Vera Bílá is a Czech Roma, although her family originates from the Gypsy shantytowns of Slovakia. She smokes heavily, eats with gusto, and loves to eat donuts. Her hard life is evident in her voice but she’s succeeded in becoming the Czech Republic’s best-known and most successful Gypsy performer.
For many years, Vera Bílá performed with Kale, an all male quartet. The band used to be called Vera Bílá & Kale (Vera White and The Blacks, as it translates). She comes from a small town in Bohemia (Czech Republic), Rokycany, about 70 kilometers west of Prague, in the heart of Eastern Europe. As with most Roma (Gypsy) groups, all of the band members belonged to the same family.
Vera Bílá has been called the Ella Fitzgerald of Gypsy music. She has been singing since as far back as her memory reaches. From a tender young age until she was 25, Nera sang with her father who was a violinist and leader of a cymbalom band. In the mid-1980s the top Czech folk band, Nerez, saw Vera performing with Kale at a folk festival and were so impressed that they began inviting them to guest at their sold out concerts.
In 2000 she appeared at London’s Barbican Centre on her first ever UK visit and sold out the 2000 capacity hall, she then rocked the main stage at WOMAD the following July. January 2001 saw the BBC-TV screen an hour-long documentary charting her fascinating journey from local folk singer to the stages of some of the world’s most famous concert halls.
In the beginning of September 2005, Vera Bílá split up with her band Kale and manager and producer Jiri Smetana. She moved from the Czech Republic to Presov, in Slovakia, where her family originally came from. Shortly after her arrival, she started to work with a Roma band called Holubovci.
Kocko & Orchestr is peculiar songster, singer, composer and speculator in the area of traditional Moravian and Slavonic artistic creation, history and religion.
He and his group play a combination of Middle-Eastern and European world music. Their music is acoustic: guitars, violin, cimbalom and flutes, as well as percussion and traditional folk instruments. It has expressive strains and rhythmic background with elements of rock and folk music and jazz.
They have appeared at the most important festivals in the Czech republic and at world festivals (EBU – European broadcasting union, Nowa tradycja, Colours of Ostrava, United Islands of Prague, Le village europ?en des nouvelles musiques traditionnelles, Ethnosfera 2002 … etc.).
Terne Chave (Young guys, in the Roma language) is an award-winning Gypsy music band led by Gejza Bendig that is specialized in Eastern European Roma music. The band members hail from Hradec Kralove and grew together. They perform old Gypsy songs, learned from their grandparents, who arrived to the Czech Republic from East Slovakian gypsy settlements. The band also performs its own material, sung in Roma.
Musically, Terne Chave combines Gypsy traditions with Latin music, jazz, rock, flamenco, blues, Middle Eastern and Jewish influences.
Kaj Dzas (Indies Records, 2004)
Anja (Indies Records, 2005) More, Love! (Indies Scope Records, 2008) Avjam Pale (Indies Records, 2011)
Bo Me Som Rom (2015)
Born in Ostrava, in the Czech Republic, the young Marta Topferova moved with her family to Prague, where she began her musical career at age 8 singing in the Miadi children’s chorus, whose repertoire was mostly classical and folkloric pieces. As a child she studied piano and guitar, and got her own first guitar at the age of thirteen. Prague may have been an unlikely place to fall in love with Latin music, but for Marta, that was where she first encountered the music that would change her life. “My parents had Chilean friends who had given them a collection of Inti-Illimani records,” she says. “They became my favorite records as a kid. In those days (the Communist era), it was still hard to get a lot of music; but I know if it had been possible, I would have searched out a lot more Latin music.”
Eventually, she did just that. After emigrating to Seattle with her family as a teenager in the 1980s, Topferova found herself gravitating towards the Hispanic community and teaching herself Spanish. “It was just me, my mother and my sister and I felt isolated, thinking I would never go back to my country. Then I met Hispanic friends at school and that community drew me in. It was like a second home. Through those friendships I penetrated Latin music and culture more deeply.”
