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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.)

The fountains of cognition

2007-05-04

Mahagon – Prameny poznání
from album “Slunečnice pro Vincenta van Gogha”, 1980, Supraphon 11132684
produced by Jan Spálený, Pavel Kühn & Květoslav Rohleder

Mahagon_SlunecniceProVincentaVanGogha_a_128
original LP sleeve, designed by Vladimír Jiránek

Mahagon might already be a known name to more experienced collectors of funk. They were one of the few quite straight Czech funk-jazz fusion groups of the seventies and their self-titled long play album from 1977 rightfully became a sought-after collector’s item.

The band was the brainchild of bass player, composer and arranger Petr Klapka (1955) while he studied composition at the Prague Conservatory. In the early 1970s he founded Mahagon initially as a singer/songwriter folk duo (!) with his classmate and future Bohemia keyboarder Jan Hála. But soon they became influenced by popular brass-rock groups like Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago, thus the line-up logically expanded to a much larger combo. Klapka usually had an excellent taste in choosing his sidemen: one of the first lead singers was “Mr. Soul” himself, Michal Prokop. Unfortunately that period remained undocumented on records. (Once more… It seems to me that Michal Prokop must have had an extraordinarily bad luck through the seventies in that regard, being often in the right place but mostly at the wrong time.) On the Mahagon debut album, recorded in 1977, you can hear for example Klapka’s schoolmate Michael Kocáb on keyboards, ETC members Jiří Jelínek on guitar (who died tragically soon thereafter) and violinist Jan Hrubý, as well as a large horn section around jazz saxophonist Jiří Niederle. At that time a significant number of the players were also members of the Prague Big Band (Pražský big band) of keyboarder Milan Svoboda, yet another Klapka’s schoolmate from the conservatory.

After adding his wife and ex-C&K Vocal singer Zdena Adamová (1952) to the line-up in 1976, Klapka occasionally began to slip into the pop music genre. He featured Adamová on several Supraphon and Panton seven inch sides between 1976 and 1979. Not all of those singles are a must-have, but I’d still point out the Mahagon debut recording Půlnoční bál/Červené korále. In 1979 Klapka joined the ex-Apollobeat leader, composer and Supraphon producer Jan Spálený for his solo album Signál času (The Signal Of Time), a funky jazz-rock adaptation of poems by Vítězslav Nezval. Although the band name “Mahagon” was used, the studio group had transformed almost completely.

The second and last regular Mahagon album Slunečnice pro Vincenta van Gogha (Sunflowers For Vincent Van Gogh) has been recorded in 1979, too. But yet another transformation happened: what we hear on this record is actually the forthcoming 1980s edition of Pražský výběr, but with Klapka on bass! (The original, jazzy Pražský výběr/Prague Selection combo of the 1970s was in fact the complete rhythm section of the Prague Big Band – hence the band name – and thus the Mahagon connection here isn’t all too surprising.) So, Kocáb is back on the keys, ex-Bohemia Michal Pavlíček played guitar and Jiří Hrubeš was drumming. Further musicians were the ex-Elektrobus and ex-Expanze percussionist Naďa Vávrová as well as a seven-piece horn section. And there’s of course Zdena Adamová, who sang lyrics by Pavel Vrba on most of the tracks.

Unlike the 1st LP, the album concept is rather uneven though. A little bit of pathetic pop here, a slice of hard rock there, homeopathic traces of jazz all over. Yet Prameny poznání (The Fountains Of Cognition) stands out as one of the only two instrumental tracks and as a straight funk jazz tune in almost Hancockish manner. This is Klapka at his funkiest. My other favorite would be A kámen tu nechám (And I’ll Leave The Stone Here), a wicked funk rock song with Adamová’s expressive vocals.

Klapka and Adamová emigrated to the U.S. in 1981. They are [were] running a private music school nowadays.


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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.

Copyright

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.