Music — and the Imaginary Wild West in CZ

In Brno

In Brno, Czech Republic, the Imaginary Wild West leaps off a wall…. advertising “the best steaks” in the city at an eatery called “U Starýho Bill” (At Old Bill’s) that calls itself “a real ‘TEXAS’ restaurant.”

The wall here was a few steps away from the Sono Center, a major Brno venue for contemporary music — where I was headed to attend a concert by the Czech bluegrass band The Malina Brothers, with guest appearances by Charlie McCoy, the Nashville-based harmonica virtuoso and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Czech singer Kat’a Garcia. The concert was sold out, and got a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd. And it was being filmed for a live show DVD.

Malinas concert Sono Center

The Malinas are old friends of mine. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Lubos Malina was one of the founding members of the great Czechgrass group Druha Trava, and I met him (amazingly) nearly 15 years ago, at one of the many summer bluegrass/country festivals in CZ, when I first started exploring the Imaginary Wild West in Europe.

Guitarist Pavel Malina used to play with DT, and fiddler Pepa Malina still sometimes plays with them. The Malina Brothers band came together informally at first, but over the past five years or so has developed a remarkable following in CZ — as the concert in Brno demonstrated.

The three brothers visited in Italy six years ago and gave a house concert at the home of a friend. It was the first of a series of house concerts anchored by Lubos. We’re looking forward to the entire band (the three brothers plus bass player Pavel Peroutka) coming next month. The brothers  played this arrangement of Smetana at the house concert in 2013 — and at the concert in Brno.

On the night after the Brno concert, Pepa Malina performed with Druha Trava at the start of a a week-long tour with Charlie McCoy — a sold-out, standing-ovation gig in the town of Ceska Trebova.

Here’s a video of the run-through before the Ceska Trebova concert:

Charlie McCoy has had a standout career in the USA and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009.

I’ve written about him in the past, on my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog, because he is quite wellknown in the country music scene outside the USA. He tours regularly in Europe and elsewhere (i.e. Japan), and he makes a point to play with European bands and also records with them; he has released albums in France, Denmark, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Later this summer he will be touring in Sweden in England.

Onstage at the concert in Ceska Trebova, he recalled how he met up with Druha Trava — it was at the festival in Strakonice, CZ, where he was performing in 2001. DT was also on the bigg and asked if he would join them for a few songs — since then he has toured with them half a dozen or more times in CZ, released a live album with DT and also released a CD with The Malina Brothers.

Here’s a promo video about the Malina Brothers album (partly in Czech, partly in English):

I met Charlie back in 2005 during one of his tours with Druha Trava — the concert I saw was at a “Days of Texas” festival in the little town of Roznov pod Radnostem, in eastern CZ.

The festival, I wrote in an article

highlighted the fact that from the mid-19th century until World War I, thousands of people emigrated from Roznov and other towns and villages in the region to Texas. Today, Texas has the largest ethnic Czech community of any state in the United States.

There were demonstrations of 19th-century farming customs used by the emigrants and performances by American-style Czech country-western groups, as well as local folk groups performing Wallachian songs and dances. An exhibition of quilting featured a big patchwork quilt reading “Texas,” hung prominently from the upper floor of the old Roznov Town Hall.

Like the Malina Brothers concert in Brno, the Druha Trava/Charlie McCoy concert in Ceska Trebova drew a standing ovation from an energized crowd — and lots of autograph-seekers and CD-buyers afterward.

And here we are in Ceska Trebova, backstage.

 

 

Banjo Romantika to be broadcast on American TV

banjo-romntika-poster

Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass music in which I appear (as the main talking head) will be broadcast on public PBS television stations around the United States in December.

You can see the growing list of stations on the film’s web site — click HERE.

Broadcast venues include channels in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Illinois, Tennessee, California, Virginia, Kentucky….

I spent a few days earlier this month in Johnson City,TN, with the filmmakers — Lee Bidgood and Shara Lange. We recorded a commentary track for the film, which will be included in the new DVDs that are being prepared. We discussed the making of the film, but also the history of Czech bluegrass, and the music and musicians featured in the movie.

See a 30-second teaser for the movie here:

Banjo Romantika: American Bluegrass Music & The Czech Imagination from Light Projects on Vimeo.

On filming “Banjo Romantika”

banjo-romntika-posterLee Bidgood has written an engaging essay in Ethnomusicology Review about collaborating with Shara Lange on the filming of Banjo Romantika, the documentary about Czech bluegrass music that I helped on and in which I appear as a “talking head.” He writes about the practical nuts-and-bolts of filming as well as his changing role as scholar and participant.

