The immortal popularity of Czech brass music


It's 10am in the south Bohemian town of Ceske Budejovice. Just like on any other day, Czech Radio's local station starts its daily show Pisnicky pro radost, "Songs to lift your spirit", knowing its listenership is about to shoot up and stay up for the three hours in which one brass music song after the next is dedicated to locals.

You hardly ever see it on television, MTV wouldn't dream of playing it, you don't read about its performers, and only a few radio stations around the country feature it. Despite this, statistics show that brass music is actually getting more popular. Zdenek Vorac is responsible for the music played on Czech Radio Ceske Budejovice. The latest statistics show that in the region of South Bohemia alone, the brass music programme has 69,000 listeners a day.

"What is interesting is that people have been considering brass music as a dead genre since the 1950s. It was and still is seen by its critics as an exhausted, old, genre, which leaves no room for further development. And yet, it continues to enjoy a strong listenership. The younger generation joins brass bands and there are lots of audio and video recordings being made today."

The duo Eva and Vasek are considered a phenomenon in the world of modern Czech brass music today. In terms of sales, they are more popular than any Czech pop musician at the moment. Petra Zikovska is managing director at IFPI Czech Republic, which represents the recording industry in the country, including SURF - the label that Eva and Vasek are with:

"Eva and Vasek are very popular nowadays. When you compare their sales from 2004 with 2006 you see that they have almost tripled their sales. This is really extraordinary because in general the music business and the music market are going down. From 2005 to 2006 we see a decline of around nine percent. So, brass music and the Surf company are doing very well."

Could you tell us why Eva and Vasek are so popular?

"I think they were very clever in choosing their customers. They really know who they are selling to and how they should sell. Most of their sales are through teleshopping and they also have a good price policy. They usually sell two or three CDs in one for a better price. So they know how to persuade their customers and they have found a gap in the market.

"I'm from a little village in south Bohemia and I know that brass music is very popular there not only among those who are fifty years and older but also among the kids. They go to the ball rooms and dance to brass music. It's very popular there. So, from my own experience I can say that the kids are used to listening to it. I'm not sure whether they buy it but they are used to listening to it."

Although brass bands have always been popular in this country, Zdenek Vorac points out that they are more popular in some regions than in others:

"Brass music is not popular everywhere in the country. It is most popular in southern Moravia, southern Bohemia, and the southern Pilsen region. Here, even younger listeners - mostly from the villages and smaller towns - are interested in it. On the other hand, there is little interest in brass music in northern and north-western Bohemia. I think it's because of the unusual make-up of the inhabitants as a result of the Second World War. The expulsion of the ethnic Germans and the arrival of new residents from all over Czechoslovakia led to a brake with old traditions that they may have had."

But Prague too has its brass music fans. Tucked away in the district of Veleslavin, the restaurant U Marcanu is packed with tourists and locals every night when Zora Svobodova and her brass and dulcimer band Vonicka play traditional Czech songs.

"We play for foreign visitors and we play folk songs and teach them dances like the polka or mazurka, which is very popular in our country. But we don't just play for foreigners. We also play for locals, who live in Prague as people from all over the country are concentrated in the capital. There are many people from Moravia or even Slovakia who miss the music and therefore they visit our restaurant to sing and dance with us."

Why do you think has the music continued to be this popular for so many years?

"I think it's a big tradition in our country because our children learn our folk songs and dances from an early age. We also need it in our life because our folk songs are special and cannot be compared to pop music. The texts and melodies of our songs are very important for everybody."

You said to me earlier that they give you energy and raise your spirit...

"Yes. Because no matter what situation you find yourself in, we have many songs that help you. When you are sad, we have songs that help you get you out of this situation. Or, when you are in high spirit, you can sing our songs with brass music or dulcimer music. We have many instruments - various pipes, flutes, we use the hurdy-gurdy that was used in the Middle Ages and we also use bag pipes, for example."