Friday, April 3, 2009

Prague -- Druha Trava to play for Obama

Robert Krestan, Tony Trischka, Lubos Malina, Aug. 2008. Photo (C) Ruth Ellen Gruber

I'm thrilled to learn that my favorite band, Druha Trava are going to play in Prague Sunday ahead of President Obama's big foreign policy speech at the Prague Castle -- and I wish I could be there!

DT is billed as a bluegrass band, but in fact goes far beyond that, mixing bluegrass, blues, rock and other influences into what is sometimes called "Czechgrass." I have worked with the group's singer/songwriter, Robert Krestan, to translate 10 of his songs into English, for a hoped-for English language CD -- except for last year, DT has toured the US every year since about 1994 and has developed a following in the United States.

This is what I wrote about the group in the New York Times in 2005:

Robert Krestan, singer, songwriter and frontman for the Czech bluegrass group Druha Trava, is a brooding stage presence. A solid figure with shadowed eyes and a wild shock of long gray hair, he dwarfs the mandolin he cradles against his chest, singing with a gritty passion that a fan at a recent concert explained was a ''real Czech growl.''

Druha Trava means ''Second Grass.'' It is at the forefront of the flourishing Czech bluegrass scene, but as its name implies, it reaches far beyond the classic bluegrass genre for inspiration.

Formed in 1991 by Mr. Krestan, the banjo player Lubos Malina and other veterans of the acoustic music scene that had long thrived in Czechoslovakia, Druha Trava can delight hard-core fans with scorching versions of bluegrass standards.

For the most part, however, it uses American roots music as a launching pad for its own synthesis of jazz, pop, folk and even classical motifs. In doing so it transforms a quintessential American idiom into a richly textured, highly personal statement that defies genre classification.

Call it Central European bluegrass rock, perhaps, or Czechgrass.

Over the years the distinctive sound and the band's virtuoso musicianship have won Druha Trava multiple Czech music awards, as well as a loyal following at home and in the United States, where the group tours at least once a year. Its next American tour begins Sept. 20.

''We grew up on simple music, bluegrass music, simple old country music, acoustic country music,'' Mr. Krestan said between concerts during the group's current summer tour through the Czech Republic and other countries. ''It was the music of our youth, of our heart.''

But with sensibilities also honed by rock 'n' roll, world music, their own Czech heritage and other influences, he said, ''bluegrass music wasn't enough for us.''

The band couldn't ''squash'' everything they wanted to convey into the tight format of traditional bluegrass, he said. Instead, they chose to use bluegrass instruments to play whatever sort of music fitted their taste.

Mr. Krestan's raw vocals and original songs are an important part of the mix.

Though he often sings cover songs in the original English, he is best known among Czech fans for his own elliptical, at times provocative, lyrics, which are somewhat reminiscent of early Bob Dylan. '
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Last summer, I posted about following DT's Czech tour with the US banjo great Tony Trischka, and I also posted pictures.

I've written extensively about the Czech bluegrass scene, on this blog and elsewhere.

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