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Eastern Bloc Disco at Centrala (Playlist for August 4, 2017)

8 Aug

Sarolta Zalatnay: Hadd Mondjam El (Pepita)

The latest version of Eastern Bloc Disco took place on August 4 at Centrala, Birmingham, as part of the regular Digbeth First Friday, a mix of soul, rock, psychedelia, disco, pop, folk and more, all released on the official state record labels of Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and other Eastern Bloc states between the early 1960s and late 1980s. For this latest session – commissioned to accompany the launch of Terra Firma, an exhibition of work produced during a month on Birmingham’s canals by Italian resident Hungarian artist Barbara Mihályi – there was a particular (but by no means exclusive) emphasis on music from Hungary. An archival Eastern Bloc Songs exhibition is in development with Centrala for the summer of 2018.

Eastern Bloc Disco Playlist (August 4, 2017)

Raimonds Pauls & Margarita Vilcāne: Līgotāji (Latvia, 1974)
Karel Cernoch & Juventus: Procitnuti (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Zsusza Koncz & Liversing Egyuttes: Jaj, Mi Lesz Velem Ezutan (Hungary, 1971)
Alibabki: Slonce w Chmurach Lazi (Poland, 1969)
Illés: Nehéz az Út (Hungary, 1968)
The Rebels: Definitivní Konec (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Hungaria: Koncert a Marson (Hungary, 1969)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Betonfej (Hungary, 1968)
Hana Zagorová: Svatej Kluk (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
George & Beatovens: Dívky Z Perel (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Fekete Beat (Hungary, 1971)
Halina Frąckowiak: Wodo Zimna Wodo (Poland, 1974)
Corvina: A Tüz (Hungary, 1974)
Kati Kovacs: Add Már Uram Az Esöt (Hungary, 1972)
Illes: Nekem Oly Mindegy (Hungary, 1972)
Czeslaw Niemen & Akwarele: Baw Się W Ciuciubabkę (Poland, 1969)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Hadd Mondjam El (Hungary, 1973)
NOVI Singers: Torpedo (Poland, 1969)
Vaclav Neckar/Golden Kids: Goo Goo Barabajagal (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Petr Spaleny & Apollobeat: Kdybych Ja Byl Kovarem (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Karel Cernoch: Zlej Sen (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Vera Spinarova: Den a Noc (Czechoslovakia, 1972)
Sarolta Zalatnay & Metro: Mostanában bármit teszünk (Hungary, 1967)
Yvonne Prenosilova: Zimní Království (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Marcela Laiferova: Mlc (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Filipinki: Nie Ma Go (Poland, 1968)
Hana Ulrychova & Bluesmen: Zpívej Mi Dál (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Atlantis: Don’t You Break It Again (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Koncz Szusza: Visz a Vonat (Hungary, 1970)
Chris Doerk: Glaub Nicht (DDR, 1974)
Angelika Mann: Wenn Ich Mal (DDR, 1974)
Valérie Čižmárová: Čekám (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Kyri Ambrus: Ez a Szerelem (Hungary, 1970)
Mária Hoffmann: Mini Tini Panaszai (Hungary, 1974)
Metro: Ha Júliát Kérdeznék Meg (Hungary, 1970)
Stan Borys: Wyplakalem Oczy Niebieskie (Poland, 1969)
Bergendy: Tramp – Részlet (Hungary, 1971)
Bonka Najdenova: Proletni Stypki (Bulgaria, 1975)
Beatrice: Gyere Kislány Gyere (Hungary 1977)
Die Caufner Schwestern: Komm Doch (DDR, 1978)
Judit Szucs: Urdiszkó (Hungary, 1979)
Koukeri: Брой До Сто (Bulgaria 1984)
Plexi & Frutti: A Vásár (Hungary, 1989)
Gigi: Divat a Fontos (Hungary, 1985)
Jana Kratochvílová & Discobolos: Kyvadlo (Czechoslovakia, 1978)
Grupa ABC: Za Duzo Chcesz (Poland, 1970)
Grupul Stereo: Coloana Infinită (Romania, 1984)
Bemibem: Podaruj Mi Trochę Słońca (Poland, 1973)
Marika Késmárki: Törött Szék (Hungary, 1971)
Bezinky: Polnočný Vlak (Czechoslovakia, 1975)
Emil Dimitrov: Scherazhade (Bulgaria, 1972)
Olympic: Tobogan (Czechoslovakia, 1971)
Drugi Nacin: Zuti List (Yugoslavia, 1975)
Corvina: A Mosolyomon Ordög Ul (Hungary, 1977)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Már Nem Tudom (Hungary, 1976)
Izabela Trojanowska: Jestem Twoim Grzechem (Poland, 1981)
Syrius: Hol Az Az Ember (Hungary, 1976)

