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Funky Czech-In

An introduction to Czech and Slovak pop music from the sixties, seventies and eighties with a touch of funk, soul, disco and jazz.

My hobbyhorse

2008-01-17

Pražský výběr – Můj koníček
from album “Pražský výběr” a.k.a. “Straka v hrsti”, 1988, Panton 810826-1311
recorded in 1982, produced by Josef Novotný

PrazskyVyber_StrakaVHrsti_a_128 PrazskyVyber_StrakaVHrsti_b_128
1988 issue LP sleeve (front/back)

I was thinking about a Czech song which has personally influenced me the most in the past. But already the criteria definition – what’s an influence – isn’t a clear task. As a child in the mid seventies I was a big fan of Banjo Band Ivana Mládka (Ivan Mládek’s Banjo Band) whose funny yet clever lyrics appealed both to my contemporaries as well as to the adults. Listening to Mládek’s pseudo-dixieland definitely inspired me to pick up a guitar – a banjo was too expensive – and to write my own songs when I was about twelve. Then as a teenager in the early eighties I’ve discovered the bluesy folk of Vladimír Mišík and Vlasta Třešňák. You know, technically I’m a horrible “singer”, thus their rather non-melodic vocal style fitted me quite well while I was trying hard to become one of their epigones, paraphrasing Třešňák’s songwriting and imitating Mišík’s singing. But the true revolution arrived in 1983 or 1984 during one of our visits in Prague when my half-brother’s uncle (himself an excellent blues guitarist) gave us a cassette copy of the hippest new wave band that ever appeared on Czech stages of the early 1980s: Pražský výběr.

Michael Kocáb (1954) founded Pražský výběr (The Prague Selection – a reference to a cheap Czech wine brand) in 1976 as an offshoot of his schoolmate Milan Svoboda’s Pražský big band (Prague Big Band). In the beginning they were just a young jazz rock combo of conservatory students who played instrumental and at times very complex tracks. I will cover that period in a future post later this year. While the group never officially disbanded at the end of the decade, eventually the jazz musicians around Kocáb went their own ways. Around 1980 he teamed up with ex-Bohemia guitarist Michal Pavlíček and drummer Jiří Hrubeš, who were already a steady duo on their own, be it as members of the explosive jazz rock combo Expanze (undocumented on records) or backing Jana Koubková under her Horký dech (Hot Breath) moniker. And the trio Kocáb/Pavlíček/Hrubeš already worked together when they recorded Petr Klapka’s second Mahagon album in 1979. Although Pavlíček intended to play new wave instead of the fading jazz rock, they decided to reuse the Pražský výběr trademark, likely because the group still officially existed for the bureaucratic communist authorities. At first they performed as a quintet with bass player Ondřej Soukup – who would soon switch to the more lucrative Karel Gott Orchestra – and with the formerly ubiquitous percussionist Jiří Tomek, acting here as a singer and dancer. In 1981 Tomek left as well; obviously he used to have quite an alcohol problem, as I have been told recently by a musician who used to play with him quite often in the seventies. Kocáb & co. then persuaded the bass player from the popular underground punk-jazz outfit Zikkurat to join them, Vilém Čok.

As Kocáb once put it: “It can be hard to play new wave when you actually know how to play.” But the blend of complex jazzy synthesizer lines with a straight 4/4 beat, repetitive bass riffs, a virtuosic guitar floating above it all, as well as highly ironical lyrics (written mostly by František Ringo Čech), that all created a unique and instantly recognizable sound never heard before, at least not in the Middle and Eastern Europe. Crossbreed the late Frank Zappa with Talking Heads and you might get something like Pražský výběr.

In 1982 Pražský výběr recorded their new wave album, some tracks also appeared in Juraj Herz’ avant-gardist movie Straka v hrsti (A Magpie In The Hand). But before the record was ready for a release in 1983, both the movie and the group were banned by the authorities and the musicians were prohibited from performing in the public for nearly two years. The album was withdrawn and destroyed before even reaching the shelves. However, it didn’t take very long and someone managed to smuggle a copy of the master tape out of the recording studio archives, giving a couple of cassette copies to friends who themselves made copies and gave them to their friends and so on, quickly making Pražský výběr the best known rock group in the country. In the meantime, being professional musicians, all members tried to make living by working on their former side projects or playing as backing musicians. Pavlíček, for example, after two years of depression he became very successful with his pop-jazz-rock-wave crossover project Stromboli. Hrubeš on the other hand couldn’t stand the pressure and eventually emigrated in 1985. But in the end the ban caused exactly the opposite effect than intended: along with a couple of other banned groups, Pražský výběr and its protagonists, although inactive from 1983 until 1985, they had more influence on rock and new wave fans and musicians than ever before. By 1985 the independent music scene in Czechoslovakia flourished and the authorities began to lose control over it. (Check out the underground movie Hudba 85 (Music 85) by Lexa Guha, Vladislav Burda and Petr Ryba, recently released on DVD for the first time!)

