© Christopher Bentley

Go East: the Sensual Sounds (and Sights!) of Female-led Czech and Slovak Pop From the ’60’s to the ’80’s

We’re all about niche on this site, and one of my greatest pleasures over the last year or two has been finding out just how many people have something fascinating to say about Slovak culture past and present. Today we have the first of two articles by Czech and Slovak pop music expert Christopher Bentley on why he loves the genre and its lasting importance.

 

LET US START this post by making two statements and then pulling them together.

1: If one is interested in Pop Music-related travel, and wants to do it outside of the UK, one would probably, more than likely, head west to the States.

2: One of the reasons that ‘Englishman In Slovakia’ readers are probably visiting this site is to get the low-down on where might be worth visiting in the country.

With regards to the first, what you are about to read will make you think of doing the exact opposite of what the Pet Shop Boys suggest and go not west but very much east.

With regards to the second, what you are about to read will make you think of a way of travelling that has probably never occurred to you.

So how about travelling eastwards to Slovakia in particular, alongside other parts of the former Eastern Bloc… for Pop Music-related travel?

You may well, at this point, be thinking that a suggestion like this amounts to losing one’s marbles. And if you were to go back about two years in my life I might have thought exactly the same…

A Strange Journey to the Centre of the Slovak Music Scene

That was until, about this time of year in 2015, at a course I was attending to improve my employability skills, the careers advisor, knowing my interest in Modern Foreign Languages, said something to the order of “Chris, if you’re interested in careers using languages have you ever considered Eastern European languages? There’s a real future in that.”

I did start to consider it: not only Eastern European languages but the culture of the region that inevitably goes hand in hand. I started to consider it a lot.

Marcela Laiferová - image ©Christopher Bentley

Marcela Laiferová – photographer unknown

Over the years since then, I have dipped back into things ‘Carene Cheryl’ but January 2015 represented the fortieth anniversary of the release of her first single. The anniversaries of such musicians trigger particular flurries of interest in them, and certainly reignited mine in her. I discovered an article from a French youth culture magazine, written in July 1976, headlined ‘Pourquoi Londres veut nous voler Carene Cheryl’ (‘Why London wants to steal Carene Cheryl from us’). Why would London want to steal Carene Cheryl from France? Well. There was a paucity of female Pop Stars in the UK at the time, according to the article: and after the ‘Glory Days’ of the 1960s the UK was desperate to make a few ‘imports’, mostly from France. The article had a point. It made me think about female Pop of that era on the European Continental Mainland in general. Even as someone reasonably well versed in the era’s pop music, I soon realised that here was a huge gap in my knowledge. There might have been little of note happening in late ’60’s to early ’80’s UK female-led pop. But elsewhere in Europe big things were happening: and in Communist-era Czechoslovakia in particular.

 

The Pop scene in the UK of the time (the relatively dire state of the female side notwithstanding) was also characterised by fun in the teeth of hard times. The likes of Bubblegum Pop, Pop-Soul, Ska/Reggae, Glam Pop and Glam Rock lit up the gloom of industrial and social strife, an increasingly troubled economy, fuel crises and the Northern Irish ‘Troubles’. Thus, in a way, when we get tremendously nostalgic for the era’s pop music, we perhaps know all too well the enjoyment it evokes has another darker side: the wider milieu it inhabited and the escape from it that the music provided.

If we thought we were going through hard times, though, we should have taken a look (if only that had been possible!) behind the Iron Curtain.

1968: the ‘Pražské jaro’ (‘Prague Spring’) and the invasion by the Russians that brought Communism with a Human Face under Dubček (1963-68) to an end, and caused Communism generally in Eastern Europe to be viewed in a rather more negative light abroad. I was seven at the time: first becoming conscious of world events and first becoming conscious of the music scene. Words cannot describe the heartbreak that a just-turned-seven-year-old felt for the people on the streets of Prague, and that has never left me: that sense of “just when things could have continued getting so much better, they got a whole lot worse’. But music, even within the sudden intense restrictions placed on people’s freedoms across the Eastern Bloc (and particularly in Czechoslovakia which had been seen by the Soviets as a bastion of Capitalist influence) still, as in the UK, found a way of fighting back.

Although, at that time, song lyrics were subject to some very close scrutiny from the authorities and the Pop scene had to be ultra-careful about what it was saying, maybe the essential spiritedness of the music was the only way in which the youth of the Eastern Bloc could fight back and stay sane.