Illes: Illesek Es Pofonok... (Qualiton)

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Eastern Bloc Disco at Centrala (Playlist for Feb 3, 2017)

4 Feb

Generic Sleeve [Pronit, Poland, 1960s]

The second Eastern Bloc Disco event took place yesterday evening at Centrala, Birmingham, as part of the monthly Digbeth First Friday, and this set ran from around 8pm until 10.40pm (after which a pre-prepared short mix featuring a few other songs, also listed below, saw the event through to its end, more or less). A further collaboration with Centrala, on an archival exhibition and series of events exploring the history, ephemera, design, film and wider political and cultural contexts surrounding some of these artists and sounds, is currently in development for the Summer of 2018. [Watch this space].

Grupa 220: Negdie Postoji Netko (Yugoslavia, 1968)
Koncz Zsuzsa & Illés Együttes: Fáradt Vagyok (Hungary, 1967)
Izomorf 67: Barwy Dzwieku (Poland, 1967)
Karel Černoch: Snídaně v Trávě (Help) (Czechoslovakia, 1971)
Marta Kubišová: Balada o Kornetovi a Divce (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Blackout: Powiedz Swoje Imie (Poland, 1967)
Polanie: Dlugo Się Znamy (Poland, 1968)
Karel Kahovec & Flamengo: Poprava Blond Holky (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
George & Beatovens: Lez Blazniveho Basnika (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Betonfej (Hungary, 1968)
Koncz Szusza: Visz a Vonat (Hungary, 1970)
Petr Spaleny & Apollobeat: Kdybych Ja Byl Kovarem (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Vaclav Neckar & Golden Kids: Goo-Goo Barabajagal (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Breakout: Pozlabym za Toba (Poland, 1969)
Illés Együttes: Nehez Az Ut (Hungary, 1968)
Janko Nilovic: Xenos Cosmos (Yugoslavia/France, 1974)
Czerwono Czarni: Lot na Wenus (Poland, 1969)
Hana & Petr Ulrychovi: A Co Ma Bejt (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Angelika Mann: Wenn Ich Mal (DDR, 1974)
Hana Zagorová: Svatej Kluk (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Chris Doerk: Glaub Nicht (DDR, 1974)
Czeslaw Niemen & Akwarele: Baw Się W Ciuciubabkę (Poland, 1969)
Josef Laufer & Their Majesties: Útěk z Hladomorny (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Grupa ABC: Za Duzo Chcesz (Poland, 1970)
Jana Kratochvílová & Discobolos: Kyvadlo (Czechoslovakia, 1978)
Bemibem: Podaruj Mi Trochę Słońca (Poland, 1973)
Alibabki: Slonce w Chmurach Lazi (Poland, 1969)
Drugi Nacin: Zuti List (Yugoslavia, 1975)
Olympic: Tobogan (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Emil Dimitrov: Scherazhade (Bulgaria, 1972)
Arp-Life: Baby Bump (Poland, 1976)
Walter Kubiczeck: Tentakel (DDR, 1979)
Grupul Stereo: Coloana Infinită (Romania, 1984)
Marta Kubišová: Tak Dej Se K Nam A Projdem Svet (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Eva Pilarova: Ohen a Led (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Izabela Trojanowska: Jestem Twoim Grzechem (Poland, 1981)
Grupul Stereo: Plopii Impari (Romania, 1984)
Manaam: Stoję, stoję, czuję się świetnie (Poland, 1980)