In her teens Marta sang with The Seattle Girls’ Choir for four years. Later, she would major in music and dance at Bard College in New York. Marta also began to get serious about her guitar playing and researching Latin American music, searching out rare folkloric recordings and finding the originators of the styles she loved. “I’ve always loved the rhythms and genres of Latin America,” Marta says. “Son, trova & bolero… I’m definitely inspired by the folkloric styles, but my own music is difficult to classify.” In fact, the music that Marta plays today is the result of years of study, apprenticeship and travels that took her to Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
In Spain, Marta lived in Morón de la Frontera, a cradle of flamenco in Andalucia, where she studied flamenco at its source. In Mexico, Marta gained one of her first onscreen experiences when she performed on Fiestas Patrias, a popular television program shot in Merida. Her travels also brought her to Havana’s famous casas de la trova – those bastions of Cuban traditional music – where she soaked up decades of Cuban musical genius.
After a short stay in Miami, Marta moved to New York in 1996, where she immersed herself in the burgeoning Venezuelan and Colombian communities. She acquired a Venezuelan voice teacher who introduced her to Venezuelan vals, gaita and merengue, and began performing duets with Lucia Pulido, who in turn introduced Marta to Colombian joropos and musica llanera. Eventually she traded in her guitar for the smaller, higher-pitched Venezuelan cuatro, and began to incorporate these new styles into her repertoire.
For anyone who doubts the authenticity of a Czech woman playing Latin American music, Marta offers this response: “People only question me if they don’t know me, but once they hear me and realize that I study this music very seriously, they’re usually very convinced. Really, music travels the way we do nowadays, and borders can’t keep people in or out anymore.”
Marta explains that it’s difficult to categorize her music. “I suppose I’m kind of a part of the nueva trova movement,” she laughs, “but I’m reluctant to call it that.”
Poetry is a big inspiration for Topferova, too. “I speak English everyday, but I mostly read poetry in Spanish and Czech,” she explains. “Garcia Lorca and especially the Argentine poet Atahualpa Yupanqui have been very important to me. I’ve always loved Lorca, a lot of his work was inspired by flamenco, and I’ve always identified with gypsies, since so much of my childhood and adult life has been so nomadic.”
In 2000 she recorded Sueño Verde for Circular Moves/ Rykodisc (the album wasn’t released until 2003) with her former partner, guitarist Enrique Lopez. The album won critical praise, and gave audiences their first taste of Marta’s luminous songwriting and impressionistic lyrics.
With her 2005 release, La Marea, (“The Tide”), Marta was joined by an impressive pair of seasoned musicians, Colombian harpist Edmar Casteneda and drummer Chris Eddleton. “I’m very proud of this record,” Marta says about La Marea. “It brings together so many different experiences that I’ve lived through and images and ideas I cherish. I’m also very pleased with the arrangements and personnel. I feel very lucky to have been joined by so many wonderful guest players – violinist Jenny Scheinman, flutist Yulia Musayelyan, French horn player Chris Komer, pianist/accordionist Angus Martin, bassist Pedro Giraudo and percussionists Neil Ochoa and Urbano Sanchez. I’ve worked with all of them over the years and they’re good friends. Everything came together so naturally, I couldn’t have planned it better.”
For many years Kale performed as Vera Bila & Kale (Vera White and The Blacks, as it translates). This relationship lasted until September 2005.
Kale come from a small town in Bohemia (Czech Republic), Rokycany, about 70 kilometers west of Prague, in the heart of Eastern Europe. As with most Roma (Gypsy) groups, all of the band members belong to the same family.
In the mid-1980s the top Czech folk band, Nerez, saw Vera performing with Kale at a folk festival and were so impressed that they began inviting them to guest at their sold out concerts.
