I got an email last month from some chap in Slovakia wanting to know if he could translate my International Airport interview for Slovakian web zine 5d. Being a nice bloke I said that he could, as long as he wrote something for Robots in return. Fair exchange being no robbery, he agreed but said that it might take a while. Ha Ha! A week, and about 30 emails later, this monster arrived.. Say hello to Fero (Jim)
I am a music collector. I always liked independent labels music, music which was a bit different. I didn't buy normal CDs because I could tape them. If I wanted Pearl Jam, for example, I always found someone with it. I rather bought something to most people unknown. When I finished university I went to UK. I spent there 5 months. I was in Scotland, Wales, London and Cheltenham. I worked on farms, of course. I returned 2 times. A lot of money I earned I changed for music. Finally I could afford to buy some CDs.
And then this mp3 era came. Thanks to MP3s I got quite a lot of music now. I know it is not legal, but I don't sell/buy anything. I don't like ripping bands off, but on the other hand, I wouldn't buy most of the albums, because I can't afford it. And this music is not distributed in Slovakia, and about most indie bands you won't find anything in magazines. Not only western indie I like. I like jazz, funk, experimental electronics. I like Czech alternative music too, which is really something you won't hear anywhere else.
Since CDs are expensive, there aren't many people here who listen to any alternative music. Of course, those people who moved or lived for long time abroad have good CD collections. You can count on one hand people who know Slint, Will Oldham or Tortoise and similar indie bands. OK, maybe not one hand, but I am sure there wont be many and the bands I have mentioned are the better known ones. What about say International Airport or other Geographic releases? I never seen an indie gig when I was in UK, I can't read UK magazines etc, I just know some info from internet and managed to get quite a lot of stuff on mp3s. I managed to get lots of music because I am a deep fan and spent many hours looking. I also have friends abroad who send me some indie stuff.
I live in the second biggest city here, it is called Kosice. It has 300.000 people. Our capital Bratislava has half of million people. There are 5 mil Slovaks altogether. Bratislava is close to Wien, and to Czech and Hungary - so no wonder it has been our most important city for ages. Kosice is close to Hungary (15 miles), to Ukraine (50 miles) and to Poland (70 miles) too. It become big in 50s, when big steel company was built here and many people from villages moved here. Before there were plenty of aristocratic, or city people, most of them spoke Hungarian. Now in most cities people from villages are in majority and this is why no real culture exists.
I think I will start with some history. Slovaks are a Slavic nation and came to Europe about 1500 years ago. Among Slavic people you can count Czechs, Slovaks, Russian, Polish, almost all Yugoslavian (Serbs, Chorvatians etc) and Bulgarians. Maybe some Romans, but they are too mixed with gypsies and Turkish, I guess. Slavics were always rural, agricultural people, not big warriors as the Germans are. They are easy going people, easy to please, phlegmatic, hard workers.
The best known Slovak was Andy Warhol. He was born in eastern Slovakia. When he was 3 his parents (with him of course) moved to US. Guess why he was so crazy, because we are all crazy here! More to east, crazier!First Slavic county , it was Great Moravia in 9th century or so ruled by King Svatopluk. When he died, his 3 sons weren't able to rule the country, just argued among themselves. Czech and Slovaks belonged to Austria-Hungary monarchy from 11th century. Yep, Hungarian, they are pretty different from us all. I don't know when exactly they came, but they are small Mongolian people. Aggressive - or used to be. They even made it to Finland and this is why Finnish and Hungarian are similar languages. Huns, they were called. So Czech and Slovak live in slavery since 10th century until now. The Polish and Russians as well, but they had their own masters. This is big difference.
Because Czechs are more self confident, and maybe because they are twice as many as we, after 500 years they had Prague, and King Carl (4th or 5th) who was emperor for all middle Europe, I guess. He loved art and culture, philosophy, anything really. He made a couple of universities in Prague. Since then Czech was legalised language. Of course, the intelligent spoke German.
Slovakia was an integral part of Hungary and Hungarian was the legal language but most normal people didn't speak it. In 19th century finally some Slovaks intellectuals wanted to change it. In 1861, the Slovak National Party petitioned Emperor Francis Joseph to grant the Slovaks territorial, linguistic and political rights, but to no avail.
When the 1st world war ended the Czecho-Slovak Republic started. But to be honest, Czechs always used us. The Slovak People's Party called for constitutional revision and autonomy for the Slovaks but exerted little influence on Czech leaders. In October 1938, following the Munich conference, Slovakia achieved autonomy in the Second Czecho-Slovak Republic, which was demolished by Hitler in March 1939.