Prepared Mix:

Olympic: Ikarus Blues (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Sarolta Zalatnay & Metro: Fekete Beat (Hungary, 1973)
Filipinki: Nie Ma Go (Poland, 1967)
Halina Frąckowiak: Wodo, Zimna Wodo (Poland, 1974)
Kovács Kati: Add Már, Uram, Az Esőt (Hungary, 1972)
Marta Kubišová: Svlikam Lasku (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Czeslaw Niemen: Enigmatyczne Impresje (Poland, 1971)
Omega: Gyöngyhajú Lány (Hungary, 1969)
Locomotiv GT: The Worlds Watchmaker (Hungary/Poland, 1974)
Tadeusz Woźniak: Zegarmistrz Światła (Poland, 1972)

Various Artists: Privni Pantoniada (Panton) [7

Eastern Bloc Disco Playlist (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016)

16 Feb

Generic Sleeve (Pronit)

Last month, to celebrate the opening weekend of Monuments Should Not Be Trusted (curated by Lina Džuverović) and expand on the display of Eastern Bloc 7” records included in Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (both exhibitions remain at Nottingham Contemporary until 04 March), an Eastern Bloc Disco was staged, featuring soul, rock, psychedelia, pop, folk and more, all released by the official state record labels of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and the USSR between the early 1960s and mid-1980s. The session also included a live set from UrBororo, Pil & Galia Kollectiv’s new venture into “skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening” – an “objectively boring” band whose songs are made from an unlikely merger between the sounds of surf, grunge and punk, and whose lyrics are borrowed from a 1970s Management Self-Help guide.

The all-vinyl playlist for the night ended up looking something like this:

Marek Grechuta: W Pochodzie Dni I Nocy (Poland, 1974)
Raimonds Pauls/Margarita Vilcāne: Līgotāji (Latvia/USSR, 1974)
Izomorf 67: Barwy Dzwieku (Poland, 1967/8)
Raimonds Pauls/Nora Bumbiere: Divpadsmit Asaras (Latvia/USSR, 1974)
Blackout: Powiedz Swoje Imie (Poland, 1967)
Grupa 220: Negdie Postoji Netko (Yugoslavia, 1968)
Vera Spinarova: Andromeda (Czechoslovakia, 1972)
Krystyna Pronko: Po Co Ci To Chlopcze (Poland, 1973)
Czeslaw Niemen & Akwarele: Baw Się W Ciuciubabkę (Poland, 1969)
Josef Laufer & Their Majesties: Útěk z Hladomorny (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Flamengo: Kure v Hodinkach (Czechoslovakia, 1972)
C&K Vocal: Generace (Czechosolovakia, 1974)
Omega: Gyöngyhajú Lány (Hungary, 1969)
Romauld & Roman: Pytanie Czy Haslo (Poland, 1970)
Drugi Nacin: Zuti List (Yugoslavia, 1975)
Piotr Figiel: Dyplomowany Galernik (Poland, 1974)
Olympic: Ikarus Blues (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Locomotiv GT: Ringasd El Magad II (Hungary, 1973)
Hungaria: Koncert a Marson (Hungary, 1969)
Blue Effect: The Sun Is So Bright (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Olympic: Everybody (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Breakout: Gdybys Kochal Hej (Poland, 1969)
Illes: Nehez Az Ut (Hungary, 1968)
Karel Kahovec/Flamengo: Poprava Blond Holky (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
George & Beatovens: Lez Blazniveho Basnika (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Martha & Tena: Boure (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Atlantis: Don’t You Break It Again (Czechoslovakia, 1968)
Petr Spaleny & Apollobeat: Kdybych Ja Byl Kovarem (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Sarolta Zalatnay: Betonfej (Hungary, 1968)
Halina Frackowiak: Wodo, Zimna Wodo (Poland, 1974)
Stan Borys: Wyplakalem Oczy Niebieskie (Poland, 1969)
Koncz Szusza: Visz a Vonat (Hungary, 1970)
Emil Dimitrov: Scherazade (Bulgaria, 1972)
Marta Kubisova: Tak Dej Se K Nam A Projdem Svet (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Hana & Petr Ulrychovi: A Co Ma Bejt (Czechoslovakia, 1970)
Angelika Mann: Wenn Ich Mal (DDR, 1974)
Arp-Life: Baby Bump (Poland, 1976)
Walter Kubiczeck: Tentakel (DDR, 1979)
Grupul Stereo: Coloana Infinită (Romania, 1984)
Izabela Trojanowska: Jestem Twoim Grzechem (Poland, 1981)
Grupul Stereo: Plopii Impari (Romania, 1984)
Chris Doerk: Glaub Nicht (DDR, 1974)
Vaclav Neckar & Golden Kids: Goo-Goo Barabajagal (Czechoslovakia, 1969)
Czerwone Gitary: Coda (Poland, 1970)
Grupa ABC: Za Duzo Chcesz (Poland, 1970)
Marta Kubisova: Cervanky (It’s Not Unusual) (Czechoslovakia, 1968)

