Karel Kryl: folk singer-songwriter whose work embodied the Czechoslovak struggle for political freedom

Karel Kryl, photo: www.karelkryl.cz

Karel Kryl, singer, songwriter and poet, was the most prominent Czech folk musician of the last fifty years. His well-known songs are to this day sung in pubs and around campfires, even by those of the younger generation of Czechs who grew up after his death. Born in Kromeriz in 1944, he began writing and performing after graduating from secondary school, and was later expelled from army service for performing songs deemed to be anti-socialist. He was exiled from Czechoslovakia in 1970, but continued to write, produce and perform until his return to the country in 1989 amidst the sudden political changes of the Velvet Revolution. His songs came to represent the national sufferings of a generation, and its desire for political freedom.

Petr Doruzka
Petr Doruzka is a musical journalist, who among other things presents Radio Prague's Magic Carpet.

"I remember, it could have been 1965 or 1966, there was one of these very rare concerts on one stage, during I think late afternoon, where you could see many of these singer songwriters who would become very important in the next couple of years. There was Karel Kryl, there was Vladimir Merta, and there were others. At that moment you could see that this was a moment that was inspired, maybe by Bob Dylan, or probably by that more general feeling among the young generation. And during the following years, each of these Czech folk singers of the 60s developed in different ways. I think Karel Kryl established himself as a very precise and gifted writer of texts - a poet - and of melodies, which were, very delicate, with many feelings, but at the same time very accessible. What he achieved is something many others dream of."

Kryl moved to Prague in January 1968, to find himself amid a wave of excitement and movement for political change, now known as the Prague Spring. On 20th August, this came to an end, as the armies of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and installed a new puppet-government. In reaction to this, Kryl wrote the song 'Bratricku Zavirej Vratka', 'Brother Close the Gate', which enjoyed widespread popularity and became something of an anthem for the times. Petr Doruzka:

"Well I would say it's easy to understand his songs as anti-Communist, or maybe rather as anti-totalitarian, or anti-invasion, or anti this kind of pressure which comes from the bigger country, which just sends their troops to your country to occupy it. But also this song especially can be understood as a fable, as something that is happening between two brothers. So probably they have sheep in their farm and the older brother asks the younger one, 'Brother are you sure you locked the gate?' Because a wolf can come or some disaster can come! So a wolf on a farm is the same disaster as foreign troops in your country."

It was during the time of this most severe political repression that Kryl enjoyed his greatest popularity. In 1969, the LP album Bratricku Zavirej Vratka came out, and quickly became an under the counter item. Kryl continued to perform, making a trip even to Norway in 1969, and then subsequently to Germany in the same year. It was here that he found himself when the borders closed in September, effectively barring his re-entry to his homeland and making him an exile. For the next twenty years he was to remain in exile, broadcasting for Radio Free Europe from Munich. Despite his absence, his music remained popular in his native Czechoslovakia. Petr Doruzka

"So it was many decades before there was internet, before there were MP3s and CDs, but people had their tape recorders, so you had a vinyl album and you taped it, so tens of others could do the same. After Kryl's exile, his albums were smuggled in, often in fake covers, with fake labels in the middle. So it was circulated, and it was a very demanded kind of music, because it was so important for everybody who was living in this country during those times, just to know that somebody can write so nicely and just go deep into the heart of the problem."

Kryl's mother died on 24th November 1989 - a week after the first demonstration of what became the Velvet Revolution - and just days before the Communist government announced the dismantling of the one party state. Karel returned to Czechoslovakia on November 30th, to attend the funeral. On December 3rd he gave his first performance in his homeland in over twenty years. Kryl continued to write, perform and be an active figure in political commentary for the next four years of his life. He died in 1994 of a sudden heart attack, aged just fifty.

Looking back at what Kryl accomplished musically in his lifetime, it would be unjust to remember just his political songs such as Bratricku Zavirej Vratka. Petr Doruzka:

"I would say 'Bratricku Zavirej Vratka' has the feeling 'We shall overcome', but there are many other well written, well crafted songs, and every one of them is very special. One can be very special for you, another can be very special for somebody else. I would say it's this range of different moods, of different stories, which just completes the picture of Karel Kryl as a very talented writer. I think I'm still discovering him, because 'Bratricku Zavirej Vratka' is the most popular one, but then you have songs like 'Nevidoma Divka' and other songs which just have a very special mood, and which are very sensitive. I don't remember any other Czech singer-songwriter who has written such a sensitive song about a blind girl as Karel Kryl, 'Nevidoma Divka.'"

So was Kryl's success merely a product of the period in which he lived, or is there something in the nature of his music that distinguishes him from other pisnickari, or songwriters, of his generation? Petr Doruzka:

"These songs, these texts are poems, they are well-crafted. There were many songwriters, many rock band leaders, who knew they wanted to perform their own songs, but they really couldn't handle the tools of the trade. Kryl was a master."