Local or expat, stripped down folk or four to the floor rock, Czech or English, the Czech music scene is host to a range of singers and bands covering many facets of contemporary music. Some are consummate performers well respected in their circles and others are friends who have gotten together just for the joy of creating music. Whatever tickles your eardrum, you’ll find something out there to inspire, amuse or just rock out to.
Local Folk Remedies
One of the nation’s principal singer/songwriters is Jaromír Nohavica (www.nohavica.cz.) His imaginative and poetic lyrics concern topics as diverse as a jilted lover in St. Petersburg contemplating suicide to Eskimos slipping on the ice. Whatever he sings about, he strikes a chord with different generations. At his concerts, young and old alike sing along.
Another performer singer/songwriter is Karel Plíhal (www.karelplihal.cz.) Musically, Plíhal is more of a virtuoso, infusing his folk tunes with a jazz sensibility, yet his lyrics are no less creative, and certainly more comic. He’s worth seeing live also for the witty epigrams he recites between songs.
Connected with these two singers is the folk band, Čechomor (www.cechomor.cz) though as one Czech friend said, folk is not the best term for them. For many, folk is something staid and traditional. While this band, certainly draw on regional musical traditions, they infuse it with a passion that will want you looking for a place to get up and dance. They also have a few songs in English. Čechomor, Nohavica and Plíhal appeared in Petr Zelenka’s film, “The Year of the Devil.”
A more recent addition to the folk scene is Pivoňka a Pánové (www.pivonka-panove.cz.) Formed last year, this self-described indie-softbeat group plays acoustic music with gusto. What strikes you most about this group is singer Vera Pivoňková’s earthy and melodious voice. Certainly a group to watch out for.
Any discussion of Czech rock has to include the legendary Plastic People of the Universe. Formed back in the late sixties, the group’s persecution in the 1970s led Václav Havel to form the Charter 77 movement. Marking out a distinct territory between garage rock and free jazz, the Plastic People of the Universe continue to perform and will certainly give you a night of music you won’t forget.
The first time I saw Psí Vojací (www.psivojaci.cz) (Dog Soldiers) was memorable. Beside me sat a man of few words, who was half listening to his companions as he sipped his beer and glanced at the empty stage. When he had finished he muttered something and took up his place behind the piano. Unbeknownst to me, I had been sitting beside the pianist and singer of Psí vojáci, Filip Topol. On stage, he was a different man, booming and wailing and bounding every emotion from his instrument.
One of the more creative rock outfits are the lads behind Tata Bojs (www.tatabojs.cz.) This group is not scared to mix their indie guitar sound with electronica and a degree of lyrical weirdness. A good example of this is their 2002 release “Nanoalbum,” a concept album about a robotic dog.
If you prefer your rock straightforward, sweaty and loud, look no further than Kabát (www.kabat.cz), the Czech Republic’s 2007 entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. Though the band didn’t win over the judges in Helsinki, they have a massive following here, attracting 60,000 people to a concert earlier this year. That was more than Madonna.
Please the Trees is a personal favorite among the English language Czech bands. These guys from Tábor are fronted by the somber tenor of Vac Havelka and perform a low-key melancholy pop reminiscent of Echo and the Bunnymen. Their song “Red Sky” is indicative of their emotive sound and a good showcase of Havelka’s voice.
Already mentioned in an earlier article, I thought it was worth singing the praises of the Ecstasy of St Theresa once again. Though if you’ve ever heard me, you’d rather I left the singing to Kateřina Winterová. Her icy voice wafts over the beats and guitar noise of Jan Muchow, blending into something otherworldly. This is chill-out music which manages to be emotional and daring. The band has also enjoyed some success on the UK independent charts and has worked with UK outfit British Sea Power.
Freak Parade (www.freakparade.org) would probably argue that they deserve to be among the local bands since they’ve been based here for longer than many bands. However, I included them here as proof that an ‘expat’ band can prosper and build a following. Definitely a band to see live when their full throttle punk rock can be enjoyed in all its glory. You can read more about them here.
Another must-see live act is Tower of Dudes (www.tod.cz.) This five-piece with members from the US, Canada and the UK seem to be able to get the floor filled and people moving. As the band says themselves, they can “tickle the ribs of even the most ardent jazz-snob.” It was certainly true of me.
A recent and welcome find among the ‘expat’ musicians is Ocean vs Daughter. Ocean vs Daughter play truly gorgeous music that is both sonically and emotionally vast in scope. Flanna Sheridan´s voice and piano playing is the throbbing delicate heart at the center of this band. A group that deserves wider interest.
All that Jazz and More
Something of an elder statesman on the jazz circuit, Jiří Stivín (http://jiri.stivin.cz) has to be among one of the most inventive jazz flautists in the business. Doffed in his trademark cap, Stivín is a wonder to behold on stage. His style can be sprightly and impish to blaring and dramatic, fusing jazz with music as varied as that from the Renaissance to modern rock. Nor is he limited to the flute, Stivin is as adept on the recorder and saxophone. I swear I’ve even seen him play what looks like a piece of modified PVC pipe.
Bassist and composer Robert Balzar is a regular on the Prague jazz circuit and one who wins over those who see him. With his trio, Balzar creates music that diverges from the more standard jazz formula of theme plus solos. Instead, the three weave a rich sound through the intersection of their sustained and intricate improvisation.
When I first saw David Dorůžka (www.daviddoruzka.com), I was waiting for another, more world renowned performer. I didn’t know what to make of this thin bespectacled man. At best I thought we were in for some mannered jazz standards to pacify us while we waited for the star. I was mesmerized from his very first song. When the performance was over, I cared very little for the main act. Dorůžka plays music that is sparse and restrained, creating a sound that gently holds you in the moment. He is a player and composer of major talent.
Getting Your Funk On
Sometimes musical ingenuity or lyrical skill doesn’t matter. All you want to do is dance. One group guaranteed to answer your rhythmic needs is J.A.R (www.rap.cz.) Including the aforementioned Robert Balzar as well as Dan Bárta, the band plays a no-nonsense brand of jazz inflected funk. You can usually catch them on the 17th November for their traditional annual concert when they get the whole crowd going.
Another member of J.A.R. is Roman Holý, who is the musical brains behind those other Czech funksters, Monkey Business (www.monkeybusiness.cz.) With American Tonya Graves sharing vocal duties with Matěj Ruppert, Monkey Business represents Czech music scene´s internationalism. More importantly, they’ll get you up and moving.
This is just the tip of a very personal iceberg. If none of this appeals to you, then spend some time exploring the music on the Bandzone website (http://bandzone.cz/.) Better yet, head out to one of Prague’s music clubs and see what’s on offer. Seen a good Czech band recently or have a recommendation? Share your suggestions below!
Pictured: above – Monkey Business. Up top: Tata Bojs.