© 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.

Eastern Bloc Pop: the Wider Context

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.

Read On…

As I said, the list of high-profile names associated with Czech and Slovak pop goes on and on – helpfully disseminated (with a few quirky facts you never knew before) by my Top Ten Czech and Slovak Female Pop Stars of the ’60’s, ’70’s and early ’80’s: a Definitive Playlist – to follow!

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

Levoča's Indian Summer Festival ©David Conway

Levoča: In Full Swing During the Indian Summer Festival

As you journey east from the High Tatras, the next stop on the classic traveller’s route (before Bardejov and then Košice) is Levoča, one of Slovakia’s most striking medieval towns, with its historic centre a Unesco World Heritage Site. For this article, the founder of what is now one of the town’s foremost annual events, David Conway, explains exactly what inspired him to set up the Indian Summer Festival

It was in 1973 that I first laid eyes on Levoča, where my father-in-law Laci had taken me. My wife Nadia, at the time classified by the Czechs as a criminal illegal emigrant (having remained in London after the 1968 Russian invasion), was unable to be with us. What I experienced was an incredible sleeping beauty; an exquisite late-Gothic renaissance town almost perfectly preserved, seemingly untouched for centuries under a magic spell which had left it in shadow, despite its showcase architecture and setting within an exquisite Slovak landscape.

RELATED POST: Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

When I next visited Levoča (now with Nadia) in the 1990s, it was already picking itself up after Communism and beginning to restore and celebrate its unique heritage. The idea of taking part somehow took root and in 2003 we purchased and began to restore one of the town’s many merchant’s houses, with vast cellars dating to the 12th century, a vaulted hallway and staircase of the 16th century, and numerous wonderful features of carving and woodwork.

With our house renovated, Nadia began thinking about how we could attract others to this forgotten pearl of Central Europe. And the idea of a music festival arose. With the cooperation of the town, which has enabled us to utilise the magnificent 18th-century theatre and congress hall amongst other venues, we contacted our musician friends, or just barefacedly invited musicians we admired, buttonholing them after their concerts in London, Prague and elsewhere.

Amazingly, these brazen tactics worked, and thus ‘Indian Summer in Levoča’ (in Slovak ‘Levočské babie leto’) was born. Run on a not-for-profit basis through an NGO set up with our local friends, and with support from grants, patrons and visiting audiences to maintain standards and reputation, over the years we have had wonderful performances from artists including the Stamic and Zemlinsky quartets, the Vienna Piano Trio, the European Union Baroque Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber and many others. Amongst our ‘regulars’ – who have become local heroes to the townsfolk – are the charismatic Slovak cellist Jozef Lupták and the virtuoso British pianist, Jonathan Powell.

©David Conway

There have been some phenomenal renditions at the festival ©David Conway

At first I think the local people thought we were mad. But gradually they have come – first out of curiosity, and now out of devotion – to hear incredible music. A key aspect is that there is no prejudice on the part of the local audience; they respond according to the commitment of the performer, whether he or she is playing Schubert, Shostakovich, Brahms or Beethoven. And gradually we have attracted visitors from all over Europe and even America and Australia. The Gramophone magazine has called our festival ‘Europe’s best-kept secret’ – but now the word has begun to spread.

One of our chief delights has been programming the concerts – so as to ensure that we can introduce music we think people ought to hear, as well as the established concert classics. So you won’t just hear the great classics, but also, for example, in our 2016 festival, Xenakis, Sterndale Bennett, Dohnanyi, Busoni and other exciting-but-neglected music.

Of course we have not been without our crises – but here perhaps is not the place to discourse on the grand piano which was dropped by the removers, the pianist who had her passport lost in the Hungarian embassy in Washington three days before her concert with us, or the heroic efforts of the Levoča dustmen in getting yet another piano up several flights of stairs when the deliverers had forgotten their equipment…..

In 2016, our ninth year, we welcomed the Kodaly Quartet of Budapest, the young Israeli violist Avishai Chaimedes playing Mozart string quintets, Mark Viner, performing works by the astonishing virtuoso Charles-Valentin Alkan and Alkan’s friend Franz Liszt, and Jonathan Powell playing Mussorgsky’s original piano version of the monumental ‘Pictures from an Exhibition’. Danish tenor Jakob Vad and pianist Eisabeth Nielsen brought us music form England and Denmark, and we heard medieval Slovak choral music and works from Mendelssohn, Mozart and Boccherini to Bartók, Arensky and Prokofiev. The Festival closed with a performance of Schubert’s great B flat Piano Trio.

The Levoča Indian Summer Festival is informal, it’s fun, and it provides a great opportunity to visit one of Slovakia’s finest old towns after the summer tourist crowds have left but whilst the weather remains warm. You will hear great music and meet wonderful musicians, due to the festival’s intimate nature. That’s a key difference here: with other larger festivals, you can be so far away from the performers it almost feels like you’re watching them on a screen. Not here! So so come and join us for our festival in September 2017, which will be extra special because it will be a landmark tenth anniversary for us: and will hopefully attract many more unmissable performers to this relatively unknown pocket of Eastern Slovakia.

