Czech Rock and the Art of Linguistic Permutations
By J. C. Lockwood
The name of the album is Moveable Feasts. A nod to Hemingway's posthumous memoir? An invitation to hang out, vicariously, at the Jazz Age's Cool Kids table in Paris when the City of Light was white-hot Bohemian cool, listening in on Papa and Joyce and Fitzgerald and Stein and the rest of the gang? No, not in the obvious, literal sense but, as a metaphor, the idea that the experience will always be with you, no matter where you go, a "feast of friends," as Mr. Mojo would have it? Yeah. "There it is in its entirety," as they say in "Shoulder Blade," the first cut of the album, a warm, bouncy, jazzy tune that brings a smile to your face. It's a collection of tunes labeled, almost half-heartedly, Nu-jazz, songs standing apart from each other stylistically, based on the lives of friends or oblique histories of larger presences, and meditations about how love goes and, at the far end of the emotional spectrum, about the death wishes of an elderly couple. The concept is also self-referential, a wink to the band as an organic thing, playing together, being like a feast, but with underlying uncertainty, mixing contradictory poles of family and alienation, foreign concepts, ideas, images and ritual. And, if you didn't notice the band's name on the graphically challenging cover, or get to the seventh track, you wouldn't know that this is not an American or English band. It is a Czech band. Singing in English. For a Czech audience.
They're called Lesni Zver, a trio of old hands on the Czech alt music scene, the players putting in time with Tata Bojs, Swordfishtrombones and Fru Fru, among others. The name means Sylvan Game, sort of. It's playful translation of a made-up idiom. ‘Wild Animals' or ‘Forest Animals' are more literal possibilities. And while it may seem strange that in a country where only 27 percent of the public speaks English, according to the 2012 Eurobarometer report, the public opinion analysis wing of the European Commission, that you would have Czech bands singing in English... well, there it is. Again. That's roughly the same percentage of exclusively English-singing bands in the Czech Republic, according to Antonin Kocabek, culture editor at Tyden magazine — and the guitarist in Drevene pytli v jutovych uhlich, an indie-minded Prague-based band whose name is as difficult to pronounce as it is to translate (you end up with something like "Wooden sacks of jute coal"), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
It's not a new phenomenon. It goes back to the ‘60's, when the former Czechoslovakia, like many countries, overwhelmed by Beatlemania, and groups like Olympic, the first Czech bigbit, as they called it (bit having a long "I" and pronounced "beat") band out of the box, recorded original rock, both in Czech and English — even touring with the Animals. Many bands were doing the same, like the Matadors, doing a lot of American R&B covers, and Blue Effect, doing English-language originals — all of this happening under the slowly thawing political conditions that led to Prague Spring.
And then the hammer came down with so-called Normalization, the brutal political and cultural crackdown that came in the wake of the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country in 1968. Bands couldn't perform in English, couldn't even have English names, leading famously, to the real and metaphorical trials of the Plastic People of the Universe. People were jailed, lives were destroyed. The bloodless Velvet Revolution in 1989 brought political and cultural freedom and, with it, a growing, new wave of English-singing local bands. These days, says Karel Malik, frontman for the rowdy, Pogues-like Echt, and a member of Hudba Praha, English has become "a special Esperanto" that connects Czech music groups and fans. And, in some genres, like shoegazer or crossover-rap-metal, it has become "suddenly impossible" to find anything but English, says Kocabek, who, in the late '90s, also played in Porybny stramak, which, for a short time, included the Plastics' Milan Hlavsa. "For me, it (the whole English thang) has never been important," he says. "Bands co-exist."
True, but while warily circling each other, says Roman Neruda, frontman for Sdruzeni rodicu a pratel RoPy (SRPR) — which has put out four albums over the last decade, charting a course from a joyous punk feel to a darker, irony-laden... well, call it Nu-underground, as Kocabek does, or "dat daily dose of depression" as Neruda cheerfully sizes up the sound. "I must say, in our community — unsuccessful alternative Czech bands with no reach — it looks a bit suspicious to hear somebody singing in English," he says. Joking. Kind of. And, for the record, addressing the issue generally.
And you can almost see Lesni Zver vocalist and songwriter Milos Rejsek shrugging his shoulders on the other side of an email exchange. "Eh, I have always felt quite comfortable singing in English, and I do not like thinking about our music as something particularly anchored in some Czech scene," he says. "I do not feel like I need to address somebody in particular, language-wise, nor that we owe something to somebody here. I indulge the idea of stepping out."
