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.

Skaldowie: Dojeżdżam (Muza, 1969)

21 Feb

Skaldowie’s Malowany Dym has already featured here and some background on the band can be found on that post. This song, Dojeżdżam (The Commute), hails from the same period in the band’s history but offers a jazzier proposition and a song that describes the familiar scenario of people travelling to work in the early hours. The song divides into two voices,  with the verses voiced by a young man and the choruses by a young woman – or, to be more exact, by the vocal ensemble of young women otherwise known as Alibabki. Dojeżdżam offers a kind of lyrical narrative, contrasting the sleepy early hour trudge narrated by the young man with the sunnier observations made about him by a girl on the same commute, and the story told is that all-too familiar one, in which two people who are attracted see one another on the same train every day but neither ever quite manages to speak to the other to make the attraction known. A fairly straightforward deferred love story, then, but also, perhaps, not unlike Nick Drake’s Poor Boy, from his second album Bryter Layter (1970) in its use of the uplifting choruses as a wry commentary on the slightly self-pitying verses. The music and arrangement is by Skaldowie founder Andrzej Zieliński while the lyrics are contributed by Agnieszka Osiecka (pictured), a Warsaw born writer who collaborated on songs with many key Polish artists, including Maryla Rodowicz (some of whose material will hopefully begin appearing here soon). Osiecka also worked as a poet,  prose writer and journalist alongside a broad ranging career in theatre, film and television. A transcription of the original Polish lyric for Dojeżdżam can be found here and the song itself can be listened to here.

Dojeżdżam (The Commute)

(after Agnieszka Osiecka/Andrzej Zieliński, 1969)

When I wake up the roosters are still asleep.
My cold bedclothes are buried in early grey light.
I yawn. Girls might ask me: Are you sad or feeling low?
You know, the way nobody ever does.

And it’s such a strange thing to be already out,
to be still asleep in this night-dazed dawn.
I’m stiff-limbed, aching, scan a rock-pool of gutter sky
for the starfish following me on this commute.

He’s trudging aboard this first morning train.
Exhaustion will seep through his whole long day.
Others smile at chessboards, read magazines.
He nods off on a seat right opposite me.

What else can we say when our minds don’t work?
The train’s shaking and we’re sitting still.
He’s bored, but has only himself to blame,
caught in the rain after leaving his umbrella at home!

I’m not afraid of these long dawn nights anymore.
I see her across the carriage almost smiling at me.
Yes, I commute. Can she tell me what a morning’s like?
We barely sleep between the last train and first.

And don’t tell me the summer’s almost here,
I once held its flowers in my hands for hours.
Tell me what makes her happy, those brown eyes clear?
Their warmth almost wakes me when I look at her.

Has he sensed the sunlight that’s not here yet,
the summer flowers – maybe a friend in me?
Look how late it is! We won’t speak now or say goodbye.
We know tomorrow we’ll both commute again.

I’m not afraid of these long dawn nights anymore.
I see him across the carriage almost smiling at me.
Yes, I commute. Can he tell me what a morning’s like?
We barely sleep between the last train and first.

Agnieszka Osiecka (1936 - 1997)

Skaldowie: Malowany Dym (Muza, 1969)

14 Feb

Malowany Dym is the first track on Skaldowie’s 1969 LP Cała Jesteś W Skowronkach (the title is translated on the sleeve as There Are Skylarks All Over You, presumably an idiomatic phrase meaning something like ‘You’re Happy’ or ‘You’re All Smiles’). Formed in Krakow around 1965 by Andrzej and Jacek Zielinski, Skaldowie quickly became one of the better known Polish bands of the era, with a softer sound than some of their peers, often comparable to the Beach Boys, but with a tone coloured by Polish folk melodies (particularly those of the Podhale region) rather than the American doo-wop that was Brian Wilson’s primary influence. Malowane Dym (Painted Smoke), is fairly typical of main composer Andrzej Zielinski’s defining approach, blending these highly distinctive Polish folk sounds with pop arrangements and instrumentation. It’s an odd mix, more subtle in its blend of Polish and Western influences than some of the era’s more immediately appealing (to Western ears, at least) Polish groups were creating at the same time. That said, it’s also worth noting that, as with some of the more ‘Baroque Pop’ sounds being made in the UK and US between the mid sixties and early seventies (think of, say, The Four Seasons’ Genuine Imitation Life Gazette LP, or the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society) the later 1960s recordings of Skaldowie, which can be seen retrospectively as a transitional phase between the group’s earlier beat-based songs and Zielinski’s developing progressive leanings, have a layered and ornately textured quality that retains a lot of staying power. The Polish lyric of Malowany Dym can be read here, and the song itself can be listened to here.

Malowany Dym (Painted Smoke)

(after Leszek Moczulski/Andrzej Zielinski, 1969)

I paint the wheels of my car but the brush goes on,
my eyes are fixed on all the wide sky above.
No-one knows I’m painting the pavements too,
all the trees, their leaves, the grass and bark.

