Miro Žbirka – Czechoslovak pop star

Miro Žbirka

The pop star Miroslav Žbirka is more commonly known as Miro, and his childhood nickname Meky, by his many fans here in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Prague-based singer released his first record in the late 1970s, with the group Modus, and is still having hits as a solo artist today. Miro Žbirka was born in Bratislava in 1952 to a Slovak father and an English mother. When we spoke the other day, he told me about his parents’ first meeting, in a north London pub.

“During World War II my father was in London and he met her in the Green Man in Muswell Hill. Now it’s the Hill, it’s a gastro-pub – it isn’t a pub any more…My father went back to Czechoslovakia with the army, to Pilsen. That was 1945, the end of the war.

“My mother arrived two years later in 1947, and it was probably a very difficult decision for my mother to leave London, to leave England. Even then she didn’t know what was going to happen, because only in 1948 the Communists took over the country and then she wasn’t allowed to go back. Probably she had a Czechoslovak passport or something like that.”

Do you know if she found it difficult living in Czechoslovakia, in Bratislava at that time?

Miro Žbirka in 1988,  photo: CTK
“I think she found it difficult, but she never showed it…I only found a letter, maybe half a year ago, a letter she tried to send to the BBC when she was really, really old. It was a short letter…the whole story is there.”

What language did you speak at home, given that your mother was English and didn’t speak perfect Slovak?

“Well, she started to speak Slovak but it was always very funny. You probably understand how it is when you speak in a combination like ‘I would like to buy kilo chleba’ [a kilo of bread] – that’s what my mother always said. Half of the sentence was in English and then it was in Slovak there were funny combinations.

But at home did you speak Slovak or English?

“A combination. Let’s say 10 minutes in English and then another 10 minutes in Slovak, because I didn’t even realise which language I was speaking (laughs).”

You were a teenager in the ‘60s – were you seen as relatively cool because you could speak English or perhaps even sing in English?

“Yes, sure. I was 15 when I joined a band, because I could speak English. We played the actual words…The Bee Gees had a hit Massachusetts and I sang it properly and all the girls were crying – I wasn’t even 16.”

Tell us more about your beginnings in music and your first band – was it hard to get gigs? Did it take you long to get good?

“It wasn’t hard for us. We were able to play seven songs and we were already successful. Then we played in the V Club in Bratislava…It was the end of the ‘60s and we were even able to travel to Switzerland – I remember playing in Gstaad…the demand was to play songs like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and things like that, so we developed there.”

“But when the ‘70s started things changed politically in Czechoslovakia and it was harder to get gigs.”

You released your first album in 1979 and you’re still having hits all these years later – what is the secret of your success?

“The thing is there were no English bands, no records from America, so it was easier for us to be successful during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Only now do we have all the bands – when a record or a CD by Coldplay or Arctic Monkeys is out you can buy it here too.

“But even now it’s very difficult for the Arctic Monkeys to sing in Slovak or Czech (laughs) – we have to do it. There will always be Czech music and Slovak music, simply because it’s sung in these languages.”

I have met many Slovaks who live in Prague, basically, it seems to me, for work – the work opportunities are better here than in Slovakia. But many of them say they don’t feel at home here. What’s your experience of that?

“I feel at home here because my wife is from Prague – this is the reason why I’m here. It’s not my case that I had to come to Prague for work. Kateřina – Catherine…I met her and we fell in love and that’s how I ended up here. My mother came to Bratislava from London, and why should women always do it (laughs)?

“I followed my wife…And Prague is a fantastic city, it’s a beautiful city and Czech people are very friendly. I don’t feel frustrated here…I can be Slovak here in Prague and nobody bugs me.”

And you speak Slovak here, I believe.

“Yeah, I speak Slovak. I speak Czech with my kids because they were born here. But I always speak Slovak with Katka, she likes me to speak Slovak.

“So I have to switch from one language to another and some of my sentences are very funny, because they are a combination of Czech and Slovak. Which I don’t like to do, but sometimes I do it (laughs).”

Finally, I know a couple of years ago you had a special meeting with Paul McCartney – could you tell us that story, please?

“That was because of Mr President, former president Václav Havel, because Paul McCartney wanted to meet him and…somehow they arranged it in that way that I was there too, because they knew I was a fan.

“They knew I would like to meet him and it happened. And it was a fantastic thing…he even played me his new song…For someone who lived behind the Iron Curtain, that day was a meaningful day for many reasons. There was Paul McCartney singing a song to me, discussing it with me and treating me really nicely. That was perfect.

“Even when I went out there were members of the band and they saw me…I must have had the face of a four-year-old child…and they laughed at me and said, what was it like? I said, you know, a dream came true. That’s what it was like.”