In 1986 the band was allowed to return on stage with a new drummer as Výběr. They recorded quite a solid self-titled rock album in 1987 and one year later also the original Straka v hrsti album finally found its way onto the vinyl grooves and to the audience. The times were “a-changing” and even the sleeve cartoon contained an unbelievably straight and sarcastic political joke. Výběr continued with a successful career for a couple of years to come and it still sort of exists to the present day, although both main actors obviously split up in a heavy wrangle recently.

Můj koníček (My Hobbyhorse), also known as Krysy (The Rats), was always my favorite track from Pražský výběr’s clandestine tape (and later from the album). Cool, funky and minimalist, with Pavlíček’s sparse guitar effects illustrating an apparent non-sense story of a guy whose hobby is to watch mice and rats snooping around his basement. Every single sound has its place. A song near perfection.


Around 1986 – in times when Pražský výběr was still banned in Czechoslovakia – we used to play a cover version of this tune with our Swiss group Ugly Bluz. We tried another approach regarding the arrangement though, mapping the rhythm guitar to our three-piece horn section and giving the song more of a free-funk touch; at that time we were heavily inspired by groups like Defunkt, Slickaphonics, the early and still unknown Red Hot Chili Peppers or by James Blood Ulmer. This unreleased recording was made in summer 1987 by our friend Hannes Lange, shortly before our band broke up. (If you’re fluent in German language, perhaps you may want to check out the complete story of Ugly Bluz for more details.)

Day by day (in memoriam, the 3rd)

2007-05-25

Stano Táska & Strawberry Jam – Day By Day

from a demo recording 1997

This is simply unbelievable! The series of friends of mine passing away just doesn’t want to stop! Yesterday I’ve received an e-mail message that Stano Táska has tragically died last Saturday while kayaking in a creek near Adelboden, Switzerland. He was only 37 years old.

Stanislav “Stano” Táska was a goodhearted Slovak guy who came to Switzerland in the early 1990s. We met in March 1997 in Berne when I was looking for a new flatmate. Quickly we became good friends and so we were sharing the flat for more than a year. Stano used to live with Bobina, his Slovak girlfriend at that time, in one large room, while me and my cat were occupying the other two tiny rooms. He was originally an agronomist by profession, but also a very talented saxophonist. In Switzerland he began to play as a street musician busker, later he studied at the Swiss Jazz School Berne and gigged with various jazz, funk and party combos all over the country. In the recent years he concentrated on his other passion though, working as a co-leader and cook of the Bernese restaurant Im Juli. And last but not least, Stano was also a passionate sportsman in all available elements: on earth, in the air and in the water. (Yes, it’s both him in action on those images!)

stanotaska2004_200

Stano at his wedding party in 2004 (photo borrowed from www.imjuli.ch)

In my archives I have found several tracks featuring Stano on the tenor sax. My favorite one is the dynamic soul-jazz flavored tune Day By Day. It was recorded by the Strawberry Jam quartet in a rehearsal room in Solothurn on June 15th 1997 with my analogue 8 track mobile studio (yes, the one I once bought from Hannes Lange who passed away in April). Although I was the recording and mixing engineer of the session, I can only recall that the drummer’s name was Pascal Aeby.
Unfortunately, the guitarist and the bass player are unknown to me ten years later. And I’m not even sure if the tune was an original composition or a cover; to me it actually doesn’t sound like that known old standard as interpreted e.g. by Sinatra and many others.
A Swiss party group called Strawberry Jam seems to be active these days in the Solothurn area again. So it’s quite likely that there’s some kind of a connection to the above jazz quartet of the same name from 1997. (I can check it out later, although it’s quite beyond the scope of this blog.)
Update 26.9.2007:
Pascal Aeby, the drummer of the original Strawberry Jam jazz combo, has written in the comments yesterday, that he’s the composer of this tune and that the other two musicians were Sven Rieger on guitar and Cosimo Staffieri on bass. The band broke up after Rieger had to return to Germany. He also stated that the Strawberry Jam party group mentioned above obviously has nothing to do with Stano’s and Pascal’s original group whatsoever.

Also in the late nineties, Stano used to be a member of the acid jazz combo Da Groove Yard from Burgdorf near Berne. They have released an EP entitled Good Talk then. Low quality audio examples as well as old photos with Stano on saxophone are still available on their web site. Since the group would also qualify for my Half Czech-In series, I might return to them in a future post. Their sound was nothing really earth-shaking though and even Stano didn’t blow his solos with as much juice as usual. I remember that he wasn’t very happy about playing with Da Groove Yard in general and eventually he quitted by the end of the decade.

