How Nohavica Taught Me Czech

How Nohavica Taught Me Czech

Jaromír Nohavica is something of a Czech cultural icon. His concerts routinely sell out and his songs are sung around campfires. His lyrics and music are rooted in the specific experience and traditions of his homeland, especially the Ostrava region. On the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, we look at Nohavica as a songwriter and as controversial figure.

Prior to arriving in Prague I had read an English-language review of the Petr Zelenka film Rok Ďabla (The Year of the Devil). The writer compared its star, singer Jaromír Nohavica, to Tom Waits and Shane MacGowan. I was curious.

I had a chance to see the film shortly after I moved to Prague in 2003. I found the music compelling and wanted to hear more. One of my colleagues loaned me a tape which I listened to almost every day for the first couple of months of my stay. (The same colleague later became my wife, so you can see why Nohavica has some personal significance.)

I quickly saw that comparisons to Waits and MacGowan were way off. Something about this seemingly ordinary man was unlike other singers I knew. His backstory was as fascinating as his music. Born in Ostrava on June 7, 1953, Nohavica started writing songs for other musicians in the late sixties before performing them on his own in the early eighties. His battle with alcoholism, famously chronicled in Rok Ďabla, added to his mystique.

The more I learned the more I asked my Czech friends about him, many of whom replied: You’re a foreigner. You won’t get him.

Unraveling the Meaning
Initially, I didn’t get him—literally. But after arming myself with a CZ-ENG dictionary and badgering my future wife with questions, I unraveled the meanings of these songs, many of which are sharply drawn stories or vignettes populated by intriguing characters. The range of musical moods were as broad as his arrangements. Some songs featured Nohavica solo on accordion, others included a full band. (In recent years, Nohavica has worked with orchestras, most notably translating the libretto of Cosi fan Tutte. His work has also been arranged for  orchestra.)

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Uniting it all was a particular attention to the language. It’s no wonder the man is a national Scrabble champion. No lines seemed throw-away. Whether it’s the dark scenes in  Pěterburg in which a jilted man, drunk, toys with a revolver, or the two lovers resting by a fire on the way to Sarajevo in the song of the same name, the lyrics manage to place you in the scene.

Other songs, especially Kometa, touched me with a poetry on par with the best lyricists in English—working out their meaning was the most interesting course in the Czech language I could have taken.

The Complete Songbook, Translated
While I translated the songs purely for my own understanding, Canadian Mark Landry has translated a book of Nohavica’s songs into English. Landry expatriated to the Czech Republic from Canada in the early nineties. He learned about Nohavica through his students but it was the singer who approached him about translating, having seen Landry’s translations of traditional Czech and Moravian folk songs.

The process was slow on account of Nohavica’s schedule and Landry’s desire to capture the essence of the songs. His concern was not to just capture the meaning but the songs’ tones.

“Essentially Jarek is a poet who has put to music his words, so I had to make [the translations] more poetical,” Landry said. The reason for the translation was to bring Nohavica to a wider audience and act as a bridge for those who didn’t read Czech. Some of Landry’s translations can be read here.

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Landry spoke of Nohavica with genuine affection and respect, referring to him by first name, and often bringing up Nohavica’s work ethic, creativity, and his place as a chronicler of Czech society. Because Landry lives in Nohavica’s hometown of Ostrava he’s in a position to see how the singer is a part of his locality.

“He’s unique to the environment he lives in. People love him here in Ostrava because he’s sort of our home boy and he always comes back.”

Yet for all the admiration bestowed upon him, Nohavica has had a problematic past.

Nohavica’s Dark Past
When discussions about Nohavica have come up, Some friends and associates have remarked that they stopped listening to him because of his collaboration with the former communist secret police, Státní Bezpečnost (StB). In one sense, the feeling of betrayal can be seen as evidence of the singer’s significance.

Nohavica claims that he never denounced anyone. An article in Respekt argued that it was not so much the information—which the journalist admitted wasn’t earth-shattering—but that informants such as Nohavica helped the StB “control and manipulate” the world of ordinary people. Their collaboration established the “myth” that the secret police knew everything.

This issue makes me feel more foreign than any attempt to understand Nohavica’s lyrics. Not having experienced the past regime, I can’t say whether it matters or it doesn’t. He was just someone who wrote evocative songs.

Or that was until he released “Na Bedřišce” and “Dežo” both available on his online albums. Neither song can be justified as merely showing how it is because the songs pander to negative stereotypes strongly embedded in Czech society. Adoptive mother of Romani children Martina Vančáková expressed it perfectly when she accused Nohavica of pouring oil on the fire in an open letter. Based on comments on the Dežo’s YouTube post , though, I’m sure not everyone agrees.

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Through a Child’s Eyes
As noted in Ms. Vančáková’s letter, most kids grow up to Nohavica’s children’s album Tři čuníci (Three Little Pigs). In the early honeymoon period of my Nohavica fandom, one of my colleagues, another expat Nohavica enthusiast, called me to tell me he could get tickets to a concert. However, the only ones available were for a performance for kids.

While a little disappointed I wouldn’t be hearing my favorite songs, I was intrigued to see how a man who occasionally sang about lost love and wastrels would appeal to the very young. That concert confirmed to me how loved he was. The kids looked at the stage adoringly.

I noticed a similar devotion when a few years later I finally saw an “adult” concert. Some kids came to that one, too. One boy stood on a chair to see his hero and sang all the words. 

Honestly, the songs leave me feeling ambivalent. It’s not the first time I’ve admired an artist for his creative talents only to later discover that he has questionable politics. These portrayals are terrible and certainly lessened my regard for the man. Yet the vast bulk of his work remains worth exploring for its rich representation of emotions and stories.


Ryan Scott

Ryan Scott comes from Australia and despite what you might think he doesn't mind the winters here. He keenly follows local politics but please don't ask him about the hockey.

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