Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Czech Republic -- Banjo Men

Czech banjo player/maker Zdenek Roh, Robert Krestan, and Lubos Malina's hands and foot. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Czech Republic is (reliably) said to have the highest per capita percentage of banjo players (and bluegrass bands) in the world. Or at least in Europe. It all goes back to the Tramp Movement, which spawned Tramp Music; which was influenced by Country Music and American Folk (during the Communist era via forbidden Armed Forces Radio and Radio Free Europe); and had a Seminal Moment with Pete Seeger's tour of CZ in 1964 when he played the five-string, long-necked guitar and sparked a musical revolution as eager Tramp and Folk musicians built their own instruments based on photos of Seeger's.... and the rest is history....

Last week in Brno I attended a concert of the Traperi, the country band that Druha Trava's Robert Krestan formed when he was a teenager....the band (now grizzled) played a reunion gig to a packed house at a Brno club. American country and folk songs with Czech lyrics that Robert wrote as a teen. Onstage, Robert (who played the banjo in the original Traperi) spoke about how what they had had to do to get their instruments way back then -- like using a tambourine as the basis for making a banjo.

The next day, I joined Robert and DT banjo-player Lubos Malina on an excursion into the Moravian countryside. One of the stops was at the workshop of Zdenek Roh, near the town of Jihlava. Zdenek is a great banjo-player (he plays among others with the group Roll's Boys) and also makes the instruments, and Lubos needed to drop off two banjos to have them repaired.

Lubos Malina and Zdenek Roh. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber