Nukes or Ukes?

31 January 2007
In the unfolding story of central European missile defense bases, there has been growing attention. Just to give a bit of an update and a wider perspective than my own rather limited musician's view, here are two short updates.

The US-led effort has been noticed by Russia, writes Vilhelm Konnander. The plan is not so popular with Eurocrats and Russia says it sees the plans as a move against Russia rather than Iran. Konnander notes, "What stands out as perhaps the most peculiar part of Washintgton's proposal is how the Republican administration has revived one of its pet projects of the 1980s." His comments follow a Washington Post article about the Russian response. From CTK Czech News Agency via the Prague Monitor, there is news that the Czech government will inform parliament about the situation today.

Elsewhere in central Europe, beware the growing Uke-domination, which seems to be emanating from upper Austria. (And I was worried about missile defense systems?!) If you think it sounds harmless, then watch this clip! ;-)

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Shawarma in Brno

Excitement grows as the Brno English-language blogosphere expands!

Yesterday I discovered Swobodin's blog about Brno. Not only was it fun to read, but he pointed out a little Middle Eastern bistro (an alternative to the Asian bistros) that he says has good Shawarma. Too bad he doesn't give us the exact location, but you can find it by walking around in the historical center:
Amazing! The thing I expected the least in this city was finding my favorite fast food: Shawarma!
I was planning to have a lunch at one of the many Vietnamese restaurants in the main station and around the center of the city, but a Czech friend strongly discouraged me. . . [I] unexpectedly found that small yet clean restaurant owned by an Iraqi. (More)

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Folklore Tourism

29 January 2007
In 1972, the editors of the Fodor's Czechoslovakia guide (pub. Hodder and Stoughton) recommended the folk festival in Strážnice:
The largest and most ecumenical festival [of those in Czechoslovakia] is that at Strážnice, in which folk dance ensembles from the entire country participate. So if you have only one choice, pick this one. Here you will hear folk music from all over Czechoslovakia (some of which you can’t even get on records), and watch a panorama of Czech and Slovak folk dancing you won’t see anywhere else. The bright, colorful costumes, the flash of gay embroidery, the stomp of dancing feet and the shrieks of laughter create an unforgettable picture. (p. 89)

The festival is still quite active, as I found out last summer. However, most of the activity happens at night—wine drinking, loud singing, endless folk songs played by pickup groups and professionals. It’s quite an experience. And apparently, it was so even in the post-1969 period. Why was Fodor's encouraging Westerners to travel in eastern Europe at that time? "We believe it is precisely because of the trials [Czechoslovakia] is experiencing that a visit . . . is most timely. The country needs compassionate visitors right now."

The 2007 festival will be held from 21 to 24 June on the grounds of the chateau in Strážnice, under the auspices of the National Institute for Folk Culture (click here for their English page).

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The "Grand Tradition" of Czech Music

27 January 2007
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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No Nukes II

26 January 2007
Well, looks like we're now on the front of a reheating arms buildup. Economist Ann Markusen talked about the "Rise of the Gunbelt" not too long ago, and I hope that we're not now seeing a renewed "Arming of the Missile Launchers" in Europe. (I heard a speech from a rich European businessman who had it that war's been permanently eradicated from Europe, but let's be a bit more pragmatic, shall we?) A while back I mentioned the rumors of American intentions for missile bases in central Europe. Proposed radar stations around the Czech Republic may be a forerunner of the new silent arms race. According to a story today at Radio Prague,
The proposed radar installation is just one component of a missile defense plan that would also include anti-missile defense rockets, possibly to be located in Poland. While the Czech government has indicated its willingness to negotiate with the United States, opinion polls show that the plan is controversial among Czechs. It's thought the base could create jobs, but many fear that it could also make the country a target for attacks by America's enemies.

Hang on to your hats, people, or should I say don your tinfoil helmets and crawl under your desks? According to a May 2006 article in the NYTimes, this is probably part of a plan to build an antimissile defense shield around Iran. It seems like this all should be an issue of wider concern, not just in the Czech press, but I've heard little about it. This may be a little tiff in a minor European country, but the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has moved its Doomsday Clock ahead recently (once for growing arms danger in the Middle east and again for dangers of climate change), and the clock now stands at five minutes to midnight. Of the immediate problem near Brno, Sergei Ivanov (Russian defense minister) suggested in May 2006 that an antimissile site in Poland would have a "negative impact on the whole euro-Atlantic security system," and moreover, "the choice of location for the deployment of those systems is dubious, to put it mildly."

