DJ Tomáš Vydra: Sometimes the police would take our vinyl and beat us up

Tomáš Vydra, photo: Ian Willoughby

Many Czech music fans will be familiar with the voice of Tomáš Vydra, a DJ who has been sharing his extremely deep knowledge of classic blues and rock on the alternative station Radio 1 for decades. What many may not know is that Vydra was previously a top level professional tennis coach – or that he was locked up with his parents in his early teens when the family returned to normalisation Czechoslovakia after a long stay abroad. We touched on all of those areas and more when he visited our studios recently.

I was reading that you spent time in Africa as a child.

“That’s actually true. I spent my childhood in Ghana, in Kumasi, from 1968, obviously, to 1974.

“People tried to come to Prague from Hungary, from Poland, to get some vinyl they couldn’t get their hands on.”

“My father was a professor at the University of Science and Technology in Kumasi.”

What do you recall of that time?

“It was absolutely amazing. The people were very nice.

“What I really liked, and it was actually brought me to my favourite blues music, was something which in Ghana they called highlife music.

“It’s the roots, mixed a little bit with the influences from Europe and the US.”

Was it hard for you to readjust to living in Czechoslovakia, after being somewhere so colourful?

“Oh, when we returned they put us in jail, so my parents and I were sitting in jail for about half a year.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková

“They treated as emigrants who had returned – so that was not big fun.”

They put a child in jail?

“Oh, yeah. I was in jail, yeah.

“And then I was not allowed to go to school. I had to take an apprenticeship and work.

“Then actually I got to college, but I couldn’t study at university so I was studying at an ‘evening university’ – that’s what it was called.”

The Communists put a child in jail?

“I wasn’t the only one. I was actually one of the oldest.

“There were five or six kids there much younger than me.”

And you were in a cell with your parents, or something?

“Louis Armstrong’s musicians were fabulous. I thought, Wow, they can really play those instruments.”

“Oh, yeah. Actually [laughs], it was called an insane asylum – because we were mad to try to leave the country, though actually we didn’t.”

That’s a totally amazing story. You’re a DJ. When, or how, did you first get into music? You mentioned the highlife in Ghana – but apart from that, what was the stuff that grabbed you?

“Because Ghana was such a country ahead of its time, it wasn’t only highlife music – you got to listen to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Byrds and other bands.

“So I already came back with my eyes open.”

So you had a big advantage over your peers at home in Czechoslovakia?

“Not really. I came back here and I found out that every Sunday there was a vinyl ‘burza’…”

A market?

Photo: Zuzana Petráňová,  Czech Radio

“A market on Wenceslas Square. So that’s how I started trading with some of the vinyl that I with me – and I got new ones.

“But the burza was moving – then it was on Španělská St., then it went to Kampa.

“It kept on moving as the police were moving it out.”

Was it legal? Or did the police look the other way? How did it work?

“[Laughs] At the beginning, nobody understood what it was. So even the police guys who were controlling the traffic said, Move away from the street.

“But later on of course it became a big thing, because even though there was not so much freedom here as in Hungary or Poland, the bursa was an absolutely unique thing.

“Because it was nowhere behind the Iron Curtain.

“People actually tried to come to Prague from Hungary, from Poland, to go to the bursa and get some vinyl that they couldn’t get their hands on.”

Were they also selling taped copies of records?

“Yeah, everything – literally.

“My coaching career was the amazing part, because I got to see all the big tournaments in the early ‘90s.”

“The main thing is that you would go on Sunday, buy a record, tape it at home and sell it the next day and buy another one.

“That’s how it went.

“Or you just traded for another record, tape it on 10 tapes for your friends.

“So somebody ended up with a copy from a copy from a copy – it was awful, but they were still happy to have it.”

Your first concert was Louis Armstrong – is that true?

“Yeah, I was a kid – that was before we left.

“I was quite amazed, because it wasn’t really my cup of tea at that age.

“You have to grow to listen to jazz.

“What I was amazed about at that age was what the musicians could do.

Photo: archive of Radio 1

“Because it was not really about… it was about him, but his musicians were also fabulous.

“So that’s that really struck me. I thought, Wow, they can really play those instruments.

“Before that I just thought it was him singing and then somebody playing a little bit, but then you saw all those musicians – that’s a thing that I still remember.”

You were telling me earlier that you are a hippy, or you were a hippy. Was it hard to be a hippy in Czechoslovakia in, let’s say, the 1980s?

“It was very hard. They would cut your hair.

“What happened is that they would just meet you on the street and ask you for your ID.

“And if your hair wasn’t the same as on your ID, they would just take to the barbershop and cut your hair.

“It wasn’t a barbershop like we know now – with these metrosexuals having their beards cut.

“No, they just cut your hair for four crowns.

“So what some of us did – and I did as well – was that every second month we changed the picture on our ID, so then they couldn’t cut your hair.”

You’re a vegetarian. How or why did you become a vegetarian?

“It’s a long story, but the short and most true part that after they released us from jail I finished primary school and to apprenticeships.

“I was learning to become a tractor driver on a farm.

“In those days when you saw how they treated the animals on the farm, it was awful – you just can’t imagine.

“And then I was driving the animals to the slaughterhouse, and when you saw that you just couldn’t eat it – it was impossible.

“Of course being a vegetarian in those days was not fun.”

I was a vegetarian here in the early 1990s and that was difficult. I ate a lot of fried cheese in those days.

Smažený sýr,  photo: Dezidor / CC BY 3.0
“[Laughs] That’s rubbish – fried cheese. But yeah, that was probably the only meal. Or fried mushrooms, that was also possible.