I’m lighting fires, painting flames and chimney-stacks,
watching smoke rise: a letter sent to the sky.
Turn around. Look up through the rain,
then come to me, whenever you want, like smoke.

Watch the heavy cloth clouds begin to disperse,
dark curtains drawn back to reveal the stars.
I’ll be there, and look, start to paint again,
colour in roof and thatch, gutter-pipes and slates,

every echo sounding on this deserted street,
till all the air and warm drifting wind alike
carry their colours from my hand to your sight.
Keep your eyes fixed on the wide sky above

because I’m painting smoke and setting it free.
This smoke drifts through the world, for me.
Look up. The sky can be any colour you like.
Come to me. Be wherever you want, like smoke.

Hana a Petr Ulrychovi a Vulkán: Sen (Supraphon, 1967)

6 Jan

This is a very early song by Petr Ulrych, performed with Hana Ulrychova and Vulkán, that predates the more famous collaborations with Atlantis of the following year. Sen (Dream) is the b-side of a 7″ single issued on Supraphon in 1967, the a-side being Seď a Tiše Poslouchej (Sit Quietly and Listen). Sen explores a theme of insomnia while hinting at a love story in the background, as though the song’s protagonist conflates sleep and the dreams it might bring with an absent lover who, like the branches of those trees, fails to knock at the door as she hopes and so, paradoxically, keeps her awake by not disturbing the silence or appearing at her window: that curiously aural image of the ‘angelus bell’ underscores this atmosphere of expectation by registering as sound even as it goes unheard. The Czech lyric can be read on the Ulrychovis’ own website here and the song itself, with its hypnotic sleepwalking twang and touch of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams about the arrangement, can be listened to here.

Sen (Dream)

(after Petr Ulrych, 1967)

Come the evening, everything turns to a dream.
Everything turns to a dream when evening comes.

These branches at my window, like an angelus bell,
do not come knocking or press their leaves to glass,
do not fall straight into the room where I’ll sleep.
How can I sleep when it starts to seem like this?

I don’t even look: if sleep doesn’t stay, I’m alone, afraid.
Everything turns to a dream when evening comes.

The day has been waiting. All day the evening comes.
I wait so long for the dream that evening brings
but these branches at my window, like an angelus bell,
do not come knocking or press their leaves to glass.

They do not lean on shadows in the room where I’ll sleep.
How can I sleep when it starts to seem like this?
When, in the moment I dream, I wake and want to talk?
So I wait again today, and then again all day, and then?

Then, come the evening, everything turns to a dream.
Everything turns to a dream when evening comes.

Do I sleep, after so long waiting, so long alone, afraid?
It seems these branches at my window, like an angelus bell,
will not come knocking or press their leaves to glass,
will not fall through the room where I’ll sleep tonight.

Come the evening, everything turns to a dream.
Everything turns to a dream when evening comes.


Tadeusz Woźniak: Pewnego Dnia O Świcie (1974)

19 Dec

Like Zegarmistrz światła two years earlier, and Odcień Ciszy, the title song on the same LP that features it, Pewnego Dnia O Świcie is both a collaboration between Tadeusz Woźniak and Bogdan Chorążuk and a strangely oblique and dream-like song, set to an uptempo musical score that is arguably slightly at odds with its own somnambulant theme. The track was issued on Odcień Ciszy, a consistently strong 1974 LP, and can be heard here. The original Polish lyric (from which this version diverges in all kinds of mostly minor ways at several points, though hopefully in order to more effectively mirror its curious effect in English) can be found here.

Pewnego Dnia O Świcie (One day near dawn)

(after Bogdan Chorążuk/Tadeusz Wozniak, 1974)

One day near dawn cars fell from the sky.
Even as I slept I drove a car away.
The seat was cold. The steering wheel,
the dashboard, smelled of angels.
It happened last June, to someone else, perhaps.

I drove through the streets, passed corners, lamps,
paving stones and shop facades:
I knew their every brick and painted sign.
An illusion, reflected in living glass
where girls sleepwalk or shine like sighs.

Maybe it’s the silence, or an engine’s noise?
One silver car draws so close to us
we catch the pure metal of its machine breath turn.
Lilies of the valley overwhelm all sense
where horizons flourish with narcotic leaves.

And I am moving further, always, further on,
dawn exploding in the windscreen’s glass
at every turn and bend of the road.
Everything happens. I might even meet myself
living other lives I’ve never known.

Maybe it’s the silence, or an engine’s noise?
One silver car draws so close to me
I feel its velocity and momentum fade.
The roads seem clean as white surgeons’ screens
someone, anyway, is already taking down.