VC_and_JZ_cropped

Find out where this picture of Valérie Čižmárová was taken in our Top Ten Czechoslovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: A Definitive Playlist (next up on www.englishmaninslovakia.co.uk)

And it was the female Pop from the post-Invasion clampdown of ‘Normalizace’ (‘Normalisation’) that particularly charmed me. The list of names seemed endless. There were several important song festivals and contests of the former Eastern Bloc which could be seen as spawning grounds for the talent that emerged, including Czechoslovakia’s Bratislavská Lýra (Bratislava Lyre) and Děčínská Kotva (Děčín Anchor). Then there was the sultry intrigue of the artists themselves. There was the very Sexy Star of Hungarian Disco, Judit(-h) Szűcs! There was Czech artist Hana Zagorová heralding from the suburb of Petřkovice in Ostrava and her memorable performance on ‘Písničky z kabinetu’ (‘Songs From The Cabinet’), where the video opens with the camera panning up Hana’s incredibly attractive legs! Attention always seems to focus on the ‘Czech’ part of Czechoslovakia which naturally made me angle for artists from the Slovak portion of the country, and to add on to this seductive list, I discovered blonde bombshell Valérie Čižmárová, born like one Andy Warhol in Michalovce and perhaps the most iconic singer not just of the Eastern Bloc but perhaps in the whole world anywhere at that time…

Many of my own early experiences with Eastern Bloc pop from this period was the covers of material of Western origin but their own tune-making was highly impressive too: not to mention the superb orchestras, accompanying groups and backing vocalists that made this a period of music as rich as other aspects of the Eastern Bloc were deprived.

The Top Six of Czech and Slovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: a Definitive Playlist

As I said, the list of high-profile names associated with Czech and Slovak pop goes on and on – helpfully disseminated by this best-of playlist:

6: Marcela Laiferová (1945-) Sometimes known as the ‘first lady of Slovakia’ because she was the first major star to ever sing in Slovak

5: Eva Sepešiová (1946-) Eva was from Košice

4: Eva Kostolányiová  (1942-1975) Eva was born in Trnava and died, tragically early on in her life, in Bratislava

3: Jana Kocianová (1946-) Go to see her grave in the pilgrimage town (and her birthplace) of Šaštín-Stráže 

2: Helena Blehárová (1943-) Helena was born in Žilina

1: Valérie Čižmárová(1952-2005) Valérie hails from the Michalovce region just like Andy Warhol

Christopher Bentley keeps two blogs dedicated to the music scene described in this article. Girls of the Golden East focuses generally on what can be termed a ‘golden age’ in Czechoslovak pop music (the last 1960’s through to the early 1980’s). Bananas for Breakfast is a fan blog focusing specifically on Valérie Čižmárová.

RELATED POST: Noughties Slovak Pop: Why Jana Kirschner is Great for Slovak Music

Slnko v svieti (The Sun in a Net)

“Sometimes you have to take a dark path” muses the main character in The Sun In A Net at one of the film’s most profoundly prophetic moments when he and two colleagues are seen silhouetted against a forest in the setting sun, stealing wood to fix broken farm machinery. And indeed, this movie takes you to some dark moments in Slovak history.

Czechoslovakia in the 1960s a few years before the Prague Spring: angry youth, resigned and embittered old-timers, love and its anything-but-smooth path, and a mysterious fisherman on a decrepit boat on the Danube.

Change is in the air, but in The Sun In A Net, that change never really comes.

The movie is thus a melancholic one – and with its out-of-the-blue scene changes and almost eerie background sound repetitions of the clank of trams or the experimental tinkering on a flute by someone with little talent for the instrument, a consciously disjointed one. But its cast of characters are so poetical, so philosophical, so whimsical that one cannot help falling in love with it. In these two respects – the occasionally unnerving disjointedness and the lovable protagonists which have to ‘make do’ with operating in such a world – The Sun In A Net combines two hallmarks of Slovak film-making. Yet in the revolutionary way it goes about this, the movie is in a class of its own.