“It was hard because if you came to a pub and said, I just want the rice, without the meat, they threw you out.

“First of all, they didn’t know how to mark it [on the bill] just rice with no meat, because they had a price.

“And second, that’s where they made the money – on the meat.”

I remember one time in a restaurant a waitress saying “chudák”, you poor guy, when I said that I didn’t eat meat.

“[Laughs] Yeah, that was hard. Now it’s easy.”

You’ve also been a tennis player and coach – tell us about that aspect of your life, Tomáš.

“My mother was a very good tennis player. That’s where I picked it up.

“I played a lot of tennis in Africa – that was easy.

“Coming back here wasn’t that easy, because I couldn’t travel any more.

“So even though I played on a reasonably good level, I started coaching very early.

“And in the end my coaching career was the amazing part, because I got to see all the big tournaments in the early ‘90s.

“Instead of staying here and privatising a factory and trying to get rich, I just travelled the world as a tennis coach.”

Even at Grand Slam tournaments?

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been at Wimbledon several times, the US Open – I was at most of the tournaments for several years.”

You’re best known as a DJ on Radio 1. You have a show now called Staré poldedne, which means Old Noon. Radio 1 is a real institution in Prague and started in the early 1990s. I believe you’ve been involved since the very beginning, or near the beginning?

“Well, near the beginning.

“What happened is that my friends Laďa Vintr, Jirka Neumman and Lenka Wienerová founded the radio station.

“I consider myself to be a record collector.

“And because I had lots of music, Jirka Neumann, who’s a very well-known collector of ‘80s music… his collection of ‘80s music is absolutely amazing…”

Is he the guy who does the ‘80s disco?

“Yeah. That’s his collection.

“He said, Look, you’ve got lots of other music – I can’t play ‘80s only all the time.

“So I would bring him tapes and CDs and vinyl to play on Radio 1.

“I always brought it back, because I was travelling the world, I wasn’t here.

“But eventually he said, You know what, do your own show – stop bringing the music here, do your own show.

“That’s how he got me in. It wasn’t my intention.”

You’ve been doing it for well over two decades. What do you get out of the experience of playing your stuff on air?

“Obviously, it’s not for the money – the money’s not in it.

“It’s a very nice feeling when I play my music and I meet people on the street somewhere or in a shop and they say, Hey, I know your voice – oh you played that and it was such a good thing, the last time I heard it was 40 years ago.

“That’s amazing. Or a young kid comes over and says, Hey, that was good – I sampled that and I made it into my track.

“So this is probably the best thing about playing music on Radio 1.”

After your tennis career you have been working installing sports facilities, is that correct?

“Yeah, tennis courts. I’ve built a lot of tennis courts throughout Eastern Europe.”

What kind of places?

“You name it, I’ve built a tennis court there. Russia, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Poland, Hungary, Romania – beautiful countries.”

Maybe this is a naive question, but why do they need somebody coming from so far away to build tennis courts?

“Well, if you want it made out of synthetic turf, or if you want to make it out of artificial clay, then you need knowledge – and that’s not generally available.

“The good thing is it’s an all-year-round sport facility and that helps.

“Because most of the people just open them and they’re open for kids. And that’s great.”

In your travels have you ever been working in places that were dangerous, or where you got in any kinds of hairy situations?

“Oh, yeah. It hasn’t been easy. Because I’ve been doing this for a long time.

“The situation is changing very much, but 20 years ago Bulgaria wasn’t that safe. Nor was Russia.”

What kind of things could happen to you?

“Oh, they would just pull out a gun and say, No, were not going to do this – we want you to do it this way.

“They would just pull out a gun and say, We want you to do it this way.”

“You say, No, you can’t – you have to do it this way, otherwise you don’t get a license to play tournaments on it.

“And they say, We don’t care – you do it our way.

“It hasn’t been easy. But it’s been fun.

“It’s interesting, with a lot of stories, and you meet a lot of very, very nice people.”

Obviously you’re a big music fan. Who are your guys? Who are your favourite artists?

“That’s very hard to say, but I like southern rock, so of course Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers.

“But to answer the question, I have three dogs now and we had puppies two years ago and I named them Jimi, Janis, Mahalia, Stevie, Koko, Roy, Rory, Etta and Albert – and those are my very favourite musicians.”

Southern rock has a certain kind of image, with the Confederate flag. I’m curious if being a fan of southern rock influences fans’ political outlook in some way?

“Oh no. Before I answer, I will step back: Burza [music market], OK?

“Sometimes the police would come and take our vinyl and beat us up a little bit.

“But they were not stupid – they knew that for us it’s not a political meeting.

“For us it’s only an interest in the music. And that’s the same thing.

“It’s an interest in the music – and the pride that you are from this country, from this certain area.

“But that’s all it’s about. It’s not a political movement.

“I think a lot of governmental institutions, even now, make a mistake when they think that.”

You’re an expert on mainly American music. Who are the Czech artists that you admire?

“Ah, that’s the toughest question you gave me today.

“The answer would be nobody, because I come from the ‘70s and it was rubbish – you couldn’t listen to it.

“But on the other hand, what the ‘90s and Radio 1 brought is the bands that nobody knew.

“And there’s many of them.

“There’s a Prague band called Surround and they’re absolutely amazing – it’s just pure grunge, but they’re so fabulous.

“There’s a band called Red Baron Band. It’s prog rock in a fabulous form – they even have a mellotron.

“So there are bands here that thanks to the ‘90s and thanks to Radio 1 that are worth listening to.

“It’s worth finding out if they’re playing somewhere and just to go there.

“But the stuff from the ‘70s that’s mainly on the radio stations now – you just can’t listen to it.”