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The "Grand Tradition" of Czech Music

There is a saying that "every Czech is a musician." To many this is a holy truth, though it is probably an idea that gained popularity as a national myth in the nineteenth-century. If you asked a generic tourist in Prague, "Who is the most famous and popular Czech musician?" they would likely answer, "Smetana" or perhaps "Dvořák." Indeed, anyone who has visited Prague lately will no doubt notice that the city's tourist industry is trying to rival Vienna's transcendent Mozart. But these greats aren't what really sells to the Czechs. So, what are we hearing in Brno? Let's see.

While Smetana and Dvořák may be pinnacles of Czech musical accomplishment and important national musical figures, they were disadvantaged during the Communist period by their association with upper crust culture and their bourgeois sounds. It is, after all, difficult to make a case for the orchestra as a natural outgrowth of working class culture (though the case can be made). But the Communists had a ready solution to this problem. The answer—the dechovka, or "cute little wind band"—was rooted in the nineteenth-century military band tradition and their manifestation as small-town brass bands in the twentieth century. These groups were ready in the wings to take center stage in Czech music. Such groups dominated the radio waves during the 1960s and 1970s, and they were victorious in the Communist battle against evil underground musics like jazz, rock, and bluegrass that were products of diseased intellectual minds.

It seems that critics expected this sort of thing to die out after the Communists lost power in 1989. After all, the politicians had funded these sorts of musical ensembles and it was thought to be ideologically corrupted. On the contrary, however, the music is more popular than ever and occupies a significant amount of time on today's radio waves. One explanatory theory, which must be based on Romantic ideals of nineteenth-century song collectors and their cohort, was quoted recently in an article on dechovka by Marek Kerles for the newspaper Lidové noviny: "Dechovka comes from folk songs that are deeply rooted in us, though sometimes we fight them fiercely during our youth," said Karel Peterka, a music publisher. "What's more, my personal opinion and experience tell me that we somehow unconsciously realize that when Grandpa and Grandma put on the dechovka, it made the home more comfortable," he continues.

As you might imagine, feelings still run high about dechovka music. Sound quality is rarely the primary concern, rather enjoyment and sociability. Those who like dechovka could probably care less about those who don't, but those who don't are often in the younger or middle-aged generation who currently holds more sway in the media because of it is a larger segment of purchasing power. Those who detract from dechovka music say it's nothing but "oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah." Yet this does not change the fact that the music attracts more listeners than any other style or genre on the Czech market.

What Czech group sells the most records? Not Čechomor or Iva Bittová, not even Karel Gott. No, a duo called "Eva and Vašek," who play dechovka music as a duo with electronic keyboards ("dance music" as they call it). This is the kind of group that is popular for little community gatherings or small weddings, and E+V are only the most famous example of a battalion of such bands across the Czech Republic. And while TV producers say that the older, "50-plus" generation that largely listens to dechovka is not a significant market force, it seems that E+V have built up their impressive sales largely through telemarketing, another happy byproduct of the neo-capitalist era.

Eva and Vašek's dechovka-style music is embarrassingly popular to many Czechs who do not think that the group's style helps their country's image. They may be right, but the fact is that few tourist visitors, who rarely get outside of Prague, will ever hear or see the group. Still, the duo, according to LN, "is the most successful musical group in the [Czech] Republic from the standpoint of record sales." Pavel Bodiš, a representative of the Czech office of IFPI (the legal strongarming association representing the recording industry), told LN that "no pop or rock star has even a chance of competing with Eva and Vašek today in the Czech Republic." E+V's recent boxed set Komplet ("Complete") contains eight CDs and one DVD and has already sold 30,000 copies. Thus, says Bodiš, the band has sold over 240,000 records with one title, which far outsells the 40,000 to 50,000 average for top Czech albums. Although Eva and Vašek have not yet outmaneuvered Karel Gott to receive the Czech "Golden sparrow" music industry award, they have garnered a total of 17 gold and 6 platinum discs out of a the total 117 albums they've released.