The English-language lyrics, it should be noted, do not preclude Czech content. "Skid Marks," one of the tunes on Moveable Feasts, is written about the late Filip Topol, the voice of the influential Czech band Psi Vojaci, who skidded into oblivion way ahead of his time, at 48. Why English? American pop culture has been a thorn in the side of communist governments since the Jazz Era, but they didn't get really nasty about it in the former Czechoslovakia until the '70's. The English language had become many things: a vehicle for delivering this world view, a way to "escape" censorship, an instrument of protest and, according to Michael Kilburn, author of Merry Ghetto: The Czech Underground in the Time of Normalization, a "way of connecting to the utopian vision of America." And, for many, the language of rock. Milan Hlavsa, who founded Plastic People of the Universe shortly after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, famously connected the sound of the English language and rock, "and I agree with him," says Malik. "For my generation in the ‘Eastern Bloc,' when everything was restricted and watched, English represented a symbol of some kind of rebellion. That period, thank God, is a long time gone, and the previous meaning disappears these days."
The hard-line government installed after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion insisted not only on political conformity and a generally anodyne presence, but also on a no-English policy for names of bands and song lyrics. Ironically, the worst of the crackdown came at a time when bands like the Plastics were moving in the opposite direction, performing with original Czech writing and adapting texts of non-conformist — read, banned — like Egon Bondy. Vladimir Misik, singer for Blue Effect/Modry Efekt, was doing the same thing, bringing texts by poets like Josef Kainar, a member of the Skupina 42 artists group, and "the audience responded," says Miroslav Wanek, frontman for the revered Uz Jsme Doma. Which makes sense. "The country was surrounded by barbed wire and we were cut off, so I always felt that it was necessary for Czechs to sing in Czech," Blue Effect guitarist Radim Hladík said in an interview with Radio Prague last year. "In the ‘70s, when many bands were forbidden and pushed into the underground, musicians discovered song lyrics as the closest and fastest way to share thoughts and protests with other people," says Wanek, "faster than books and cheaper than movies." "I've never had anything against English in music," said Hladik, who also played with the Matadors, "but I think in most cases when Czechs sing in English, it must be terrible for those who understand it," a point reinforced by Malik, whose band Echt covered the Fugs' "Morning, Morning" on the 1998 Black Point release Smutny Veci/Sad Things, which sounded like "something between English and an unknown language from the different century."
There have been any number of linguistic permutations in Czech pop and rock on both sides of the Velvet Revolution, including the so-called Swahili— these were English-sounding nonsense words were used by Uz Jsme Doma and its earlier incarnation, the Fourth Price Band, in the mid-80s on signature songs like "You Nebo Nebo/Yeah or or." This appropriated language was also used with the band Support Lesbiens, who brought the English thing to a new level, scoring the first number-one single for a Czech band singing in English with "Cliche" from 2004's Midlife album. Language manipulation was also used by DG307, famously hounded with the Plastics during the trenchant clampdown on art and music, spinning a dark web with the song "Siluety/Silhouettes," from the band's third album, with poet/singer Pavel Zajicek singing in Czech, and soon-to-be PPU bassist Eva Turnova echoing the lyrics in English (a decade later Turnova would release "Happiness Is A Learned Condition," a stunning, gorgeous solo album, the songs all in English). Bent linguistics could also be heard in a new, multinational version of '80s powerhouse Prazky Vyber/Prague's Choice, which just released Aftershocks — a new album that has Australian guitar wizard, and new PV member, Glenn Proudfoot, taking Michael Kocab tunes and writing English lyrics for them because Kocab's melodies "sounded like English," Proudfoot said in a Prague Post interview. The sound of music, the idea, mistaken or not, is twofold. One, that singing in English is a way to expand your marketing horizons, to make it. And two, that English is the language of rock, something that cannot translate into the local lingo because of the vagaries of the Czech language. After the revolution, many people thought — and some still think — that if they sang in English, they would "make it" abroad.