MAP LINK: (showing the main town theatre venue)

FESTIVAL WEBSITE: (2017 line-ups not yet available)

COST OF TICKETS:

GETTING THERE: The east of Slovakia benefits quite well from international flight connections these days: Poprad, 20 minutes to the west of Levoča via route E50, has 4 weekly flights to London Luton.

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Levoča, it’s 63km north to Stará Ľubovňa, home of Slovakia’s only whiskey distillery

 

Jana Kirschner ©Pavol Frešo

Why Jana Kirschner is Great for Slovak Music

It’s true. I did make some comments about Jana Kirschner being Slovakia’s Kate Bush which are, admittedly, a little previous. But what is undeniable is that the lady is a cornerstone of Slovak music today and, especially with her most recent work, is flying the flag for what is being achieved amongst contemporary musicians in the country.

I’ve seen Jana a couple of times live and realised recently that she has actually been making music almost twenty years. In this sense she really is the voice of post-Communist Slovakia – and it’s an incredible voice at that. And she’s kept that all-important connection with Slovakia by singing in Slovak, too – tapping into several Slovakian music traditions, and perhaps most interestingly the country’s incredible folk music. I personally love the change in her music since she’s been living in the UK and working with music producer Eddie Stevens.

The entrancing dancey folk of a song like Sama, from her 2013 album Moruša: Biela is a great contrast with some of her earlier, and perhaps more pop ballad, work. She’s a former Miss Slovakia finalist too: not bad for a country replete with absolutely gorgeous women:)

The clip above is from Krajina Rovina (Flat Country) (2010) with some beautiful shots of the Slovak countryside. Below: afore-mentioned Sama. Enjoy!

©Jonno Tranter

Trenčin: Pohoda – Thoughts (and Pictures!) on the 20th Edition of the Festival

Report By Jonno Tranter.

We arrived at Pohoda festival exhausted, dirty, and deprived of social interaction, having hiked all the way from Bratislava along one of Slovakia’s most beautiful long-distance trails. Fortunately, the festival was to provide the cure to all our woes. It seems that everyone here really loves this festival: it’s their baby. We were told by several folks that Pohoda’s relatively high entrance fee attracts only the crème de la crème of Slovakian people, and you won’t get anyone here who wants to rob you or start a fight. While this may seem a little smug, it’s true that everyone we met at Pohoda was incredibly warm and welcoming.

The festival is spread around Trenčín airport, where small planes still regularly use the airstrips just outside the festival grounds. While the area is very flat, the Biele Karpaty to the East and the Strážov Mountains to the west surround the festival, providing amazing scenery, especially for the sunsets and sunrises. We didn’t hear much English spoken at the festival, and it seemed that over 90% of the attendees there were Slovak or Czech, making it a great opportunity to meet locals.

Upon entering the festival we headed straight for the showers, and were pleasantly surprised to be offered free shampoo and shower gel – not something you would expect in the UK! The toilets also seemed to stay reasonably clean throughout the festival: in the UK that’s not so common, either.

Pohoda is really the perfect size. Walking from the main stage to the Orange Stage, at the other end of the festival, takes less than ten minutes, so it’s easy to catch all the acts you plan to see. There are eight stages in total, with many other tents offering a plethora of activities, from silent disco to roller blading, speed dating and tightrope walking. There’s plenty to keep the kids busy too, and the festival seemed very family-friendly. For the foodies, there’s a decent selection, catering to vegetarians and vegans, but also with plenty of Slovak and Czech options to choose from.

At night, Pohoda lights up, the kids go to bed, and the alcohol really begins to flow. Don’t expect cocktails and shots though, stalls and bars only sell beer, cider, and wine, apparently to minimise drunkenness and aggressiveness. Guests are permitted to bring their own, however, and anything in a plastic bottle will be good to go through security. The music carries on officially until 5am, but with the sun rise at about that time, you’ll find pockets of activity everywhere.

What really makes Pohoda stand out amongst a saturated European festival market is it’s lineup. On the Saturday night at what was the 20th Pohoda, we managed to catch James Blake, The Prodigy, Flying Lotus, and DJ Shadow, all in the space of about 4 hours. That’s a really incredible musical evening! Nevertheless, it seems that many guests aren’t too fussed about planning their night based on whom they want to see. A good few seem to trust the organiser, Michal Kaščák, and his team’s taste in music – enjoying wandering from stage to stage and discovering new talent along the way. The quality of the sound at Pohoda was also impressive, and Sigur Rós have since stated that the sound quality on the main stage was the best they’ve had during their whole tour.