Tadeusz Woźniak: Odcień Ciszy (Muza, 1974)

19 Dec

Issued in 1974, two years after the enormous success of Zegarmistrz Swiatła, the poet Bogdan Chorążuk and musician Tadeusz Woźniak continued their collaboration on a second LP, Odcień Ciszy (Shades of Silence), a recording that often seems to straddle a kind of symphonically scaled emotional impact and some of the inventive structures and ambitions of Progressive Rock, at the height of its international popularity at the time of release. In the lyric here, as elsewhere in Chorążuk and Woźniak’s collaborations, a self-conscious obscurity merges with natural symbols, Chagall-like images of airborne, hair-strung violins and intimations of some kind of transfiguration. The text reminds me a little of Richard Crashaw’s Musick’s Duell, written in the 1640s, mainly owing to certain coincidentally baroque qualities and some apparent similarity of intent in matching text to music: the violins and their symbolic flights, as described by Woźniak’s voice, seem matched by the music’s arrangement, created by Woźniak in collaboration with Henryk Wojciechowski. This suggests the words are intended as a kind of semi abstract tonal colouring, intent on creating atmosphere rather than specific or easily understood meaning. It goes without saying, then, that this version is as much an exercise in intuition and relatively free improvisation on the song’s imagery than anything more literally faithful to the Polish text on which it is based. The full 15m version of Odcień Ciszy can be listened to here while the original Polish lyric can be read here.

Odcień Ciszy (Shades of Silence)

(after Bogdan Chorążuk/Tadeusz Woźniak/Henryk Wojciechowski, 1974)

What was it? How could it happen? Violin clouds flew very high
and their hair-strings woven into the wind
made the quietest of sighs.

A hair-string is night when the moon blooms among evening flowers.
I have been, done much, but own little now –
one small box could hold everything.

I ran, touched by light: the fingers, my eyes, a gleaming fossil field.
The lakes scattered when the sound of silver seemed to live,
when gold encircled swarms of calm.

This is certain: a violin might open its wings above a sleeping lake,
seduce flight to altitudes where nothing’s seen.
There is no time to turn, return,

as sound heads for the setting sun, getting smaller, smaller…
The strings are so many, each one the slightest of sighs
where tension gathers till it resonates.

There is no time. When the hammer strikes low notes in these ears
even the deaf man opens his hands, sees swallows
in flight as a feathered cloud.

There was no time. There is no time now, for the strings are so many,
their cries breaking, like echoes, across the lake
where I live among reeds and fear

and do not move, seem paralysed. There is no time for strings,
camped on the shoreline from daybreak till dawn,
to break their bows or blind thirsty crowds –

and because strings swell from too much height, do not count spaces
between the echo and any hollow note,
there can be no time.

We scythe wind, worms carving wood, hand-knives wet hay,
cut through silence with beaten strings
made helpless by sound.

There is no time to fill these hours. In each instant of sunlit skin
I will not rust time, for there is no time
and I was never here.

There is no time for forests to prepare, resin bursting at each seam,
neither air nor space nor anything either here or there.
There was never time.

I hung the music’s thunder on a hooked bough bleached by light,
felt so thirsty, then, so burned by my own body’s fire
I understood those Saints who loved the poor.

I knew where the days went, how fires ignite with your every move
when you choose to rise. There was never time.
Now I’m walking inside these woods –

trees lean and leaves stroke light. Music’s green and hung on boughs.
Can you hear violins brushing gold hair among leaves?
Behold: stones open when thunder comes.


Hana Zagorová: Verbíř (Supraphon, 1969)

18 Dec

Like Marta Kubišová’s Balada o kornetovi a dívce, released in the same year, Hana Zagorova’s Verbíř (The Recruiter) is a song that draws on a folk tradition going back beyond the Napoleonic era to feel relevant to almost any situation in which women are left behind by lovers, husbands and sons in times of conflict to reflect on the futility and loss caused by wars over which they have little control. At the time these records were released, at the close of the 1960s, their sentiments would almost certainly have been understood on a very personal level, resonating with both the relatively fresh memories of an older generation that had experienced the Second World War and, perhaps, with the raw experience of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had itself separated many people of younger generations from their own families and partners as many left the country or found themselves unable to return. The original Czech text can be read here and the song itself listened to here.

Verbíř (The Recruiter)

(after Jan Růžička/Drahoslav Volejníček, 1969)

My blood taps its fingers on my body’s wall,
the birds’ dawn chorus is a long croak,
black crows, starlings, dark buzzing flies
where thunder drums stone steps with rain.

A small grey man haunts the town square,
his recruiting song a wind between houses,
a whip’s shadow on the lit windows
where women stand and break like days.

To the fields, the cemeteries, the men go.
There goes my song, too, with a mourning keen.
Listen: my skin’s drum is tightening now
as I hear that shadow call for fresh recruits.

And the sun has fallen back. The fields swell.
Every village hears the galloping horse
pass by some silent corner of an empty house.
In the square, this small gray man sings on.

To the fields, the cemeteries, the men go.
There goes my song, too, with a mourning keen.
There is no man left to owe us anything:
each gave his life and left a woman here.

Now, pale as linen or the morning rose,
white with sorrow as a freshly laundered sheet,
we haunt this village that has no men left,
hear the shadow calling for still more recruits.