When the time came to record their first album, Rom-Pop, Kale had to choose from their vast repertoire. With the help of the producers, Zuzana Navarova and Vit Sazavsky from Nerez, they selected 16 songs which they felt expressed their roots as well as others which represented a development and natural progression of traditional Gypsy music. Lyrically, the songs describe the trials and tribulations of Gypsy life. While their sound is based on acoustic guitars supplemented here and there by fiddle, saxophone or drums, the rich vocals of Vera and the four male members of the band set the band apart from their Roma colleagues. Rom-Pop was released to great critical acclaim which culminated in Kale’s nomination for the Czech Grammy as Newcomer of the Year.
With Rom-Pop still very much alive, the band was so full of new ideas that the record company could no longer hold them back and thus sent them to the studio to record a follow-up album, Kale Kaloré. The main development from the debut album, which is heavy with contributions from guest musicians and other people’s compositions, is that the band felt confident enough in their own abilities to write and record it all themselves, helped only by the producer, Zuzana Navarova, and a guest violinist. The result is more compact and closer to the roots and further confirms the band’s international potential.
In the beginning of September 2005, Vera Bila left the band. Kale replaced its most charismatic performer with Dezider Lucka, a member of Kale.
Says band member Emil “Pupa” Miko about the importance of music in Gypsy culture: “Music belongs to our lives, it’s tied to our history. It is a living part of us.”
Violinist, singer and composer, Iva Bittová recognizes no boundaries in music. She is one of the most significant and original personalities of contemporary Czech music. Her musical projects are events not only in the Czech arts scene, but worldwide.
Foremost of Czech artists she has won international recognition. She has staged successful concerts throughout Europe, the United States and Japan. Her records have aroused a lot of interest internationally.
Iva Bittová was born in 1958 into a musical family and lives in a small village near Brno called Lelekovice. She studied acting at secondary school. From 1975 through 1988 she was involved with the theater group Na provázku. She also performed as a duet with Pavel Fajt (1985 – 1991), as a vocalist with the rock group Dunaj (1985 – 1988), with French musicians guitarist F. Richard and P. Fajt (1989) and in 1991 she was involved with a gathering of selected avant-garde musicians from all over the world (i.e. Fred Frith, Tom Cora, Chris Cutler).
In 1995 Iva Bittová performed several concerts of 44 Duets for two violins by Béla Bartók with violinist Dorothea Kellerová (a member of the Brno State Orchestra). In 1996 she won two prizes in the prestigious competition organized by the Academy of Popular Music. She came first in the category “Singer of the Year” and in the alternative music category.
The association of musicians Cikori was set up in 1999 by Iva Bittová and Vladimír Václavek. They are involved in improvisational music for the sequel to the successful recording “White Inferno”. The other members of Cikori, František Kucera (trumpet) and Jaromír Honzák (double bass) also took part in this new recording. Miloš Dvorácek has taken up drums and percussion and the high quality soundtrack was provided by the sound engineer Ivo Viktorin. This resulted in the fresh, expressive and original music which combines the alternative elements of jazz and world music.
Most of the lyrics are written by Karel David and Vladimír Václavek and some other writers. Another interesting addition to the band’s concerts is the girls’ choir Lelky led by Iva Bittová.
In the year 2000 Iva Bittová recorded with the Roma (Gypsy) band Taraf de Haidouks. She also presented a concert of Gregorian chants with Schola Gregoriana Pragensis.The following year Iva Bittová performed with Škampa Quartet for the Prague Spring (music originally composed for Kronos Quartet)
Iva Bittová, EP (Panton, 1986)
Balada pro banditu – A Ballad for a Bandit, EP (Panton,1986)
Iva Bittová (Pavian, 1991)
River of Milk (EVA, 1991)
Ne, nehledej – No, Do Not Seek (BMG, 1994)
Kolednice – Carol singer (BMG, 1995)
Divná slecinka – A Strange Young Lady (BMG, 1996) Iva Bittová (Nonesuch, 1997) Elida, with Bang on a Can (Cantaloupe, 2005) Bile Inferno (Indies Scope Records, 2009) Iva Bittová (ECM, 2013)
Entwine – Proplétám (Pavian Records, 2014)
The cymbalom band Hudci z Kyjova was founded in 1994 by musicians who were already well-experienced players in other cymbalom bands. The first album called “Putovali Hudci” was recorded by the band in 1996 in the English town of High Wycombe. At the beginning of September 1998 Hudci z KyjovaA recorded their second CD “Jede forman dolin” again in England.