Camping at Pohoda 2016 ©Jonno Tranter

Camping at Pohoda 2016 ©Jonno Tranter

The July heat does get to you at Pohoda, and you’ll see many sunburned people by the end of the day, so make sure to bring your sunscreen! Sleeping beyond 9 or 10 am is not really an option as you’ll be sweltering inside your tent, and there are no places to camp under the shade. However, this simply means that all Pohodans do what they do best during the day: chill. Pohoda means “relax” in Slovak and everyone seems to be happy finding a grassy spot to lie down in the shade, while making little escapades off for food and drink, and to sample the delights of the day.

With an amazing lineup, affordable prices, beautiful scenery, great weather, and a positive, relaxed atmosphere, Pohoda ranks amongst the best festivals in this part of the world. With flights to Bratislava so cheap from the UK, it’s a wonder there aren’t more Brits here. But shhh, don’t tell too many people, it’s perfect the way it is!

 

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: Slovakia’s best music festival in Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Go: A stunning castle near Trenčin

Places to Stay: Trenčin’s recently refurbished historic hotel

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

 

Jonno Tranter is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator who lives in Bristol, UK. In his spare time he likes to write, have adventures, and attend music festivals. This year, he decided to combine all three into an epic trip to Slovakia! Read more about him on his online portfolio.

Jonno hiked to Pohoda from Bratislava for this year's festival - an incredible feat being documented soon on this site! ©Jonno Tranter

Jonno hiked to Pohoda from Bratislava for the 2016 festival – an incredible feat now documented on this site! ©Jonno Tranter

The Pixies hit Pohoda in 2006 - Image by Jo Fjompenissedalheibakke

Trenčin: Pohoda!

Imagine it: a delightful medieval castle town in Western Slovakia with a buoyant arts scene on the cusp of where two of its main ranges of hills, the Malé Karpaty and the Biele Karpaty, come together. The town in question is Trenčin, the quirkiest parts of which are going to get a lot of publicity on this site – and indeed already do. Here (well actually just outside, on the old airport, which boasts great views of said hills) every July, Pohoda, one of Europe’s greatest music festivals is held.

Pohoda was celebrating its 20th year in 2016, and it’s important people realise what that means.

After Slovakia became an independent nation in 1993, this festival really helped put Slovak music and culture on the map. Founder Michal Kaščak started Pohoda when no one knew anything about the country except during the time when it had “Czecho” at the front of it. He started it when times musically in Slovakia were fairly sterile and he built it up into a festival which is at least as important in Central/Eastern Europe as Glastonbury is in the UK: and it is now the biggest and best music extravaganza in this part of the continent, with rock to dance to classical to folk to electronic all (and always) represented with panache.

That’s really no exaggeration:  acts such as the Prodigy, Gogol Bordello, Roots Manuva and Nick Cave helped establish Pohoda as a fixture on the calendar of Europe’s coolest festivals during the last decade. It’s not just international acts: lots of Czech and Slovak groups (the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra are always astounding when they come on) feature annually too and often wind up being the most incredible surprises of the entire weekend. And it’s not just the music, either: it’s also an advert for Slovakia’s alternative foodie scene, and a mouthpiece for many voices in Slovakia that rarely get heard from environmental to human rights groups. As far as the music is concerned, funny we should mention those first two acts. Because for the 20th edition of this party, the Prodigy and Gogol Bordello returned to Pohoda! Meaning 2016 had one of the best festival line-ups thus far – and paved the way for even greater line-ups in the future!

Anyway, Pohoda is no longer just in the category of annual event. It’s in the category of institution! And it’s thoroughly worth using it as a reason to visit Trenčin and this corner of Slovakia. On this site, we’ve already got a bunch of content to help you with your visit to Trenčin!

A Quick Guide to the Other Content We Have on Trenčin:

Places to Go: a stunning castle just outside Trenčin

Places to Go: Hiking up in the hills above Trenčin all the way to Bratislava (the Cesta Hrdinov SNP, Stage Two)

Places to Stay: the coolest hotel in Trenčin

Places to Eat & Drink: One of Slovakia’s Finest Restaurants in central Trenčin

Arts & Culture: Celebrating 20 Years of the Pohoda Music Festival

Top Ten Medieval Towns in Slovakia

For full updates on the lineup go to the Pohoda site. For the 20th anniversary festival in 2016, do check this exciting festival report: 2017 dates are 6th-8th July and ticket prices are 89 Euros

Marek Brezovsky & Hrana

Ladies and gents… end of the day or start of the day = time for music, and as we’re all about Slovakia on this blog it’s time to introduce you to one of Slovakia’s all-time greatest musicians – if you haven’t already heard of him. This is Marek Brezovský. The variety and imagination in his compositions was already huge when he died from a heroine overdose aged 20. Those in the know put him at least on a par with Kurt Cobain in terms of his talent – and not just because of his untimely death from drugs in the same year. I’ve owned Hrana (a posthumous compilation of Brezovský’s recordings, with plenty of his bizarre and slightly disturbed artwork on the cover) for a while now but never realised the whole album was available on Youtube. So here we are: bleak but beautiful… anyone else detect echoes of the Cure in there??