The English-as-the-language-of-rock theory — that it sounds like songs: lyrical, melodic, straightforward and to the point — remains a contentious issue. "They say English is easier for rock 'n' roll," says Neruda of SRPR, a name difficult to explain without an understanding of Czech grammar — and humor. "This might be true for some traditional approaches to music. I, in fact, enjoy the fight I have to do every time, trying to come up with rhythmic structure of Czech language suitable for crazy rhythms and changes of our music." Prazky Vyber's Kobab told the Prague Post that he found it easier singing in English, saying that it showed off his voice better. "To sing in English has become a must for bands who try to make it on the international scale," says Neruda, who admits to "almost a guilty pleasure" listening to French act Cocoon and their twisted-accent English folk songs. "It probably makes sense for all of them, and we do not have to talk ambitious pop acts only." "There is maybe sometimes an opinion, that rock music sounds better in English, but I think that is prejudice, habit," says UJD's Wanek. "Each language has an ability to sound good, you only need to respect both. Language rules and rock rhythm rules, and that might be for many lyricists a problem. But who is not lazy or incompetent, that one would be able to work through that. The Czech language, for example, has the accent always on the first syllable, no exception. English has very often the accent on the second syllable, and it has also a lot of one-syllable words that makes some kind of phrasing in rock songs much easier. But the Czech language has these one-syllable words too- you only have to be imaginative. The same is true with accents. Our romantic poet, the best one in Czech poetry, Karel Hynek Macha, in the middle of 19th century discovered some technique called ‘Czech iambus.' It is a system of using prepositions or some one-syllable verbs, so you can get the ‘feeling' of the accent on the second syllable, even though there is none.
And so on and so on. There is always a way. Those who use English in Czech songs only because of accents, usually give up with content, ideas. It sounds good, but it is empty. And while it makes sense on the face of it, that singing in English is a way to break through in America, the fact is that the two most successful Czech groups in the US — the Plastics and Uz Jsme Doma — have been doing it in their own language. Except for that one time, the first time, back in 1992, when UJD was touring behind Nemilovany Svet/Unloved World, which, at the insistence of their German label, had English and Czech versions of all non-instrumental songs. On the tour, they played the English versions. And the response? Not so hot. "People really liked us to sing in Czech," says Wanek. "From my experience many people in USA felt kind of ‘guilty' for the hegemony of English language in show biz and appreciated some difference. Also, many people told me that it is very interesting to hear the sound of different language, some thought that it is healthy for some U.S. citizens to notice that some other languages even exist and that it is possible to sing a song in it." On the next tour, the next year, they gave up the linguistic ghost and dug into their mother tongue. And Pulnoc, one of the first bands out of the post-revolutionary box, rising from the ashes of the then-disbanded Plastics just before the Communist government fell and scored a recording contract with Arista without any heavy English lifting — although the label did erase as much of the Czech as possible. The album was City of Hysteria, whose title cut, a heartfelt English-language testament to the troubled times the country had just emerged from, was written by Pavel Zajicek of DG307, the Plastics' sister band. Pulnoc, which included PPU's Hlavsa, Josef Janicek and Jiri Kabes, covered the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties." The nine other songs on the album are sung in Czech. But, aside from the names of the musicians, there is not a bit of Czech in the liner notes, perhaps wary of scaring potential American record-buyers.
Wanek doesn't worry about the infusion of English. "Nothing is black and white, and there are still many great bands singing in Czech. And in some cases, such as Iva Bittova, nobody even cares what language she sings in. She sings Czech, Roma, English, Russian, Slovakian, etc. And she always has something to say. In my case – I don't care either what language I will sing, I just feel it polite to sing in the original, polite to my own language and polite to the audience too. I am sure it is healthy for them." As the Velvet Revolution and the Communist era before it fade into history, the English beat goes on. Citing just two examples, and there are plenty of others, Albert Cerny, who made a name for himself with the Britpop-inspired group Charlie Straight, whose 2009 English-language debut She's A Good Swimmer won three Andel awards, the Czech Grammy, told Radio Prague he "never considered" singing in Czech because he's "always known that I'd like to go abroad and I'd like to broaden our horizons geographically as well." Which is what he's doing with Lake Malawi, his new band, which splits its time between Prague and London. And then you've got bands like Please the Trees, a young group that kicks up a sonic dust storm with its dense, atmospheric sound, just finishing up another U.S. tour with a performance with Big Apple poet Steve Dalachinsky. Their founder Vaclavka Havel III, not to be confused with the former Czech president, told Radio Prague that he "never writes in Czech and then translate it. I keep reading in English and keep absorbing the language. It's different from English people, but maybe that's what might make it more interesting too. I just hope it works."