Hudci z Kyjova comment on their roots: “We proceed from the song richness of Kyjov but we at the same time add also songs from other folklore regions, taking inspiration also from abroad, for example from Hungary or Romania to borrow and play something from their instrumental jewels. We thus “wander” by our playing around different folklore areas and select more or less known melodies.”
The third album, Proc kalino nerozkvétáš was a boxed set with a bonus DVD.
The Gypsy band Gulo car of nine members plays funk jazz music strongly influenced by Gypsy melodies and harmonies. In 2003 Gulo Car toured with one of the most important and famous Czech pop band (Mig21), across the biggest cities of the Czech Republic. In March 2004 they received the Andel prize in the category World Music, the Czech equivalent of the Grammy Awards. In April 2004, a TV station from Holland, NOS, shot a documentary about the band. On the 2nd of May they played on the festival United Islands of Prague in the T-mobile Hall as a guest Band to the French stars Gipsy Kings.
Gulo car emerged in a well-known quarter of Brno where dark-skinned gypsies and whites live in a distinct kind of coexistence, while almost all Gypsy members come practically from one street. This quarter is inherently characterized by a certain grayness and seediness but also by music which is its inseparable part. For some years, the core of the band combined the traditional Gypsy roots in a natural and creative way with all contributing influences of modern pop production. Particularly two players of the brass section contribute to the mutual influence and merge of diverse musical impulses and methods and they are the only white-skin members of the band. In the melting pot of this process, the inherent musicality with the experience of bar musicians and technical preciseness are the basic ingredients of a phenomenon which currently does not have any analogy on the Czech music scene.
During the decade of the 1990s, Čechomor established as a premier band exploring the wedding dances and folk songs of their native Czech Republic, combining violin, cello, electric and acoustic guitar with accordion and occasionally Czech bagpipe.
The band benefits from its unique location on the map of Europe; its music draws its strength from both Eastern and Western sources: the Breton “fest-noz meets the Moravian “verbunk”. The line that cuts the Czech Republic in its middle in the south-north direction does not only separate rivers running westward to Elbe from the eastbound streams of the Danubian basinit also divides the historical territory of the Kingdom of Bohemia from the Margravate of Moravia, and on a larger scale, the Western folk music tradition from the East European family of styles, which reaches as far as Romania and Balkans.
While the band’s name Čechomor points to both Czech and Moravian cultural sources, the Moravian eastern flavored songs are the most notable in its repertory. Some of them come directly from the research done by František Sušil who was employed as Professor at the Institute of Theology in the principal Moravian town of Brno, although he has gone down in the history books rather as a collector of folk songs. More than one hundred and fifty years after its publication his collection of melodies and texts still lives on as the most important source of Moravian traditional music.
CzechoMor was started as The First Czech-Moravian Independent Musical Company in 1988 by part time musicians, part time theater performers. Soon they discovered the nasty consequences of a long name: their fans called them CzechoMor, which incidentally means The Czech Torture.
Despite their straightforward, easy, low key profile, the band recorded 2 CDs and performed in the foyer of the Royal Albert Hall during the Week of Czech Culture in 1993. Since the mid 1990s they established themselves as major ambassadors of Moravian music in Prague. As one of the favorite bands of President Václav Havel, they were asked twice to perform at Havel’s late wife Olga’s Goodwill Foundation charity meetings. They have also played at some of the top European world music festivals.