So, without further ado, I give you Eva and Vašek in their own words (and music). Here is a selective translation from a recent "online interview" with E+V done by Lidové noviny (as published in LN of 28 December 2006, p. 9):
Q: If someone thinks that we're going to sing Aneta Langerová [a winner of the Czech version of "American" Idol] on the way home from the pub, they're mistaken! Unfortunately, young people don't know the national songs anymore, which is a result of the snobbish media being broadcast from Prague

E+V: I agree, the whole world is hanging on to its folk traditions, and those are nothing to be ashamed of. Later, when we play something and young people want to sing, they'll see that they don't know anything.

Q: Do you think that your songs are kitsch? Can you give an example of what you consider to be kitschy?

E+V: Kitsch is something different for each and every person. For songs, the most important thing to consider why the author wrote them. It's possible to feel this in the song and it's encoded in it. If a singer does not understand this, then certain songs may come across as kitsch from some people, but from others it will be a message.

Q: Do you intend to add any of my favorites—the Detroit MC5—to your program in the future?

E+V: We are for everything that speaks to us. The important thing is the content of the text. The melody is automatically good if it fulfills this first condition. Send it to us and we'll let you know if it's interesting music.

Q: Could I request you for a private party for a few friends?

E+V: Yes, first it's necessary to find a free date. The price for 2007 is CZK 30,000 [a little more than USD 1,500], and then we only need an outlet with 230 volts and a bit of free space, about 2.5x1.5 meters.

Q: Can you tell us how you do it?

E+V: There's nothing to tell, everybody does it the way that they feel it.

So there you have it, just a few dollars, a bit of empty space, an outlet, and you could have your own Czech dance party. But in case you can't swing it right away, never fear. Via the wonder of YouTube, you can see E+V for yourself. Here they are with their hit, "Cappucino."

Happy listening! And remember, every Czech is not just a musician but also a dancer.

*Musicologists may claim that nationalism has been a strong connecting thread through much European classical music. However, this seems to ignore a majority of music (i.e., what most people are listening to) and, as seems to be demonstrated here, downplays the true master narrative of Czech music: cheesy settings of sentimental popular folk songs.

Photos respectfully used from a performance of E+V at the Městské muzeum Chotěboř.

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Blogger Karla said . . .

The song itself isn't so bad, and Eva has a pleasant voice, but the electric piano is no substitute for a real dechovka! It's nice to see people of all ages enjoying the same dance music, but this is definitely watered-down pap.

Not that that's specifically a Czech affliction. There was a time when most European pop music seemed to fall into this general category, which was one reason it didn't tend to travel far. I still don't get how Abba crossed into the American market, though in part I guess their instrumentation was a little better.    

3:14 PM, January 28, 2007

Blogger Pavel said . . .

Thank you.
But this is not dechovka!    

3:17 PM, January 28, 2007

Blogger morskyjezek said . . .

True, E+V are not actually a dechovka. There are no wind instruments. E+V apparently dub their style "dancing music" (though it's hard to imagine most of it being "good" dancing music). However, it's possible to connect the two genres due to an overlap in purpose and repertory. That is, they play many of the same sorts of popularized folk songs that a dechovka would (not, alas, in the clip) and they like it when people dance. I'm not exactly sure how the accordion fits in, but I do see the small accordion ensemble having a connection and I am sure there is a link, probably because in many cases an accordion was a cheaper alternative to a larger group. In any case, dechovka and E+V occupy about the same niche in genre.

Abba is, of course, popular in the CR too, and I hope that they outsell E+V. I'm afraid I don't hear much of a musical connection between the two, though. They market themselves to, and attract, quite different audiences.

It would be funny, though, if E+V were chosen as the Czechs' first Eurovision entry. Haha.    

4:51 PM, January 28, 2007

Blogger tuckova said . . .

I can believe that E+V are the best-selling Czech GROUP but perhaps not the best-selling Czech MUSICIAN. I can believe that they outsell Cechomor and even Monkey Business, but I think that Nohavica and Gott (as solo artists, not groups) rake in piles more than E+V, even if you don't count Nohavica's latest, which wasn't really "best-selling" as it was free. Right?    

10:39 AM, February 01, 2007

Blogger Hubert said . . .

Wow that was intense, thanks!    

6:56 PM, March 01, 2007

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