The guys in Lesni Sver are well aware of the linguistic minefield. "Yes, when playing abroad, English lyrics make the music more accessible, I think," says Rejsek. "We, of course, get, from time time to time, some bad rap for singing in English. I am not going to claim my lyrics are verbal gems of any sort, but it works for me, in my own weird world, trying to be, with more or less success, understood." What's in a name? Lesni Zver's back home after a short tour of Mexico, anchored by a performance at Eurojazz, making them a Czech band singing in English for a Spanish-speaking audience. The gig came as something of a surprise. "We assumed they would go for something more classical, old-school jazzy. So we have to thank them for being quite open minded," says Lesni's Rejsek, who also plays with Voodooyoudo, another English-language Czech band. And as for the audience, it seemed "more open abroad actually than at home, maybe the aspect of being a foreign act comes into play, I dunno," he says. It was the band's first tour outside the European Union, save a handful of dates in Serbia and Romania. The Brno-band is essentially a trio — old hands on the new Czech alt scene. Keyboardist Jiri Hradil plays with the long-running rock-pop act Tata Bojs, and has put in time with Umakart, Kafka Band and Priessnitz. Rejse, late of Swordfishtrombones, provides "voice, sounds and echoes" in addition to being its lyricist. Drummer Martin Cech has played with Fru Fru, the Pavel Fajt project and Chorchestr. They usually add either Tomas Pavla or Marek Steyer on trumpet.
The sound? They call it Nu-jazz, admittedly vague, but a "starting point full of freedom and spontaneity that is not limited by any definition of it as genre, and lets us wildly exploit our imagination," says Rejsek. "Early on, when we started making music as a band, Eric Trouffaz" — a French jazz trumpeter known for incorporating hip-hop elements — "was a strong influence. His first two albums were a formative experience for the collective we emerged from. So it was kinda obvious to put ourselves on the same musical shelf."
Released in April on Indies Scope, Moveable Feasts is a different album from the band's eponymous debut — more song-oriented, less influenced by jazz, "nu" or otherwise. Poppier. There are no moody, introspective explorations like "Hostyn," no soulful, hipster ballads like "21st Century Blues," a shoutout to the Beats, contrasting "the same old blues" with "the brand new muse you cannot refuse" — a tune Tyden's Kocabek describes as what would happen if Steve Reich and Allen Ginsberg met and decided to play some blues. No sultry swing like "The Sun." "I like the idea of mixing, infecting elements from different cultures," says Rejsek. "We listen to a great variety of music, each of us having a slightly different taste, and I think what we share is openness towards music, although lately we've had little time to listen around to what is new." Hradil loves 19th- and 20th-century classical music — Dvorak, Janacek, but also Radiohead and John Cale. Rejsek is similarly scattered, falling in love with Cymbals, "and I am rediscovering late-'70's jazz, returning to the Jesus and Mary Chain." He writes almost exclusively in English, collecting pieces of stories, images, phrases, writing them down "when it pops up in my mind, wherever. When we jam or I get a track to figure out the vocal lines, I go look in my notes and find a line that fits and try to build up some lyrics on that," he says.
So OK, but a Czech band singing in English. Whatever. But why have a Czech name? "I imagine the name of the band looks and sounds weird for people outside the Czech Republic, but it feels right somehow," Rejsek says. "When we started, we accepted the name without much thinking, ‘Lesni Zver' being kind of a made-up idiom. A friend of ours started using forest animals as an image of a person with no haven, driven by outside forces, like working three jobs, providing for all your kids and families, trying to retain bits of sanity, being tough and fragile at the same time, seeing the beauty of the situation. Knowing you could not really have taken another path... I find it hard to provide a better explanation, although I feel there should be one."
Interestingly, the "most polarizing song" on Moveable Feasts, Lesni Zver's sophomore release with Indies Records, is "Jeste je co ztratit/There is still much to lose," not because it is the only Czech-language tune on it, but because it is so crushingly downbeat. "People either love or hate it," Rejsek says. The first time they performed it live was on Tecka patecni noci/Dot Friday Night, a music-interview show on Czech television. They were there as guests of Umakart, one of Hradil's side projects. Poet Jan Tesnohlidek was also on the show. "We were having a smoke during a break in the broadcast, and asked him to perform with us in one instrumental piece that we do. Instruments recorded live and his vocal done later. No rehearsing. Just the way it went. "There was no point in converting it into English," says Rejsek. "It has a raw power of his diction and voice, and the lyrics. It also has this retro feel to it, the way the instruments are blended and his voice sitting above — kinda like these late '60s-early '70s poetry and music things made in Czechoslovakia, the content being contrastingly existential and kinda depressing. Or it reminds me of some old wildlife documentary, that detached laid-back commentary kinda feel. Works perfect for me."