Generic Sleeve (Supraphon)

Through the evening, a muted playlist of videos also ran on a large screen, and everything shown at the event can be seen in the Eastern Bloc Disco playlist compiled here – between 2 – 3 hours of visuals in total, now available with their soundtracks intact.

A Conversation: Mapping Out the Territory of Star City (Spring 2010)

1 Mar

Halina Frackowiak: Geira (Muza)

I recently found this transcript of an early discussion between myself, Robert Adlington and Polly McMichael when we were mapping out the territory each of us would cover during the Communist Rock’n’Roll event at Nottingham Contemporary as part of the programme around the Star City exhibition that Spring. It’s presented here unrevised and unedited, as I try to answer various questions (mostly off the top of my head) put by Robert Adlington at one of our various meetings in preparation for the talk. The more formal finished version of the talk appears here, but this looser exploration touches on many aspects that had to be omitted from the event itself, as it took place at the gallery on April 9th, 2010.

Soviet Nostalgia – being re-interested in the groups and styles of the Soviet era. (Is this similar to our embarrassing fascination with the eighties? Or is it something else?)

In the satellite countries I’ll be focusing on, there’s no real Soviet nostalgia that I’ve noticed, but certainly a strong sense in the Czech Republic, say, of the lost possibilities before the 1968 invasion: the Dubcek era seems to be remembered as a good time before the ‘forgetting’ of standardisation/normalisation set in after 1969. In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the fond memories of the 1960s in England, though obviously the forced cut off (echoed very deliberately on Marta Kubisova’s final recording, which stops dead before finishing) makes the sense of the lost possibilities of the era even more pronounced: there was no long disillusion as the 60s went sour, and humourless extremism and the conservative resurgence got underway (as in West Germany, Britain, the US, etc, with oil shocks, recession, Nixon etc having a notable chilling effect on the similar optimism of the west), just the guillotine of the invasion. In Poland/Hungary both the optimism and the aftermath were less stark…in Hungary, for example, a band like Illes were silenced for around a year in the late 60s after giving interviews in the UK critical of the regime, but this seems to have resulted in their profile rising on their return to performing: in Hungary and Poland, the kind of progressive rock music that saw the Czech Plastic People of the Universe arrested in 1977 (resulting in the foundation of Charter 77 – signed by Kubisova, incidentally – by this point an active dissident) was still being released on State labels – certainly up to around 1975/6 in Hungary, when the climate shifted, and for somewhat longer in Poland (where there was a fairly well-regarded punk/new wave scene that was being put out on the state labels at least until the post-Solidarity Martial Law kicked in during the early 80s)…

The means of censorship. How was music suppressed and was there a certain level of turning a blind eye by the government? If so, why was this?