During world wars, because we were too little and Germany is Czech neighbour, when Hitler took over in Germany it wasn't easy. 2nd world war began. When it finished, winners split all countries involved. Czechoslovakia was occupied by Russia in 1945. Great. Soon after, Communist won election. Well, no one knows if it was legal. Most of the nation is naïve and populist bullshit worked. These times were really rough, Slovaks wanted to stop the Hungarian rule. Maybe this is why nationalist ideas are still so powerful.
Since then hell raised. Beginning of 50s were the worst. Everybody who didn't want to participate was discredited, or imprisoned, or even killed. Of course, the masses were satisfied, because of media propaganda and because the masses don't really want to see reality. The proletariat won: everybody had work, no unemployment! But in fact people really didn't have to do anything. Wages were ok, but soon much lower than in west countries. It was an artificial economy. In 50s almost every normal goods was difficult to get. It was pretty normal that for a toilet paper people waited all night long in kilometre long rows.
Communist government took all aristocrats property. In fact, everything now belonged to state. Farmers had to gave their fields, manufacturers their factories. It was most dangerous for intellectuals during Communist rule. Even though all together they were like 1% of all citizens, writers, artists and musicians could carry on working only if they joined the party - the only party. And if they joined they had to participate. If they didn't join, they couldn't even find a normal job, just the worst ones were possible for them. this is why all writer used to be stokers.Well, maybe you know all about it. I just wanted to make sure you have all necessary background. Nowadays, Slovakia is the poorest country from all V4 countries thanks to Vladimir Meciar. After the so-called Velvet Revolution (where Communist control crumbled) in 1989 there were enthusiastic times but soon when it was clear that a change had happened, many Communists pretended they always wanted a change and because everybody knew someone who was a Communist, people didn't know what to do. So they drew a thick line under history, which wasn't good and this is why that in politics there are that many Communists.
Meciar, trained in Russia, knew what to do. He promised a lot and always lied but he behave just the same way as normal people do. This is why he won election in 1992. It was just another, easier form of Communism and he is still very popular. About 25% of all Slovaks like him. Well, it will take a generation to change it. Slaves always stay slaves. Meciar oversaw the peaceful splitting of Czechoslovakia in 1993. In 1998 the opposition won, which was good. But we were 10 years behind Czech, Poland and Hungary. Opposition is not as bad as Meciar, but still they lie and steal too.
Politics. This is why many young people leave, mostly to Canada. Living standard is very low. Of course, it is not as bad as in Russia or Ukraine, but not good. Communism made one thing: no class system; doctors, engineers or workers lived same way, almost same wages. It was very normal that since all property belonged to the state no one took care of it, so it was easy to steal it. Many people did, it was normal. Polite people didn't have a chance.
Many people now say it was better then because they had work and things were much cheaper. They don't mind that they had to control what they said, they don't mind the censorship. This is why Meciar is so popular among older people. Capitalism is worst for them. It is not enough to just do a job now, you have to care about it too. And of course, specialist are better paid. People don't understand why, and they are afraid, because like my Mum - she can't really do anything, so if she was fired, it would be very hard for her to find a job.
As Germanic language (English, German, Dutch, Swedish etc..) are similar, Slavic languages are similar too, even more similar. Czech and Slovak most similar of all. Since we lived very long together, there is no problems for us to understand each other. The Slovak language is based on middle Slovak dialect (western was to hard, and eastern was too quick and crazy. Really, I am from here, I know it.) If I start speaking eastern Slovak dialect in Prague, people are lost. Like a Scottish guy in London.
Since Czech are our BIG brother, they think they are a bit better, so sometimes they behave as they don't understand. Well, you know, when English gentleman come to US, some stupid Americans would just make fun of him. I can clearly understand Polish, despite the fact I have never learned Polish. I actually read few books in Polish. Russian is a bit difficult, but in Communism I was pressed to learn it, so I understand quite a lot. With people from the Balkans it is harder, but the main things are easy to understand.
So this is our situation, I can start a story about music now.
Slovak and Czech music was much influenced with Communism but the real history of popular music begin in 50s. World War ended and Americans left their soldiers in Europe and made radio stations for them. American jazz was broadcast, and soon R&B and Rock and Roll. I don't know how it was in England, but this meant a lot for middle European countries. In 50s of course, it was thought-control times: biggest censorship and propaganda. Anything from the West was bad, imperialistic. So we danced classical dances, waltz, polka, Hungarian czardasz, etc. Folk music was big this time as well because people didn't have radios and cities were small. And of course we had to sing Russia's songs: new music, made on easy cliché classic melodies with propaganda lyrics.