At the beginning the rebellious undertones of the film are sown when we see Fayolo, the teenage main character, standing alone on a Bratislava housing estate rooftop cluttered with aerials, scoffing at the propaganda issuing from the radio. Fayolo is a typically ‘angry young man’, a talented photographer with a passion for unusual shots, an individual in an era when individuality was not highly prized. Bela, his love interest, enters next, enthusiastically talking about the impending eclipse, but Fayolo is wary of the good things in life, Bela included. The film develops a device for dealing with his most contemplative moments (and there are plenty) by freezing the subject of his thoughts whilst his own internal voice continues on, invariably negatively.

The eclipse viewing is an anti-climax. It’s cloudy. On the rooftop, Fayolo and Bela argue (Fayolo’s moroseness is the cause). In Bela’s family’s apartment, her blind mother asks Bela’s younger brother to describe to her the colours in the sky.

The sadness is so profound (Bela’s mother’s suffering, Bela’s brother’s frustration at feeling neglected by the almost-always absent father, the fact that even by the standards of black-and-white movies this one is shot in a particularly murky manner and colour of any description seems very far away at this point). In fact, things are awful. “It’s so awful that things are like this” Bela’s father proclaims grimly in one of his few appearances. “This is awful” Bela complains to Fayolo as they eclipse-watch. Fayolo mocks the crowds gathered on the streets below to see the spectacle of the ‘black sun show’: “wait another twenty years: it might not be so cloudy then.”

Soon after Fayolo and Bela fall out despite their clear admiration of the other, Fayolo’s father, a ‘party’ man tells Fayolo he needs to go away to work for the summer, a decision Fayolo feels has been made so that his father looks good (and if there is one thing Fayolo loathes it is keeping up appearances). But go away Fayolo does – to help with the harvest in rural Melanany (a fictitious place). And in their frustration at not being able to communicate with each other, not even when they are together and certainly not now they are being forced apart, Fayolo (with buxom harvest worker Jana) and Bela (with shallow philanderer Peto) are tempted in different directions. Fayolo nevertheless writes Bela a love letter during his month on the harvesting ‘holiday’ which Bela mockingly reads to Peto. Fayolo, for his part, starts thinking about Jana a fair bit more and Bela a fair bit less. The question is whether either Fayolo or Bela will realise they have made a mistake in time…

But besides Bratislava, portrayed as a cityscape of darkness and confusion, and the light, sunny, simplistic setting of Melanany, The Sun In A Net focuses on a third world – one that initially seems so removed from the other two it is almost as if its scenes have been spliced on from another film entirely. What soon becomes apparent, however, is that this world is a touchstone for the main characters that none appreciate until it is too late.

And that world is the Danube – or more specifically, a ragtag old boat and the fisherman and his wife that live aboard. The boat and its elderly owners soon assume the role of moral barometer in the movie – the set of constants anchored amidst the uncertainty. Here are highlighted goodness (Fayolo befriends the couple and they allow him to take their photos, which he then brings for them to decorate the vessel with), badness (as later when Peto brings Bela there and the couple are far less welcoming, for Peto has disrespected the boat by playing music loudly and trying to seduce Bela upon it) and loss (as when Bela’s mother stands beside the boat once it is beached and forgotten and recollects that for her too, many things are finished for good).

Indeed, in the very last scene, as in the very first (when we briefly see birds’ eggs lying in the shallows, and think, at the time, that this is artistic, but otherwise unconnected to anything else), it is the timeless world of the river that comes to the fore. For Bela and her family, it represents a chance to seize upon the positives, perhaps, when they glimpse the sun framed in a moment of beauty between the now-abandoned nets of the old fisherman. Fayolo, brooding once again amidst the rooftop aerials, realises from afar that the river is the place he should be.

How did Fayolo’s month away change him? How did Bela change in his absence? Do all the answers lie in the river? Does any of it actually really matter? As the old fisherman at one point wisely observes, regardless “the Danube will flow on.”

As for The Sun In A Net, perhaps its main character, proclaimed “a jerk” or “a poet” by others, does ensure the film sparkles with a certain moody poetry. It captures the age of the ‘drustvo’ or Communist farm collective, especially, in seminal style. But the first-time viewer will be surprised most of all by how old this movie is. Štefan Uher made this in 1962. But the film feels much more modern, particularly when you consider the censorship of Czechoslovakia at the time. It is bravely controversial, simmering with sex, pioneering in its techniques. And it is absolutely essential viewing for anyone who wishes to understand Slovak cinema. Because it is one of the country’s most ground-breaking films ever.