Archive | December, 2011

Marta Kubišová : Ne (Trezor, 1969/1990)

18 Dec

Not surprisingly, this most joyous of protest songs was quickly withdrawn in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 when it was first recorded by a woman who was already the most popular female artist in the country, standing on the cusp of an international career that was terminated with a 20-year ban on performing and recording implemented (after just over a year of increasingly prominent and vocal opposition to ‘normalisation’ from Kubišová herself) in early 1970. Thereafter, she worked in all kinds of menial and clerical jobs to support herself, aided at times by former colleagues and friends, and was, alongside her friend Vaclav Havel, one of the first signatories of the Charter 77 document catalysed by the arrest of rock band The Plastic People of the Universe. Hearing the news of Havel’s death today, it seems far better to celebrate the defiance he represented – as expressed by Kubišová – than to mourn his passing. When dissidents like him began, shaped by the thaw of the Dubček era, they couldn’t have known how the story of their country would unfold: and standing at the end of 2011, with our own supposedly free markets displaying all the same arrogance, stupidity and willingness to repress democratic accountability as their sclerotic Communist forebears in 1968, it seems the best way to celebrate Vaclav Havel’s life is to continue the questioning and resistance it represented. Marta Kubišová’s Ne finally reappeared on the uncensored version of her 1969 Songy a Balady LP released on the Trezor label in 1990, and the song can be heard here.

Ne (No)

(after Otakar Petrina/Zdenek Rytir, 1969)

I’d buy all the Pacific, and the other seas besides,
with storms and hurricanes scattered here and there.
I’d build a house on the deepest ocean’s floor
if it meant I’d be clear of this country’s shores
where fear rules and false accusations are bold.
Does anyone here want to live in that world?


I’d buy spring sky and the beauty of all its stars,
with wind sometimes, on its journey home.
I’d build my castle walls on a foundation of clouds
and hope by some miracle it wouldn’t fall.
This country is ruled by fear, kills innocence.
Would anyone here want to return to this?


But I’d find the sea lanes are guarded by warships,
carrying tons and kilos of bullets and bombs.
If I went under, deeper, submarines would plunge
and soon find my home in the water-caves.
In the sky are airplanes and satellites, as you know –
is there anywhere, then, where I might go?


So we’re all caged here, and keep ourselves quiet,
but might sail out, sometimes, under camouflage.
Should we be grateful that we’re granted permission to live?
That if we just say nothing, we’ll be left in peace?
Fear rules this place, false accusations grow bold.
Does anyone here want to remain in this world?



Prúdy: Čierna ruža (Supraphon, 1968)

13 Dec

There’s a pronounced fairytale feel to this 1968 song by the Slovak progressive rock band Prúdy (the group’s name means ‘streams’ or ‘currents’). They initially formed in 1962, around the nucleus of Pavol Hammel and Marián Varga, but made their name with their debut LP release, Zvoňte zvonky (The Bells Ring) in 1969. Zvoňte zvonky is a record that bridges between influences from classical music and the thriving pop, beat and psychedelic rock idioms of its own particular moment. Čierna ruža (Black Rose) was released as a single in 1968 and later featured as that now classic album’s final song and carries many of its distinctive characteristics, not least a prominent role for piano and strings, a tendency to abruptly change mood and tempo (in this case, from a timeless feel in the verses to extended passages of heavily distorted guitar and layered vocal harmonies on the chorus) and adds a lyric that works as a similar hybrid to the music. Here, we find quasi-traditional (deliberately anachronistic, even) folk and poetic images merged with far more current linguistic registers and themes. The rendition below is much adjusted from the original, in both form and content, but it hopefully remains at least in the vicinity of its model as far as the gist of its meaning goes. The song can be heard here, and a version of the original lyric can be found here.

Čierna ruža (Black Rose)

(after Marián Varga/Ján Masaryk, 1968)

There is nothing in this world: no romance, no heroic deeds.
I look outside – there is not one castle to be seen
between where I stand and the furthest horizon.
You are not there, either, are not standing under this window,
waiting for me. It seems you are not of this world,
will never wait at the window  for me to come,
never stand there to be seen by this one you might love.
I blame this small black rose – this small black rose
etched in the metal, mud and dust, a chimera
glimpsed between all the grey shadows of this world I’ve known.
Yes, I blame the black rose – this small black rose.

You are not there, either, are not standing under this window,
waiting for me. It seems you are not of this world.
I ask: can I offer a rose to the tedium of the present day?
Can I give a rose, or does the rose give me?
Do you even want this small black rose I hold?
There are roses on the tablecloth, a stem in a vase.
The water I offer in exchange for their flowers
opens them,  petal by petal, deliberate as a desert bloom,
slow as the heat, insubstantial as anything in this world.
Does the heart give love, or take the love it finds?
There is love in this desert, one small black rose.