Total inconsistency through the period on this: much was censored, musicians were refused licenses and opportunities to perform and record, and the ground shifted regularly between hardliners and more liberal elements within the machinery: Kubisova is barred from recording several times before 1970, but finds a way back; Illes in Hungary are ‘punished’ for their interviews overseas (though had been allowed to go overseas to tour before that); Omega release LPs on Decca in the UK, Eva Pilarova has American singles released, Sarolta Zalatnay is part of a reciprocal licensing deal with a British commercial record label (and records songs in English, both translations of her Hungarian material, and things like Janis Joplin’s ‘Move Over’) …all are also out of favour at other times, so the State machinery between 1965 – 1972 (earlier in Czechoslovakia) moves in fairly mysterious and often unpredictable ways. Most of the musicians seem to be variously discontented with the regime, but the State also seems at times to realise that allowing expression to these discontentments buys it favour among the young – at other times, it suppresses them outright, much as I suppose the West’s media and judiciary did also (tales of awful experiences at the hands of the authorities can be found in the US as well as the Eastern Bloc – Roky Erikson, John Sinclair, The Weavers’ blacklisting, etc). The stakes are much higher under the Communist regime due less, I suspect, to greater intolerance – though there certainly was much intolerance – than to the lack of checks on abuses of power: this makes falling out of favour a more dangerous business all round, where personal contacts are key.

The State Label. Is this akin to the BBC? Was there such a thing as a top of the pops in the USSR? Was the State Label similar to something like Motown with session musicians and if so was there cult of personality that followed certain ‘state Rock and Roll musicians’?

The main State labels I’ll be looking at are Polskie Nagrania in Poland (the main imprints were Muza and Pronit), Pepita/Qualiton in Hungary and Supraphon in Czechoslovakia; we’ll touch a little on Amiga in the DDR as well. Each was a big State run institution, nominally independent, but (like the BBC) certainly subject to a lot of political pressure to be ‘on message’ with the Party in each country. As with censorship, at different times these labels might be run by more hardline or liberal factions, and as with the BBC (or indeed any big bureaucratic corporate institution – say, EMI in 60s England, or CBS in 60s America) factions within them could be pursuing different agendas at the same time. In Hungary, for example, Illes were controversial, but actively supported by the Party as part of a programme in the 60s of ‘small liberties for the people’ – not as liberal as Dubcek’s regime in Czechoslovakia, but part of a similar thaw. Others were tolerated rather than supported, some promoted internationally to showcase the regime’s cultural achievements, some barred from travelling (Illes met both fates; Kubisova went to Paris, where she met Aretha Franklin, before the climate changed after the invasion; Polish figures like Michal Urbaniak and Krystof Komeda recorded in the UK and US, while US figures like Stan Getz and Gabor Szabo went to Poland and Hungary to record with the jazz musicians there, etc). Generally, each label had a roster of bands and musicians, who were independent of one another – discrete units like Czerwone Gitary, Breakout, Niebiesko-Czarni, Skaldowie, Metro, Golden Kids and Olympic – but a band like Metro or Illes would also be the backing group for a singer (eg: Sarolta Zalatnay, Koncz Szusza) or Breakout would perform sometimes with Mira Kubasinska as their vocalist, sometimes under her name, with Breakout as her backing band, and SBB did similar work with Halina Frackowiak. Vocal groups like Partita and Alibabki appeared with everyone from psychedelic soul-rocker Czeslaw Niemen to the most MOR cabaret acts, and jazz musicians would both run their own groups and play with rock or folk bands…there are parallels with the London session scene, as musicians like Alan Hawkshaw, Barbara Moore and Johnny Hawksworth, and writers/arrangers like Pete Moore, John Keating, Nick Ingman and Keith Mansfield (incidentally, Mansfield and his various proteges like Salena Jones and James Royal were popular in Poland, being released in reciprocal deals with British CBS – who in turn issued records in the UK by Michal Urbaniak) moved between their own contract recordings, music for TV and film, backing visiting stars and teaming up with new talents, often running from one session to another – doing a session with Shirley Bassey in the morning and recording their own experimental rock and jazz instrumentals for the KPM or De Wolfe libraries in the afternoon. The difference is that the State label bands/musicians were known in their own right, while the London and US session musicians (the US had its own stables, such as Hal Blaine’s ‘wrecking crew’ in LA) were not widely known outside the business – their pictures wouldn’t be on the record sleeves as it were.