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To je Škoda

18 January 2007

Apparently Škoda had a good 2006, and production is up 12.5%. Good news for the Czech economy, but could it mean even more? Reports indicate that it may inspire a certain reclusive Czech author, says Davey G. Johnson at Jalopnik:
Somewhere in Paris, Milan Kundera is dreaming up a story of two forlorn, lovelorn Beethoven-consumed factory workers who respectively install valvestems on Fabias and steering-column stalks on Octavias, obsessing over Stalin and feminine scents while dreaming of a Black Sea road-trip vacation in a Felicia Fun with only a pirated cassingle of the Shins' "Phantom Limb" stuck in the tape deck and a Vaclav Havel anthology to keep them company. (More)

Good news for us here in the "City of Laughter and Forgetting"?

If you like that, and you're into Eastern European cars and humor, czech out their other "Fun" posts. And in case you laugh so hard that you're in need of a toilet, I hope that you're in Budapest, where relief is never far away when you're having fun. You may remember that I was in love with another, but to the eye of true love it was a mere passing fancy and now I so want an El Trabino.

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Oh, right, we have that too

17 January 2007
You may think that Brno is out of the way, that it doesn't have to face the problems that larger and more famous cities do. That is usually true, but it has at least one problem in common with Budapest: the dog poo. (It's too bad that Brno doesn't have more in common with Budapest, perhaps, like more music performances!) But dog poo is a problem all over European sidewalks, even in Poland, and has been for a long while.

Some Czechs created helpful signage to get the message across that some pedestrians don't like the poo decor. But perhaps the "shit garden" is a better place because, once spring comes around again, that crap is going to be popping up everywhere (particularly on the bottom of shoes where it will be smooshed and not shattered into icy bits).

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Still a Longshot

11 January 2007
Still without a government in the Czech Republic, and it seems unlikely any time soon. Trams are still running in Brno, and generally things seem to be holding together just fine. It doesn't seem that it would be much of a problem if the president and MPs just went home, but it's too bad that other people are throwing in the towel.

The oldest resident of the Czech Republic, aged 108, wondered what the holdup is. She told reporters, "I can't understand what is taking them so long."

I just say, with a bit of typical self deference, "Government? Ha, that's been a mistake like Brno since the whole thing began." (One saying, I've been told, no doubt started by jealous Praguers, is to compare anything you don't like to a "mistake like Brno," in other words implying that Brno was not worth it to begin with. Perhaps someday I'll have a better explanation for this little quip.)

**NvB Update: Anonymous commenter chimes in that the saying about Brno indicates that something is "big" rather than "bad." And I guess, relatively speaking, that Brno is pretty "big" for a "small" city.**

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To Fly, You Only Need Wings

09 January 2007
It's not what you think: I can't tell my airline story yet. Plus, everybody's got one of them. They could be like excuses not to blog. This post is a time machine.

It is the 1990s. Václav Klaus, the survivor (otherwise known as "career politician") of Czech politics has just visited Egypt. Pictures of Klaus on the back of a camel in front of the pyramids adorn the press. The magazine Transition captioned their photo:
CAMELS FROM MOSQUITOES? – Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus called charges that his wife's appointment to a company board was a possible conflict of interest "making a mountain out of a molehill" – or, in Czech, "making a camel out of a mosquito."

From Transition, 15 March 1995 (vol. 1, no. 3), p. 38.

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Šťastný nový rok

03 January 2007
Happy and prosperous new year to all! NvB is still writing after a safe and sound arrival on the homeside of the pond. (The journey wasn't so bad except for the lavatories on the 747, the lines at ORD, and the Becherovka, but maybe I'll tell that story some other time. In a nutshell, I don't recommend flying from Europe to North America on United.)

It seems that I've been drawn into a blog meme by Brian:

Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.

. . . "Who controls the means of production?"

"How you have the little formulas," he cried at me. "But to change mankind. How're you going to do that? It's the bureaucrat you despise who's got the job."

Barbary Shore (1951) by Norman Mailer.*

Tagging Alex, Joe, and Karla.

P.S. - I'm planning to continue NvB, albeit at a reduced pace, while I pick up the pace on my dissertation work. But if I'm too slow for you, don’t hesitate to contact me by email. Or, if you need your fix of Czech news, follow one of the links on the right-hand sidebar. Along those lines, you might peruse the Prague Monitor online, a source of English-language Czech news. In spite of its slightly Prague-o-centric title, you will find fresh news and views there while NvB continues to provide the off-center commentary from the Moravian lowlands.

*Nothing wrong with starting the year with a Cold War novel and idealist Marxism. But speaking of the means of production, I was surprised to find out that Mailer is alive and (this is the surprising part) blogging! He contributed a few times to the Huffington Post a while back. It's rumored that he'll have a new novel out this month.