In 1999 Čechomor performed at the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany and at the EBU Folk Festival in Dranouter in Belgium. That same year the band was invited to front Czech Republic’s most popular rock band: Lucie. While playing for rock audiences, Čechomor proved themselves as the ultimate live band. Their music explodes with raw energy, but also maintains integrity and honesty – virtues very rare in today’s showbiz. During the tour, thousands of new fans converted to Čechomor’s brand of music.
By the end of 2000, their new album Čechomor was a platinum success and sold over 20 000 copies. Reaching a mainstream audience was a challenge. After “updating” traditional songs, Čechomorembarked on an ambitious project. The musicians met up with Jaz Coleman from the British punk band Killing Joke, who had turned to classical music. Coleman helped them produce their next album, Transformations, recorded with the Czech Philharmonic Collegium. The album was a tremendous success with over 80 000 copies sold.
Transformations went on to win three Czech Music Academy Awards for Best Album, Best Group, Best Song. In 2002 Čechomor starred in a fiction-documentary called The Year of the Devil which won the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and went on to win a total of 7 Czech Lion awards (the Czech equivalent of the Oscar Academy Awards) including Best Soundtrack. The band spent much of 2003 touring with the Czech Philharmonic Collegium. In April their Prague concert was recorded for TV and the resulting DVD Transformations Tour became a bestseller.
With 4 platinum releases to their credit, Čechomor was one of the Czech Republic’s most popular bands and performed all over the Czech and Slovak republics, in Germany, Belgium, England, Ireland, USA, France, Russia, Luxembourg, Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Spain.
In May 2005 Čechomor released What Happened Next? which spent 6 weeks at No. 1 on the Czech hit parade and three months later was still No. 3. It sold 20000 copies within the first week of its release. What Happened Next? features world music artists Iarla O Lionaird (Ireland) and Joji Hirota (Japan) as well as the renowned Czech female vocalist Lenka Dusilova, Dan Valis (uilleann pipes), Jan Mikusek (cimbalom) and Mirek Zidlicky (flute).
Dovecnosti (1991) Mezi horami (1996)
Rok dábla (2002)
Cechomor Live (2002)
Promeny tour 2003 (2003)
Cechomor 1991–1996 (2004)
Co sa stalo nové (2005)
Stalo sa žive (2006)
Svátecní Cechomor (2007)
Povesti moravských hradu a zámku (2008)
Povesti ceských hradu a zámku (2009) Povesti slezských hradu a zámku (Supraphon, 2009) Písne z hradu a zámku (Supraphon, 2010)
Cechomor v Národním (2011)
Cechomor 25 – Ceský Krumlov live (2013)
Gothart, a historical music ensemble, was founded in 1993. Five friends got together united by a common interest to restore medieval music. Their repertoire at that time focused mainly on the Czech Gothic production. Opuses originating in other European countries have enriched the repertoire since 1994. The band extended its set of instruments and covered also works by German minnesingers, French troubadours and the music of medieval Spain.
The collection of Marian songs Cantigas de Santa María was the main source for Gothart’s first CD, Por nos de dulta (1996). At that time, the band played all throughout the Czech Republic, as well as in many cities of and on festivals in Slovakia, Germany, Belgium, France and Poland.
History remained the inspiration source and the second CD, Stella Splendens (1997), centered on another well known collection of medieval Spanish songs, Llibre Vermell.
At that period, the ensemble also successfully cooperated on various projects with Czech Television and Czech Radio. Its music accompanied the documentary Schindlerova volba (Schindler’s Choice), to name only one. Absolute commitment, zeal and humor together with formal excellence place Gothart among ensembles that bring historical music near even to fans of entirely different genres,
Rich as it was, Gothart’s repertoire was further extended and altered by the new impulses of world music. The radical change the ensemble went through between 1998 and 1999 culminated in the release of its third CD (1999). Named Adio Querida. It contains Sephardic romances, Gypsy songs and especially Balkan ethnic songs and dances.