But at the end of 50s situation calmed down, radios became normal in many families so western music made some impact. Of course, it was illegal to listen to western radio station, but it was illegal even to think so why not listen? First it was Czech radio, then Slovak, which I guess broadcast half Czech stuff and half ours. There were state radio stations with propaganda, but since no-one liked their music new popular music was developed. It was a mix of cool jazz, bossanova, and stupid lyrics - Socialistic middle stream, easy to listen, a fucking bullshit (which now has come back - because older people are conservative and want to listen what they listened when they were young and happy.)
Folk music passed away, because lots of people went to cities. Of course intellectuals, or so called dissenters, listened to Austrian radio, or Radio Luxembourg and Slobodna Europa. And in western Germany there were some American radio stations for their soldiers.
I live close to Hungary and I remember when I was young I listened to Hungarian radio. I could hear some rock bands, like Europe, which I like very much when I was 10, but it was better in Poland. People who lived close to Poland in 80s had it very nice. Polish radio often showed new albums by alternative western bands! Czechoslovakia, because it is small and because Slovaks are too easy going was always a 16th Russian republic. Poland and Hungary were big countries in history and their dissent was very strong. Charta 77 was signed in Prague, Solidarita 80 in Poland. But Slovaks, were always afraid of something and this is why in our radio it was hard to find anything which wasn't conventional.
The rock and roll era came here too. You know that in USA this music didn't have it easy. Parents couldn't understand what their children see on so dirty music. But it became very popular and replaced swing. Jazz went to little clubs and youth had their rock and roll idols. Here it was even more difficult. Communism ruled, but young people always didn't care for authorities and didn't fully understand what could really happen. Later the Communists allowed rock and roll, but that always made problems because they knew if they allow a bit people wouldn't rebel. But there was only one record label in the country! It started sometime in 60s. And if you see how difficult it is for a band to get onto a major label now, it was 10 times more difficult then. Only bands who changed, did some sort of propaganda, sang in festivals of political songs and some similar stuff made it big. Normal people didn't have clue that there were plenty of other bands. Most of them lived in Prague. They made their tours in Czech, sometimes came to Slovakia, but mostly played only in western parts. Where I live it didn't change until now. Rock and Roll became more rock and here we called it Big Beat. The Beatles era came and even in Slovakia they were popular.
Poland, East Germany or Russia. They have a strong jazz tradition, mostly free jazz. Punk, metal, these were played everywhere. Hungary is for commercial music. Reggae is popular in Poland, hardcore too. Czech were always most intelligent of all Slavics. Maybe this is why they have so strange music. In the middle of 60s Big Beat festivals started. Music scene in Czech was quickly developing. 60s were the most open years in socialist camp. But then in 1968 Russian army came. Russia realised that her little brother, Czechoslovakia was behaving nasty. After that normalisation started. Similar to when Communists won in 1948. There was imprisoning, people got fired from work etc.. Not as radical as in '48, but again it meant bad times for culture. Music Commissions were formed. Before, anybody could play and earn money if they were good. Now, they could only play if they were allowed.
Music Commissions classified not a band's originality but whether they were politically correct. Bands who were allowed and wanted to play had to participate and without a stamp on a permit you couldn't play. Musicians had to decide and most of them started to play jazz rock - which was quite safe and not stupid. Some went to classical and those who weren't that skilled, or didn't want to change, could play secret gigs. But you never knew when police come.. if you've read George Orwell's 1984 you should have a clue.
After 1989 there was an enthusiastic era with lots of radio stations and many people started to print books which were forbidden before. I used to read sci fi. These people were fans, they wanted to sell only good things but their efforts showed that masses don't give a fuck, they want something else. Soon after that, companies from abroad came. Some of them just wanted to wash their dirty money, some of them wanted as much as they could take.
Globalisation. Music majors soon bought all of the market. Good alternative radio stations ended. We have a small market and Radio 1,biggest Prague alternative radio, had to close. They had 30.000 - 60.000 listeners a day but it wasn't enough. Rag Time, the only Slovak alternative radio, in Bratislava, closed in 1999. Same problem: no advertisements. Because of small market, radio stations can't specialise, they have to broadcast everything, which won't make anybody change to the station. Fun Radio sometimes does some alternatives because it specialise on young people. They sometimes do jazz programs and our state radios have some programs but still it is not enough.
