Thursday, July 18, 2013

First Republic Blues

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Originální Pražský Synkopický Orchestr, Stará Natoč GramofonThey don't have the fame or street cred of the Plastic People of the Universe, but I think a case could be made that this '70s- and '80s-era Czech big band was in its own sly way a subversive cultural lifeline for reform-minded pre-Velvet Revolution Czechs. For while Plastic People wielded the anarchic spirit of Anglo-American rock as an explicit challenge to Communist conformity, OPSO didn't just glance to the old West but looked inward and back, to the Camelot-like era of the First Republic--a time whose enviable combination of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, in a country with a long, proud history as the seat of European power and culture (remember, Prague is actually west of Vienna), may be over-idealized in retrospect but did inarguably represent some kind of golden age of Czech nationhood, all the more mourned for its brutal interruption. This very pointed brand of nostalgia for Jazz Age democracy, independence, and prosperity must surely have seemed, if not quite counter-revolutionary, then a reproach to the Soviet-satellite status quo nonetheless.

Not that this pitch-perfect record, produced in 1982 but sounding about 50 years older than that, could be mistaken for the sound of rebellion. If anything, what shines through these pristine but vigorous arrangements of Czech standards is cohesion, a warm, mutually magnanimous sectional unity that might be cloying if it weren't so precise and nimble. The idiomatic trumpet solo in the tune above is actually atypical of the album, which is mostly content to keep its gleaming brass, humming winds, and weeping strings in tight, interlocking phalanxes, a foxtrot parade. The exceptions are the suave nasal croon of Ondrej Havelka, the Bollywood-worthy chirp of Jitka Nováková, and some witty specialty percussion, supplying just the right woodblock waddle here, a gong or a starting-pistol gunshot there.

But if this record's drama is somewhat submerged beneath its smiling surfaces, I nevertheless cherish it more than the vintage efforts of today's neo-Jazz Agers--in part for its exotic provenance, but also because I know it wasn't so easy for these Czech retro-geeks to look back in innocence, let alone anger.

A few notes: I discovered this in cassette form on my inspiring 1995 Prague trip (the same one that led to this epiphany), and though I didn't get a chance to see them live, apparently OPSO (minus Havelka as frontman) still play regularly on Charles Bridge.

Larry Schweikart Not knowing the band, I defer to your expertise. I guess the question is, were the listeners thinking this was a form of subversion?
Rob Weinert-Kendt I seem to remember the young Czech who introduced it to me (and who now lives in Brooklyn and works for Kroll, in fact) conveying that to me. One suggestive clue I was able to track down: They often performed songs in English during their live shows, but on record and on radio broadcasts they only sang in Czech (until after 1989).
Larry Schweikart That's good, even better if their English lyrics were "Screw the Commie bastards!"

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