Although we were in sporadic e-mail contact lately, I didn’t see Stano for over five years. Last summer I went to visit him in his restaurant during one of my very rare trips to Berne, but unfortunately he wasn’t there on that afternoon…

Rest in peace, Stano. You will be sorely missed by way too many!

In memoriam, twice more…

2007-04-24

(Yet another almost off-topic post!)

Seriously, what’s going on lately?!
Remember: in February, Sleepy Dan, one of my closest friends and a former bandmate passed away, aged 46. In March I’ve stated that everybody seems to be dying lately after a friend of our family has left us as well, aged 59. But then only one week later a young friend of my wife also died, suffering from a heart disease. She was mere 26. At that time I thought: “Three persons have gone now, actually that’s been already enough people for this whole year.” Obviously I was wrong.

Last week I’ve been informed that yet another two former members of the Ugly Blues Connection/Ugly Bluz, our band in the mid eighties, have passed away recently. Roman Gondolán was one of our regular drummers in 1984 and 1985. As a big fan of acts like Earth Wind & Fire or George Benson he loved to play light and funky disco grooves. Although that didn’t really matched our style then – apart from playing blues rock we used to listen to more freaky stuff like Zappa, George Clinton, Slickaphonics or the very early and yet-to-become-famous Red Hot Chili Peppers – Roman was probably the funkiest drummer who joined our band in the eighties. Like me, Roman was a Czech emigrant in Switzerland. He became a close friend of my family and he even lived with us for more than a year. He originated from a famous Roma family of musicians: his father Antonín Gondolán (planned to be introduced here on Funky Czech-In very soon, by the way!) used to be a member of the Karel Gott Orchestra. After spending a couple of years in Germany, in the early 1990s Roman returned to the Czech Republic. As far as I know, he mostly gave up playing music actively. The last time we met, it was by coincidence in a street café in Prague about ten years ago. Roman died of cancer in November 2006, aged 42.

Johannes Lange, a.k.a. Hännu, was from Berne, Switzerland. He used to be my neighbor in the mid eighties, living in the same house where we lived with my mom, my brother and… with Roman. He was hanging around with our band and sometimes he acted as our road technician. With his 8-track mobile recording facility he was later the sound engineer of an Ugly Bluz session in 1987 which we originally planned to release as an LP; unfortunately that never happened, three songs from that session still appeared on local compilations though. Hännu also used to play bass guitar, around 1990 I joined his cover band named D.I.Y. as a drummer for a short time. (It needs to be said that I’m a horrible drummer though… :) In 1995 I’ve purchased his old analogue mobile recording equipment which I still have in my studio today – although I didn’t use it much in the past years. The last time I’ve seen Hännu, it was six years ago when he rode 100 km with his bicycle from Berne to Basel to visit me and Sleepy Dan. And just two weeks ago I’ve sent him an invitation to the farewell party for Sleepy Dan (who died on February 21st) which will take place in May here in Basel. I was too late though. On the 6th of April, Hännu has obviously decided to put an end to his life. It was his 41st birthday.

Ugly Blues Connection (The “Dead Men” Edition) – Crawling King Snake

live at Gurtenrockfescht Berne, Switzerland, on August 24th, 1985
2-track cassette recording from the mixing console
Sleepy Dan (1960-2007) – vocals, Roman Gondolán (1964-2006) – drums, Hännu Lange (1966-2007) – sound engineer. With Joel Kaiser on bass and myself on guitar. Either Sleepy Dan or our occasional special guest Boldi Debrunner was playing bluesharp on this track.

Hännu Lange at the Gurtenrockfescht on August 24, 1985 (photo © 1985 Lukáš Machata)

Hännu Lange at the Gurtenrockfescht on August 24, 1985 (photo © 1985 Lukáš Machata)

from an Ugly Blues Connection photo session on August 25, 1985: Sleepy Dan, Roman Gondolán, myself, Joel Kaiser (original photographer unknown)

from an Ugly Blues Connection photo session on August 25, 1985: Sleepy Dan, Roman Gondolán, myself, Joel Kaiser (original photographer unknown)

Rest in peace, Roman.
Rest in peace, Hännu.

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2017-07-08: In memoriam Dr. Gui, the funky drummer
2017-02-12: In The Game Preserve
2016-02-17: Interlude: Vampi Czech-In, parts 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7
2009-09-19: Interlude: Vampi Czech-In, part 1
2008-08-31: Mercy Mercy Mercy

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Disclaimer

The audio samples are presented as a “specimen” to encourage readers to buy the artists’ albums. Many of the tracks presented herein are available for purchase in MP3 or FLAC format at supraphonline.cz.

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All written content is © 2006– by Lukáš Machata (Lou Kash). Unauthorized use is strictly prohibited. If you’d like to use portions of my articles, please contact me first.