In the first half of 90s, Slovakia (but similar it was in Czech and probably in other eastern European countries too) spent time reinventing freedom. Soon from Germany came a big wave of dancefloor. This was probably the biggest impact those years. There were couple of dance bands which sold the biggest amount of CDs. Then, of course, adult pop. This didn't make as much money as dance music but it was still (and it is now too) a big best-seller. From foreign music the most popular is what is most popular abroad, the MTV stuff. Second half of 90s was and still goes on as a retro guitar era. You know - what Oasis did, and Blur in mid of 90s: guitar rock and pop. This music is more intelligent than any other form of popular music here. Our all time favourites are cabaret artists and humorists making their music albums. Usually very dull. but cheap, mostly only on tapes. Also in 90s a big era of musicals came. First in Czech, then continued to Sovakia, it is because plenty of so-called artists can make a lot of money on it and it makes illusion of real art.
First music magazines appeared in 60s. Czech Melodie (melodie.in4.sk) - it still exists - and sometime in 80s Slovak Popular. The Paradox is that on market you could buy only LPs from Supraphon (www.supraphon.cz), the only label, and then from Panton - second Czech label. Sometime in beginning of 70s, Opus, a Slovak label started. The paradox, as I said, was that the selection was watered down but in the magazines you could read about anything. Of course, the magazines were obliged to print articles about Russian music and how Western countries were stupid. But then, if these magazines did that, they could print really anything else. And they did.
Now there are no media who writes about jazz as much as it was done in Communism. Articles about Zappa, Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu.. and none of these LPs you could buy here. Or anywhere in socialistic camp. Well, I have a note about that. Russia and Bulgaria, yes and Yugoslavia too. (And I think Poland too) They did pirate copies of western popular music. In 80s you could buy anything from pop music: Modern Talking, Europe, Sandra.. In their forged editions. Cheap of course, without license. This was paradise for music fans. In Czechoslovakia there was big black market in big towns. There you could buy anything. Especially Zappa, Velvets and all other LPs mentioned in our press.
The black market LPs were extremely expensive. Now CDs are very expensive, but back then they were much more because it was illegal and only music fanatics bought it. The masses didn't have clue about it. Me included. I grew up in a normal family. My father was worker, and my Mum clerk. Father died, and Mum still doesn't care about anything. I really wonder why I care for culture that much. And my younger brother even more, he studies arts. He's a puppet theatre director. He did some plays, in radios and theatres too and he is damn good. As well he studied painting (at secondary school - we can choose to specialise that early) and in this he is very good too. So it was black market, and specialised magazines.
Even film magazines existed. They wrote about Russian movies, but also they were the only source for information about Berlinalle, Cannes. But unfortunately with films no black market existed, and doesn't exist until now. Czechs were always better in these magazines. In fact, there is no Slovak music or film magazine now. There are couple of them in Czech. There's a Czech mutation of Cinema, Premiere or Total Film. For music there's Rock And Pop (www.muzikus.cz/rock/index.html), which started in 1990. It looked similar to NME, but only bimonthly and 32 pages and in 1996 it transformed to a monthly colour magazines with 150 pages as say Select is. Then there are some special magazine for hard rock and metal (Big Bang, Rock Report) and for dance music, which since mid 90s became very popular there was Zivel (www.zivel.cz) and Tripmag. All of them are Czech.
There are also alternative music magazines: Tamto from Brno (tamto.mysteria.cz), always packed with hard to find music. It appears 2-4 a year. Then there's Artistic UNI (www.unijazz.cz/english/uni/index.html), a monthly magazine, made by UNI agency which also does festival of all sorts of alternative music in Prague called Alternative. This year it was 10th I guess. John Zorn came. In Communism there were some illegal magazines, spread by the people. Two of them survived. Vokno and Masurkove Podzemni (MP). They both went legal in 1989. Vokno stopped sometime in 1995, MP still goes with one or two editions a year covering deep alternatives and post punk.
I haven't counted the fanzines. There must be plenty of metal and punk ones. Popular stopped soon after revolution I guess and since then, there is Hudobny Zivot (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org)but it is oriented for classical and jazz lovers. Not many people buy it, it is pretty unknown. I guess there should be few more magazines like this one here and in Czech too. But things are going better now. Young people start new businesses. 3/4 revue (tristvrte.cjb.net)started a year ago doing a few editions a year. And one more magazine, VLNA (www.message.sk/drewo/vlna.php3) made by writers and poets. It is modest and artistic, but tries to write about music too. Music journalist is not a common job here. Newspapers look for more commercial but good music and easy reviews. And Watt (www.watt.sk)is a Slovak magazine about hi fi equipment, but with music section.
