A few years back I went to the Polish Oktoberfest Festival at Our Lady of Częstochowa church in north Phoenix. Many Polish and Polish-American bands performed at the event. Most played some classic folk tunes from the various regions of Poland, but at least one played some rock and roll that usually sounded like either American stuff like Chuck Berry or early British invasion material, but with completely Polish lyrics. The predominantly older crowd of first generation Polish immigrants was totally into it.
My hipster myopia had previously caused me to view punk bands like Post-Regiment and Dezerter as some of the pioneering troublemakers on the Polish music scene, being contemporaneous with Solidarity and other major socio-political changes in that country. But, as I learned from these old folks reliving their younger days, Polish musicians and fans were rocking out they best they could in light of living under a repressive communist regime in the '60s and '70s
Poland's Warsaw Pact comrade to the south, Czechoslovakia, also had an active pop and rock scene in the '60s and '70s, one that provided a rebellious undercurrent to a rigidly censored society. The arrest of the country's equivalent of The Velvet Underground, the Plastic People of the Universe, would play a part in motivating Czechoslovak dissidents to write Charter 77, a 1977 manifesto critical of the communist regime.
In 1989, when that regime was being overthrown in the Velvet Revolution, one of the major acts of resistance came from a performance in Prague's Wenceslas Square by Marta Kubišová, a pop singer who had been prohibited from performing for almost 20 years.
However, alongside the local manifestations of Beatlemania and psychedelia, an interest in Bluegrass music developed among Czechoslovak listeners. Robert Křest'an, currently of the Czech Bluegrass ensemble Druhá Tráva, has participated in this interesting aspect of central European pop culture for a a very long time.
Křest'an discovered Bluegrass in the '60s by tuning to the radio programming broadcasted on American Forces Network radio on the other side of the Iron Curtain in Munich, (then West) Germany. He was hooked from the moment he caught those transmissions.
"When I was very little, maybe 10 or 11, I heard the banjo on the radio and I was stunned," Křest'an says. "It was like a whole new life for me. So I found out what kind of instrument it was and what kind of music it was. I came into the Bluegrass and banjo music scene and started to write songs. Bluegrass music is 'me' music."
Communist authorities at the time didn't like this kind of music curiosity for simple reasons that reflected the polarized view of world power at the time. "It was subversive because it was American, that was all," Křest'an explains.
Still, the authorities did very little to contain the perceived threat of Bluegrass to Czechoslovak citizens, as people, who, like Křest'an, discovered this music through relatively illicit means, ended up starting their own bands, taking a genre usually tinged by Southern drawls and slang and singing it in their own West Slavic tongues. Křest'an himself joined the prominent Czechoslovak bluegrass band Poutníci ("The Pilgrims") in 1979.
However, Křest'an would eventually leave the band in 1991 to start his own project. It would have the fundamental Bluegrass influences but would come from a new place. His new band, Druhá Tráva ("Second Grass"), would aspire to be a new wave, a fresh crop in what would become the Bluegrass scene of the Czech Republic.
"We love classic Bluegrass music, we love it," Křest'an says. "But we weren't born in Kentucky. We were born in the Czech Republic. So we like to play Bluegrass music, but we are also playing the music that we feel."
Going with what they feel has, so far, worked well for the band, which has maintained a prolific touring and release schedule. The band even ended up attracting the attention of the U.S. Department of State--The U.S. Embassy in Prague apparently saw the band as the perfect opener for a speech given by Barack Obama, part of his first string of foreign appearances as President of the United States, at Prague Castle in April 2009.
"I don't know if he liked it; I've never met the man," Křest'an says of Obama, who may have been too distracted prepping a speech that payed lip-service to the Czech people while at the same time called for continued support for a missile defense network in central and eastern Europe.
Still, people noticed. NPR's Don Gonyea caught on to the fact that the band was doing Czech language covers of Bob Dylan songs. Performing "Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" with its English lyrics including lines such as "Señor, señor, let's disconnect these cables/Overturn these tables/This place don't make sense to me no more/Can you tell me what we're waiting for, señor?"
There the band may have perfectly synthesized both its Czech and American influences, by potentially poking fun at a person in a position of power through a traditionally American genre of music. Subversive or not, though, the band serves as a testament that, in the modern age, it's not so strange to find a little bit of Appalachia in Bohemia.
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Druha Trava is scheduled to perform at The Trunk Space Tuesday, October 15.