usually found lending his highly-regarded skills to an eclectic assortment of projects such as Gatsby Orchestra (1920s-style big band), Porto Seguro (Brazilian choro), Mr. Charlie (Americana/blues) and Fried Rainbow Trout (Irish/Celtic folk).
Holenko told the City Paper that he can’t imagine leading any other kind of life, although it’s hard for him to say precisely when this path first became clear to him.
His grandmother had a lot to do with igniting his musical spark by introducing him to two distinct record collections, Holenko said. The first haul belonged to his mother and uncle and included 45s from 1950s rockers Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Bill Hailey.
The second record haul that sparked his intrigue was all over the genre spectrum.
“I don’t know where she could have gotten them,” Holenko said. “I remember that batch included Johnny Cash, The Temptations, Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night and The Lovin’ Spoonful. I was blown away, but also very confused. How could the same planet produce Steppenwolf and Johnny Cash?”
The complexity of artists such as The Beatles and the Grateful Dead would also loom large in his young imagination.
By the age of 10, Holenko had begun dabbling with piano and that soon gave way to saxophone and guitar. Eventually he found himself stumbling into the New England Conservatory of Music where he would solidify his career trajectory and attain the sort of mastery that would set him up for success when he finally made his way to Charleston.
“I have played so many styles of music here in Charleston,” he said. “I came to town as a classical guitarist and added Renaissance and medieval music to that. Renaissance music led to Renaissance dance, which led to contra dancing, which led to old time Appalachian and Irish music.”
Holenko has also positioned himself as the go-to guy around town for musical theater productions, most notably with The Village Repertory Co.
“Many guitarists do not have the skill or training to be in a large band or orchestra with a conductor,” he said. “[Orchestral arrangement is] just not something that comes with the [guitar] the way a student of flute, violin or trumpet encounters it. Because I played saxophone in my high school band, I actually understood how to follow my part in an orchestral piece. I knew what the guy waving the stick in front of me was doing. If there was a guitar or mandolin or banjo needed in an orchestra, I usually got the job. Musical theater is really just an extension of orchestral playing with a feeling for popular styles. It’s a particular set of skills that I like to take for a walk every once in a while.”
Holenko said that other projects continue to pop up here and there as well, like the “Beatles and Bach” concert with classically trained pianist Laura Ball at The Library Society on Oct. 11.
No matter how much time passes, Holenko carries on doing what he was born to do with dignity and assurance.
“I’m not rich and famous and have no interest in becoming an American Idol, but I feel like I’m part of an artistic tradition that stretches way back into the past,” he said. “I know I have passed on some of it to musicians in the future. And somehow by playing the guitar and mandolin, I have built a business of my own, live in my own house, raised two great kids and sent them to school, and have made a living through music my whole life.”
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