Czech it out! – International Music
Print Music Editor Harry Hawkins takes a whistlestop tour through Czech music past and present.
When you think of countries with a great heritage of music, the Czech Republic probably isn’t even in the first 50 countries you think of. But as someone who grew up on equal parts Anglophone and Czech songs, there are so many creative groups to explore. Here’s a rundown of just a few Czech musicians who deserve a spotlight.
Traband is my first pick for anyone interested in Czech rock and pop music, full stop. Their songs are generally a melting pot of pub rock, folk, klezmer and oompah (a very popular traditional music style in CZR and nearby countries like Germany and Austria). Many of their first records, like the aptly named ‘Kolotoc’ (Carousel), are boisterous and irreverent, combined with melodies that are usually either like lullabies or drinking songs. However, the group continued to progress their sound through the 2000s, with ‘Neslychane/ Unheard’. Whilst harboring some propulsive and fun songs that feature growling opera singers, child choirs and funk rock, there are also some beautifully tender ballads and romantic (if comedic) moments, like a song in which two scruffy men propose to a woman with gifts such as a baguette in a plastic bag.
Main singer Jarda Svoboda provides some fantastic lyrics – whether it’s commentary on the prejudice put upon Roma peoples found across second album ‘Road Movie’, to a song where he wonders what his old schoolteachers are doing now, he provides compelling narratives that are usually tinged with comedy as much as tension all in the same breath. Even when I can barely parse the exact nature of the lyrics, his vocal range with impersonations of bellowing drunkards and old misers to a tender crooning, is always right in line with the song’s themes and will inevitably get stuck in your head. Here are some of the band’s notable songs:
Cernej Pasazer: a rousing mariachi-style tune about commuting without a train ticket.
Saro! – A beautiful, lyrically obtuse and yearning ballad.
Kolotoc: One of the group’s early songs – full of vigour and a bit of oompah stomp
Tomas Dvorak (alias Floex)
I wonder if it not just happy coincidence that Tomas shares surname with the esteemed Czech composer, because his music can be just as rousing. Tomas’ core sound is a sort of fusion of downtempo and dubstep (but Burial, not Skrillex). Oh, and he’s a fab clarinet player.
From early works you can hear conservatory music education cross streams with pillowy and captivating electronica which can change on a dime.
Some of Floex’s most fruitful works have come about through soundtracking, like his decade long collaboration with CZ indie games studio Amanitia Design. Whilst fantastic in themselves, adventure games like ‘Machinarium’ and ‘Samorost’ are raised to new heights with the dizzying beauty that Floex contributes.
‘The Glasshouse With Butterfly’ and ‘By the Wall’ (from ‘Machinarium’): Two wonderful pieces of downtempo ambient that synthesise mechanical landscapes with vinyl-eroded, organic sound. A must if you enjoy the NIN Ghosts albums or Thom Yorke’s Suspiria score.
‘Samorost 3’s Main Theme’ and ‘Celebration’: Marvel’s themes look like child’s play next to the titanic opening score. A pick for any fans of climactic film music, or post-rock. ‘Celebration’ provides proof of Tomas’ instrumental prowess, with 4 clarinets weaving through each other.
‘Veronika’s Dream’: This is Tomas without the tether of soundtracking – yet it still has a super-cinematic feel! Full of rickety piano, keening violins and clanking drum passages. Very few comparisons can be made, but if you enjoy the quirks of Woodkid, Bonobo or Cosmo Sheldrake I think you will really appreciate this.
Classical music and interpreters
I think it would be amiss to discuss Czech music without also mentioning the wealth of Romantic-era composers who are still acclaimed today. The most familiar piece for most people will probably be Dvorak’s 9th Symphony, or ‘New World Symphony’. If it doesn’t ring any bells, then maybe the old Hovis ad music might, as it is the second movement of the 40-min experience. ‘New World Symphony’ comes from the inspiration Dvorak took from travelling to America in the 1890s and hearing black spiritual music as well as Native American music, and there is an amazing number of brilliant melodies, drama and tension. Many mention the similarity of some melodies to hymnals still known today, like ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’.
Other notable composers include Bedrich Smetana, a teacher of Dvorak’s, known for the nationalist ‘Ma Vlast’, a piece that was later banned by Nazis during WWII occupation, and was played after the fall of the USSR. The ‘tone poem’ form of the symphony depicts many famous events and places in prague, like the castle Vysehrad and river Vltava. For intriguing modern interpretations of old compositions, you could do worse than to try listening to the recordings of Leos Janacek’s Moravian Folk Poetry by Iva Bittova and the Skampa Quartet. These are easily some of the shortest compositions from these Romantic composers (as they are based on folk song rather than more orchestrated forms) and have a lot of momentum and fun. Iva Bittova is an acclaimed violinist and vocalist in her own right, but with many of her own pieces being very experimental this is an easier place to start.
Now go forth and listen to some Czech tunes here!