|In the studio. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber|
In mid-July I spent two days in a Prague studio helping record the vocal tracks for a new CD by the Czech country/bluegrass/fusion group Druha Trava. Founded 20 years ago, in 1991, DT and its various members have brought out more than a score of albums, including several in English -- see a history of the group by Lilly Pavlak, posted on the European Bluegrass Blog by clicking HERE
But the new Druha Trava CD -- tentatively titled "Shuttle to Bethlehem" after one of the songs (the inspiration was Bethlehem PA, not the "other" one) is the first that will primarily feature English-language versions of singer-songwriter Robert Krestan’s distinctive original songs.
I made the translations, and the studio session was the culmination of a collaborative project that had taken more than five years to come to fruition.
During the recording session, we were joined in the studio by Lee Bidgood -- a wonderful musician who did his PhD on Czech bluegrass and now teaches at East Tennessee State University, which has a Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program -- and his colleague from ETSU, the documentary filmmaker Shara Lange, who are making a documentary on Czech bluegrass. They filmed the session and also interviewed Robert, banjoist Lubos Malina and me.
|Lee and me when we met in 2004|
Lee is one of the first people I got to know what I was starting to follow the Czech bluegrass scene -- we met at the Caslav bluegrass festival in 2004 and I recall how wonderful it was to talk to someone who also was looking at the scene and the music from the "outside" and considering the same questions that I was.
While he was doing research in CZ a few years ago, Lee kept a wonderful blog in which he described music and musicians and reflected on the history and trajectory of the music in the Czech Republic. He hasn't posted anything lately, but it is a terrific resource.
I wrote about the Prague recording session this week in a post on the Arty Semite blog of the Forward, describing a bit of the complex process of translation. I started translating Krestan's songs into English in 2006 and continued working on them as one facet of the "Sauerkraut Cowboys/Indian Dreams" project for which I had a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEH summer grant.
My first goal was basic: I loved the Czech originals, but I wanted to know what they meant. As I started working, though, it seemed much more logical — and in fact, even easier — to put them in a rhyming form that could be sung. The process was surprisingly straightforward.
A young student in Prague, David Kraus, supplied me with word-for-word equivalents. David’s father Tomas is an old friend, the secretary of the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities, but he also knows a lot about the Czech country music scene. In Communist times Tomas’s late brother [Ronald Kraus] produced, wrote and translated songs for several key Czech tramp and country-style groups [including the iconic band KTO]..
I took the words that David gave me, compared them to the rhythm of the original Czech lyrics, and listened over and over to the original songs in order to capture their meaning and rhyme structure as well as to fit them to the melodies.
Czech is a more bristly language than English, with quite different sounds and cadences, and Krestan uses words for their tonality as well as meaning. But remarkably, my lyrics got to a point where they seemed to click into place. Later, Krestan and I spent a couple of sessions together tweaking the English to improve both nuance and “singability.”
In the studio, as Krestan sang into the microphone, I stood in the sound booth with DT’s banjo player Lubos Malina, who is co-producing the CD with Nashville-based Steve Walsh. Five years on, it was the first time I heard the songs sung in their final form. (Walsh oversaw the recording of the instrumentals in Nashville last spring.) They sounded, well, right. I focused on recording levels and intonation, but I couldn’t keep a goofy smile off my face.
And here's the original Czech version, sung by the band performing outside Prague castle in 2009, when President Obama was there meeting with Czech leaders.