Sampling. What are the key methods by which elements of soviet rock and roll now bleed into our awareness? Hip Hop sampling? Other ways?

This material began to emerge into the West after the wall fell, so certainly in the early to mid 1990s German DJs and collectors were starting to compile mixtapes and use samples of material from Poland and the former DDR, and these reached the US and UK a little later, where information on the things to look out for began to filter along the networks: by the late 1990s (aided by the spread of the internet, and international selling outlets like GEMM and ebay) people were building up a broader picture of what was out there in the West: this was in turn aided by programmes of reissues and CD releases of older music in the former East – Poland had already reissued much of its 60s/70s catalogue as part of a ‘Beat Archive’ series in the later 1980s, Czechoslovakia began repressing records that had disappeared from shops after 1969 (and in some cases, such as Hana & Petr Ulrychovi’s Odyssea LP, records that were recorded during the Prague Spring, but shelved and never released after 1970) most notably Marta Kubisova’s ‘Songy a Ballady’, which had appeared, then been censored, before she was banned outright after 1970…this appeared in 1990, and Kubisova was brought onto a balcony in the midst of the Velvet Revolution (alongside Havel) to sing ‘Modlitba Pro Martu’ (Prayer for/of Marta), which had been something of an anthem during the invasion (“in the government of my affections, you must return what you have stolen…”) to the crowds in Prague: her return to concert performing followed very soon afterward. So it’s a combination of Western interest – first among record collectors and dance music/hip-hop producers seeking samples, then more broadly – and a return to this material in the East itself. Even so, it’s still taken almost 20 years for the process of releasing these musicians in the West to properly begin: the first compilation of Kubisova appeared in 2009 on a small label (compiled by German DJ Lou Kash), while a retrospective of Hungary’s rockscene and compilation of material by Sarolta Zalatnay appeared on the Manchester based independent Finder’s Keepers only a year or so ago (this is run by enthusiast, sample-based artist/remixer and Badly Drawn Boy discoverer Andy Votel and colleagues – they also run B-Music nights around the country to promote Czech, Hungarian, Turkish, French, Spanish, Pakistani, Iranian and other lesser known music and film scenes). The process goes on…

How was the rock and roll packaged? Were albums made or is this more of a singles market? Was there a marketing machine, videos, to promote music?

Very much so: promo clips were made (of which I’ve sourced many, often from Youtube), bands featured in popular films (eg: Illes in Hungary’s ‘youth scene’ movie Ezek a Fiatalok or Skaldowie and Niebesko-Czarni in the Polish comedy Mocne Uderzenie, and many jazz artists contributing to Czech and Polish new wave film soundtracks, the best known being Krystof Komeda’s collaborations with Polanski on all his films up to and including Rosemary’s Baby), both albums and singles were made and widely sold (and had great cover art, comparable to the better known Polish film posters much admired by Western designers today). Though some releases were sabotaged by censorship, others were very popular, so degrees of scarcity vary widely.

Was Rock and Roll considered a rebellion of youth or an embracing of Western mores? Depending on how this rebellion was considered by the authorities were the penalties of some musicians much stricter than others? Were they persecuted for their music?