Internet is a good chance for Slovakian music. The problem is that most servers found sponsors but the people who make them are not music specialists. So they look like a mix of good page and bad page.
In Czech there are some indie labels:
Globus is the original and still-current label of the Plastic People of the Universe. Globus, like Black Point, also has for aeons actively supported the Czech Underground in music. Also check out Joe Carnation Band, Pulnoc, and other cool things.
Rachot (email@example.com). Sometimes you have the rare opportunity to see a band which blows you away to such a degree that you can't fathom why on EARTH that band is not famous as hell! Well, all of the bands on Rachot Records fit this description- and I've seen most of them live, so I will attest to this reality!. Rachot presents not only releases of the greatest "new Czech music" including bands Sing Sing, Metamorphosis, Deep Sweden, Tornado Lue and Alom, but also handles concert promotion and booking both in the Czech Republic and abroad.
Skoda (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Washington DC-based indie label, Czech band Uz Jsme Doma's label in the USA. Skoda has been involved in promoting Czech music for over 7 years, releasing CDs from bands Uz Jsme Doma, Sto Zvirat, and a wonderful compilation of Czech indierock.
Stoka (www.stoka.sk) is Slovakia's foremost experimental theatre company. Member of Stoka's cast have their own band projects including Ali Ibn Rachid, Dogma, and Pozon Sentimental .. luscious, hyberbolic and hilarious texts to wonderfully light, almost French cabaret-style indie pop!
And of course, if band members have enough money, they pay the studio and release the CD their own way, but the problem is with the distribution. If a Czech band is really good it ends up with Indies. I guess that many CDs are paid not only by label but some amount a band has to pay.
Most majors have their branches in Czech, only few in Slovakia. Indie is distributed by two companies: Mute Czechoslovakia and Maximum Underground. These are Czech companies. In mid 90s Wegart (www.wegart.sk), Slovak alternative music distribution, was born. And seems that I can get some promos from them: Domino stuff since Domino guys are nice fellows and even if they sell only few records here, they still send a lot of promos.
In Slovakia the situation is worse, there is no big indie label. In beginning of 90s there was one, really good, called Zoon. They released about 10 CDs byTornado Lue, Lahka Muza, M.Burlas. Stoka, an independent theatre, made few CDs. Some of their members have bands. In the middle of 90s Robert Gregor made a label - Gregor Agency. He released about 5 compilations of Slovak unknown bands but since he didn't care for promotion, no one knew about it. He also done 2 or three albums for best bands of this compilation. Now, there is Dead Red Records (www.tamizdat.org/deadred/start.htm), made by Nylon Union members. They want to publish only good bands, mostly EPs. Because this way the records won't be expensive and everybody can buy them. Well, everybody: 500-1000 people. Again, distribution is problem.
CD shops. This is awful; there are like 5 CD shops in my hometown. All small. Mostly popular music, and a little choice in alternative music. They are afraid to order special little bands. Even from jazz they order only known things. But it depends, in some cities there are big stores. Bonton is a local major, I guess there are 3 in Slovakia. But they look like the smallest Virgin you can imagine.: This is Slovakia, Czech have it a bit better. But back to Slovakia. In Bratislava, there are two little indie shops. I guess the only ones here. There are a few mail-order places, but they can order only the stuff CD shops can. Many little indie labels are not distributed here. What for, if Domino can sell only few CDs?
In Czech, situation is better. Indies have a shop in Brno. Black Point (www.intimate.cz/blackpoint)and Maximum Underground are in Prague. There some big super markets. They still look like small Virgin branch, but for Czech Republic (or for Slovaks too) it is a big shop, because we have them only few. Czech CD supermarkets are about twice as big as Slovak one and they are better because they don't have to deal with crossed Slovak-Czech distribution but can order directly from say MUTE CZ or Maximum Underground. And because there are more people, and they are more into culture, some little indie shops can exists. But as I said, if you compare best Czech indie CD shop with UK one, it is like the worst UK one. Not big selection, but because of CD prices it is understandable.
Slovak indie bands: May have no CDs
Bigger Slovak bands: Good Bands, not the shit. Ok, I don't like them, but there are even worse here.
Big names: not always good
And we used to have good jazz rock, some of it influenced by funk. Not the free jazz like Polish, or Eastern Germans. Check Cosmic Sound Label (www.cosmic.sounds.mcmail.com) made by a Yugoslavian who lives in London. He tries to make some forgotten eastern European bands.
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