When Shara and I set out to film in the Czech Republic, my lingering sense of a scholarly ideal led me to impose a research-design structure to our slate of scheduled interviews and visits to performance events.  This stance quickly met with the practicalities of fieldwork (which ranged from me not being able to successfully work the sophisticated camera, to a hardware glitch garbling a key bit of interview audio, etc.); at a more foundational level, however, my sense of the project sometimes conflicted with Lange’s goals as a filmmaker.  Although dedicated to an observational perspective, and thus to a transparent presentation of her subjects, she also emphasized to me the importance of a dramatic “through-line” to the film, and spoke of the people we were filming not as colleagues or subjects but as “characters.”  As I pushed for more and longer filmed interviews (thinking that more words from “characters” mouths would give them more agency and provide more information) she sought evocative moments, interactions, and scenes. […]

The most significant result of the documentary on my continuing fieldwork among Czech bluegrassers is an increased engagement with my projects.  Discussing my plans for an English-language academic paper or monograph has never quickened my colleagues’ pulses.  Seeing or hearing about the film has led many Czech people to contact me with questions, concerns, and feedback that I have been trying to elicit for years through more traditional means.  We plan to broadcast the film on a television station in the Czech Republic, launching it into the wider discourse among fans and non-fans of bluegrass there.

 

Read the whole article here

With Lee Bidgood at the Birthplace of Country Music museu, Bristol TN/VA

With Lee Bidgood at the Birthplace of Country Music museum, Bristol TN/VA

Pete Seeger and Czech Bluegrass

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve written  about this before, but, with Pete Seeger’s death on Monday at the age of 94, I wrote a little piece for Tablet Magazine on the impact of Seeger’s 1964 concerts in communist Czechoslovakia on the development of the Czech bluegrass scene — the Czech Republic probably boasts more banjo-players and bluegrass bands per capita than any other country — the new documentary film Banjo Romantika, in which I appear as a “talking head,” goes into this phenomenon.

My Tablet piece was pegged not just to Seeger’s death, but to the fact that over the weekend I took part in the launch of a new CD by the Czech bluegrass-fusion band The Malina Brothers — banjoist Lubos, guitarist Pavel, fiddler Pepa and non-brother bassist Pavel Peroutka, all of whom are veterans of the scene and play in other major groups. Lubos, Pavel and Pepa visited me in Italy last year and gave a house concert to enthralled neighbors.

Back in September, I helped out in the studio in Prague with the band’s English language singing.

On Sunday night, at a sold-out concert in the brothers’ home town of Nachod, in northern Bohemia, they brought me up on stage for the “krest” — christening — to toast the new release with sparkling wine.

I wrote in Tablet:

It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Seeger performed a series of concerts in the then-communist Czechoslovakia in March 1964. For the first time, people saw a five-string banjo being played, an instrument whose distinctive twang they’d heard while listening clandestinely to the American Forces radio broadcast from across the Iron Curtain. Seeger’s performance electrified music fans, who ended up launching a Czech bluegrass scene. (The first Czech five-strings were made from photos of Seeger’s; today, Czech banjo-makers export their instruments worldwide.)

 

Marko Cermak, who half a century ago built a five-string banjo based on photos of Pete Seeger’s. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

Seeger’s 1964 tour was booked by the official Czechoslovak concert agency. Pete’s longtime friend Gene Deitch, a Chicago-born, Academy Award-winning animator and illustrator who has lived in Prague since the 1950s, organized the Prague concert. Deitch, now 89, also recorded it and it was later issued as a CD.

Seeger, Deitch recalled in the CD notes, was—as far as the Czech authorities were concerned—”an example of a ‘progressive’ American performer, singing for the rights of the ‘oppressed American masses,’” and “all those living in the darkness of [the] ‘imperialist’ American society.”

Deitch has posted the entire recording on his web site—among the songs Seeger performed that night was the Israeli folk song “Tzena Tzena,” which he sang in Hebrew.

Seeger’s influence in the Czech music scene stretches well beyond bluegrass. The Malina Brothers CD launch was my second in the country in recent weeks. In December, I helped pop the bubbly in Prague for the launch of a CD of Ladino tunes called “Songs from the Sephardic Tradition” by the new band Kon Sira, another project with which Lubos Malina, the award-winning banjoist of the Malina Brothers, is involved.

Malina, who turned 55 the day Pete Seeger died, was only a boy when Seeger played Prague in 1964, but he first heard bluegrass and banjo music from the generation of Czech musicians that Seeger had directly influenced. In a way, this makes the Kon Sira Sephardic project, too, a direct legacy of Pete’s performance half a century ago.

Read the full article

In the Czech Republic, the launch of a CD is called a “křest” or “Christening.” Kon Sira’s leader, the Ladino scholar and singer Katerina Garcia, thought this would not be good form for a CD of Jewish music — so in the video below you can see her explaining this in Czech to the audience at the launch, and then me reciting the Shehehiyanu prayer.