I think I’ve touched on this above – I think in Polly [McMichaels’] words regarding official attitudes to The Beatles in the USSR, it’s complicated. Some were supported by the various Communist Parties, some actively repressed, and the same bands or musicians could undergo both not just at different times, but sometimes at the same time: Kubisova, for example, was Czechoslovakia’s most popular singer from around 1965/6 till her final banning in 1970, but was at various points not allowed to record – yet her earlier recordings would still be broadcast. The Golden Kids TV show, Micro Magic Theatre, is an example: Kubisova was not allowed to record with her Golden Kids colleagues Helena Vondrakova and Vaclav Neckar when the soundtrack of this TV show was being made, so the producers simply used her existing recordings to fill the gaps.

Did this Rock and Roll spread throughout the USSR or was it quite cloistered within each of the countries so that there was a specific flavor of music for each soviet country?

Don’t know about the USSR specifically (though my impression is that certain groups had stronger followings or identifications with particular regions – eg: Pesniary’s drawing on Bylorussian folk on their records?) but Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia all have quite distinct scenes, and quite distinct styles and approaches. Very broadly, Poland seems to have been the most consistent – from jazz and skiffle groups in the later 1950s, to Komeda’s ‘Astigmatic’ in 1965 (a key recording) and on through the move into beat, rock, r’n’b, amplified folk and progressive rock over the next 5/10 years, the pattern in Poland is akin to that in the West – a decline in quality through the 1970s but not especially related to political pressures (except as it was in the west also). By 1979/80, with Solidarnosc and Martial Law, things became very safe, but until then there’s a notable consistency. In Hungary, the mix of folk and beat pioneered by Illes developed into a very strong rock scene, represented by Omega, Skorpio, Zalatnay and Locomotiv GT, with poppier/jazzier material by Kati Kovacs and more traditional songs by Koncz Szusa also immensely popular (though so strong was the rock influence, both did a lot of rock material too). Czechoslovakia was most extreme – the most open and Westernised scene prior to 1968, the most repressive after it. In all three countries, the material I’m looking at was generally properly popular – played on radio, featured on TV, and still in heavy circulation on ‘oldies’ stations and TV channels today, much as The Beatles and Motown are on TV and radio in the US/UK – so these are not the more obvious dissident or underground things, which, almost by definition, weren’t released on vinyl by the State labels and – as far as I know – aren’t available elsewhere, either. There was a good deal of traffic between the various eastern bloc countries, and a surprising amount between these and the west at certain points, so popularity did spread beyond particular borders: I understand that mostly (within the eastern bloc states) that this would take the form of concerts and import/export of records rather than fresh pressings for each new market, though there are Czech pressings of Polish LPs, for example, but they’re comparatively scarce. The biggest project in this kind of cross border activity I know of was the DDR’s bringing together of bands from all over the bloc to re-record songs in German for a series of compilation LPs called ‘Hallo’ – 12 volumes, on which bands like Czerwone Gitary remake Polish songs for the DDR market alongside music from well known DDR bands like Panta Rhei, Electra Combo and others.

Marta Kubišová: Tajga Blues ‘69 (Supraphon, 1969)

4 Aug

Said by Marta Kubišová herself to be her favourite among all her recordings, Tajga Blues ‘69 is also one of the greatest records of its era, and not only in the former Eastern bloc. Few Western singles of the day are as remarkable as this particular few minutes of dramatic balladry and highly political poetics underscored by heavily distorted guitar. Tajga is the arctic region of the northern hemisphere, and appearing so soon after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it’s unlikely that the song’s allusion to Siberia as a region of exile would have been missed, however oblique the imagery of the song itself, reminiscent as it is of some of the material written the Serbian poet Vasko Popa in Yugoslavia, and others elsewhere. How the record was released and even televised (and not, like another overtly political Kubišová song of the same moment, Ne (No), quickly withdrawn) is something of a mystery, possibly related to a time-lag between the management at the State record label (itself a powerful export income generator through its Classical music arm) and the ‘normalisation’ process, but no real information seems to be available. Whatever the reason for her recordings continuing to be released for around a year after the 1968 invasion, Kubišová did not hold onto her room for manouvre for very long. Despite her immense popularity, smear stories were run in the press and used as grounds to impose a ban during early 1970, preventing her from performing, recording or travelling for the next twenty years. If at least some of these post-1968 songs were pressed (though often left largely undistributed) the ban finally managed to silence her, musically at least, until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. This version of Tajga Blues ’69 first appeared in Poetry Review (Vol.100 No.4) in the winter of 2010. The song can be heard here and a transcript of the original Czech lyric can be read here.

Tajga Blues ‘69

(after Bohuslav Ondrácek/Zdenek Rytir, 1969)

Tajga sleeps, soft white drifts in,
Tajga lies sleeping, is gracious – his first grave sin.
Tajga slumbers in a dungeon of trees,
handcuffed to the Blue Mountains
as guards cling to houses in a quiet street.

Tajga blues, sing out the chorus still –
no word fears these short days
or the long nights.

Tajga does not wake, the north is quiet,
Tajga’s wolf trails are tracked by guards.
There are white places on maps,
blank pages in this open book
and power in the eyes of those who look.

Tajga blues is the echo I hear
as rivers roar and wind laughs a storm
through the long nights.

Tajga spreads its blankets to hide the world,
Tajga’s snow thickens on the quiet woods.
Where to go, but walk blind
through forests whose beautiful frosts
envelop us, though our eyes are closed?

Tajga blues, we sing as they imprison us;
our voices echo – exiled, heard –
and long nights whiten until the world returns.

Hana Zagorová: Tisíc nových jmen (Supraphon, 1969)

12 Jun

Perhaps a more straightforwardly pop-orientated song than some of the earlier posts featuring material performed by Hana Zagorova, such as Rokle and Svatej Kluk. The lyric is a simple call to a lover that asks him, instead of stumbling in speech, to join the equally inarticulate Hana in renaming the world around them, expressing love through a playful (perhaps Edenic) act of making things new rather than more conventional (and probably doomed) attempts to describe feelings. It may also be worth noting that Zdeněk Rytíř is a key songwriter of the era and was also responsible for many contributions to The Golden Kids’ and Marta Kubisova’s extensive catalogues of songs, including some of the material which, in the years after 1968, led to Kubisova’s banning from recording, broadcast and performance. The Zagorova song presented here is less controversial in theme – though in its suggestion that the world be remade in secret, and language renewed, may well have a subtext of its own, albeit not a particularly obvious one – and its arrangement follows an oompah-style rhythm between its soaring choruses that manages to stay just on the right side of mere novelty. A 1969 TV performance of Tisíc nových jmen performed at a fairground shooting booth can be seen here and the original Czech lyric can be read here.

Tisíc nových jmen (A Thousand Names)

(after Karel Svoboda/ Zdeněk Rytíř, 1969)

I’ll not tell, being sad and shy;
I’m breathless as Monday,
cool as the breeze in your golden hair,
quiet as a reflection in glass.

What do I want to say, anyway?
I no longer know – do you?
Can you remind me, give me advice?
Where shall we go?

Maybe we can name the flowers,
forget what we know,
spin new words by the thousand
from this feeling, now?

It’ll be more beautiful than wearing
the empty weekday hours
like so many dull dresses
on a rainy, grey afternoon.

Think of it: thousands of new names
for a thousand flowers.
No one but us will know
how we’ve wiped the dust from this world!

Let’s go further still, name the wind
where it shakes a rose,
pretend we no longer recognise
the words we’ve learned for anything!

Come on, let’s make these flowers new,
sigh, say something, anything,
write a word on each leaf…
What else did we want to say, anyway?

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?

No.

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?

No.

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?

No.

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?

No.